What makes a remote-first company culture?

Last updated on 
October 16, 2020

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In a matter of weeks, remote work became the new global norm. Though it’s been rapidly increasing in popularity over the past decade, the COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of workers home, and for many companies it looks like this will be a permanent change. This is good news (remote working is cheaper, greener, and employees generally report higher levels of engagement and productivity), but establishing a successful remote-first culture involves far more than just letting staff work from home. So what exactly makes a remote-first company culture?

Remote-first vs remote-friendly

Companies first need to understand the difference between “remote-first” and “remote-friendly”. When a company is remote-friendly, they allow employees to work remotely at least some of the time, but they have a physical office where generally, most of the work gets done. Remote working might be seen as a privilege, or a perk. It might only be made available to certain employees and, usually, the company culture is still based around being in the office. Remote employees may believe they’re suffering from a lack of visibility; they can feel as though they’re missing out on opportunities or experiences, and are shut out of the decision-making process.

A remote-first culture, on the other hand, treats working remotely as a default way of working – the equal to office-based arrangements. This means companies build remote working into the very DNA of their business; it’s not tagged on to make the company seem progressive, appease employees, or as a benefit.

“Remote-first cultures make remote work feel natural and normal. It’s not an experiment, it’s not a perk, it’s not an afterthought. It is a fully-formed, legitimate work model; the equal (if not superior) of traditional office models.” – Mathias Mikkelsen, Founder and CEO of Memory

Here at Memory, our team is 50:50 in-house and remote; neither is privileged over the other, and those of us who work in our Norway or India offices are still entitled to work remotely when we want to. We want to help everyone to work on their own terms, trusting our people to set their own communication hours and schedules, and shape their days however they see best.

The pillars of remote-first company culture

So how exactly do you shake off the remote-friendly tag to foster a fully remote-first culture? It has a lot to do with normalizing and centralizing the virtual workspace. While workers in remote-friendly cultures can often feel like external resources, hired by in-office employees for specific tasks, remote-first cultures keep collaboration natural, equal and human.

In practice, that means creating the right processes and tech infrastructure to foster transparent, asynchronous working, as well as providing equal access, opportunities, benefits and inclusion for in-house and remote staff. Everyone should champion the legitimacy of the remote work model, respecting remote worker autonomy, representing their needs and building them into all decision making. It sounds like a lot, but start with these three essential building blocks and the rest should quite easily follow.

1. Transparent asynchronous communication

A remote-first company shouldn’t feel very different from an office-based company, but for this to happen you need to put adapt communication for the virtual workspace. Everyone must know where, when and how to communicate: where are discussions happening? Where are decisions made? What channels should you use to get support? A huge part of this rests on using asynchronous communication tools – those that document all company conversations in one easy-to-search space. By documenting all discussions, it provides everyone with equal access to all discussion, while also letting them dip into them at a time that actually suits their schedule.

Remote-first companies should work asynchronously for the majority of the time, but that  isn’t to say they shouldn’t also make time for synchronous communication. Video calls in particularly are hugely important to help remote colleagues feel connected – as well as protecting against the tendency for remote communication to become dry and transactional. But these can still be made available for asynchronous consumption; recording important video meetings ensues everyone can still access them – which is especially important for colleagues in different time zones. Leading with this asynchronous mindset gives remote teams the flexibility to manage their work how they like, without missing out on any key information or updates.

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2. Virtual bonding and support networks

The everyday, healthy human interactions that occur in offices just don’t happen when people work remotely. So, a successful remote culture must prioritize virtual bonding, and take steps to foster positive interactions between employees.  At Memory, we schedule open virtual breaks at the same time each day, so employees have a regular dedicated space for checking in with each other. We also create as many opportunities for casual conversation as possible, with dedicated social channels for chatting, a rotating calendar of team social events and friendly competitions to help people develop bonds with those they don’t necessarily work with day-to-day.

Of course, all of this should still be backed up by actually meeting up in real life. This provides distributed colleagues with important emotional context –  from a person’s sense of humor and personality, to the way they talk – which helps to enrich relationships and build empathy. It humanizes remote workers (you’re not just a name and face on an avatar), and encourages those complex interpersonal interactions that will help people communicate more effectively with each other later. Even if it’s just once a year, bringing all your people together in the same room is an enormously beneficial team-building investment, and well worth the logistical planning and cost.

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3. Inclusivity, autonomy and trust

Above everything, a remote-first culture needs trust to flourish. Employees should be allowed to work when and where they want, on their own terms as masters of their space. If employees feel distrusted or micromanaged, company culture can quickly erode. Stepping out with no questions asked whenever you need to should be a given. Similarly, steer clear of invasive employee monitoring tools when trying to keep your remote team’s work visible. Bear in mind that not everyone is suited for working remotely, so when hiring, always ensure candidates are happy and comfortable working autonomously. Trust also involves treating people fairly – and this can sometimes mean spending extra time and care ensuring that your employees’ needs are being met.

Of course, trust goes two ways. Employees need to trust management and bosses for a remote-first culture to thrive – and they must also feel psychologically safe. Good work only happens when people feel able to make mistakes. Transparency is vital for this too – there should always be a virtual paper trail for company decisions so that everyone’s kept in the loop. When information is lost, or distorted in a virtual game of Chinese whispers, it can breed an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

Above all, remember that creating a healthy remote-first culture isn’t as simple as checking a few things off your to-do list. It’s a constant work in process, something that requires ongoing nurture, time and investment. It’s also a company-wide effort: you’re all in it together, and you work hard to ensure people feel visible and valued – no matter where they’re working.

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