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A Blueprint for the Remote-First Workplace

By Heather Forsythe

Remote work is thriving in the marketplace. Upwork reports that 73 percent of all teams will have remote workers by 2028. Forbes recently proclaimed that remote work is standard operating procedure for 50 percent of the U.S. population. And Buffer discovered that 99 percent of current remote workers want to keep working that way, at least some of the time, until they retire.

Many businesses try to lure talented employees, both full-time and contract, with the promise of being able to work remotely. This benefit, made possible through technologies like online video conferencing, messaging apps, collaboration tools, and e-signature platforms, is attractive to job candidates who want to create better work-life balance, avoid the hassles of commuting or relocating, and limit their involvement in office politics — or all of the above.

Employers benefit from having remote workers, too, by reducing the need for office space and overhead, saving on employee retention efforts, and expanding their talent pool on a global scale.

Permission vs. Support

While seemingly a win-win situation, not all businesses that offer remote work opportunities do it effectively. A few years ago, I chose to work for a technology company two hours away from my home because they assured me I could work remotely "most of the time."

From the start, I knew this was an overpromise. Most of my co-workers went to the office, and I needed face time to get things accomplished. So, I ended up making the two-hour drive "most of the time," because remote working just wasn’t embedded in the company culture. The best I could do, after months of conversations with my boss, was to work remotely on Mondays and Fridays. I learned a difficult but important lesson through this experience: granting permission to do something is not the same thing as actively supporting it.

Only when I took a job at a company that was literally 10,000 miles away from my home — Over Inc. in Cape Town, South Africa — did I realize how remote workers could not only be welcomed with open arms, but also share a level playing field with their office-based colleagues.

Remote-First Culture

Over’s careers page spells out the company’s remote-first culture in three glorious sentences:

Make a difference at Over from anywhere in the world

Geography shouldn't be a barrier to talent. Our remote-friendly
culture allows us to build a diverse team of people who are the
best in the business — no matter where they live.

Over does everything humanly possible to ensure that remote workers fit in. In fact, the remote employees at Over were so deeply connected to their office-based counterparts that when everyone did come together in person it felt like a meeting of old friends. 

Based on my experience at Over, and at other companies where I’ve worked remotely, I’ve created the following list of tips — a blueprint if you will — for building a remote-first workplace. The actions below work best when they’re championed by a leader, whether it’s the CEO in a smaller company or the head of a department or division in a larger organization, so be sure to get buy-in from someone at or near the top if you want to implement them successfully. I hope you can use these tips to find the perfect mix of talented people — near and far — who can take your business to new levels of growth and success.

Tip #1: Go Overboard with Onboarding

The way you welcome remote workers sets the tone for everything going forward. One thing I’ve seen work really well is to send each new remote person an onboarding package that includes a personal note (signed by the whole team), a company hoodie, T-shirt, water bottle, stickers, and other goodies, as well as a computer that’s all set up and ready to go. 

New-hire training, focused on the company’s mission, values, goals, etc. should be done by live video conference. And, when possible, it should include other new remote workers from different locations to show each one that they’re not alone.

Finally, during their first company-wide meeting, new hires should be introduced by their bosses and invited to share a bit about themselves. At Over, each new employee presented a slide that included pictures of family, friends, pets, travels, and hobbies, along with information about their hometown, current residence, personal motto, objects of desire and disgust, and hidden talents.

Tip #2: Invest in the Best Technology

Remote video and audio calls can be frustrating when the connection breaks up, if you can’t hear clearly, or if you can’t see everyone in the room. At the office, make sure that your conference rooms are outfitted with quality equipment and lighting. All your employees, remote and office-based, should also get quality noise-cancelling headsets for dial-in meetings. 

It’s also a smart idea to use the same project management tools across functions companywide. Whether it’s GoToMeeting, WebEx, or Zoom; Asana, Monday, or Trello; Dropbox or Google Drive doesn’t really matter — just make sure everyone can have the same experience wherever they may roam.

Tip #3: Lean Heavily on Slack

Messaging apps like Slack are incredibly useful collaboration tools for integrating remote workers. Their text-like feel makes them more immediate than email, and their public viewing window helps make everyone feel like they’re part of the group.

As soon as a remote worker accepts an offer at your company, they should be added to their team’s Slack channel and introduced with some background about them and what they’ll be doing. When the team sends welcome messages to the new remote worker, he or she is surrounded by a swarm of love on their very first day.

With rare exceptions, all your employees — remote and office-based — should be able to access any Slack channels that interest them. In my marketing group at Over, for example, we had different channels for creative, app store optimization, acquisition, engagement, consumer research, and more. Occasionally we’d get some great comments and suggestions from people in finance, engineering, and other departments. 

Other useful Slack channels that foster camaraderie among remote and office-based employees include the following:

  • Gratitude Channel: This channel lets employees thank and congratulate each other for just about anything. People like feeling appreciated and finding out about successes and contributions in other areas of the company, so don’t be surprised if this becomes one of the most active channels in your organization.
  • Weekly Pulse Channel: In this channel, Leo, a free Slack bot, asks employees a single question each week about how things are going at work (e.g., Do you feel supported by your boss?). Employees are encouraged to answer these questions based on a scale of 1 to 5, anonymously or not. Additional comments are also welcomed, but not required. The app shares anonymous feedback with managers in a private channel as soon as it becomes available.
  • Suggestions Channel: This channel enables employees from any department to comment on any aspect of the company. Great ideas can come from anywhere!
  • Random Channel: In this channel, employees share all kinds of miscellaneous information, from movie recommendations to requests for travel advice. This is another great way to get to know what makes your co-workers tick.
  • Coffee-Buddy Channel: Using the Donut app on Slack, this channel randomly pairs people up as coffee buddies each week. If your partner is local you can grab coffee, or lunch, on the company dime. You can even get creative and go for an afternoon hike or early morning surf. Remote meetings could include video tours of people’s homes or favorite coffee shops in the cities where they live.

Tip #4: If One Dials In, All Dial In

At Over, we had team video calls on Friday mornings, to share updates and successes, have an open Q&A, and introduce new employees.

We also made a point to have everyone dial into meetings if there was going to be one or more remote employees attending. Initially, it felt weird for office-based employees to dial into the same meeting as people just down the hall or in the next cubicle, but eventually I became a fan. 

When office-based employees are all in the same room, a lot of interaction takes place (jokes, side conversations, etc.) that remote attendees aren’t privy to, which can make them feel left out. What’s more, people in a conference room often forget about the people on the line, and that can create divisions and dissatisfaction. Following this practice, it seemed that meetings became more focused and productive.

Tip #5: Accommodate Global Schedules

For a company with employees dispersed across different time zones, finding good times to meet can be difficult. Someone is always inconvenienced or misses out and it shouldn’t be the same person every time. When I was at Over, a woman from India worked on my team and we did our best to schedule some meetings where everyone but her was inconvenienced. She appreciated the gesture of goodwill — and not having to dial in at 2:00 am every time we needed to get together.

No matter when we scheduled our electronic meetings, we recorded them so people who couldn’t make the live session could listen later and stay up to speed. That’s a best practice for any team.

Tip #6: Encourage Local Connections

Remote workers want collegial contact as much as possible, so it’s important to create opportunities. If more than one of your remote workers lives in the same city, for example, encourage them to work together on occasion, by setting them up at a convenient coworking space or paying for a working lunch.

Another way to foster live interaction is to encourage traveling employees — whether for work or for pleasure — to visit any colleagues who may be living in or near the cities they’re going to.

Tip #7: Facilitate Office Swaps

One company a friend of mine worked for, with offices in Australia, Austria, and Canada plus remote workers scattered around the globe, developed an Office Exchange Program for any employee. People were encouraged to apartment swap for between one and three months to work in a different office, get to know others in the company and explore new locales.

Tip #8: Get Everyone Together at Least Once a Year

When I was at Over, the company had about 50 employees, 10 of whom were remote. It was a small enough number for the company to bring everyone together once a year for some planning sessions, as well as a little fun. Last year we went on a glamping trip. Another year the team spent time at the beach. All the remote workers got flown in, and most of them either came early or stayed longer so they could spend some time working in the office in addition to the planned activities. 

Making a Difference from Anywhere

Because remote work is on the rise and will be the way of the future, the time is now to take a remote-first approach to the workplace. That doesn’t mean creating a hiring preference for remote workers, or letting all your office-based employees loose. It does mean creating an environment where all your workers can feel informed, included, and valued no matter where they are.

Companies that get good at building a remote-first workplace will attract the best talent, combat employee disengagement, and reduce costs related to real estate, commuting, sick days, and employee acquisition. And the workers themselves, as Over says, will be able to make a difference from anywhere in the world.

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