Reflections from Our First Year As a Remote-First Company

These are exciting times at Notarize. After a very successful 2020, the first quarter of 2021 has been defined by our teams hiring like mad – Sales, Engineering, Finance, you name it. Our recruiting team is logging about 75 phone screens per week, and there’s one question we’re always asked: “How has the transition to fully-remote been for Notarize?”

The answer changes like the New England weather. Some days it’s easy; other days it’s interesting. Most of the time, we explain it’s a work in progress – kind of like everything else.

Today is the one-year anniversary of Notarize taking one look at COVID, sending everyone home, and never looking back. That means this is the perfect time to reflect on one year as a remote-first company.

We’re Officially a Remote-First Company

… if that wasn’t already clear.

Pre-pandemic, the majority of Notarizers worked in one of our three physical office locations: our headquarters in Boston, MA; or one of our two notary operations hubs located in Fairfax, VA, and Dallas, TX. However, some of our teams were already embracing remote work life. Customer Support and Engineering had team members located in North Carolina, Florida, California, and everywhere in between.

Because not everyone worked in the same office space, most of our communication was done through Slack, Confluence, and Gmail. Our company meetings were broadcasted and recorded over Zoom so that people could experience them asynchronously. 

We were already operating with the understanding that thoughtful planning and strong communication would enable us to get work done – even if teammates couldn’t be in the same geographic location.

So in some ways – without meaning to – we had set ourselves up very well for a successful transition to full remote work. 

In the weeks before we closed our offices, Pat Kinsel (our CEO) was already encouraging our staff to test what it’d be like to work from home. Before any sort of lockdown, we were encouraging anyone with immunocompromised family members, young children, babies on the way, or those who simply didn't feel safe coming into the office to work from home.

As the COVID numbers grew, we designed a remote-first test run as part of our business continuity plan. We asked everyone to work from home for a day to see what breaks, and nothing did.

So that was it. The next day, we closed the offices and never looked back. As far as I know, I still have two mugs, a ring light, and a bowl of candy collecting dust on my desk in the Boston office.

We’re Still Going to Have Offices

One of the most difficult things for people who have worked in our offices is that we miss each other. There’s at least one Slack thread each week that reminisces on life in the office.

Notarizers had a pretty active social life with other Notarizers. We ate lunch together, played games, went for runs, or grabbed a couch and just hung out. Almost overnight, we lost a key part of what made it fun to come to work every day.

So early on in the pandemic we tried to set up additional meetings throughout the week to chat, connect, or play games in an unstructured, non-work-related way. It was important for a lot of us in the early days, but it was also one more video meeting in what for some of us was a long week of video meetings. The Zoom fatigue is extremely real. 

Community is a really important thing to us, even though we’re now a nationwide company. While we’ll still lean on Zoom and Google Meet, we’ll also have work hubs and a headquarters where people can congregate and call home. However, they’ll exist without expectation – come and go as you please, and stay as long as you’d like. 

We’ve Reshaped Our Company Culture

Around this same time, I realized something that I should have realized a lot earlier in my time at Notarize: When candidates would ask me about our company culture, the information I gave them described what life was like in the offices.

But that's not the same thing as a company culture. Queue a major existential crisis for our entire organization: Without physical offices, what is our company culture?

Meanwhile, our business was suddenly taking off in a way that was equally thrilling and terrifying. The universal need for our services was, at times, overwhelming.

It was an unusual experience, especially in a technology hub like Boston where the effects of COVID negatively impacted a lot of our friends and former colleagues. We feel very fortunate to have been in a position to help folks who abruptly, and in a very real way, understood the value of what we'd been building. 

What wasn’t outright obvious to folks was the hard work that we put into the platform those days. People were logging insane hours to help scale the platform, design the Notary Network, and help customers who were also feeling pressure for results. 

Our growth, plus the isolating elements of the pandemic, forced us to take a long, hard look at our Paid Time Off benefit. On paper, our full-time salaried employees had a generous "take whatever you need" vacation and sick leave policy. But no one was taking time off; there was just so much to do and nowhere for any of us to go. 

We were in serious danger of burning out our employees – and quickly. We recognized early that we were sprinting at the start of a marathon.

So we rebranded PTO as "Pandemic Time Off,” and instead of a “take what you want when you want” approach, we ask our employees to take off one day each month.

Pat backed this up, saying "Even if you feel fine, someone in your life needs that day. Do something for your family, find a place to volunteer in your community, do something, anything that's not related to Notarize."

We’re Not the Same Notarize – and That’s Okay

So in thinking about who we are as an organization, and what's important to us culturally, we’ve arrived at a very different place from where we started. 

What if the things that make Notarize a great place to work aren’t limited to communication, collaboration, and socialization? What if it’s instead about creating structure for a true work/life balance with a company committed to flexibility? If an 8 hour day in the office necessarily involved a lot of social interactions, and those interactions are gone now, how do we give that time back? 

The shift in thinking has led to rules about meetings only being scheduled within certain hours, no Slacking coworkers after certain hours, and a very human-focused and individualistic approach to helping people balance their needs outside of work with their needs inside of work. 

So many of our employees have been through terrible personal experiences over the past year, a level of personal difficulty and tragedy that is only shocking in the fact that it's been so commonplace. Whenever our employees face difficulties, we ask the same questions:

“What do you need, and what can we do?”

We don’t ascribe to "Kool-Aid Culture" at Notarize. We're not a bunch of corporate cheerleaders or robots; we're a diverse collection of individuals, each with our own needs, each managing our personal ups and downs. There's times when we can focus a lot of energy on work, and there's times when life makes it very difficult to focus on work.

Do I miss seeing my coworkers every day? Absolutely. But I'm proud to work for a company that never made me pick between my family or my livelihood. When it's nice outside, I work outside; and I'm not only home for dinner every night, I'm the one cooking dinner every night. 

(... and making lunch, and breakfast. Like many of you, I'm potentially doing too much for my teenagers.)

We’re Still Learning

In our transition to becoming a remote-first company, we’ve demonstrated that we don't need offices to succeed. We've learned that with some thoughtful communication, generosity towards each other, and genuine concern for people's needs outside of work, the work still gets done. 

Tactically, there’s still a lot to figure out. I’m very honest with candidates that I don’t find our “company culture” to be something that can be distilled into buzzwords. It’s not a static thing. It’s about being reflective and responsive to our employees needs, and about enabling our employees to come to work as their whole real selves, even though we no longer “come to work.”

We’ve learned over the past year that our business isn’t just about taking care of our customers – it’s about taking care of each other.