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Remote-first companies: What HR Teams need to know

Blog / 5. Februar 2024 / bei Christoph Drebes
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Is your business considering becoming remote-first? 

More and more companies are implementing remote work policies, responding to a huge employee demand for flexibility. But most companies are sticking to hybrid work, with employees dividing their time between home and office. Hybrid work has its advantages, but it’s sometimes seen as the worst of both worlds – with offices half empty and employees struggling to know when and where their colleagues will be working. 

At Mystery Minds, we’ve been working remote-only since 2020. Adapting and optimizing our processes for remote work has been a continuous process, but one that has made a real impact on our business.  

In this article, we’ll take a look at why companies are choosing remote-first policies, the challenges it poses, and some of our strategies for overcoming them. 

Remote-friendly vs. Remote-first vs. Remote-only 

In today's dynamic work environment, the terms "remote-friendly," "remote-first," and "remote-only" are frequently used, but their different meanings are not always clear. Let's break down these concepts to help you understand the subtle yet significant distinctions. 

A graphic briefly describing each of the three remote work philosophies: remote-friendly, remote-first, and remote-only. The bullet points will be repeated in the body of the text.

Remote-friendly 

When a company is labeled as "remote-friendly," it usually means that, while employees have the option to work remotely, the organization is not fully centered around remote work. There might be an office space, but employees can choose to work from home occasionally. Employees might also be required to work from the office for a certain number of days per week or month. It's a flexible approach that acknowledges the importance of work-life balance. 

Remote-first 

On the other hand, "remote-first" companies prioritize a distributed work model. These organizations build their structures and processes with remote work as the default option. While they may still maintain physical offices or a shared coworking space, the emphasis is on ensuring that fully remote employees have equal opportunities and are seamlessly integrated into the company culture. 

Remote-only

Lastly, "remote-only" signifies a complete commitment to remote work. In these companies, there's no central office, and all employees work from various locations. This approach is a testament to the belief that remote work not only works but is the most effective way for the team to collaborate and thrive. 

Most of the tips in this article will apply to both remote-first and remote-only businesses. 

The benefits of remote-first working

By this point in time, the costs and benefits of hybrid and remote work have been endlessly analyzed. Just as a quick recap, here are the top four reasons that companies chose to be remote-first or remote-only: 

Lower costs  

There are certainly additional costs for remote-first companies to think about, but none of these compare to the cost of commercial real estate. Renting office space, especially in prestige locations, is expensive. Not only that, but companies with an office also have to cover other costs, from cleaning, utilities, and facility management to coffee and snacks for the break room. 

Employee satisfaction 

Most employees want flexibility in how, when, and where they work. While many companies now offer hybrid work, employees often find that the flexibility initially promised doesn’t prove to be as flexible as they’d like. With a remote-first philosophy, employees can feel confident that their presence in-person or online will be equally valued, and that their employers trust them to be productive, no matter where they work. 

A white woman in glasses speaks on a mobile phone while working on a laptop. In front of her is a carafe of tea. She smiles in a relaxed manner.

In 2022, a study by Tracking Happiness revealed that the ability to work from home increased employee happiness by up to 20%. With happiness linked to higher job performance and lower turnover, it’s a statistic that’s worth noting. 

Opens up recruitment possibilities 

Employers that require regular presence in an office often find that potential hires don’t want to relocate to make that happen. Even when new hires are open to relocation, they often expect a financial incentive or support with their moving costs. For remote-first or remote-only companies, location is rarely a barrier. Employees can simply work from their existing location, provided it’s in the same country.  

And companies that are determined to hire the best talent globally, can collaborate with companies like Lano to ensure that their practices are always compliant with local laws. 

Productivity 

While some managers remain skeptical about productivity when working from home, many studies show that knowledge workers are more productive while working remotely. Tasks that require quiet and focus are particularly suited to remote work, as are those that require a lot of time spent on the phone. With thoughtful strategies in place, even jobs that require collaboration can be productively completed from home. We’ll come to those strategies later in this article.  

Challenges of remote-only working

While we’re clearly advocates for remote-first and remote-only working, it would be wrong to deny that these practices come with their own challenges. Here are three challenges that all remote-first companies must grapple with:  

Onboarding 

It’s all well and good to work remotely if your team is used to the practice. However, when new hires arrive who aren’t used to working from home, it can be difficult to get them into the swing of things. Things that are easy in an office – making introductions, getting a laptop set up correctly, or just making someone feel welcome – are all more challenging in an online-only environment.  

Onboarding is important: strong onboarding processes can improve retention of new hires by 82% and the productivity of those hires by 70%. Companies that are considering becoming remote-first should therefore spend time designing an onboarding process that works in their new context. 

Collaboration 

Many employees have a love-hate relationship with meetings. They can be a huge time sink, but they can also be an extremely productive and creative setting. Collaboration in virtual meetings can be tricky for many reasons, from one or two people dominating the conversation to the difficulty of presenting more visual or dynamic ideas. Collaboration is something all companies must continuously work on, and a digital environment just adds different barriers to overcome – but they can be overcome. 

Culture 

The final challenge is that of company culture. In an office environment, company culture can happen almost by accident. People chat by the water cooler, someone brings in a cake for their birthday, people have lunch together, or go for a drink after work. In a remote-first context, this organic, human behavior can struggle. Not only do people need to be given permission or encouragement to socialize or be spontaneous, but other company norms need to be defined.

How does your company want employees to give positive and negative feedback? How do we speak about each other in meetings or in Slack channels? Do we share memes and funny videos or are employees required to be all business, all the time?

All companies need to consider how they want employees to feel, how that aligns with their brand as an employer, and how they nurture their company culture as a result. Remote-first employers need to consider being more proactive to ensure that their culture is moving in the direction they want. 

Strategies for a great remote-first company environment

Leaders of remote-first companies need to actively define their strategies for a number of areas. Here, we’ll give our advice for four key areas: communication, collaboration, leadership, and culture. 

A summary of the four areas that build a positive remote culture. The headings are collaboration, communication, leadership, and enjoyment. The bullet points will be repeated and expanded on in the body of the text.

For communication: 

There are two things that every remote company needs to enforce to make sure communication keeps flowing. 

1. Clear communication guidelines 

Communication guidelines should always include the basics: the platforms where communication should be happening, and what kinds of information should be shared via which method. This is very helpful for new employees and those who aren’t used to working in a remote setting. Additionally, this can be essential for data security. You don’t want someone sharing customer data via Slack, for example, unless you have established protocols for doing so securely. 

In a remote company, however, communication guidelines should go a little deeper. Is there a channel that is appropriate for small talk and general chatting? Which channels are reserved for important news and updates? How do employees signal when they are available for a call or a spontaneous conversation? How do you deal with colleagues working in different time zones? If your company is international, what is the preferred language for communication with the whole company? 

Your communication guidelines should be a living document that is tailored to your organization. If you encounter friction or conflict, don’t just verbally agree to changes, but make them official and document why the change was made. Keep iterating until you find the processes that work for your team. 

2. Regular all-hands meetings 

Remote-first doesn’t mean that you never see your colleagues. It also shouldn’t mean that you spend your whole day in Teams meetings. However, there will always be occasions when managers need to speak to the whole company at once. Whether that’s weekly, monthly, or quarterly depends on the scale of the organization, but there should be an established mechanism for gathering everyone together in real time for key updates. 

Establishing the cadence of these meetings in advance, ensuring that everyone is invited, and having a clear agenda helps bring structure to the year. At least some of these meetings should be dedicated to sharing the organization’s big-picture goals, helping to keep all departments focused, and demonstrating how different functions work together. 

At Mystery Minds, our all-hands meetings take place weekly on Mondays via Teams. Attendance is mandatory unless a colleague is unavailable for a good reason. In addition to updates from each department, there are dedicated sections for deep dives into key projects, and a final 15 minutes set aside for socializing in smaller groups. After much trial and error, that’s the format that has worked best for us. 

For collaboration:  

For remote-first companies, there are two kinds of collaboration that they need to think about. First, individuals need to be able to collaborate within their departments. This is often the first priority for employees and managers. However, individuals also need to collaborate with those from other departments, and they might even need to include third parties such as freelancers or consultants. 

The following three points always need to be viewed in that light – does this facilitate internal, cross-departmental, and external collaboration?  

1. Invest in the right software – and hardware 

This first point is an obvious one – you can’t collaborate well remotely without suitable technology. The tech stack you’ll need will vary depending on your business and the products or services it provides.  

At Mystery Minds, all departments use Notion to keep a central knowledge base and for planning some shared projects. Our Product and IT teams use Jira to plan sprints, while our Sales and Success teams use a secure CRM to keep their notes organized. For creative work, we’ve used Miro, Canva, and several other software options. Here’s a full list of software that works well for both remote and hybrid organizations. 

One additional consideration that is often forgotten is that employees need to have good-quality hardware and a reliable internet connection to run these programs. A remote-first company should consider what they deem an employee’s “minimum requirements” should be for their home office, and whether they are able to designate an annual budget to keep employees’ equipment up to date. 

2. Company off-sites & strategy workshops 

When a department is working hard on its own KPIs, it can be easy to forget the organization’s larger goals. Senior managers should dedicate time to strategy workshops in order to keep aligned. Some companies may even choose to run off-sites or workations, bringing together larger groups of employees to discuss long-term projects and goals. 

Four colleagues of different races and genders laugh during an off-site strategy session.

At Mystery Minds, we run an annual, in-person workation to discuss strategy, improve teamwork, and to spend time building a shared company culture. We find that even just one in-person event a year is extremely helpful for building social connections and developing our identity as a company. There are also smaller opportunities for in-person contact: our Product and IT team meets for a few weeks each year to plan long-term product development, and people meet each other for ad-hoc coworking if they’re based in the same city.  

If in-person events are out of the question for your organization, you should at a minimum host virtual strategy sessions. And if the concept of an off-site or workation interests you, here’s our guide for how to plan and execute a great company off-site.  

3. Invest time in kick-off meetings 

It’s a familiar story: one department sets out on a great new project, and once they’re ready to launch, another department objects. The changes are going to impact how they work, and nobody from the original team realized! 

Nobody wants to be in more meetings than they need to be. However, kick-off meetings for bigger projects can save a team from spending too much time on something that won’t work for others. Additionally, bringing representatives from other teams in at an early stage of a project can add new perspectives, improving the original plan. 

This advice also works for companies working in the office, of course, but it’s especially important for dispersed teams. They likely have even less insight into what their colleagues from different teams are working on and aren’t likely to be caught up via a spontaneous conversation at the coffee machine. 

For leadership:  

Many leaders considering remote-first working consider how life will change for their employees – whether they’ll be more productive, whether they’ll be more successful. Fewer leaders think about what they’ll have to do differently themselves in a completely remote context. Here are a couple of points for managers and senior staff to consider: 

1. Engage in onboarding 

Line managers already know that remotely onboarding a new hire can be more difficult. That awareness means that they’ll have to do things differently: schedule more calls in the first few weeks and be prepared to answer a lot of questions via email or instant messaging.  

However, senior management can quickly lose sight of new hires when a company is fully remote. In a company without physical premises or frequent in-person events, there might just never be an opportunity for low- or mid-level employees to chat with VPs or the CEO. As a result, these employees might find senior staff to be intimidating, or be more afraid to bring up new ideas.  

There’s plenty that leaders can do to be more involved during every employee’s onboarding. While you might not be able to chat with each individual hire, you can schedule an introductory call for groups of new hires where you introduce your role, your office hours, and when and why they might consider reaching out. High-quality onboarding also immediately sets the tone for an employee, making them feel supported and introducing them to your company culture.  

You’ll find more ideas about successful onboarding here

2. Invest in dedicated remote leadership training 

Remote leadership is different. It requires different skills. A leader who is very good at reading body language will find that these skills are no use at all in a remote context. It is far easier for an unhappy employee to hide their disillusionment when working from home. Equally, it is easy to overlook quieter or more introverted employees.  

Remote leadership training can help managers to build the skills they need to support their dispersed teams. Some of these skills are simply the development of habits, like regular 1-to-1 calls with all employees. Some are more developed communication skills, like virtual meeting moderation or giving detailed written feedback without micro-managing. 

It takes a great deal of trust to be a good remote leader, but quality leadership can also set the tone for a company’s culture. 

For culture:  

Several of the above points have already touched on company culture. While they enable productive work, a good onboarding, stable and supportive leadership, and high-quality communication are also all essential to a good company culture.  

In this section, we’ll discuss the additional things that a remote-first organization can do to support the development of a flexible, enjoyable, and spontaneous company culture. 

1. Enable socializing

We already discussed some of the software your employees will need to be productive in a remote context. The same software, with a bit of internal organization, can be leveraged to ensure that employees socialize. Some extroverted employees will never find socializing challenging, but for those who aren’t as keen to put themselves out there, you can run some of the following initiatives: 

  • Break-out rooms. Include five to ten minutes at the end of large virtual meetings for people to chat in smaller groups, giving them the opportunity to catch up or to share their views on the information they just received.  
  • Mystery Coffee. If you’d like to facilitate more connections between departments or hierarchy levels, an initiative like Mystery Coffee can help. Randomly matching employees adds an element of fun and spontaneity, and you can even mail out small incentives for participating, like a branded mug or a voucher for a national coffee chain. 
  • Group lunches. If you have the budget, invite employees to order from a favorite take-out restaurant and eat lunch on a call together. Break-out rooms can be helpful to split up larger groups, and you might even want to rotate groups for each course. At Mystery Minds, we do this activity quarterly! 

2. Encourage spontaneity 

It’s easy to tell your employees that they can behave spontaneously – it’s another thing to make them feel comfortable enough to do it. If your employees have the sense that their managers are watching their every move, they aren’t likely to take time for a chat or spontaneous brainstorming. This means they miss out on the potential for serendipity, which means the company might miss out on the brilliant ideas and flashes of insight that come from a relaxed and creative environment. 

Four colleagues of different races and genders wave at one another on a video call.

But how can you encourage spontaneity in a way that feels genuine? Here are some ideas: 

  • Model spontaneity. This point is particularly relevant for managers. Show your employees that you’re not handcuffed to your diary. If you have an out-of-office chat thread, let people know when you’re walking the dog, taking time for an exercise class, or having a coffee break. 
  • Build in time. It sounds counterintuitive, but in a remote context, you might need to remind yourself to be spontaneous. Make it clear that employees have time outside of their official breaks to talk to one another. If you find that people aren’t doing this, make the offering more specific: for example, that people should use at least 30 minutes a week to chat with a colleague.
  • Participate. Often, company culture stands on the shoulders of a handful of people who have both good ideas and the confidence to put them out there. If one of these colleagues starts a conversation in a public channel, participate! Whether it’s a thread for sharing work playlists or a short conversation about the local weather, reward people for putting themselves out there with just a little attention. Only step in to curtail the fun if it’s really having an impact on results. 

Remote-first work: worth the investment 

For many companies, a remote-first or remote-only approach makes a lot of sense. The cost savings alone make it a tempting choice for start-ups and small businesses. It’s important not to let the voices of the skeptics, many of whom care more about their real estate investments than efficiency, convince you to discard the idea out of hand.  

As we’ve discussed, remote-first companies do face challenges. However, they aren’t substantially different from those that every business faces: how to communicate, how to lead, and how to build a great culture. The tactics for overcoming these challenges are simply different. 

At Mystery Minds, we’ve found our remote-only approach to be extremely effective. If you have questions about how we do it, or if you have an experience you’d like to share, then get in touch! Reach out on LinkedIn and let’s have a conversation. 

Build networks via virtual coffee breaks. Mystery Coffee helps you to connect colleagues, foster collaboration, and improve cooperation. Learn more now.

Über den Autor:

Christoph Drebes

Christoph ist ein Unternehmer aus München und hat Mystery Minds 2016 mitbegründet. Das Unternehmen hat es sich zur Aufgabe gemacht, die Arbeitswelt menschlicher zu gestalten, indem es wertvolle, persönliche Verbindungen zwischen Kolleg:innen schafft. Das remote-only Team arbeitet bereits mit über 250 internationalen Unternehmen zusammen und hilft ihnen dabei, internen Netzwerke zu stärken und die Silo-Mentalität zu überwinden.


Original veröffentlicht am 5. Februar 2024 um 11:00, geändert am 5. Februar 2024 um 18:16

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