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IT Crafts HR – Andrea LaRowe from Basecamp

IT Crafts HR – Andrea LaRowe from Basecamp

You can learn a lot about building a trustworthy company’s culture and managing remote teams from Basecamp – its founders have written several books on remote working. In this episode their Head of People Operations, Andrea LaRowe, gives insights on creating an employee handbook, staying connected when a company is remote, and maintaining high employee retention. Andrea also shares how they managed to encourage their team members to deliver feedback whenever any obstacle appears and how they hire skilled employees with a recruitment process focused on just interviews!


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A photo of Maks Majer

Maks Majer

Podcast Host

Maks Majer is a software engineer, co-founder, and CEO of ITCraftship, a company that helps both talented developers get a dream job at tech companies all over the world, and companies hire remote software developer superstars. He’s also a remote work advocate and helps startup businesses embrace the remote work culture. Maks is passionate about solving pains and removing obstacles by focusing on good software design and user experience practices. In his free time, he broadens his knowledge of business development as well as focuses on a healthy lifestyle that gives him the energy to get the most of a 24 hour day. You can catch him on LinkedIn.

A photo of Andrea LaRowe

Andrea LaRowe

Head of People Ops

Andrea LaRowe is Head of People Operations at Basecamp – a company that makes project management software that allows people to work better together. She supports the company in activities related to the HR department – building culture at Basecamp, overseeing hiring and onboarding employees, compensation, benefits packages, policies, and other processes. As she says, it’s her job to notice when there is a gap happening and to act as a support role for every person and every department.

Something that you wish you have known earlier

The thing that was the biggest struggle for me, I think, and challenge was finding an appropriate position in the company as a whole, like within the structure of the organization, and the best spot that I have found at Basecamp is for HR to act as a support role for every person and every department, and every manager and team at the company. (...) ln terms of hiring: it's not my job to tell people who to hire, it's my job to create a realistic and repeatable hiring rubric and to ask people to adhere to that.

Transcript

Maks

Hello dear, listeners. Today, I’m speaking with Andrea LaRowe, the Head of People Operations at Basecamp, a web application company that created a project management tool, improving team productivity, and I don’t think that I really need to introduce Basecamp to any of our listeners, so I really appreciate, Andrea, that you joined me for the podcast.

Andrea

Of course, thanks for having me.

Maks

Yeah, it’s great, and I want to start by asking you a question about your position and your responsibilities. Could you share a little bit about that?

Andrea

Yeah, sure. My title is Head of People Operations at Basecamp. For your listeners that don’t know –Basecamp makes project management software. Basecamp’s been a product, we’re going on 20 years now.

It allows teams and companies to organize their work, so when you’re working on someone on a project, you can put your to-dos in there, you can have discussions, you can post files, anything that you would normally share kind of piecemeal in other applications, you can share all on one place at Basecamp, so everyone’s on the same page.

I’ve been at Basecamp for almost 9 years and my role there is kind of just, in general, to take care of the people that work at Basecamp. That means everything from human resources to supporting the culture at Basecamp, to overseeing hiring and onboarding employees, compensation, benefits packages, policies, and processes for our employees.

I have relationships with all of our employees to make sure everyone’s doing well, so kind of everything that goes into managing the staff as a whole at Basecamp, making sure everyone has a great experience.

Maks

Awesome, yeah. I was very excited to talk to you because unlike many companies, Basecamp’s very different because you try to keep the team as small as possible, actually, and it’s a big small company.

I wanted to ask you because you have been actively promoting remote work at Basecamp and I wanted to know a little bit more about the team that you have. Where do your employees come from and do they work across different timezones and locations?

Andrea

Yeah, we’ve always been a remote company. We don’t want to limit ourselves to a talent pool in one particular region, so we’ve always worked that way. Our employees currently, we have about, I think we’re at 56 people right now total and of those 56, I want to say 16 or 17 are outside of the United States which is where we’re mostly located.

We’re throughout 9 countries, and in the US, all across the country in 18 states, and people work in their own timezones – we don’t ask people who work in the EU or Australia to work US timezones because we work asynchronously which is a big value at Basecamp where we can kind of work at our own pace, work in our environments, and then come back to collaborate with people as makes sense.

Maks

And with this asynchronous style of work, what made you decide to create an employee handbook and how has it affected your culture and this work style?

Andrea

Yeah, we created a handbook, it was probably about 6 years ago. I want to guess because we were hiring a decent number of people and we realized that we were kind of throwing them into working at Basecamp without any sort of guidebook. It’s a lot to expect of people to know your company culture, to know the nitty-gritty of benefits and time off, little things like that are very easily explained, and also the language that you use, concepts, like working asynchronously.

That’s not a common way to work. Our values like work-life balance and kind of the way we speak to one another, we’d never put that down on paper before, and we were never able to explain that the same way to every employee when we hired them each time. 

So, it came out of hiring and wanting to be able to give that to people, and then from there, it grew into kinda like just a Basecamp guidebook where we would put in our policies and procedures, of course, but also kind of go into detail about our values and why we value those things.

How we work, so that we can not only have it down on paper for ourselves but share that with people, which is why we put it on GitHub, so that people can see transparently what we’re all about and also take from that what they want to install in their own companies.

Maks

Yeah, and I noticed that your handbook compared to some others that I’ve seen is still manageable in terms of the size and it’s maintainable. How can you achieve that? How do you do that it doesn’t grow so fast?

Andrea

Yeah. We’re really selective about what we put in there. We don’t have pre-fabricated policies that we think we might use someday. They are policies that come out of necessity, so if we find a problem coming up a couple times at work. This is especially related to human resources policies, like time off, things come up a lot where if someone has a family situation where they need extra time off.

We say, “Oh, that could come up again, let’s, for the benefit of our employees, figure out something that makes sense and put it in the handbook,” but we don’t do that until it becomes an issue that we need to address, so we keep it small by restraining ourselves and putting constraints on what we want.

Maks

Great. You mentioned that you’re a remote company because you don’t want to limit yourself to a local talent pool, but I think that with remote also comes a set of issues or challenges that you have to deal with. Can you share what challenges have you seen at Basecamp? What was the biggest and how do you deal with them?

Andrea

Yeah. I think the biggest challenge that any remote company faces and Basecamp is no exception, is staying connected to one another. When people work in an office together, you see each other, you see each other’s faces every day, you talk in the kitchen, you meet in the elevator, and we don’t have those random interactions every day, so we have to manufacture them to a certain extent.

So, that means strongly encouraging people to connect with each other, not just around work, not just where you’re discussing a new feature that’s being implemented or a new thing that we’re designing, whatever, a new feature that we’re designing, it’s about connecting on a personal level to some extent with your coworkers, it’s making time for one-on-ones, face-to-face video chatting. 

We have chat rooms, we call them Campfires, where a lot of them are work-related and a lot of them are not, a lot of them are about our pets or about our kids, or about any number of our hobbies. People have those dedicated social spaces to go and interact where it’s not about work and where you’re forming those connections that form a basis of a relationship, so you have the strong foundation on which to build a better working relationship where you feel comfortable providing feedback to one another about work.

Maks

That’s really amazing. You also mentioned giving and receiving feedback as an important factor in work communication. How do you encourage that culture so that employees at Basecamp feel comfortable doing this, basically sharing and getting help, and providing feedback? 

Andrea

Yeah, a big one of our values have always been learning and teaching and sharing information with each other. We don’t have this kind of siloed departments where people are gatekeeping information. Everything is very collaborative, interactive or kind of all – we all have hands in a lot of areas of the company and a lot of areas of the product development.

I think feedback comes, again, from strong foundational relationships, so people feel that they know each other and they feel comfortable asking questions. They feel comfortable getting involved in the discussion that maybe doesn’t directly involve them but they have an interest in it. Any number of ways where – those little touches add up to form good coworker relationships, so then feedback then comes from people.

I think, just in general, that emphasis on communication, almost overcommunication at Basecamp, because it’s all written and because it’s asynchronous, we kind of tend to write a lot and we tend to maybe say more or get involved in more discussions than you might if it was a meeting like everyone can see what’s going on at any given time so you can drop it at any given time. Those add up to form relationships where we can provide feedback to one another and feel comfortable doing so. 

Maks

Yeah, awesome. Moving from the challenges and the communication part which as you said is very typical for remote companies, I want to ask you about some interesting concepts that you introduced at Basecamp which is the shorter workweek in the summer months. Can you share a little bit of how it affects the performance of your team and what benefits and challenges you have seen with this so far?

Andrea

Yeah, that is probably if not the most favorite benefit at Basecamp, it’s like the top two or three. Everyone loves summer weeks. It started before my time, actually, so this is going back 10 years-plus, probably, and the reason that we added it was because we wanted to instill kind of like a cadence to the year as a whole.

It’s not healthy, it’s not human to be pushing on 100% all the time day in, day out, so to kind of offer a break in the summer where not only are you working shorter – you’re working shorter hours, it’s not just a four-day workweek and everything is condensed into those four days, it’s literally like removing a day of work. 

So, we slowed down a lot May through the end of August, and another big thing at Basecamp is we find it valuable to say no to things a lot and I find it makes the product better and the company better to restrain ourselves in a way that makes us focus on what’s really important. Part of that is saying let’s slow down in the summer, let’s do less work, and the work that we do in the summer has to be of an equal value to the work that we are doing the rest of the year.

It really brings to the surface some really excellent product work and organizational work, some operational work. So, it’s a benefit to the employee because you get a break, right? You slow down a little bit. It’s a benefit to the organization because we kind of focus more, a little bit more on what we want to be working on and what we really need to be working on.

Maks

Yeah, you limit the throughput and therefore, you got to focus and narrow down to the most important things, and you say no to the rest, right?

Andrea

Exactly. I’ve even heard from employees that coming back to work in the fall and getting back to five-day workweeks is kind of a relief as well because you have a little more room to breathe. You have more flexibility, there’s some extra time. It’s just a nice ebb and flow to the year and then it kind of calms down again in the holiday season, so it’s very natural. It feels very healthy and a very healthy way to work. 

Maks

Yeah, it does. And it looks like it helps to improve the balance between work and life, but I’ve also seen that some remote workers struggle to disconnect with all that you’ve put in place. Do you see that at Basecamp or do you still have to tackle that?

Andrea

Of course, we still have to deal with that, yes. I think that that’s another super common challenge for remote companies. If you’re not walking out the door of your office in the evening, it’s hard, like I am in my house right now, it’s hard to differentiate between home and work. So, it’s something that we just talk about a lot.

It goes both ways: we don’t try to control what our employees are doing and that also works where we’re not going to be too controlling about trying to force them to walk away from work, but we do talk about it a lot. I’m talking about closing the computer when you log off and talk about having a dedicated area in your house or maybe a coffee shop or a co-working space where you go and that is your work time, and then when you leave that space, you’re not working anymore. 

We have features built into Basecamp called – Work Can Wait or we have different kinds of a turn on or turn off features where I don’t get notifications on my phone or I don’t get notifications on my desktop or laptop. We are very mindful of when we do work different hours or in different timezones than people that might be working with us, to not post urgent things when they are not working, so if I’m waiting for someone to respond to me who’s working in the EU, I’m very aware that they’re not going to get back to me until tomorrow. 

I think just again, it comes down to communication and really being clear about what we expect of people and that we expect people to work 40 hours a week. If it looks like they’re working more than that, someone usually says something, whether that’s a coworker kind of poking at somebody saying, “Hey, I noticed you responded to my message at 9 o’clock your time last night, maybe keep an eye on that,” or a manager stepping in or we do notice, and then we bring it up.

Maks

Okay, that’s really great and you shared some very good ways of how people can improve that. My personal favorite is actually going out, so I don’t like to work at home. I like to work remotely which is what I’ve done for many years, but I encourage everyone to go to a co-working space or a coffee shop or wherever they feel comfortable working if they don’t feel like working every day from their home or from their apartment, so that’s really great. 

And in one of Rework podcast episodes called Hire When It Hurts, you mentioned that you needed to hire a DevOps lead, and at that time, you didn’t have that expertise internally. How did you go about the process to make sure that the hire is right?

Andrea

Yeah, that was a rough hire, that was hard from our end. However, we ended up with someone who’s spectacular and couldn’t be happier. I think it’s interesting that we found this person, his name is Troy, hiring the same way that we hire for anyone else at Basecamp.

Even though this is a super technical position, we start the process by looking at it from a people’s perspective. It’s very easy to see on someone’s CV or resume that they have the technical expertise in a certain role, especially programming and DevOps. What’s as important to us as the technical expertise is their approach to work, and I hesitate to use the word ‘culture fit’ because it’s a little discriminatory, but someone who approaches our work in a healthy way is something that especially when it’s a team lead, like our DevOps lead is in a thoughtful way and a very intentional way. That’s just as important to us as the rest of the technical stuff. 

For the DevOps lead, we used a metric in our rubric for everyone that we hire and part of that is technical expertise and another part of that is more people-oriented stuff and the team lead stuff, and then the management stuff, and then leadership. That’s how we approached the DevOps lead, like the same way we would approach hiring anybody at Basecamp. So, to make sure it’s right, we involve a lot of people in the hiring process. In that role, in particular, I was the first person to talk to the candidates to get a sense of their approach to work culture. 

The second step is approached by members of the team that they’re going to be managing. If there is a current team lead, that person’s involved as well. After that is maybe some other people at a more senior level that would be working directly with that person, so we get a sense of how are they going to operate with other teams at the company because all of our teams are very interconnected, and then after that, it’s kind of like a group decision.

All of the factors in, all of the conversations play a role in the decision-making process, and then we move forward, and we usually tend to agree. We get a really good feeling about someone, in this case, Troy, we all had no doubt that he was a great fit for this role and we were all welcoming at that decision from a different perspective but all arrived at the same conclusion.

Maks

Okay, so you mentioned different stages and interacting with different people from different teams, but is the process only focused on interviews or do you use other tools as well?

Andrea

Just interviews. We don’t do any testing, we don’t do any whiteboards or technical exams, nothing like that. We ask questions about their technical background, of course. We like to hear them talk about work they’ve done – most of our interviews involve a lot of experiential questions or tell me a time that you had to deal with this.

Based on the situation that the person would be coming into, what does the history of the role at Basecamp look like and then how would this person’s experience translate into that? A lot of more technical candidates are very surprised that there is no exam involved, which is fair, I would be too, but it works for us.

I think the people that we have at Basecamp just have a really good sense of what we need because we hire so infrequently that we are able to get to that a lot quicker just with one-to-one interaction or interview interaction. 

Maks

Okay. Yeah, that came as a surprise to me as well because I’m involved in tech hiring quite a lot, and even in my recent conversation with another podcast interviewee, we were discussing basically focusing on skills first throughout, like looking at CVs and using the tools to help you get there, so it’s a completely different perspective and I’m glad that you shared that with me.

Andrea

I will say that for programmers, we ask for a code, we ask for code snippets and things like that, and most of our programmers are involved in the open-source community. We are able to look at their work, so there’s that aspect of it, but as far as administered tests that we give candidates, we do not do that, no.

Maks

Okay, that makes a lot of sense, and despite that, you definitely have many more applications than you can process. I think many companies don’t have that luxury, but they still ask candidates to spend a lot of hours delivering some artificial solutions for problems for the needs of the specific recruitment process.

I think that your approach takes real care about the candidate and values at their time which is really great because they can reuse what they’ve done in the past and they could show off what they did, and then you could take a look at that and you really look into this and show how to improve the experience of the candidate during the whole process.

Andrea

Yeah, we get great feedback from our candidates about the interview process.

Maks

Awesome. You don’t hire new members that often as you just said. That means that the employee retention at Basecamp is obviously very high, it’s impressive. What is your key to success in achieving this?

Andrea

It’s everything. I think the work at Basecamp is really what causes people to stay around at Basecamp. We offer a very unique work experience. We offer our employees a lot of autonomy. They get to dictate a lot of what they work on, and how they work on it, the environment in which they’re working.

They are not micromanaged; you can kind of put your own stamp on the product work that you were doing, and people are proud of what they produce at Basecamp, and then on top of that, of course, there are all the benefits. There’s the work-life respect, there are the actual benefits and perks that people get, but I think that that’s definitely secondary to the work which attracts people to the company as a whole. And there is an opportunity for innovation. 

We’ve had several versions of Basecamp, several other products that we’ve had in the past, so you know that there’s an opportunity there for growth and for learning, and developing something new which is exciting to a lot of people. You don’t get stuck kind of working on the same thing over and over again day in, day out, year in, year out, so yeah, I think that that’s kind of what causes people to stick around.

Also, the relationships that we have, it’s like you said, it’s a big small company where we do a lot of work, but it’s a small group of people and we’ve all been around for a while, so you get to know your coworkers and people enjoy working together. People have great working relationships, the teams are very small, we usually have development teams of about three people, so they are very close-knit for the most part and that creates a very secure safe environment for people to kind of really level up their work.

Maks

But also one thing with keeping a small team and having all the people work together for a really long time, not having a lot of new blood, so to speak, how do you get all that outside perspective on stuff?

Andrea

I think – we don’t. I mean, we do. It’s not that we never hire. When we do get new people in, we see this huge opportunity because it’s so infrequent. It’s like oh, you want to sit them down and be like, “Tell us everything that you think is wrong here because we have no idea anymore,” so when we do get new people hired in, it’s a huge opportunity for them to bring some new life and some fresh air into what they are working on and into the company.

We also kind of switch out but we’re working on a lot. We switch teams around sometimes. People rotate, designers or programmers are all working together, so maybe that relationship will spark something new to come out, there are some dynamos in there. We also let people kind of work on spinoffs and have some downtime to innovate, and I think just allowing people some space and time to create helps spark that too.

It doesn’t always need to be a new person with a brand-new perspective coming in. It’s just a lot of “people space” and the time to develop new perspectives on things that they’ve already seen.

Maks

Yeah, and experiment on what they’ve done and what they want to do to see if they can get these new ideas and new perspectives from not necessarily the team as well, right? Because you can get that from outside of the company as well. 

Andrea

Or from other teams, like our customer support team talks to customers all day long and they hear things that a developer would never think of in a million years, and so if they are seeing these customer conversations come through, that’s very common to spark something near in a development or to spark a new future at Basecamp.

Maks

Yeah, absolutely. You’ve worked quite a lot as an HR person, working with People Operations. I would like to know if there are any things that you wish to have known earlier. Any tips that you have for HR people from different companies that could help them improve their work?

Andrea

Yeah, I wish I knew a lot before I started in human resources. I still wish I knew a lot of things that I probably don’t know. The thing that was the biggest struggle for me, I think, and challenge was finding an appropriate position in the company as a whole, like within the structure of the organization, and the best spot that I have found at Basecamp is for HR to act as a support role for every person and every department, and every manager and team at the company.

I think like, to say not get in the way of the work getting done sounds very dismissive of HR as a role but that’s how I try to approach my work. ln terms of hiring: it’s not my job to tell people who to hire, it’s my job to create a realistic and repeatable hiring rubric and to ask people to adhere to that. It’s my job to make sure that the interviews that they are doing are equitable and fair, to keep tabs on that and to keep a timeline, and to keep a budget.

It’s all these things that a hiring manager shouldn’t be concerned about. A hiring manager should first and foremost be concerned about hiring the best person for the job. It’s my job to create the support system underneath that to cause that to be possible, and that kind of translates to every aspect of HR, the rest of the company creating policies.

It’s not my job to create stupid policies that don’t have any place in our real world. It’s my job to notice when there is a gap happening at Basecamp where people want clarity and where people want security, and then create a policy to give that to them. 

Maks

Yeah, okay. Some great tips for HR people. Lastly, we mentioned the employee handbook but Basecamp shares much, much more in many ways. Could you tell me a little bit more about the different things that you have published and released so that people can take a look at it? Because you said that this part of why it’s so exciting to work at Basecamp and your retention is so high, so let them see where they can learn how to build that.

Andrea

There is so much. Well, first, all of the codebase that Basecamp is –

Maks

Built upon, yeah.

Andrea

There we go, thank you – is open source, so people can kind of see what’s going on behind the scenes in the framework and draw from there.

Maks

Yeah, Ruby on Rails.

Andrea

Ruby on Rails, yeah, one of our co-founders created Ruby on Rails and that’s where Basecamp came from. Beyond that, we have a lot of stuff that’s published about the culture of Basecamp.

Jason and David, our founders, have several books on remote working. We have a book called Rework which is kind of redefining how people approach work and how we approach work. There’s the most recent book called – it’s a mouthful: It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work which is about creating a sense of calm and work-life balance again at work and how we tend to look at that.

We have a podcast, it’s called the Rework podcast where people at Basecamp go on to talk about work at Basecamp but we also have wonderful reporters Sean and Wayland who are on the podcast and they bring in outside guests to speak on the topics as well.

We have a blog, we have Twitter – all that stuff – we have a bunch of new content on our website, long-form essays about culture and product development at Basecamp, so any number of areas where you can find Basecamp content, those are the ones that come to mind.

Maks

And these are really a great read. I think I have read or heard and listened to most of those. Also, Shape Up.

Andrea

There you go, thank you.

Maks

My recent read, it was really, really great. I recommend everyone to take a look at those and see how you can build such a great team, and it’s really impressive that with only so few people, you can also share so much and contribute to the whole community of tech people, of startup people, not only in the tech business, and also to open source development which is really amazing. So, thank you and thanks to the entire Basecamp team for that. 

Andrea, these are all my questions. I really enjoyed talking to you and I am super excited about all the things that you shared. I hope that our listeners will get the value out of our episode, and it was great talking to you.

Andrea

Thank you. You as well, thanks for having me.

Want to listen more? Check out the IT Crafts HR podcast episode with Evelin Andrespok, People Operation Manager at Toggl who shares what is their key to high employee retention and why it’s worth becoming a remote company.