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The COVID pandemic forced most companies to embrace remote work. Now companies around the world are thinking about the return to the office.
For some, this will be through remote work policies alongside physical offices. For others, a return to the office is off the table. Instead, they'll be fully remote with people spread across multiple cities, countries, and different time zones.
Either way, remote work is here to stay.
One of the primary decisions, if you are returning to the office, is remote-first or remote-friendly. Unfortunately, remote-first and remote-friendly are often used interchangeably when the two remote work models couldn't be more different.
Both approaches are designed to support the needs of remote employees but with varying degrees of commitment.
In this article, you'll learn about remote-first companies, remote-friendly companies, the differences between them, the benefits of each approach, and why you must be remote-first and not remote-friendly.
What is a remote-first company?
Remote-first companies treat remote as the default way of working. Remote work is not only expected but encouraged. This spans from company processes to how the company markets and positions itself.
That's not to say remote-first equals remote only. Many remote-first companies have physical offices for employees who need or prefer to work in office space.
However, it is becoming increasingly popular to be (or start as) a fully remote company spread across multiple time zones.
Being remote-first has lasting implications on how the business operates, from the hardware and software employees use to do their jobs, to how meetings and internal communications are handled.
In remote-first companies:
- Asynchronous communication is emphasized
- Key decisions around made asynchronously and in writing
- Team meetings are kept at a minimum and recorded for those that can't attend
- Meeting attendance is optional, in fact, people assume you won't be able to attend
- Output is valued over hours worked
- Managers are encouraged (or required) to work from home
These practices lead to everyone having an equal voice regardless of where they live or the time zones that they work across, and promotions and praise are awarded based on one's contributions rather than physical proximity.
Examples of remote-first companies include GitLab, Zapier, Shopify, Aha!, Time Doctor, Doist, Stack Overflow, and Automattic.
What is a remote-friendly company?
Remote-friendly companies operate on a hybrid model that allows but doesn't optimize for remote work. They are typically headquarters- or office-centric, presenting remote work as a benefit to attract employees.
This can lead to office and remote employees existing on two, often unequal tiers. Remote-friendly companies also tend to confront more remote collaboration and communication challenges than remote-first companies.
A remote-friendly company is typically built on:
- A heavy reliance on synchronous communication methods like team meetings
- Key decisions are made by in-person team members
- Hours valued over output
- Little or no support for people who work in different time zones
- Managers working in the office
When these are the defaults, remote team members can be left behind while their office counterparts are rewarded with promotions, recognition, and praise.
Examples of remote-friendly companies include UpGuard, Figma, Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
What's the difference between remote-first and remote-friendly?
The most prominent distinction between remote-first and remote-friendly organizations is how embedded remote work is in the company culture.
At remote-first companies, everything from the software used to internal processes and communication norms is designed to support remote work. On the other hand, remote-friendly companies allow remote work but often prioritize office workers.
The key differences between the remote-first and remote-friendly:
The benefits of remote-first
There are a number of benefits to being remote-first:
- Remote-first is people-first: Remote-first is about giving people the tools, processes, and support they need to work effectively from anywhere then getting out of their way to enable them to do their best work while living their best life.
- Access to top talent: Remote-first companies don't have to limit themselves to people who live within commuting distance of the office or in the same time zone. Instead, they can hire the best person for the job regardless of location. If you’re looking to hire remote talent, consider posting a job on Himalayas.
- Cost reduction: This is because you save on real estate costs, transit subsidies, in-office perks, and everything else that comes with having a physical location. An extreme example is Google who is likely to save over a billion dollars this year due to employees working from home.
- Streamlined and intentional asynchronous processes: Remote-first work requires asynchronous communication which relies on careful planning and documentation. When you can't expect a message back in minutes, people learn how to manage their workloads better and plan ahead. This leads to a more well-run company, less stress, and higher quality work.
- Increased employee productivity and engagement: According to a two-year study conducted by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom in conjunction with C-Trip found that telecommuters had a productivity boost equivalent to a full day’s work every week compared to in-office colleagues. This increased productivity can be attributed to happier, healthier, and more rested employees and fewer interruptions freeing up time for deep work.
- Reduced carbon footprint: No commute means lower greenhouse gas emissions. By supporting remote work, you demonstrate to employees, job seekers, and customers that you care about the environment.
- Improved work-life balance: Many remote-first companies have a flexible schedule that lets employees start and end their day when they want, as long as their work is complete and KPIs are met. Even without a flexible schedule, working remotely every day saves an average of 40 minutes due to no commute.
The benefits of remote-friendly
There are benefits to being remote-friendly:
- More opportunities for synchronous communication and rapport building: While we recommend biasing toward asynchronous communication, synchronous communication still has its place. It's easier to build trust and rapport and strengthen working relationships when you see each other in person.
- More social accountability: While it's possible to build social accountability in a fully remote environment, it's inbuilt when you are physically working alongside your colleagues.
- Lower reliance on technology to collaborate: Remote collaboration is difficult and productivity can halt if digital tools fail. For example, if a remote colleague's Internet fails, it can be hard for them to get their work done. Whereas in an office, people could continue to communicate face-to-face. This is why we recommend async work and deep work if you are building a remote company.
- Ability to hire employees who want to work remotely or in the office: The biggest benefit of being a remote-friendly company is that you can hire talented employees who want to work remotely and those who want to work from an office.
Why you should adopt remote-first principles even in a hybrid model
As companies recognize the benefits of remote work and begin to hire and support a remote workforce, the single biggest mistake they can make is opting to be remote-friendly over remote-first.
Distributed teams work best when the entire company is optimized for remote work.
Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, described the hybrid approach as "the worst of both worlds" because, without careful consideration and process change, information will get siloed in offices and remote employees will be treated as second-class citizens.
The result is an unintended hierarchy where office workers are heard, recognized, and promoted while remote workers are forgotten.
To be successful, hybrid companies–companies with remote and location-based employees–must adopt a remote-first mentality. It's the only way to ensure remote employees are equally valued and supported in the company culture.
Remote-first policies put everyone on an equal footing regardless of location, leading to more engaged employees and the ability to hire remote team members regardless of location.
How to adopt remote-first principles
Even fully remote companies need to address the potential pain points of remote work. Remote work isn't automatically better than a centralized workforce. Leadership needs to understand the challenges remote workers face and work with them to create solutions.
Remote-first companies need to be intentional about creating robust processes to facilitate remote work and the support systems necessary to give remote workers what they need to do the work.
The solution is to overcompensate for remote colleagues and lean toward policies that favor remote work, even when you are working in the same office space. Otherwise, you risk alienating members of your distributed teams.
Keep remote workers connected to the company culture
Remote teams may be physically distant, but they shouldn't feel disconnected from the company and its culture. Likewise, office colleagues need to understand what it is like to work remotely.
There are a few ways you can build a connection with and empathy for remote colleagues:
- In-person onboarding: If you have an office, invite new remote employees to onboard in person. This will let them meet their office person in person and build a personal connection. Even if you don't have an office, consider flying them or their manager out in person to spend some time together. It's easier to work together remotely when you've built a personal connection. If this isn't practical (or the employee isn't interested), you can still build a great remote onboarding process.
- If you have an office, ask team members to WFH sometimes: Working from home will help them build empathy and understanding for the challenges that their remote colleagues face.
- Use conferences to get teammates together: Consider paying for remote and office teammates to get together, build relationships, and learn through in-person conferences or professional development opportunities.
- Host company-wide retreats: Remote companies tend to host annual or bi-annual company retreats that bring the whole team together in person. Retreats offer the opportunity to accelerate bonding between team members which makes it easier to work together remotely.
- Invest in virtual team building activities: Virtual team building is the process of engaging remote teams in an online format in order to deepen bonds within the team.
These cost money and require planning but the investment pays dividends.
Give flexibility to office workers too
One of the main reasons people are attracted to remote work is flexibility. If this flexibility isn't extended to people working in the office, it can lead to friction between remote and non-remote colleagues.
For example, if remote workers can set their own hours, office colleagues deserve the same treatment. Even if you don't offer a flexible schedule, allowing office employees to work from home whenever they want will help retain office team members and reduce FOMO.
The specifics will depend on your organization, just make sure to outline expectations in your company handbook.
Treat remote and office workers equally but not the same
You need to treat remote and office-bound employees equally, but that doesn't mean the same. If you're a fully remote company, you'll likely employ a mix of full-time employees and international teammates who are hired on a contract basis.
At the most basic level, this creates a legal need to differentiate how teammates are paid and the benefits you can provide. It can also be hard or unfeasible to administer benefits in countries where you only have one or two contractors. Outside of legal and operational issues, there are practical reasons to treat office and remote colleagues differently.
For example, commuter benefits are fantastic for office workers but useless for someone working from home. Instead of giving everyone the same benefits, think about what is useful for each group then create policies and perks to support them:
Ask your employees what they value. Send out an annual engagement survey to understand what perks they enjoy and which ones aren't helping then introduce new or revise existing benefits. Be sure to read our guide on remote employee benefits and perks for more ideas.
Use asynchronous, not synchronous communication
For background, synchronous communication is when information is exchanged and responded to in real-time. It requires team members to be present at the same time and/or space.
Synchronous communication, for obvious reasons, favors people in the office and is even harder for remote workers who live in different time zones to the office.
In contrast, asynchronous communication is when information is exchanged without the expectation of an immediate response. People don't need to be online at the same time or physically present. They can choose when to ingest the information and take the time needed to write a thoughtful reply.
Synchronous communication is great for building trust, problem-solving, and creating natural breaks in your day, but it also leads to constant interruptions, attention residue, poor documentation, less freedom for employees, and reduced ability to hire global talent.
If you want to excel at remote working, bias toward asynchronous communication.
Not only will async allow you to hire employees around the world, but it'll also provide freedom to every employee. When work isn't bound by specific working hours or time zones, people can work from where and when they are productive.
It also gives people more control over their workdays and reduces the reliance on meetings. People that spend too much time in meetings tend to work longer hours to catch up on work which leads to burnout.
Best of all, async frees up hours of uninterrupted time so people can focus on deep work.
Deep work, a term coined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This distraction-free concentration pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit and creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate in our world of instant satisfaction.
Deep work not only leads to improved productivity but also provides profound satisfaction for team members by letting them find flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that people who are able to regularly access flow states “lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live.”GitLab's 2,200+ page handbook
Document by default
Moving toward an async culture requires documentation. Start by culling synchronous communication like daily stand-ups and instead move toward written status updates. You'll be surprised how many calls can be replaced by a written memo or message.
This doesn't just benefit remote employees. When communication relies on writing, meetings and other important information are documentation by default. Office teammates who are on vacation, off sick, or unable to attend can dive into the written documentation to watch recordings to catch up.
But the biggest benefit might be how much it cuts off onboarding new employees who can simply read the archives and get up to speed on key decisions, culture, and work styles.
One of the best ways to introduce a more deliberate documentation culture is through a company 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.
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. At 2,200+ pages, it's thorough, transparent, and even allows people who don't work at GitLab to contribute.
Clear documentation allows people to answer their own questions and to work more independently without having to wait for an answer from their manager or colleagues. This is really important when you're working on a distributed team spread across time zones where quick check-ins aren't feasible.
The goal is to become a company where questions can be answered by linking to a knowledge base article and unknown answers are answered through documentation as soon as possible. This means building a culture of writing.
Make synchronous communication accessible and optional
While async provides productivity and work-life balance benefits, it can mean that we miss out on the human connection that isn't as easy to feel in an async environment. And in-person chats and quick Zoom calls are unavoidable.
It's crucial to maintain an async-first mindset and document decisions clearly and concisely in writing if they're made in a synchronous manner. Then share them with whoever wasn't able to attend.
Ideally, you'll write a memo before each meeting to help attendees know what to expect and how to prepare for the meeting. You'll be surprised how often the memo is enough on its own and no meeting is necessary.
Meeting attendance should always to optional when working asynchronously. In fact, you should be aware of time zones and assume that colleagues in different countries can't attend. Naturally, if you have enough countries represented synchronous meetings become next to impossible.
If you do need someone to attend, rotate times to share the load so it's not always the same people making a compromise, and record all meetings. Recordings meetings reduce FOMO and allows people to watch up on what was discussed if they're unable to attend. Writing up minutes and sharing them provides additional context and makes the decisions easier to find later. Words are easier to search than videos.
If the call is mixed (some people are remote and others are in-person), try to give everyone equal opportunity to speak. An easy way to do this is to call into meetings individually even if you are in the same location. This eliminates the office-centric feeling as everyone is "remote".
Hire a Head of Remote
The Head of Remote position was first suggested by Andreas Klinger, CTO at On Deck, and pioneered by GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij and Darren Murph.
A Head of Remote sits on an organization's leadership team and is responsible for remote company culture and employee experience.
Depending on the organization, this could include managing remote operations, partnering with IT to develop cybersecurity measures for remote employees, facilitating strong interpersonal relationships between team members, or teaching staff how to move toward a remote-first culture based on asynchronous communication.
Not every Head of Remote role is the same, but there are two primary types:
- Internal advocates: Primarily responsible for ensuring an equal employee experience across the organization regardless of where employees live. This type of role is typically aligned with business operations or human resources.
- External advocates: Primarily responsible for telling the story of remote work at the organization to the world. This position primarily relates to marketing and public relations, helping attract top talent, and supporting the company's position as remote-first or remote-friendly.
As a rule of thumb, the more remote employees you have as a percentage of your employee base, the more likely you'll be looking for an external advocate.
That's not to say all Head of Remote roles fall neatly into these categories. Many Heads of Remote will spend time in both worlds, improving the internal experience while advocating for remote-first beyond the organization.
Trust your remote employees
Above everything, remote-first relies on trust. One of the most common myths perpetuated by remote work detractors is that remote employees are less productive and "slacking off". The reality is this myth is usually correlated with poor management of employees and expectations.
If employees feel distrusted or micromanaged, company culture can erode fast. One of the reasons people work remotely is to avoid micromanagement and to have more control over their day.
Similarly, steer clear of invasive employee monitoring tools. Hire managers of one that you can trust, not people that you think you need to monitor.
Trust also means treating people fairly. This sometimes means spending more time and care to ensure that your employees' needs are being met. If you're a remote manager, be sure to read our guide on managing remote teams.
Looking for a remote job or to hire remote employees?
If you've made it this far, there's a good chance you're either looking to find a remote job, already working remotely, or looking to hire remote employees.
Either way, we'd love to introduce ourselves. We're Himalayas, a remote job board, that is focused on providing the best experience for remote job seekers and employers.
Check out our remote jobs, leverage our remote company database, or sign up and create your free company profile.
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