Why businesses are adopting the remote-first approach and how it benefits everyone in the workplace.
The corporate world is in the midst of an evolution of how employees work. There are several organizational strategies available for companies. Remote-first is the latest organizational strategy to be developed and generally the easiest strategy for companies to adopt in a post-pandemic world. The specific strategy for a company depends on the organization, the type of work being performed, and the average age of the company’s workforce.
- In-Office (1900s): This is the traditional organizational workplace strategy that has been popular for all of the 20th Century, the 1900s. It centers around employees commuting to centralized work locations on a daily basis, usually, commercial office buildings, to perform their job responsibilities.
- 100% Remote (~2000): This kind of organizational strategy was pioneered around the millennium, the year 2000, and coincides with the rise of the internet. Originally this workplace strategy was referred to as telecommuting, a reference to the telecommunications infrastructure that was supporting people communicating instantly with email and sharing files via the world wide web. As the 2000s went on, the term telecommuting faded from popular usage and was replaced by 100% remote or remote work. This strategy allows employees to work from anywhere, sometimes in heavily different time zones, and maybe never physically meet one another during their time with the company.
- Hybrid (2021): This strategy developed largely out of a public health concern following the global COVID pandemic of 2020. As organizations looked to bring workers back to the office while keeping physical distance and limiting physical contact, many organizations adopted a hybrid work strategy. This focuses on having some employees come to the office for several days of the 5-day workweek, often on some sort of rotating basis. Here is everything you need to know about hybrid work.
- Remote-First (2022): This is the newest organizational strategy for running a workforce. It, too, has come about as a result of the COVID pandemic, but not as a result of public health but rather to address the growing wants and realities of employees. In 2020, many employees related, meanwhile others were hired remotely in the following years. This strategy centers around the concept that the primary option for most or all employees is working remotely, but that there is value in bringing team members together physically on a regular basis. This means regular team offsite and get-togethers paired with smaller centralized offices and co-working spaces that are optionally available to employees.
What is remote-first?
By definition, remote-first means that all employees are not required to come to centralize physical office; in other words, team members work full remote. This organizational strategy also incorporates bringing groups of employees physically together and sometimes offering team members satellite offices or co-working spaces from which they may work at a schedule of their choosing. An example of a remote-first company is Kumospace, which makes virtual office software and brings its employees together for quarterly offsites.
The remote-first strategy came about to address the needs of a modern workforce. Many employees relocated during 2020 as they left populated areas for parents' homes if they were younger, or vacation homes if they were older. This makes bringing employees back to the office unrealistic for many organizations. The challenge was further complicated as organizations aggressively hired. With a highly competitive job market and non-in-office team members at the time of hiring, many companies added employees who were, in essence, 100% remote.
Remote-first is comprised of two parts:
- Gives all employees the flexibility to work the way that is best for them, from their home, while living a nomadic lifestyle, and from the company office or co-working space. The combination is up to the employee.
- Regular physical get-togethers. Bringing distributed team members together in one physical location for big meetings, offsites, or other reasons that happen several times per year, typically quarterly, is a hallmark of the remote-first organization strategy.
How is remote-first different from 100% remote teams?
The differences are slight but important. Two important factors of a remote-first strategy are a) giving employees common workplaces to congregate if they want and b) having frequent physical get-togethers. Whereas a 100% remote team strategy means that the organization very rarely or never gets together physically and does not have any physical offices or co-working spaces.
Remote-first companies vs remote-friendly?
Remote-friendly companies are different from remote-first organizations in one major way. They are open to having remote team members and new hires be fully remote, but the organization as a whole is either employing a hybrid or in-office strategy for employees located in metropolitan areas with corporate offices. Companies that employ a remote-friendly strategy encounter several challenges, namely around equity of career development. Employees joining remote-friendly companies are concerned that they will be second-class employees who miss out on career development since they represent a small fraction of the company’s total workforce.
Benefits of remote-first companies
There are a number of benefits to a remote-first organization strategy for both the employer and employees. At a very high-level remote-first work is about flexibility and maximizing the benefits of in-person connections with a remote work lifestyle.
Transparency: Inclusivity, Autonomy & Trust
The top characteristic of remote-first work is fairness. Employees want transparency. As such, companies that want employee remote-first policies tend to have more transparent leadership teams. This trickles down to the employees in the form of feeling treated with respect and equal opportunity.
- Inclusivity - One of remote employees' biggest concerns is “am I being included and treated equally.” By structuring your organization to be remote-first, all employees are placed on the same playing field and leadership is transparently communicating that remote work is not only ok, but it is the preferred method of work.
- Autonomy - Employees want to be treated like adults. Remote-first work is about judging employees' performance by output, not by having employees be present within an office. This means giving employees the autonomy to work in a way that best suits their daily life.
- Trust - By giving the employees a remote-first policy, the company signals a high degree of trust in their employees. People naturally want to be trusted, especially in something as important as their job. This sign of trust benefits employees and employers alike.
Because of the trust, autonomy, and inclusiveness that remote-first work offers, many employees are far happy. This benefits employers with higher levels of employee loyalty and retention. For employees the remote nature of their work also allows them to have an improved quality of life. This means spending more time with children and catching up on work in the evening or living a digitally nomadic lifestyle. Regardless of the employee’s work-life balance, the importance of choosing is what equals greater happiness.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, a workplace strategy consultancy, the average company that allows their employee to work just 50% of the time out of the office annually saves over $11,000. This number is a good estimate for remote-first companies since they still get together physically on a regular basis and offer offices or co-working spaces for employees to go to as they desire.
Employees are the lifeblood of every company. And without the constraints of specific geographic locations, remote-first teams can hire new team members who reside anywhere in the world. This opens up the opportunity for both filling roles faster as well as attracting a more diverse candidate pool. When Airbnb announced they would become a remote-first company, over 1 million people visited their careers page the following week. Not only is it easier to recruit when the world is your talent pool, many employees today are no longer interested in applying to in-office or even hybrid companies.
Flexibility = Productivity
For a long time, viewpoints against remote work often centered around reducing productivity, but the contrary is true. A Stanford University study shows that remote workers were 22% more productive than their in-office counterparts. This is because giving employees the opportunity to work around their daily habits and interruptions, means they are more productive. For instance, some people are more productive in the evening vs early morning. By allowing employees to choose when to work, they will pick the time when they are most productive.
Organizations that adopt a remote-first strategy are best situated for the unknown. Know one knows what the future will hold for sure, but remote-first companies are situated to be most resilient to unexpected changes. For example, if the company experiences a period of high growth, employee hiring is not constrained by the physical size of the office. And likewise, if the company experiences an economic downturn, the company does not have a massive amount of unused office space. If the world decided to move more in-person, remote-first companies already have physical locations and regular physical get-togethers to make this transition smooth. And if the vast majority of the corporate world moves to remote work, remote first companies are already set for this new normal. Upwork, the world’s leading freelance labor marketplace, projects that 73% of all teams will have remote employees by 2025.
Easiest to Implement
A remote-first organizational strategy is the easiest to transition to in a post-COVID world. This is because it doesn’t require the immediate termination of office space, it doesn’t shock employees into a rigid workplace structure, and it still captures the benefits of being people together physically.
Legal Consideration for Remote Work
An additional consideration is the legal requirements for offering remote work. Many countries around the world put in place temporary work from home requirements in 2020 and 2021. As those mandates end, many countries, especially in Europe, are considering making these laws permanent. The Netherlands was the first European country to make working from home a legal right.
If your company employs people within the European Union you may be legally required to give employees the right to work from outside the physical office. This is why it’s very important for companies to make a clear plan for their future work policy versus simply trying to enforce a return to the office.
Top remote-first companies
If your company is considering adopting a remote-first strategy, you will be in very good company. Some of the world’s largest companies and most respected brands in business have adopted this organizational strategy.
Here are some well-known remote-first companies:
- Automattic (WordPress)
- Stack Overflow
How to become remote-first? 7 Simple Steps:
It may seem daunting to change your workplace strategy, but in actuality, it’s not that hard. It starts with a decision, and this really isn’t a hard decision. A majority of your employees will applaud the company's decision.
1. Make a Clear Decision.
Employees need clear direction in a post-COVID world. Many of your team may already be actively job seeking due to a lack of clarity around the organizational strategy. It might seem simple, but being hyper-clear and transparent with remote team members is key to running a successful remote business.
2. Pick Tools for Communication & Collaboration.
Promoting cross-cultural communication is critical to success when working remotely. Getting communication right is one of the hardest parts of leading a remote, hybrid, or distributed team. The easiest way to think about communicating is in two parts: synchronously and asynchronously.
- Asynchronous. This communication is done out of sync and is best for things like one-off short messages, agendas, company-wide memos, etc. The most common business examples of asynchronous communication are email and business chat apps like Microsoft Teams and Slack. While the tools are useful it’s important to limit their use to short exchanges. Successful remote-first companies don’t have long back and forth communications via asynchronous.
- Synchronous. Communication that is in sync with other remote team members. Where asynchronous communication breaks down, long back and forth messages, synchronous communication succeeds. But it’s important to ensure that your team doesn't get bogged down in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting and doesn’t get fatigued. It is best to replace long meetings with synchronous burst communication. Your remote company wants to create the virtual equivalent of “I’ll stop by your desk.” Team members who do this effectively will replace hours of long back and forth emailing or messaging with a quick 5 to 15-minute chat. The best way to do this effectively is by using a virtual office application within your remote-first company. The software platforms let team members interact in ways that mimic the efficiencies of a physical office.
3. Create a Process that Supports Remote Work.
Give your remote team members a comfortable remote workspace. This is both virtually, by using virtual office software, as well as physically. Companies that utilize a remote-first strategy are saving $10,000s each year. Use some of those savings to give your employees the best work environment, regardless of where that may be. Empower the team to work from anywhere in style and comfort, by making their anywhere office feel like it is the corner office, with a home office reimbursement policy. Remote-first companies can also send team members regular goody bags. There are a number of subscription services for companies to send snacks and fun items to employees.
It’s also important to establish a clear policy on how to communicate. A Kumospace, a company that built virtual office and events software, we are 100% remote and have been since the company’s founding. As such, our remote work communication policy is that whenever someone is confused about an asynchronous message, simply start a synchronous conversation in our digital HQ. This policy helps avoid team members getting into the dreaded Slack and email wars.
4. Invest in Remote Culture.
Culture is key. Here are some tips for building great remote-first culture within your organization.
- Be Human. It is easy to forget that usually, people are good-hearted when you are not around their physical body language and lack this constant reminder. So when a remote team member gets upset about something, it’s good for them to remind themselves that other team members are good human beings.
- Trust. Successful remote-first teams trust that team members will do their very best each day. Building a trust-centric remote company starts with the leadership being transparent and placing large amounts of trust in their employees.
- Take Initiative. The best remote-first companies are made up of team members that see a problem and take action to solve it. Given the remote working environment, taking initiative is important rather than waiting for direction.
- Build Together. Although team members are not physically with one another, it’s important to build bonds between team members. One of the best ways to do this is by building things together, solving problems, and collaborating. Create a remote company culture that fosters cross-departmental collaboration.
- Resolve Conflict. Conflicts will always arise regardless of how tight-knit and positive a company’s culture may be. So it’s best to instill within the organization that people need to solve their conflicts. One of the best ways to do this is simply hash it out in a virtual office over some virtual drinks.
- Virtual Team Bonding. Create moments through the day and week for your remote-first team to bond. It’s important to invest in virtual team-building activities that happen on a frequent basis. Company culture isn’t built by a quarterly virtual happy hour, it happens when remote teams interact daily and weekly in small ways that build relationships. Here are 7 ideas for remote team building.
- Plan Physical Get-together. One of the foundations of having a remote-first organizational structure is dedicating time to bring team members together physically. A good cadence for this is quarterly offsites paired with empowering employees to make times to get together individually through the year. Looking to plan an offsite? See how Kumospace did our’s in Miami.
5. Set Expectations for Measuring Success Remotely.
Remote work is about great communication. To succeed, it’s important to set expectations with employees on how success will be measured, both individually and for the company. It’s good to establish a cadence for team members and departments to set goals and report on their process, usually weekly. Set up a weekly all-hands or department meeting. It’s important to ensure that these virtual meetings are efficient and engaging. Here is a guide to running a successful virtual meeting.
6. Establish efficient systems for remote hiring and remote onboarding.
Make new team members excited and feel welcomed to the team as they join. This should include things like sending them a welcome package full of swag, introducing them to the team during an All Hands meeting, and scheduling a 30-minute 1-on-1 meeting between the new hire and relevant team members. This last one is especially helpful in creating the foundation for building bonds. During these 1-on-1 conversations, the team members should speak largely about non-work-related topics and get to know each other.
7. Codify your Remote Work Policy.
Lastly, it’s good to codify everything mentioned in this remote-first article into a less than two-page remote work policy. This document should be concise, easy to understand, and distributed to the whole company. Tell your team what it means to us to be a remote-first company. Here are the most important topics to touch upon.
- Trust. Call out the fact that the company trusts its employees.
- Responsiveness. Set guidelines around responsiveness, i.e., during normal business hours within a specific time zone. Some organizations set it by the company and others set it by the team. Pick the one that works best for your remote company.
- Communication is Key. Encourage your remote team members to quickly unblock themselves through the use of synchronous (virtual office software) and asynchronous (messaging platforms) communication tools.
- Work-Life Balance. Emphasize that you don’t want to “pin down” your employees. They work hard for the right to play hard. Make that clear.
- Track Results, Not Time. Remote-first work is about team members being empowered to be productive, rather than physically “in the office” for specific amounts of time.
- Inclusivity. Hammer home that the company levels the playing field. Whether you never visit a physical co-working space or are always in one, communication happens in a singular virtual workspace.
- Benefits. Direct employees to a place where they can learn about all the company's benefits including PTO, home office reimbursement, wellness, and fitness plans, as well as healthcare benefits.
4 Must-Have Tools For Remote-First Teams
Making the decision to structurally organize as remote-first is the first step. But in order to succeed, a company looking to become a remote-first organization needs to invest in the right tools. Here are the must-have tools for remote teams to succeed.
Asynchronous Communication Tool
Every remote and even hybrid organization needs to be efficient communicators. This means having a good blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication between team members. Slack and Microsoft Teams are the two most widely used products for asynchronous communication. These products are good for asynchronous communication between team members, but can not be relied on to be the only communication tool for remote, hybrid, and distributed teams.
Virtual Office Software
Where asynchronous communication fails, virtual office products succeed. Tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack have their place and value, but to truly succeed as a remote-first organization you need to recreate your company’s office virtually. This requires virtual office software, sometimes referred to as virtual workspaces. Virtual offices make for better communication and collaboration between team members as they encourage micro and burst communication. They also help establish a remote-first culture within the company, allowing team members to interact in non-structured ways, engaging in watercooler talk. Looking to learn more about virtual office software, schedule a conversation with the Kumospace team. Our virtual office application is used by companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies.
Collaboration & Productivity Tools
Every team needs tools that allow them to do their work. It’s best to pick tools that foster collaboration between team members. The best examples of these tools are products like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Workspace. These two suites of office productivity software allow multiple users to virtually create, work on, and edit documents, presentations, and spreadsheets. Although not commonly thought about, these productivity tools are a form of remote work communication. Companies can complement these core productivity tools with other products like Notion for information storage and organization and Jira for tacks and project management. The right combination of tools and specific software products to choose from will be driven by your organization’s specific needs.
Since remote work means not going to a physical location on a daily basis, team members need a singular place to store information. The best option for this is a shared cloud storage software product like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive. Not only do these software applications allow others to access all the company files easily, it also means that employees can easily switch between computers and devices to access the company’s files. This is especially important for remote team members who may be on the move as it allows them to access and edit files from computer, mobile phone, or tablet.