The term "remote-first" is getting recognition as a wonderful recruitment keyword. It's supposed to describe an environment that is remote-friendly to the point where there's no difference between an office worker and remote worker, but what's behind it all?
Aside from being recruiting jargon for "being able to work from home", the term "remote-first" is supposed to signal a few important key things about the way a company works and collaborates. Even more importantly, it usually doesn't describe one thing about their remote work model. Whether the company has an office, multiple offices or is fully distributed, all can share the "remote-first" label.
What is a remote-first company?
A remote-first company puts remote workers on the same playing field as in-office employees. In the past, remote employees missed out on countless promotions, conversations, and decision-making opportunities. A remote-first company prioritizes effective communication with remote workers, so that they don’t feel neglected.
There are a few ways that remote-first companies do this:
- Emphasizing asynchronous communication as the default. Remote employees often work in different time zones, so asynchronous discussions ensure no one is left out. As an added benefit, communicating asynchronously creates conversation records that employees can refer to later. For example, fully-remote firm Buffer uses Threads, a forum app for company-wide projects and discussions. They also encourage employees to use public Slack channels to keep the company updated on current events.
- Meticulously documenting every meeting, problem, question and answer. If there are records on all key discussions and ideas, remote workers can always stay updated on decision-making. By creating a central knowledge base, remote-first companies can remove any information asymmetry that disadvantages remote employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, GitLab emphasizes documentation of everything that its team members do. The default classification of all information is ‘public’.
- Planning socialization and team-building events. It's easy to feel isolated working apart from colleagues, so these events help remote workers feel included and have opportunities to connect with co-workers. For example, employees at Glitch are paired up with each other once a week to socialize and have coffee.
Look for these indicators to see if your company has genuinely embraced the hybrid approach to remote work:
- An entire department or section of the company is remote.
- The internal policy prioritizes public and asynchronous communication as the default.
- There is a designated head of remote enforcing these ideas.
Remote-first doesn't mean being "fully remote"
Against what one might think hearing the term, "remote-first" does not assume that a company has no offices. In fact, some of the world's most well-known remote-first companies like Basecamp have an office that they use for in-person collaboration.
The big difference between a remote-first and a remote-second (more commonly called Remote OK) and other setups is that the default working arrangement is usually remote and even if there is an office, it's only used as an in-person collaboration center and a place for people to hang out and not much more.
Remote-first describes a set of best practices around remote work and not necessarily a work setup or arrangement. It's meant to describe that remote employees will have just as much access to information, discussions and decisions as their in-office peers. Therefore, fully remote companies are remote-first by default and companies with an office can choose and build to be remote-first.
To visualize this better, it's worth taking a look at the opposite: Remote OK. The name already suggests that remote work is tolerated, but not necessarily the default. In this setup, you may have a big headquarter that houses 60% or more of all employees on a permanent basis. Discussions are being made during in-person meetings, problems are being solved through shoulder taps and peer working sessions. The remote workers lose out on all of this and often rely on their asynchronous communication mediums to receive information, while in-office employees don't need to use these messengers and mediums at all.
Remote first vs remote-friendly
In a remote-first company, working outside the office is the default mode of work, and the company prioritizes async communication. In a remote-friendly company, employees are still heavily encouraged to work at the office, and synchronous communication is still favored.
In a remote-friendly office, remote working is a privilege to be enjoyed now and then. But at the end of the day, the office is where decisions are made and meetings are held.
Remote first offices treat remote as the default mode of work, and a physical office might only be made available for collaborative tasks or social events.
Take onboarding new employees, for example. In remote first companies, the onboarding process is entirely virtual and assumes employees will work online for the most part. With remote friendly, orientation might have to be in-person at the office.
Remote friendly teams tend to communicate synchronously. Decisions are sometimes made in hallways, and ideas can bounce around over watercooler talk. Teams who are remote-first communicate asynchronously by default. Conversations and decisions that can be public, are made public.
Meetings are a great point of comparison: remote friendly firms will freely schedule meetings in the office’s time zone, but remote first firms will only hold meetings if absolutely needed. Meeting times are scheduled to account for international remote employees, and discussions will always happen over video conference.
Employees in a remote friendly company will generally have their productivity measured via time spent in the office. On the other hand, remote first employee performance is measured by output.
Remote friendly companies will prioritize your work attendance within their given hours. Remote first companies will let you work on your own schedule and in your own environment — your deliverables matter more than attendance.
The characteristics of a remote-first company
The rules of remote-first are not written in a handbook. It's rather a set of best practises that allow for smooth and productive remote work.
When it comes to collaboration, it's wise to rely on written processes and asynchronous messaging to a large degree. Written material is searchable, indexable and permanent. Those are great features to have when working on products, processes and long-winding issues. They make communication streamlined. With asynchronous communication, messages also tend to be longer than in an instant messaging service, often bringing more clarity to each message.
For some things, it's still nicer to get someone face-to-face and have a talk. For example, when you work on an early-stage product with lots of iterations and decisions to be done on the fly or when brainstorming. That's great, but should be planned in advance and under the consideration of timezones and schedules and kept in small groups or even one-to-one.
Remote-first usually means freeing employees from a timetable and relying on output instead. That's amazing for your people's health and well-being but makes scheduling a little more difficult. Especially if you need to coordinate across time zones, you simply can't rely on specific people being around at odd hours or even around lunchtime or early in the morning. Another characteristic of remote-first is therefore that most larger meetings are optional, sometimes recorded. Crucial information should be written down.
More than anything, remote-first is a mindset, though. It's about calling out scheduling conflicts when there are any. It's about being more conscious of the health issues that are plaguing remote workers and it's about working out a communication, compensation and perk structure that is fair to everyone.
Why should a company strive to be remote-first?
Big tech companies right now are looking to build their remote-first workflows. The reason is quite simple: It's the most productive way to get remote work into your organization. As more teams transition to remote work, especially the big corporations are working to be more remote-friendly, to the point where they are known to have great remote culture and be remote-first. That's the only way they can keep their access to incredible talent.
For smaller businesses, being remote-first is just as much of a benefit as for the big organisations. Doist, for example, is a smaller remote-first organization (and my employer) that is receiving over 10,000 applications per year – for a bit over a dozen open positions. That's a number that most businesses can only dream of, especially outside of the valley.
Finally, for businesses that are already on their way of building a remote team, remote-first is just the way to go. It makes communication more seamless. It creates a great balance between informative communication and face-to-face time and prevents company culture from forming a "us vs. them" mentality. The hiring benefits are just the cherry on top.
Creating a remote-first culture
Stripe was one of the earliest organizations that created a remote-first culture and openly declared "remote" to be their next hub. As a result of that, they have a happy and productive remote workforce that is tightly integrated into the rest of their team, which also made their remote work transition during COVID-19 a lot simpler.
But not every company has such a frictionless transition. Many struggle with ensuring their company culture persists, even remotely. Remote-first culture will not arise on its own: it has to be deliberately built and fostered. That’s why investments in these three fundamental areas of remote-first culture will pay dividends:
Keep communications asynchronous whenever possible. This shows remote workers in other time zones that you appreciate and value their time. Moreover, if communications are recorded appropriately, they can be referenced by remote employees whenever needed. The added benefit? By writing down their ideas to record them, people will be more thoughtful about what they say or ask.
Build a communication stack and guidelines to govern it. That way, employees know what tool to use and where to go with their issues, ideas, or questions. Setting clear rules will also reduce confusion and make conversations more thoughtful.
Pro tip: Let your employees know what information is public vs private, urgent vs non-urgent, etc. and where those conversations should happen (email, Slack, videoconferencing).
Meetings should be face-to-face. Asynchronous communication is the gold standard, but seeing colleagues face-to-face is still critical for culture building. In a videoconference, everyone should be on their own screen, even if two members are in the same room — it keeps all attendants on the same playing field. During a meeting, mandate screens and mics to be on whenever possible so that everyone feels comfortable and welcome.
Provide team members with the technology they need to succeed at home offices. In-office employees will get high-quality computers, chairs, desks, etc. — remote employees should be treated equally. Adopting this practice also demonstrates that anyone transitioning from in-office to remote won’t be making any sacrifices.
Take Glitch as an example: Glitch will pay for remote employees’ desks, monitors, cables, and more. They’ll also provide a $100 monthly stipend to cover internet and supply expenses.
Offer wellbeing services and stipends. It’s easier for remote workers to feel stressed, overworked, or isolated, so providing infrastructure to help them solve those problems shows that you care. Implement wellness initiatives that reward healthy behavior, or pay for mental health resources that can help with stress. Or go even deeper like Doist and offer the same number of vacation days to all employees, wherever they are located.
Run internal employee-led training and learning sessions. Not only is this a way for employees to level up, but it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate company values via content, the skills you teach, and more.
Host virtual social events. Social gatherings don’t have to be complicated — StackOverflow remote team members meet weekly for simple happy hour discussions. They let everyone have fun together, connect, and strengthen relationships — this supports culture and makes remote collaboration much more effortless.
Run one-on-one mentoring sessions. Upward mobility and promotions are often a concern for remote employees who don’t get the same opportunities to rub shoulders and network. One-on-ones with senior professionals can help them navigate forward and upward.
Create digital spaces for employees to speak freely. Whether it’s a Slack channel, Strava club, or a D&D group, creating shared digital spaces will foster inclusivity and fun. It also creates safe spaces for employees to feel comfortable making new friends.