As the dust starts to settle, we’re seeing that one of the most significant work-related outcomes of the pandemic is a rise in remote-first teams.
McKinsey predicts that, in the future, up to a quarter of all workers may work remotely between three and five days a week. For context, this represents roughly five times more remote work than before the pandemic.
During this transition, it’s inevitable that company cultures will evolve. But rather than passively allowing these changes to happen, it’s critical to be intentional about how you shape your culture. In this article, we’ll explore six guiding principles that will help your organization thrive in a remote-first world.
A remote-first culture treats remote work as the default and optimizes for that setup. If you’re not sure whether or not your organization has a remote-first culture, here are key characteristics to look out for:
You may also be wondering: how is this any different from a remote-friendly company? Check out this chart for a side-by-side comparison:
Thankfully, when building a strong remote-first culture, we don't have to recreate the wheel. Several companies—like Basecamp, Zapier, and Buffer, to name a few—are ahead of the curve when it comes to remote work.
We boiled down the ideas, learnings, and best practices of these successful remote-first organizations into six guiding principles:
Meetings have long been a defining feature of in-person work.
But now, with people distributed across different locations and time zones, this approach is no longer feasible. Instead of relying on live, in-person conversations, remote-first companies need to shift their focus to asynchronous communication—which implies fewer meetings.
Basecamp, a fully remote software company, is an outspoken proponent of this approach. Here’s what they said about it in their employee handbook:
“It’s far better for everyone’s concentration and sanity if you collaborate as though most things will get an answer eventually, but not necessarily right this second. Your first choice of action should be to post a message, a to-do, or a document about what you need to explain or need to know. Then others can read it on their schedule, when the natural lulls of the day allow it, rather than being interrupted right in their peak flow time.”
Unfortunately, only 38% of remote workers indicated having an asynchronous-first approach. If your employees are part of the 62% who don’t rely on asynchronous communication, here are tactics to help you get started.
Have a framework for meetings. Remember: the goal isn't to have zero meetings but to significantly reduce the volume. We recommend having a framework to help your employees determine whether or not a meeting is necessary in the first place. Here are a few examples of questions they can ask:
If people answer ‘yes’ to all these questions, they can go ahead and schedule that meeting. Otherwise, they should be encouraged to find another way to sync with the team. Making this framework part of everyone’s decision-making process will reduce frustration and improve communication in your remote-first workplace.
Be thoughtful about writing. Writing becomes a lot more important in a remote-first culture. At Basecamp, they have their employees provide daily, weekly, and quarterly written updates, as well as one to kick off new projects. According to Jason Fried, Basecamp’s co-founder and CEO:
“The majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.”
But don’t be afraid to go beyond just updates. Thoughtful writing can also be a powerful skill when it comes to documenting progress on projects, creating an internal knowledge base, or providing feedback to a team.
Gone are the days of quick hallway conversations, check-ins at desks, and in-person meetings. But, without these informal channels, it's clear that there’s a void in the way we communicate with one another.
That's where tools come in. We thankfully live in a time where technology allows us to connect in various meaningful ways—whether that’s via instant messages or video conferencing calls. Here are the must-have tools for remote-first companies:
For a more extensive list, check out Buffer’s recommendations for tools, based on their experience as a fully remote company.
Managers are at the frontlines when it comes to shaping culture, enforcing policies, and supporting employees. Therefore, it’s critical that they know how to lead in a remote-first setting.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies are falling short on this front. A report by Owl Labs found that, despite the fact that employees are working significantly more, only 11% of managers are concerned about employee burnout. This demonstrates a clear disconnect between our current state of work and managers’ understanding of the situation.
But it’s important to acknowledge that being a manager is no easy task, and they’re suffering from burnout themselves. Which means that it’s essential to find ways to better support them so they can, in turn, show up for their remote-first employees. You can do this by:
A remote-first culture doesn’t come without challenges. A common one that employees face is a loss of connection, which is supported by the fact that 24% of remote workers report struggling with loneliness.
This problem is prominent in a remote-first setting because connection doesn’t happen organically. We no longer have those casual encounters with our teammates in the kitchen. Or have the chance to stop by for a chat with our manager at their desk.
Instead, as an HR leader, you have to intentionally cultivate these moments of connection. Here’s how:
"1:1 buddy systems and group cohorts for onboarding help establish immediate connections when someone joins a team. Gallup found that when someone has a best friend at work they are 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development. Feeling a sense of connection and growth is key for high engagement and productivity at work."
Most companies, before going remote, built all their policies, processes, and programs around employees in the office. Now that this has changed, these three facets have to be updated accordingly.
When it comes to your policies, the main question you want to ask yourself is: are we holding everyone to the same standards? In other words, if you still have some employees working out of the office, are they receiving any preferential treatment when it comes to performance reviews, promotions, or even salaries? If you’re unsure, or want additional guidance on these topics, check out these articles:
You’ve likely already made significant adjustments to your hiring process, in response to the uptick in remote work. But there are others, such as onboarding and offboarding, that may require some tweaks as well—such as finding ways to engage remote team members and making them feel welcome virtually. Below are resources to help you refine your remote processes:
Finally, it may be time to reassess your benefits and perks. If you historically relied on catered lunches, in-office massages, and ping pong tables to keep employees happy at the office, it may be time to shift to offerings that make more sense for remote-first teams. This can include anything from a home office budget to expanded child care services. Here are other ideas to consider:
It’s easy to create a culture of reliance when everyone is in the office. If you forget what was discussed during a product meeting, you can swing by a teammate’s desk to ask.
But in a remote setting, we don’t have the luxury of face-to-face interactions. And that’s why autonomy is key. To be clear: autonomy doesn’t mean there’s less collaboration. It simply means that people are encouraged to create a work environment that doesn’t require them to depend on other people. To build an autonomous culture:
“Our research finds that a positive team climate—in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s well-being, and have input into how the team carries out its work—is the most important driver of a team’s psychological safety. By setting the tone for the team climate through their own actions, team leaders have the strongest influence on a team’s psychological safety.”
As you transition to a remote-first approach, there’s a huge (and exciting) opportunity to shape your culture in a way that will set your organization and employees up for long-term success. Use these best practices from the top remote companies to get started on the right foot.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for additional HR-related resources, check out our other articles.