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I feared remote work would kill my startup’s culture. Here’s why it didn’t

This tech company entered a hypergrowth phase just as the pandemic hit. Its cofounder says the switch to WFH softened the hard edges of scaling.

I feared remote work would kill my startup’s culture. Here’s why it didn’t
[Source image: rikirennes/Getty Images]

I used to fear growth. And more specifically, what growth would do to my company. 

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A couple of years ago, we were a small, scrappy startup of 40 or 50 people. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. I’d stay in the office until seven or eight at night, not working, but just hanging out with my colleagues—people who I considered friends.

My world revolved around the business. And so did everyone else’s. We were a tight-knit team and our culture at Lattice, the people management platform I cofounded, was special. I feared what fast growth would do to it.

When you nail your product and go-to-market fit, growth can be explosive. Companies can double, triple, or quadruple their headcount in a year. That sort of breakneck expansion is turbulent and disruptive. How can you lead a company when you don’t know half the people? How can you retain a unique culture when 90% of your employees are new? How can you protect what it is that made your company successful? Those questions kept me up at night.

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But when our moment of hypergrowth came, we found help in the most unlikely of places: the pandemic.

Scaling without worry

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to bite, we had around 120 employees. Although we went through a rough patch like all other companies, we grew through the crisis. In a few months, we’d doubled our headcount. We weren’t done growing, either. We’re now up to nearly 500 employees—a 3x increase on our pre-pandemic size. 

This was exactly the sort of growth that had kept me up at night; two-thirds of our team was new. There were dozens of people I had never met, let alone knew. I imagined our culture crumbling under the weight of our ballooning team.

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But it didn’t.

We weren’t scaling like a traditional company, packing new employees into a more and more crowded office. We were working remotely or, more recently, within a hybrid model. Although no one predicted it, that helped us protect and scale our culture.

Since we’ve been working from home, our culture has felt more subdued. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’ve felt more detached from the business. My working relationships have felt a little more distant. Talking to others at the company, it feels like that’s a general trend. Across the board, we’re less emotional and more detached.

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If we were in the office, our rapid expansion would feel utterly chaotic. But with hybrid work, even though our culture waned, it didn’t disappear. It blunted the harsh edges of rapid growth. It made it easier to scale without losing the core of what made Lattice’s culture unique and valuable. But don’t mistake hybrid work for a silver bullet.

Stronger in-person, but more manageable remotely

Culture is stronger in person. That’s fairly uncontroversial. If we were building Lattice again, I would still go for a physical office. I’d want to be there. I’d want to meet my team and build those relationships. While hybrid work helped us survive the hypergrowth curve, it required a lot of extra effort.

“It’s not that company culture somehow goes away in a remote or hybrid context,” wrote Stanford professor and remote work expert Pamela Hinds. “Cultural beliefs and norms are still being created and reinforced, but they’re not being guided by systems and routines that were previously established in the office. They’re more open to change and subject to influence from new, non-work factors present in employees’ day-to-day lives.”

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Now more than ever, with our people working from home, we’ve had to double down on the three pillars of culture: purpose, community, and growth.

Embracing change to recenter purpose

Purpose is the why behind what we do. For us, it’s to make work meaningful. We made sure every new employee knew why they were getting out of bed each morning. Even though people were working hundreds or thousands of miles apart, we doubled down on our internal communities—the groups where people find trust, equality, and cooperation. Finally, we harnessed growth, although that wasn’t all that hard given the circumstances. We used our period of rapid growth to create new opportunities and empowered employees to define their career paths at Lattice.

I’ve recently begun going back to the office a couple of days a week. Even when I’m physically near my team, the subtle distance and detachment are still there. It feels like we’ve traded an unsustainable passion for a more neutral experience of work. I think there’s a lot of benefits to that.

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For one thing, it rebalances your work-life split. There’s no longer the temptation to stay late and sacrifice the other aspects of your life. For another, it’s more inclusive. Back in the pre-pandemic world, parents couldn’t hang out in the office or bar after hours. They had to pick up their kids from school and help out with homework. It’s the same story for folk caring for parents or loved ones. Our culture used to exclude those people. Now, it welcomes them.

A few weeks ago, Lattice officially announced to our employees that we are becoming a remote-first hybrid company—fully embracing remote work, while maintaining office spaces for our employees to gather and build community. I never could have imagined making this choice a few years ago, but we’ve all learned a lot since then. Now, I know we can make this transition and not just maintain, but actually scale our culture moving forward. 


Jack Altman is cofounder and CEO at Lattice, a people management platform.

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