Categories: distributed work

Paving the way for the future of work at Mozilla

Long before “hybrid workplace” was a household term, teams at Mozilla were mixes of people who worked out of offices and others who were remote — as well as some who split their time between the two. Our hybrid nature wasn’t a deliberate strategy so much as an organic evolution from our open-source roots; as clusters of employees and “contributors”— volunteers who contributed code — grew in certain locations over the years, we gradually opened new spaces to house them. That has required us to organize our work differently from most other tech companies, and while it comes with some inefficiencies built in, it has also allowed us to recruit and grow a team less constrained by geography than our competitors — just like the open, accessible internet it’s our mission to build.

Being a natively hybrid organization also meant that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, about 40% of Mozillians were already working from locations outside of our corporate spaces. So when we reopened offices in April 2022, you might think we’d simply return to that pre-COVID status quo: Those who were remote before the pandemic stay that way, and those who were co-located go back to the office.

But that’s not what we did — for several reasons. One is that our team wasn’t immune to the global shift in attitudes toward remote work; a recent survey of Mozillians who were previously co-located found just 6% wanted to return to the office five days per week. Another is that many of us no longer live where we did pre-pandemic; the Bay Area, for example, is now home to fewer than 200 team members, compared with more than 300 in early 2020. And most importantly, we wanted to take the opportunity to deeply consider the types of work that actually happen in an office — not to mention the challenges, especially from a diversity, inclusion and belonging perspective, inherent in having half of your team working face to face while the other half is virtual.

We recognize that for bursts of intensive collaboration, such as workshops, brainstorming sessions and team-building work, there’s likely value in co-location. But we also know that at Mozilla, working in an office and true co-location are two different things. Because we have rarely restricted membership on a given team to a specific location, even a team entirely made up of “office workers” might be spread out across Berlin, Paris, Toronto, Portland and San Francisco. What’s more, much of people’s daily work doesn’t necessarily benefit from co-location in the first place. Things like programming, writing and meeting one-on-one can, for many of us, happen just as easily at home or in a coworking space as they would at Mozilla’s physical spaces.

So instead of doing what we’ve always done, we decided to start paving the way for something new — and take the opportunity to rethink how we work, to examine if and how we benefit from having some team members in offices while others are remote and to interrogate some of our assumptions about the role Mozilla’s physical spaces play.

Finding our return-to-work “desire lines”

As we considered what a return to the office might look like at Mozilla, one possibility we did not entertain was eliminating remote work entirely. Even before COVID-19, our team members had demonstrated an ability to work without offices — and though the pandemic made life harder in many other ways, the transition to a fully remote workforce really didn’t slow us down. We already had the infrastructure, tools and workflows we needed, as well as experience collaborating and managing remotely. Our company meetings had always been livestreamed, and we didn’t just have Slack and Zoom, we were fluent in them.

But of course, working without offices was only one piece of the incredibly difficult puzzle that is living through a pandemic. In addition to the direct impact on our business, we had team members facing illness, team members with kids stuck at home, team members trying to fit their work into small homes and apartments that weren’t designed for the job. In part because we weren’t scrambling just to “go remote,” we were better equipped than most to focus on helping Mozillians get through it — we started offering all company Wellness breaks, emphasized flexible scheduling and shifted full-company meetings from monthly to weekly to keep people connected. And we never forgot that while many of us were embracing the shift to remote work, others — whether because of space, care responsibilities or mental health needs — didn’t have that luxury. We knew we needed to give those colleagues an in-office option, once it was safe to do so.

If we didn’t want to return to our pre-COVID defaults, didn’t want to shift to full co-location and didn’t want to stay fully remote, what were we going to do? The answer, we decided, was to watch and learn. Much like urban planners often purposefully delay the installation of sidewalks and trails to gather insights from the “desire lines” people wear in the dirt, we set our return-to-work policies through the end of 2022 only — with the goal of learning in the meantime what Mozillians actually want.

First steps: Our approach in 2022

While Mozilla’s offices reopened in April 2022, we announced that no one — including team members who were co-located before the pandemic — would be required to work in the office through at least the end of the year. We also extended our reimbursement program for home internet costs, as well as our home office setup stipend for new hires, both of which we had expanded beyond “remotees” to include the entire team at the start of the pandemic. And in the spirit of finding desire lines, we eliminated assigned seats and shifted to a full “hotel desk” setup, requiring team members to book their desks for the days they spend in the office.

For other programs and events, we worked to incorporate lessons learned over the past two years and combine the best of both pre- and post-COVID worlds. Our first in-person All Hands week since January 2020 took place in Hawaii this September, but with accommodations for those who couldn’t or choose not to attend. For our “cultural onboarding” program for new hires, which changed in 2020 from a week in San Francisco to a virtual curriculum, we’re considering a return to in-person sessions — but organized by region, to help more Mozillians connect with their nearby colleagues. Recruiting and interviewing remains 100% remote, in part to ensure that candidates who don’t live near one of our offices still have an equal chance of success, and we no longer require early-career employees to be co-located with their managers on any of our teams.

Finally, we are encouraging regular in-person “team meetups,” or offsites, to help support the collaborative and cultural activities that most benefit from being face to face. For planning, product design sprints, hackathons and more, our Employee Experience team helps managers find the best location for their meetup based on where participants live. They also arrange travel and lodging and help plan meals and learning experiences as well as help with creative ways to include the people who will attend remotely. Here again, we want to see what works before setting longer-term policies, so we haven’t set guidelines on how often meetups happen — but so far the average team is getting together about once per quarter.

Going forward: The future of work at Mozilla

A few months into our year of exploration, the desire lines we’re seeing do suggest a shift from the pre-pandemic normal, with utilization of our offices at a fraction of the numbers they were designed for. Our San Francisco location, for example, hosts 8-10 Mozillians per day outside of team meetups in a space designed for 100. It’s clear that while traditional workplaces are far from obsolete, their purpose is changing, and we expect to make adjustments to our spaces as we continue to learn.

What we already know is this: Our future will necessarily include Mozillians working both on-site and elsewhere, and as so many companies are learning this year, a hybrid model is not the “best of both worlds” we might wish it could be. Unconscious bias often creeps in, leaving remote employees with fewer opportunities for recognition and promotion — a compounding effect given that many of the groups that benefit most from working from home, such as parents and people with special needs, are already underrepresented in the workplace generally and tech in particular.

Even workweeks and All Hands events will likely always include some hybrid element. This fall, for example, we knew some Mozillians would be comfortable flying to Hawaii and gathering in person, and others would not. By accepting the imperfect reality of a hybrid environment, we enable ourselves to take full advantage of the opportunity of this moment: making that environment as equitable and inclusive as possible.

Already, our experience with remote work is paying off; best practices such as recording meetings are ingrained in our culture. But we’re excited to explore new possibilities, too, from expanded virtual learning and development offerings, to local lunches and regional Family Days, to strategically located pop-up “spark centers” in coworking spaces, where we can innovate on specific projects and connect with the broader community. Armed with the information we gather this year, we also expect to further refine our existing spaces, experiences and events to make sure they continue strengthening our teams. While we want to take full advantage of the head start Mozilla’s history grants us, it’s critical that we stay humble. Getting this right will require more skills development around asynchronous communication, meeting discipline and remote management as well as additional investment in infrastructure and tools, along with a commitment to keep evolving the way we support our team members, both in and outside our offices.

Change is never easy, and we know for some Mozillians, the shifts we make in the coming years may not all be welcome. But we believe in approaching the way we work in the same way we build products: testing and adapting our way toward a future in which the time we spend together, whether virtual or in person, is as productive, purposeful and impactful as possible.