Remote companies need a single source of truth to operate effectively. This is why the best companies are handbook-first.
While it may seem inefficient to spend time documenting everything ahead of time, the benefits of intentionally writing down your company's mission statement, processes, culture, and best practices are enormous.
Regardless of whether you work at a fully remote company or hybrid company, it's a good idea to invest in building an employee handbook. Documentation makes onboarding new employees easier and gives remote employees a single source of truth, making it easier to leverage asynchronous communication.
Not to mention that sharing your company handbook with the world is one of the best ways to attract remote workers who resonate with your company culture and mission.
What is an employee handbook?
An employee handbook (or company handbook) is a written document outlining a company's mission, culture, core values, policies, procedures, teams, best practices, and any other information employees need to do their work.
A great employee handbook is a single source of truth that existing employees and new hires can lean on to collaborate remotely with co-workers.
Why is an employee handbook important?
Without a comprehensive handbook, you'll have multiple sources of truth and people won't know what information matters, nor which source they can trust.
While it's tempting to avoid documentation, particularly if you can keep everyone informed without any formal structure, it is penny wise and pound foolish.
The difference between a well-documented remote company and one that puts its employee handbook on the back-burner is enormous.
If you've ever been asked the same question over and over, you already understand and have a need for proper documentation.
Ideally, a company with a remote-first attitude starts building their handbook from day one by establishing and writing down their values and providing clear expectations on goals and working norms. If you aren't aware of the differences between remote-first and remote-friendly, be sure to read this.
Creating a comprehensive handbook only becomes more difficult and even more important as you scale.
Employee handbooks are also essential asynchronous communication tools for remote companies that have teams spread across the globe. Alignment on company values, culture, and goals is even more important when distributed.
For more, watch this video with Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab, and Gabe Weaver, Senior Product Manager at GitLab. They talk about the concept of going slow to go fast, as well as the importance of a handbook-first approach to company-wide documentation.
How to build and maintain your remote employee handbook
The most important step is to start. Committing to a handbook and instilling a culture of writing can feel like an impossible task. Think of it like any other product, it's never finished. It's an evolving entity that needs continuous iteration and the first version may not feel even remotely useful.
The goal isn't to write for the sake of writing, you want to create an environment where new solutions or best practices are documented and accessible to everyone, and iterations are made to the universally recognized single source of truth.
Don't try to complete the handbook before announcing it to the company. Put the infrastructure in place and begin documenting processes, one at a time. It's also a good idea to separate the writer from the approver if possible.
And while the term documentation typically refers to the process of writing something after the event, it's best to approach it in reverse: write structured documentation first then share it.
Resist the urge to abandon documentation when a crisis comes. A crisis is an indication of poor documentation or process. When documented, crises provide a roadmap of what not to do and how to operate in the future.
We recommend using an established asynchronous communication tool like Notion, Slab, GitLab, GitHub, or Twist from Doist. These knowledge base/repo tools make it easy for employees to create, add to, or update information which distributes the documentation burden across the entire company.
Writing a handbook isn't enough. The content needs to be maintained, improved, and most importantly used. Instill writing as a core value. Encourage team members to document a solution or answer immediately if it isn't documented. It's best practice to have each team member approach documentation in the same way, much like an editorial team adheres to a style guide.
What do the best employee handbooks include?
The beauty of an employee handbook is you can build and evolve it alongside your company. Consider the following as a guide, but deviate away based on the size, scope, and needs of your employees.
If you're starting out, most sections are going to be blank. That's okay. Employee handbooks are living, breathing documents that are iterated on and improved over time.
Aim to improve it 1% per day.
The company information section houses company policies, values, objective and key results, and cultural information that applies to the organization as a whole:
- An introduction to your company handbook and how to use it
- Founding story and company history
- Company's mission, vision, and values
- Who you serve (customer personas)
- Why you are different (unique differentiators or powers)
- HR, legal policies, work from home policy, and security information (including a code of conduct, workplace safety, and anti-discrimination)
- Details about vacation, benefits, and sick days
- Company-wide objective and key results (OKRs)
- Product principles
- Introduction to your product(s) and service(s)
- How you hire
- How you work remotely
- A company directory or org chart
- Remote employee benefits and perks
Once you build out the company-wide part of your handbook, think about what is information for individual departments (e.g. people operations, engineering, marketing, sales, finance, product, legal, and operations).
The information outlined in the group-specific parts should primarily focused on employees who work in that org, but don't necessarily have to be. This can include:
- Team profiles and structure
- People profiles
- Department-specific rituals, tools, culture, OKRs, communication agreements, and collaboration protocols
- Standard operating procedures
- Onboarding-specific information (laptop setup, new accounts, etc)
- How you communicate, e.g. do you rely on synchronous or asynchronous communication
- Company-wide tools like 1Password, ClickUp, Okta, Coda, or Figma
- Monthly or quarterly goals
GitLab is one of the world's largest and one of the only publicly traded all-remote companies. They have over 1,300 team members living in more than 65 countries.
So it's no surprise that GitLab's 2,200+ page handbook is one of the most cited examples of how to build a fantastic employee manual and distributed workplace culture. It's thorough and transparent, even allowing people who don't work at GitLab to contribute.
Not only does their handbook serve as a tool for team members, it's become a fantastic way to attract remote talent, promote GitLab's products, and net a ton of backlinks which propel GitLab up Google's rankings. The popularity of their handbook means whenever remote work is mentioned, GitLab won't be far behind.
For more than two decades, Basecamp has been proving that you don't need to be a big company to have a big impact. Their team of fewer than 100 employees created Ruby on Rails, wrote a number of influential and NYT best-selling books, and have been pioneers of remote work since 2005.
Basecamp is a smaller company than GitLab, so their employee handbook is understandably more succinct. The handbook has 14 chapters and nine appendices covering everything from what they stand for, their influences, employee benefits & perks, rituals, internal systems, and even an international travel guide.
ConvertKit builds simple email marketing software for online creators. With 19,500 paying customers sending 500 million emails per month, ConvertKit are 100% independent and 100% remote with a team of 35 people in 24 cities across 7 countries.
One of ConvertKit's core values is Working in Public, which means sharing everything from their soaring successes to their epic failures. They even share all their metrics including monthly recurring revenue, lifetime value, and annual run rate publicly.
ConvertKit's handbook outlines:
- Their mission & vision
- Team & culture
- Benefits & perks
- How they work
- What's unique to ConvertKit
- Team retreats
- Pay & other HRish things
Bolt has open-sourced its company handbook in an initiative called Conscious Culture. Conscious Culture is about bridging humanity with execution. Bolt Founder and CEO Ryan Breslow alongside Matt Mochary launched Conscious Culture so anyone or any company can find the inspiration and ideas they need to build or course-correct.
Their goal is to become a community of diverse companies and individuals who share our progressive thinking and wisdom, embrace successes and learn from failures, and hold teammates and employers to a higher standard in how we work and how we find balance outside of the office.
Glitch has been a distributed workforce for more than ten years and they capture their best practices in a public, open source employee handbook hosted on Glitch itself! It's even licensed under a Creative Commons Attribute license, so you can make your own copy and modify it as you see fit.
The handbook documents the policies and processes they use to run Glitch. Some links are only accessible by staff to protect the privacy of their employees and any commercially sensitive information.
They recommend employees started by:
- Reading about what they'll want to know on their first day
- Learning about their company values
- Reading how they communicate and hold meetings
- Seeing how their distributed team works
- Checking out their references tab for employment resources
- And looking at a handful of their benefits: compensation and equity; medical, dental, vision; parental leave, vacation, and sick leave; gym and wellness; education and professional development
With over 4,000 people spread across more than 100 countries, Toptal might be the world's largest fully distributed workforce. We think it's safe to say mastered the art of attracting, hiring, onboarding, and engaging talent in a remote environment.
The handbook offers learnings across all areas of the remote work experience, from Slack best practices and Zoom etiquette to advice for managers of remote teams and, critically, how to create a culture and work environment built on trust.
Overall its split into six sections: people, culture, productivity, security & support, tools, and common problems.
Trello's Employee Manual is a little different to the other handbooks outlined in this guide. Trello dogfoods their own product to build their handbook.
The Trello board outlines what to do on your first day, benefits, vacation, travel, workplace culture, how to work remotely at Trello, and sets clear expectations around sexual harassment, 2FA, brand, compensation, and more.
8. Human Made
The Human Made handbook has everything that you need to know about working at Human Made, including work-related guidance and HR policies. They also have team-specific handbooks that cover:
Hanno is a remote team rethinking what it takes to design and build the next generation of digital health products and services. From patient-facing connected devices and condition management apps, through to clinical decision support and remote monitoring tools, they've helped some of the world’s leading healthcare companies develop flagship digital health products.
Given the additional complexities and regulations associated with building software that directly impacts health and wellbeing, many products fall short of people's expectations.
The Hanno SaMD Playbook provides an overview of the tools, processes, and culture that allow Hanno to design and successfully build software as a medical device (SaMD) remotely.
10. Mobile Jazz
Mobile Jazz is a group of engineers and designers who are ready to help turn your ideas into viable, strong, and successful products. They're a fully remote company with flexible employees. Employees can work from anywhere in the world and set their own work hours.
The Mobile Jazz company handbook has been downloaded over 200,000 times and is part-handbook, part-blueprint, part-guidance manual, and part-mission statement. It covers:
- How they manage a fully remote company
- How to apply their Optimizing for Happiness philosophy
- The tools and strategies they use; and
- How they boost personal growth through their in-house university
In the words of Stefan Klumpp, CEO of Mobile Jazz, it's "Everything we've learnt, every mistake we've made on our journey of almost 10 years of building a remote company"
Innolitics is a remote-only team of software engineers who are accelerating progress in the medical device industry. They've been remote since 2012 and allow employees to live from anywhere in the United States except for California, Alaska, and Hawaii.
Innolitics company handbook describes how they develop great software while maintaining enjoyable, flexible, and financially rewarding careers. They wrote it for a few different audiences:
- If you are considering joining them, the handbook should help you make your decision by providing insight into how we work.
- If you just joined them, the handbook should contain everything you need to know to hit the ground running.
- If you've been employed for a while, then it's useful to check on company holidays etc.
- If you have hired them, the handbook may be rather dull, but they're glad that you are curious about how they work.
Aula is on a mission to empower educators to make every learning experience truly engaging. They're a ~40-person fully remote team spread across the globe from Nebraska to Pakistan and are backed by world-class investors.
They make it easy for educators to create community-first learning experiences that engage students. Contrary to content-first learning experiences, a community-first learning experience is as much about meaningful connection as it is about academic challenge.
The Aula Brain is the source of truth for everything at Aula. It's also a communication tool. They prefer to share information widely via the Brain over sharing it in private. Much like GitLab, Aula is handbook-first.
Their company culture is very strong, based on two of the best remote work books, Rework and Remote: No Office Required. MarsBased believe simpler is better, value quality over quantity, and look for long-term relationships with clients and communities they are apart of.
As an officeless company, they believe their employees give their best and are more productive when working in their ideal conditions, with their own work schedule, environment, and location.
The MarsBased company handbook is broken into sixteen sections that cover your first day, company culture, influences, operations, development, hiring, benefits & perks, and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is company culture important in handbooks?
You'll have a better chance of developing a great culture and attracting the right talent if you outline what you value in your handbook.
It may be surprising but many remote companies value culture fit in new hires more than in-person teams. When employees are working on their own, it's important for both the employee and the employer to be aligned on values.
Understanding what is important to both parties is a simple way to overcome many of the challenges of remote work.
Do existing employees need an employee manual?
Yes. An employee handbook sets clear expectations for your employees and helps existing employees onboard new hires and teaches them best practices. Even if employees know what they're doing, an employee handbook still provides a single source of truth and lets them learn about other aspects of the business.
People can also change roles or responsibilities and a handbook can help with that too. Encourage employees to update your handbook whenever something changes or when they discover something that is poorly or undocumented.
Does a small business need employee handbooks?
Small businesses don't necessarily need handbooks as they can often get away with informal communication to get important information across. However, not having a handbook is penny wise and pound foolish.
As the business scales, the need for a handbook increases as does the difficultly of developing one. It's best to start building out a simple one when you're small so you can continually iterate on it over time as you grow.
Hire your next remote employee with Himalayas
Whether you already support flexible work arrangements at your company, or are just starting to think about how you can begin to support remote work, if you've read this far there's a good chance that you're looking to hire remote employees and we'd love to help.
Himalayas is the best place to find and hire remote talent. We’re focused on providing job seekers with an experience that has great UX, focused on speed and efficiency so your job can be found by the right people fast. You can also specify time zone or visa requirements so only candidates you care about apply.