Remote Work Interviews

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How HubSpot Is Building Remote Work Into Its Company Culture
Katie Burke: Chief People Officer at HubSpot
How HubSpot Is Building Remote Work Into Its Company Culture
Katie Burke: Chief People Officer at HubSpot
February 4, 2019
Interview by Sophia Bernazzani
Photography by HubSpot
Katie Burke is the Chief People Officer at HubSpot, a global marketing, sales, and customer service software company headquartered in Cambridge, MA. She leads recruitment, people operations, learning and development, culture, and employee experience at the fast-growing SaaS company and sat down with us to talk about how HubSpot is building a company culture that allows in-office and remote team members to succeed.

Katie Burke has had a fascinating career trajectory at HubSpot over the past six years. In 2012, she started as a Senior Manager, and then became a Director, working on media relationships, PR, events, and sponsorships for the company. But in 2015, she transitioned into a new role as the Director of Talent and Culture at the SaaS giant. Quickly, she became the Vice President of Culture and Experience until she took on the role of Chief People Officer for the 2,500-person company in January 2017.

Burke currently oversees recruitment, people operations, learning and development, culture, and employee experience to ensure that the company's culture and people strategy is a competitive advantage as the company continues to grow globally. We recently interviewed Katie for our new series, Remote Work Interviews, as remote work has become an integral part of what she thinks about when it comes to employee satisfaction and company culture development.

She shared insights into how HubSpot's approach to remote work has changed over the years, what the benefits and challenges are of building a remote-friendly company, the kinds of processes HubSpot is putting into place to make remote work possible and effective, and more. She even shares her vision for the future of remote work a decade from now. Read on for Katie's thoughts on what it takes to build a great remote work culture within a growing company.

HubSpot's Cambridge headquarters

Owl Labs (OL): You started at HubSpot in 2012 working on events, sponsorships, and media relations. How did your role evolve at the company over the past 6 years — and what prompted your move into talent, culture, and experience?

Katie Burke (KB): When I started at HubSpot, my team ran internal and external communications in preparation for the company's initial public offering (IPO). When you're preparing for an IPO, you talk a lot with the executive team about what kind of company you want to build long-term because you're selling your idea, your team, and your business to investors. We kept coming back to the fact that if we wanted to build a company that outlasts us, we had to scale our culture — and do it incredibly well. We also had to treat the IPO for what it was: a financing event that we hoped was just a stop on a very long journey.

I worked with Co-founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah on the launch of the HubSpot Culture Code, and after the IPO, he and our COO, J.D. Sherman, asked me to consider leading culture at HubSpot. At first, I said no because I was worried it was a road to nowhere — but it turned out to be quite the opposite.

For the past four years, I've been essentially the product manager for culture at HubSpot, and more specifically in the past two years, I’ve worked on the entirety of our candidate experience and employee experience with our recruiting, learning and development, and core HR teams.

I feel lucky to work at a company where I've worn a few hats, and that I still feel challenged and energized coming to work every day.

We've always had a policy where the emphasis was on results over face time, and where people could build their work around their life versus the other way around. Click to Tweet.
HubSpot's Singapore office

OL: How has HubSpot's approach toward remote work changed since its founding — and why?

KB: Flexibility and autonomy were core to HubSpot long before I started because both things are incredibly important to our founders. We've always had a policy where the emphasis was on results over face time, and where people could build their work around their life versus the other way around. As a result, we had a few employees here and there who worked remotely full-time, then a whole host of employees (myself included) who worked from home from time to time, worked in another location for a change of scenery, etc.

It wasn't until two years ago that we really got serious about remote work, and we're still scaling up our remote strategy and activation. The good news is remote work fits wonderfully within our broader vision of autonomy and work. The tough part at the moment is we have varying inputs on remote work by team, location, leader, etc., so we're still working on how to make all things remote at HubSpot — at scale.

OL: When it comes to integrating remote work into the culture at HubSpot, what have been some of the biggest challenges?

KB: One of our challenges is how we ensure that what we promise (an amazing and dynamic place to work) is what we deliver for remote employees. I would say equally as important is that we help our managers learn to manage remote employees thoughtfully. Finally, I would say communicating at scale with a global, 2,500+ person company is a challenge, and we're working on ensuring internal communications and company meetings and events are remote-friendly if and where possible.

I've learned that clarity and transparency matter for both employees and their respective managers, and that you have to actually infuse your thoughts on the process with some empathy. For instance, our Director of Learning & Development makes everyone dial in remotely for stand-ups — even when they're together in the same room — because she noticed that the internal laughs and background noise were really hard to follow when only one person was remote. The empathy factor matters, and you're going to work much harder at ensuring remote inclusion if you feel firsthand how hard it can be to engage in a busy or loud meeting if remote collaboration is not done well.

OL: How has remote work contributed positively to HubSpot's culture?

KB: It's helped immensely when it comes to employee retention — we have a long-standing leader on our services team who has been working from Nebraska for years now. It also helps with recruiting — for example, the general manager of our core marketing product is based in Nashville, and we simply would not have been able to get him on board if he wasn't able to work remotely.

I would also say that any time you get good at something new (which we are still working on with remote work) you add to your culture. Our remote employees provide great feedback, have created hacks and tips for everyone to learn from, and have forged a really strong community with each other internally, which I love. We also have an incredible facilities team who have invested in creating great places and spaces to work, so as a result, people have always loved coming to our offices — whether it's every day, or for a monthly in-person visit.

OL: As the Chief People Officer, what have you learned about the unique challenges remote workers face?

KB: I've learned that clarity and transparency matter for both employees and their respective managers, and that you have to actually infuse your thoughts on the process with some empathy.

For instance, our Director of Learning & Development makes everyone dial in remotely for stand-ups — even when they're together in the same room — because she noticed that the internal laughs and background noise were really hard to follow when only one person was remote. The empathy factor matters, and you're going to work much harder at ensuring remote inclusion if you feel firsthand how hard it can be to engage in a busy or loud meeting if remote collaboration is not done well.

HubSpot's Cambridge headquarters

OL: What challenges do location-based team members face when working with remote teammates?

KB: Location-based team members can forget that remote team members miss social interactions at the so-called "water cooler" (do those even exist any more?!), so that extra effort to build rapport and get to know folks personally really matters and is so meaningful to remote team members.

Sometimes, in-office folks don't realize that small things really add up — for example, taking the time to document processes or record meetings for folks to read or watch at their leisure; minimizing background noises in large conference rooms; facing toward virtual participants; and identifying a person to keep an eye on remote participants to ensure they are included. All of those small things matter, as do big things, like investing in great remote collaboration software and a culture of transparency.

We are working on doing both the big and little things well to get this right, but ultimately, it comes down to empathy, over-communication, autonomy, and clarity of guardrails and guidelines.

OL: What processes has HubSpot put in place that have worked well when it comes to keeping remote team members organized, effective, motivated, and connected?

KB: The marketing team did an all-remote week last year, and every leader posted learnings and best practices to the entire company. I found it super helpful to help build internal awareness on what works and what doesn't. My colleague Beth Dunn wrote a post on inclusive meetings that was really a thoughtful reminder for everyone on meeting best practices. And within our support team, where we built out an all-remote team for the first time last year, we set the tone early that everyone needed to flex to make the system work. In other words, remote employees needed to make an effort to be visible and share feedback.

Similarly, folks at HQ needed to be aware and inclusive as we scaled the team. We aren't perfect, but we are making great strides. As a public company, we have rules around entities where we operate, so we have tried to be super explicit with where folks can work remotely and where they can't so it's easy for managers and employees alike to know upfront what's possible, and to actively encourage people to share what works and what doesn't with their manager and the organization. We are trying to grow better as a company, and remote work is just one component of that.

Sometimes, in-office folks don't realize that small things really add up — for example, taking the time to document processes or record meetings for folks to read or watch at their leisure; minimizing background noises in large conference rooms; facing toward virtual participants; and identifying a person to keep an eye on remote participants to ensure they are included. All of those small things matter, as do big things, like investing in great remote collaboration software and a culture of transparency.
HubSpot's customer success team

OL: You recently hired someone who focuses specifically on remote work at the company. Can you provide any insight into what that role entails and the outcomes you hope to achieve with that particular hire?

KB: Yes! She rolls up into core HR team and will help us really pull all the resources we currently offer for remote employees into one spot.

One big goal for this role is to clarify and codify all of what we offer to remote candidates and employees alike. She's an important internal advocate for remote work, but also as a critical collaborator with our recruiting team, our HR business partner team, and our global business leads. The purpose of that is to ensure we have alignment, awareness, and shared insights on what's working and what isn't. We believe this is a meaningful signal to our remote employees that we are investing in their success for the long haul.

OL: How would you describe the ideal remote team member?

KB: All of the things that comprise a great HubSpotter in general also make for a great remote worker: humble, empathetic, adaptive, remarkable, and transparent. And of course, someone who has critical amounts of self-awareness and self-motivation, because you have to be the kind of person who can build structure and inputs into your day to drive results and really enjoy and thrive while working independently.

HubSpot's Dublin office
Do you want to access talent everywhere, or just in specific markets? If the answer is everywhere, you need to be at least open to the possibility of remote work — it opens doors to attracting and retaining talent around the world, literally and figuratively. Click to Tweet.

OL: What advice do you have for other culture leaders about embedding remote work into a company culture?

KB: Be open to feedback, be clear on what you can and can't do in a given time period, and don't try to do everything at once. Pick a few things to try, experiment, and learn from — then iterate on the results and improve.

OL: What questions should a company ask to determine whether remote work should be part of their company culture?

KB: Do you want to access talent everywhere, or just in specific markets? If the answer is everywhere, you need to be at least open to the possibility of remote work — it opens doors to attracting and retaining talent around the world, literally and figuratively.

OL: Is remote work a better fit for certain teams than others? (e.g. Marketing, Engineering, Sales, Customer Support, etc.)

KB: It totally depends on your business and culture. For us at HubSpot, marketing and customer success and services are the most remote-friendly at this moment, but that could change over time. I do not think there are certain teams or personalities that can do remote better than others necessarily, but I do think leaders and cultures within organizations are more interested and enthusiastic about remote work than others, and we try to strike that balance here.

OL: What is the future of remote work 10 years from now? What challenges and benefits will arise if your vision for the future of remote work comes to fruition?

KB: The benefits are significant — less commuting time means more time for people with their families, but it also has positive implications for our environment long-term.

It also means as we think about global talent, if we do things right we may be able to do a better job mobilizing traditionally under-represented groups in a modern workforce — be that women, folks who live in rural America, veterans, leaders of color, or individuals challenged traditionally by access or ability — so I see a tremendous upside to remote work globally.

The biggest challenge for the future of remote work is ensuring that we maintain that human connective tissue that makes coming to work so meaningful and dynamic, and that we train a new generation of managers who are not just good but exceptional at building and leading remote teams.

The biggest challenge for the future of remote work is ensuring that we maintain that human connective tissue that makes coming to work so meaningful and dynamic, and that we train a new generation of managers who are not just good but exceptional at building and leading remote teams.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways from Katie's insights about building a remote-friendly culture that empowers successful remote and hybrid teams:

1. Frequent and transparent communication is key for remote employees and their remote or in-office team members and managers.

For the team at HubSpot, frequent and open communication -- between remote workers and their managers, their team members, and company leadership -- has helped scale its remote work offerings. Successful remote and hybrid teams use shared internal documentation, written meeting agendas, video meeting recordings for later viewing, video meeting facilitators to ensure remote team members are included in the conversations, and regular team and 1:1 check-ins to make sure everyone is on the same page and understands team conversations, goals, and progress.

2. Remote and flexible work is a competitive differentiator when it comes to employee recruiting and retention.

For companies that want to attract and retain the best talent to help achieve their goals, expanding remote work offerings helps HubSpot attract talent from different markets and retain talent who decide to move to a different part of the world. HubSpot's next step is building out more remote work support and programming and continuing to transparently communicate the limits of remote work to employees.

3. Inclusivity and empathy from in-office teams help hybrid teams and remote members thrive.

Inclusivity and empathy are important to building a company culture employees love -- especially a company that enables remote workers, like HubSpot. For in-office teammates and managers, being mindful of the communication gaps remote employees face to proactively provide them with the context and support they need to be visible and participate more effectively. For remote workers, a willingness to provide constructive feedback and to over-communicate what they're working on will help them improve hybrid team communication and help them achieve their career goals with better support.

To learn more about the number of other companies empowering remote work, read our Global State of Remote Work report next.

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