How to promote a culture of remote-first work

Ana Erkic

Last updated on: January 20, 2022

In recent, pre-pandemic years, remote-first culture was the term mostly associated with tech companies employing global talent within vaguely structured remote-friendly terms. 

Enter 2020 and the stay-at-home mandates forcing many companies around the world to reconsider their structure and adapt their culture to remote-first work.

If you too have been in the remote-friendly realm for some time already, you’re probably considering different strategies to optimize your culture to better suit the demands of remote-first work. 

In this article, we’ll break down all the nuances that make up a remote-first company culture, along with the most effective strategies organizations can use to better promote a culture of remote-first work. In addition, we will also uncover common misconceptions and differences between concepts similar to remote-first, complete with examples of remote-first companies in 2021 that are successfully implementing this cultural structure.

How to promote a culture of remote-first work - cover

What is a remote-first culture?

Remote-first is a form of organizational structure that prioritizes remote work. Unlike similar structures that offer remote as an added bonus, remote-first companies work remotely by default. This type of organizational structure optimizes all of its processes and procedures to align with and support remote work. 

With the majority of employees working remotely – from a home office or other, non-company spaces – remote-first organizations rarely require any employees to work from the centralized office.

However, it’s important to note that remote-first companies still operate a certain type of office available to workers that prefer this type of setting. Still, the remote-first model organizes all procedures to align with remote working. All meetings, for example, are held via video conference regardless of the number of attendees working from the office at that particular time.
To better understand the remote-first model, let’s see in more detail how it differs from other similar work models — remote-only, remote-friendly, and hybrid.

Remote-first vs remote-only

One of the most common misconceptions we can come across concerning remote-first culture is that it’s equivalent to remote-only. Although essentially similar in their intent to focus on and promote a culture of remote work, there is one major difference that separates the two models. 

As previously mentioned, whereas remote-first culture prioritizes remote work, it still holds some type of office space to allow flexibility and better employee satisfaction. 

A remote-only structure, however, completely eliminates the physical office space leaving no option for employees that prefer in-office work. Although the remote-only work model has its benefits, such as reduced costs you’d otherwise have for renting or buying an office space, this model still presents significant limitations, primarily for employees. For example, people who thrive in live office settings may feel disconnected and limited when working within a remote-only structure. Ultimately, this could reduce the chances of attracting and recruiting top talent. Understandably, the remote-only model simply makes the most sense for some smaller companies employing diverse international teams, as it would be quite unrealistic to set up offices across multiple locations for teams of ten employees or less. 

Remote-first vs remote-friendly

Probably the greatest confusion is created around these two categories of remote work culture. Remote-first and remote-friendly both seem to lean more towards the remote work culture — however, there is a major difference between the two. 

To put it simply – remote-first puts the remote model first, while remote-friendly simply allows the occasional remote work. Most often, remote work is considered a privilege rather than a norm within remote-friendly organizations, with work structure still being greatly oriented toward in-office work.

While remote-first workers do the majority of their job outside the office with occasional in-office hours, remote-friendly requires the majority of work to be done from the office, with occasional remote days. Understandably, remote-first companies are fully equipped and structured to support an efficient work-from-anywhere model, as opposed to a remote-friendly culture that often leaves the remote workforce out of major conversations by eliminating equal tools and access to key decision making discussions.

Moreover, when measuring employee productivity, remote-friendly companies would primarily focus on the hours spent in the office. On the other hand, a remote-first approach allows flexible working hours and relies on the output, i.e. the results, when measuring employee productivity.   

Remote-first vs hybrid

The hybrid model interestingly comes with another set of definitions. And while there’s still plenty of disagreement on the definition and categories that make up this model, we’ll try to offer clear insight into what constitutes a hybrid model and how it differs from the remote-first work structure. 

In most cases, companies following the hybrid model structure their culture with some employees working strictly remote, while others work specifically from the company offices. This is also most commonly referred to as the static hybrid model.

However, as almost all models of remote work are essentially hybrid, we will take the broadest categorization of the hybrid approach to provide better insight into all of the nuances and hopefully reach a more accurate definition.

In addition to the above-mentioned static hybrid model characterized by teammates working consistently in-office or remote, four more models are considered hybrid work models: 

  • Dynamic hybrid allows workers to choose and switch between the office and remote work with the complete freedom to set their own schedule. 
  • Synchronized hybrid lets teammates work remotely or in the offices, with the requirement to organize shared office time with other coworkers. 
  • Default digital is essentially considered remote-first with teams being fully supported to work from anywhere. 
  • Fully distributed doesn’t quite fit the hybrid model definition as it’s essentially equivalent to a remote-only model, meaning, companies that work within this organizational model are fully remote, without a physical office space available. Still, in many cases, fully distributed teams shift to hybrid models at some point as they grow, so, in a way, a fully distributed model can be considered a predecessor to hybrid models.

Ultimately, as the remote-first model is essentially one of the models companies can adopt within a hybrid work structure, the two models don’t necessarily act as two different entities, but it implies a remote-first as a subcategory of a hybrid work structure. 

Remote-first benefits

Now that we’ve reached a more clear definition of a remote-first work policy, it’s time to present its major advantages. In addition to the obvious pandemic-induced changes, companies decide to adopt a remote-first work approach due to a number of advantages it creates both for employers and employees. From reduced costs and flexibility to better opportunities for equal career development, remote-first culture is becoming the preferable model for a great number of organizations across different industries. Let’s break down all the key benefits of remote-first work.  

Reduced expenses

Companies adopting a remote-first approach can notice significant reductions in general operational costs.

The most significant savings for companies can be noticed in office space rental costs. As a study by Stanford University revealed, a company saved a staggering $2,000 per employee in rent costs after adopting the remote work model. What’s more, companies switching to remote-first can now grow and save substantial resources as they don’t have to size up in office space, in addition to saving on utilities, property taxes, etc.

Employees working at remote-first companies can also benefit from reduced commute costs, depending on how often they decide to go to the office.  

Flexibility and business continuity

A remote-first culture allows for more flexibility and better scaling opportunities, especially amid unpredictable circumstances.

By definition, remote companies operate within virtual environments which ensures better adaptability to faster growth. For example, processes such as hiring, adopting new technology, and arranging larger office space are understandably more time-consuming and can potentially cost on-site companies a lot of growth opportunities. With a remote-first approach, organizations have all the procedures in place virtually. This puts them on a more advantageous path to scaling their business, along with being able to focus on creating a solid business continuity plan to prepare for more unexpected situations such as natural disasters and similar circumstances. 

Better talent acquisition and retention opportunities 

Remote-first organizations inherently experience a more favorable position when it comes to access to top talent and lower rates of employee turnover.

The above-mentioned Stanford study found that the switch to remote work saw a 50% decrease in employee turnover. As remote work breeds higher employee satisfaction, consequently fewer people would decide to leave the company, which marks the advantage as beneficial to both companies and employees. 

Moreover, the remote-first model allows for unlimited access to top talent globally. With no location restrictions, global hiring is ensuring remote-first organizations reach and keep the best talent out there. 

Higher productivity

Plenty of companies switching to remote work amid the pandemic have reported higher job satisfaction and general higher productivity as a result of transitioning to working from home. This rise in productivity is tied to eliminating commute along with several other obstacles and distractions.

According to a 2020 survey by CNBC/SurveyMonkey, remote workers report job satisfaction at 57%, as opposed to the 50% reported by in-office employees. 

Moreover, one Upwork survey finds that 32.2% of hiring managers feel that the overall productivity has increased compared to when they first started working remotely. A follow-up survey in November 2020 shows 68% of hiring managers noticing significantly higher productivity among remote workers when compared to data from the beginning of remote work.

Although the first predictions stated the opposite due to the informal, and sometimes chaotic, nature of the home environment, companies succeeded in achieving unexpectedly great results by implementing a remote-first culture. 

Some of the major factors that made this possible include:

  • adopting a functional and flexible technology,
  • using other resources that boost collaboration and communication between remote teams, and
  • providing  training that is accessible to everyone. 

When implemented properly, remote-first culture also helps organizations eliminate siloed behavior which further helps employee productivity.

Inclusivity

Finally, a remote-first culture ensures better inclusivity and creates an overall healthier virtual culture within companies operating under this model.

By enabling equal access to information, training, performance management, and collaboration to all teammates, a culture of remote-first work supports equal career development opportunities for all employees  — thus creating a more inclusive work environment. Ultimately, this factor plays a major role in building a more positive employer branding image.

Remote-first challenges

In addition to the significant amount of advantages it provides to organizations and the workforce alike, a remote-first work model comes with a set of challenges that need to be taken into account when considering the adoption of this organizational structure. Let’s outline some of the key challenges of the remote-first work model to offer a more in-depth insight into the concept.

Disconnected communication

One of the most common challenges newly remote-first companies are facing have to do with communication. As the immediateness of in-office chats is removed, teams often find it hard to navigate the new virtual communication setting, especially if there are no clear communication guidelines and toolsets in place. This can result in frequent misunderstanding, misalignment, delays, and severe productivity drops.

Poor time management

Remote-first teams often struggle with time management, which is especially evident with teams working from home. From overwork and burnout, to a complete opposite – procrastination and missed deadlines, remote teams can sometimes take longer to optimize for optimum productivity.

Isolation

A remote-first work structure can take a toll on employee mental health. According to Buffer’s report, The 2021 State of Remote Work, loneliness is one of the most common challenges remote workers experience. Feeling out of the loop, invisible and isolated, can often creep up on remote-first teams, especially if the organization isn’t being intentional about helping remote teams connect and integrate within a company culture.  

How to build a successful remote-first culture

Creating a successful culture of remote-first work essentially ties all of the strategies that make up a successful work culture in general and shifts it to a virtual environment.

To offer a more in-depth insight into what constitutes a healthy culture of remote-first work and help you create one in your organization, we’ll outline the key tips and strategies in a remote-first guide to creating a successful culture.

Enhance asynchronous messaging

One of the key building blocks of an efficient remote-first culture is asynchronous communication. As opposed to onsite and some instances of “remote-ish” work where the majority of communication is done synchronously, remote-first requires a more substantial shift to asynchronous communication.

The remote-first work requires the staff to work from diverse locations and, maybe even time zones. To ensure all employees are in the loop of everything that’s going on in the company, it’s paramount to create processes and resources that support equal and timely access to all meetings, documents, and conversations.  

Companies succeeding in implementing this strategy, keep records of all virtual meetings to make them easily accessible to employees working from different time zones and locations. That way, the companies are ensuring inclusivity and equal access to all conversations and decisions made among teams. 

Another good practice suggests sharing all info in company chat tools and apps. For example, you can use public channels in a team chat app such as Pumble, to share or pin important documents and conversations and allow all teams and employees to seamlessly access them at any time. 

Prioritize unified communication

Teams trying to collaborate remotely without a clear consensus on where the communication is taking place risk a ton of misalignment, delays, missed deadlines, and overall productivity drops. So, remote-first culture success highly relies on centralized communication channels. The sudden shift to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic made a lot of organizations realize that email may not be the most effective communication tool for remote teams

To prevent the common pitfalls of remote-first workplace culture, organizations need to emphasize the importance of a single, centralized, communication channel with diverse functionalities designed to build a unified culture resistant to loss of information. 

To create more effective company-wide communication, remote-first companies need to adopt a single default, a centralized communication tool that supports secure and functional data sharing, flexibility to support diverse needs with easy search, and the ability to host all teams. However, a tool in and of itself won’t do wonders unless there’s a clear process behind its implementation. In addition to employing the software, remote-first organizations need to have a communication stack and guidelines in place to manage the communication. So, set clear rules and ensure all employees are familiar with what tools and procedures to use, depending on the nature of their issues, ideas, or questions.

An example of a team using the team chat app Pumble, as a centralized communication tool

Create a centralized knowledge base

Speaking of building unified resources, remote-first work requires a comprehensive, centralized knowledge hub to support optimum functionality of all procedures within this type of work structure.  

Companies looking to promote and support a strong remote-first culture need to create an extensive knowledge hub documenting various processes, guidelines, and strategies accessible virtually across all teams.

A lack of an efficient centralized knowledge system can cost companies substantial resources. In fact, research shows that employees spend more than half of their work hours searching for files and documents among other recurring tasks which amount to a staggering $1.8 trillion in losses for the US economy as a whole. 

So, prioritize written material because it’s easily searchable, more permanent, and allows more streamlined communication and access to information. Companies hosting all the important documents in one place ensure a successful remote-first culture by including all employees in decision-making and providing access to key company information. Make an effort to regularly update and share company culture documents, for example,  to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding critical company procedures. You can use the pin functionality in Pumble, for example, to highlight key documents and ensure easy access. 

When creating a centralized knowledge hub, consider using digital tools that support maximum data security and offer an easy, intuitive interface to ensure safety and allow a user-friendly experience for employees.

Provide additional support

In addition to creating better communication and collaboration opportunities, a remote-first model calls for additional tech and wellness resources to secure a productive and healthy virtual culture.

Although remote-first suggests a more informal and seemingly relaxed work environment, it can often cause stress, isolation, and other mental health issues resulting from teammates being physically disconnected from one another.

To prevent more severe mental health problems and provide better support to the remote-first workforce, organizations can offer various wellness initiatives. Stipends for wellness programs are commonly offered within remote-first communities as a way of enhancing the mental and physical health of remote workers. Other initiatives can include sharing mental health resources, in shared channels in company chat apps, for example, or organizing workshops and sessions to help remote workers better manage stress.

To foster a sense of equality and support within a remote-first model, companies need to provide equal technical and equipment resources to distributed teams. In-office workers get high-quality equipment such as computers, chairs, and desks by default, while remote employees are oftentimes left to fend for themselves. To promote an equal and more functional remote-first culture, organizations need to provide the same resources and technical support to all teams and not let people shifting to remote work feel like they need to make any sacrifices to the quality of their work, equipment, or general wellbeing. Along with enabling equipment and technical support, remote-first organizations can implement a policy to cover internet or supply expenses for their remote teams, for example. 

Organize regular virtual get-togethers

While there are often inevitable location and time zone limitations to frequent in-person gatherings, functional remote-first cultures can be promoted through regular virtual meetings. 

Depending on the size of the organization, companies can schedule team- or company-wide informal get-togethers on a regular basis. These events are perfect catalysts for encouraging more open communication and better connection between employees. So, set up weekly virtual happy hours, check-ins, or game nights to replace frequent in-person water-cooler chats and encourage a team spirit community mindset. 

Emphasize the importance of in-person gatherings 

Paradoxically, for remote-first culture to work, some amount of in-person communication must be present. Even though all work can be done virtually from anywhere, the cultural part of a company relies on non-verbal social cues and body language. 

To prevent the silo mentality and encourage a more connected remote-first culture, consider encouraging people from different teams to socialize together in a relaxed environment. Although not so easily achieved due to globally distributed teams, this approach is quite beneficial in preventing isolation and other common risks of people working apart from each other. 

Ultimately, team-building activities and live company events build a foundation for healthy and productive communication between teams which later reflects on productive collaboration. For example, once you’ve met your colleague from the sales department in person and picked up on those subtle, non-verbal nuances that make up their personality, you’ll be able to interpret their messages in a team thread in your team chat app with greater precision. 

Create spaces for informal conversations

Of course, it can be costly and challenging to frequently organize live company gatherings and keep the informal conversation going.

Fortunately, there are plenty of virtual resources to create a similar experience. 

One of the most efficient and sustainable strategies to support teammate bonding over work-unrelated interests can be achieved through virtual chat apps. Teams that can’t arrange frequent in-person events can resort to informal chats using dedicated channels in a company chat app, for example. 

Public channels in Pumble and similar team chat apps let companies categorize different types of team communication, enabling a diverse pool of topics and interests teammates can connect over. When designing these spaces in your company’s virtual workspace, plan for a shared space that supports secure remote-first, real-time conversations, and file sharing. Assign different admin roles and permissions depending on the type of contract of the employee and let your remote teams rave about all those work-unrelated topics they would normally chat about during office breaks.

An example of an informal team chat in Pumble

What you can learn from existing remote-first companies in 2021

As companies around the world have marked one year anniversary of full-on remote work, it’s a perfect time to reflect on the models and strategies that achieved success in remote-first work.

We’re presenting the six best examples of remote-first companies in 2021 complete with an overview of organizational methods, culture, and the incentives they implemented to support long-term remote work success — to see what other companies looking to implement remote-first work can learn from them. 

Skillshare

As an online learning platform, Skillshare incorporates a wide range of classes for creatives, entrepreneurs, and productivity enthusiasts. Millions of members use Skillshare to develop their skills using thousands of classes on topics including creative writing, film & video, fine art, and music.

What others can learn from Skillshare’s remote-first culture

In the careers section on their website, Skillshare shares a list of benefits the company offers to support a remote workforce. In addition to general perks, the company highlights their equipment stipend, monthly internet reimbursement, and a stipend for well-being tools including Headspace and Peloton. 

Buffer

Buffer helps businesses grow their social media presence using specifically designed tools. They operate a full-on remote structure, with a team distributed across 15 countries. 

What others can learn from Buffer’s remote-first culture

Buffer highlights a flexible remote work structure, 4-day workweeks, and a home office stipend as some of the ways the company promotes a culture of remote-first work.

Curriculum Associates

Curriculum Associates develops tools and resources aimed at accelerating classroom success. 

What others can learn from Curriculum Associates’ remote-first culture

The company points out that the shift to a remote workplace model created flexible work schedules and fitness programs as some of the benefits available to support a remote-first culture.

GitHub

As the world’s largest development platform, GitHub supports millions of developers and companies’ journeys to building and maintaining software. With offices and distributed teams across the US, Europe, and Asia, GitHub is one of the examples of successful remote-first companies.

What others can learn from GitHub’s remote-first culture

The company highlights wellness stipends and flexible work schedules as some of the most impactful incentives aimed at supporting a remote-first culture. 

Twitter

No introduction needed here. Twitter is a global social media platform that promotes self-expression and real-time conversations.

What others can learn from Twitter’s remote-first culture

In addition to employing international teams within flexible, remote-first work structures, Twitter started a series of initiatives aimed at helping local communities affected by COVID-19. 

Quartet Health

Quartet Health is using technology and expertise to deliver better and more accessible mental health resources to people around the world. 

What others can learn from Quartet Health’s remote-first culture

Quarter Health emphasizes mental health benefits, wellness workshops, and flexible hours as their strategy in promoting a functional remote-first culture.

Wrapping up

Creating and promoting a healthy and productive culture of remote-first work is a marathon, rather than a sprint. It takes time and serious effort along with applying the right tools and strategies to develop a sustainable and efficient remote-first culture within an organization. 

Use our best tips and strategies to foster transparency, trust, and open collaboration across your distributed teams. Remember to treat every remote misstep and achievement as a learning opportunity that will ultimately help your organization move closer to a better remote-first culture. 

Author: AnaErkic

Ana Erkic is a team communication and collaboration writer. When she is not researching the most productive collaboration techniques, she can usually be found trying out the latest team chat and collaboration tools and apps.

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