COVID-19 forced companies to become remote — even if they didn't want to.
But the pandemic merely sped up the inevitability of remote work. Technology made the traditional office a perk rather than a requirement. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle — hubs for some of the most successful companies on the planet — are too expensive for the average person to live in.
It's no surprise, then, there's a migration to rural areas, and that remote work has grown exponentially in recent years.
You may not have a choice in becoming remote, but you can choose what your remote work environment looks like.
For some teams, that comes down to choosing between being a remote-friendly company or a remote-first company. In other words, figure out how to make remote work with your existing processes, or become fully remote — forever.
This is a false dilemma. Just because you're a remote team today doesn't mean you have to be forever. In other words, your best option is likely both.
Remote-friendly companies view remote work as a benefit, not a given. They might have a remote work policy that states that employees can work remotely two days per week. Or, most of their employees report to a physical office, while a handful of distributed team members work from home.
A lot of companies were like this before the pandemic. They were remote-friendly so that they could attract top-tier talent and keep their employees happy.
For remote-first companies, remote work is the default way employees work. Every decision made across the organization is made from the perspective of a remote team.
GitLab is the gold standard. Their public handbook is 3,000 pages worth of priceless knowledge on remote-first.
A remote-first company approaches remote working differently than other companies:
Remote-friendly companies can approach work in the same manner — they just often don't. For example, let's assume your company is currently remote. Is there any expectation that your remote employees be at their home office (or on Slack) at a certain time?
If so, you're not remote-first. You've replicated the office experience virtually.
There are a couple of issues with that. First, your team isn't prioritizing asynchronous communication. Asynchronous communication allows employees to structure their day as they see fit. It gives them room to dive deep into work without interruptions and distractions.
Lack of office distractions is one of the biggest benefits of remote work.
"Going fully remote was nice, but the real benefit was in going fully asynchronous." — Sahil Lavingia, CEO — Gumroad
Second, you're likely not prioritizing written communication. You value the immediacy of real-time conversations versus the structured thinking of documentation. This may not be as big an issue when your entire team works within the same physical location. But when you are partially (or fully) remote, lack of documentation results in lost knowledge.
The issue comes down to company culture. Remote-friendly companies try to fit remote work within their culture. They may use Google Docs on occasion to collaborate asynchronously — but they still default to real-time meetings.
Remote-first companies, however, bake remote work into their culture. Google Docs may be the primary way they communicate. Synchronous communication is the last resort.
GitLab, for example, has this simple rule for meetings:
Generally, if two people go back-and-forth more than three times on the exact same topic — it makes sense to temporarily pivot to synchronous or leverage a richer communication medium such as Yac, Soundbite, or Loom.
Not every company wants to be fully remote. In 2017, remote-work pioneer IBM recalled thousands of employees back to a traditional office. Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer controversially banned remote work in 2013.
There are clear benefits to synchronous, face-to-face collaboration. The serendipity of office mingling around the water cooler can lead to a creative spark.
"Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas." — Steve Jobs
Plus, remote work burnout (and Zoom fatigue) are real — and potentially destructive.
Still, there's the reality we're in. Remote work kept businesses afloat during the pandemic. Employees are beginning to demand at least some flexibility in where and when they work.
What can you do to keep up? If you're not ready — or are unwilling — to go "all-in" with remote work, what you can do is create a remote-first culture that you can adapt no matter what the future holds.
Create your remote-first culture around the following areas:
Slack has made it ridiculously easy to tap your coworker on the shoulder virtually. But those little pings aren't so harmless.
It takes 25 minutes for most employees to return to their original task after being interrupted, according to a University of California, Irvine study. Now think about how many Slack messages you send out daily.
That can become an incredible time-suck. But it's not Slack's fault. Slack can — and should — be used as an asynchronous tool. Teams have chosen to use it as a replacement for real-life office pop-ins.
Build your communication around asynchronous channels. Choose narrative memos over meetings. Send an email rather than a Zoom link.
Asynchronous communication gives your employees space. It forces your team to think through their thoughts in writing before sharing them with colleagues. Plus, it creates a record of shared knowledge that your team can access in the future.
Making async comms be your default can be as easy as setting up response expectations for your communication channels. For example, employees should respond to Slack messages within 24 hours, emails within two business days, and so on.
The solution to a problem isn't always to introduce new tech. As beneficial as video calls are to keep your team connected, remote-first teams strive to keep team meetings to a minimum. GitLab subscribes to the mantra that meetings are not for presentations; they're for discussions.
In other words, meetings should only occur after stakeholders are presented with information asynchronously, and only if necessary.
Do your remote team a favor — ban the practice of adding meetings to a colleague's calendar. Calendar invites shouldn't come as a surprise — they should come with a friendly heads up. Employees shouldn't have to block off time for deep work — that's what you pay them for.
Another consideration is where you hold meetings (when you have them).
Hybrid meetings are the mainstays of remote-friendly teams. This is when local team members meet in the same room, while remote team members join via video conferencing.
This can lead to remote workers feeling left out. Side conversations are inevitable. Bad tech causes lag and missed information. One option is to keep everyone on the same playing field by holding all meetings remotely.
"Either have everyone in an office or have everyone fully remote. The reason for this is so that you don't create an environment where remote employees aren't a part of the conversation." — Buffer
There is an alternative, particularly as you look to return to work safely — meeting studios. When Dropbox reopens post-pandemic, for example, its offices will no longer house individual desks. Instead, all 13 of Dropbox’s global properties will be converted into studios. Employees will regularly work from home and use the studios when they need to collaborate in real life.
"Folks doing individual daily work, that happens from home or from co-working spaces," said Melanie Collins, vice president of people for Dropbox. "[Meeting studios] are really explicitly for things like strategy setting, team building, community events, leadership development training."
Not everyone is cut out for remote work. Your best employees before the pandemic may struggle now to stay focused or be productive. Home distractions, isolation, and other external factors could impact their mindset or workflow.
Moving forward, make remote work become a part of your hiring process. Pay close attention to candidates' virtual communication. Do they convey their thoughts clearly? Are they mindful of how their messages may be interpreted?
Include a virtual collaboration exercise for your highly-qualified candidates. Do they seem adept at working asynchronously? Are they organized, even-tempered, and effective?
Creating a remote-focused hiring process expands your talent pool, of course. But it also future-proofs your team.
"Hire carefully! Some people may be excellent candidates for an open position, but not necessarily the best candidates for a remote work environment." — Edgar
Working from home can be hard. There is no commute to separate your workday from your home life. Plus, it's easy to check in on Slack or emails throughout the evening, night, and weekend.
You and your leadership team need to do more than encourage healthy work habits. You need to clearly outline your employees' expectations. Some of this will be covered by switching to asynchronous communication and fewer meetings. Still, you should create policies that set a clear line for your team.
GitLab, for example, has employees remove Slack from their phones. If an employee is not on their laptop, then that message can wait.
The final piece of a remote-first company is its toolset.
The tools you use will empower your team to be productive and happy — no matter where they work. We could dedicate an article just to the different tools to use, but each team is different. Suffice to say, your remote team needs productivity tools (G Suite), chat tools (Slack), documentation tools (Slab, Notion), and video conferencing tools (Zoom, Google Meet).
It's up to you which apps to use. But what's most important is that you:
This ensures that knowledge isn't lost. It's incredibly frustrating (but not at all uncommon) for an employee to spend hours looking for critical knowledge across dozens of tools. In 2012, McKinsey reported that employees spend nearly 2 hours every day searching for and gathering knowledge.
As Thoreau once said, "Simplify, simplify."
"We continue to invest in better tools and unique ways to engage our very committed team of home-based employees." — American Express
Your remote team needs more than digital tools to get the job done. They need a workspace conducive to work. This includes a strong internet connection, headphones for conference calls, and a space to call their own. Some employees have this at home by default. Others don't.
Support all your remote employees by offering to pay for equipment or, if preferred, a co-working space.
Adding Donut to Slack is a nice touch for keeping camaraderie alive in your virtual office.
But it doesn't make you a remote pioneer.
Tech and tools can only take you so far. To truly become a culture that supports — and benefits from — a remote work environment, you must:
Going back to a hybrid team when you can? Base all your future decision making on this, and you'll do just fine: your remote employees deserve the same access to knowledge and opportunities that their office-bound colleagues have.
Otherwise, you risk limiting the true potential of your remote workforce. And, if current trends remain, your remote employees will soon be your majority — long after the pandemic is gone.