To many people, “remote-first” and “remote-friendly” may seem like interchangeable terms. However, there’s a subtle-yet-crucial distinction between these two approaches that can tell you a lot about how a company views working remotely and, in some cases, that company’s values.
Many of the conversations about working remotely focus on the potential gains in productivity or cost efficiencies. These are valid points worthy of further discussion, but there’s much more to remote work than how much more work remote employees can do or how much money companies can save. Remote work is an extension of a company’s values—not a question of whether or not people work in an office.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Remote-first and remote-friendly are NOT the same
It’s virtually impossible to discuss remote work without mentioning COVID-19, which demonstrated that—contrary to the age-old assertions of skeptical managers—remote work wasn’t just possible, it was preferable. Many companies that had once forbidden remote work were begrudgingly forced to adapt. They didn’t become remote-friendly, but they did become “remote-reluctant.”
Some executives at these companies remained outspoken in their opposition to remote work—with some going as far as to describe it as “an aberration.” Other companies have mistakenly conflated the necessity of remote work during an unprecedented public health crisis with the realities of truly remote-first work.
Other companies, like Twitter, found a tentative middle ground. They presented remote work as a choice. Employees were welcome to continue working from Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Civic Center neighborhood as long as it was safe to do so, but they were just as welcome to continue working from home if they wished. In Twitter’s case, this wasn’t just about where work was done—it was about giving employees agency over their work, their health, and their safety.
So how can we define these two similar, yet very different, terms? One way is to think of remote-friendly as a policy, whereas remote-first is an ideology.
Remote-friendly companies accept remote work as a means of getting things done. These companies often have headquarters or a primary office location and often present remote work as a perk or benefit. Some workplaces have implemented “work-from-home Fridays” in much the same way as casual Fridays were once considered a benefit. Wearing sweatpants at home is like wearing jeans in your cubicle.
Remote-first companies, on the other hand, are built around the idea of virtual work. This typically spans everything, from the processes in place to how that company markets and positions itself. Many remote-first companies are deliberately designed that way from the outset. This can have lasting implications for how that business operates, from the hardware and software tools employees require to do their jobs to how meetings and internal communications are handled.
Although these considerations are vitally important, being a remote-first company is about recognizing that people—not necessarily just the work those people do—are what really drive businesses.
Remote-first is people-first
If we can agree that remote-first is an ideological consideration, it follows that remote work is cultural, not logistical.
Many people assume that remote work is primarily about where work is done. On the contrary, remote work is about how work gets done and how that work aligns with the values of a company.
Remote-first work centers around two primary ideas:
- Giving people the tools, processes, and support they need to work effectively wherever they are
- Getting out of their way to enable them to do their best work in ways that align with their lives
By necessity, being a remote-first company means entrusting employees with greater levels of autonomy.
This is often associated with greater productivity and better overall employee wellbeing, but it’s not another carrot on a proverbial stick—it’s a means of giving employees more agency over how and when work is done, not just where.
It’s also a means of achieving genuine, meaningful “work-life balance,” a concept that has become increasingly vague—and somewhat outdated—in recent years, especially as expectations shifted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote-first work is intentional
Although there are many benefits to being a remote-first business, successful remote-first organizations must be highly intentional about creating robust processes to facilitate remote work and the support systems necessary to give remote workers the resources they need to do that work.
Remote-first work doesn’t just happen—companies have to proactively make it happen.
Inclusive thinking is fundamental to creating space for effective remote work. This thinking often falls into one of two main categories: operational and cultural considerations.
Operational considerations focus on how remote work will happen at an organization from a practical standpoint:
- How will people meet and collaborate?
- How often should managers meet with their direct reports?
- Should questions be asked publicly or privately?
- How should asynchronous communication across multiple time zones be handled?
- How can the company onboard and support new hires who lack remote experience?
Customer.io has experienced many of these challenges firsthand, particularly when it comes to how team members communicate.
Many of Customer.io’s employees work fully remotely, but the company also maintains an office in Portland, Oregon. To ensure the company’s remote team members feel as connected as those who work from the Portland office, they’ve had to be highly intentional about communication to compensate for the challenges of working as a mostly distributed company, especially regarding transparency.
In order to have the same level of connection as office-based folks, a remote team has to be that much closer emotionally to make up for that physical distance. To compensate for distance, everyone has to share more about their thoughts, habits, feelings, and expectations—of themselves and others. Frankness must replace proximity, and that doesn’t always come naturally. Since it’s hard to know when and if someone has misinterpreted us, we rely on mutual honesty, respect, and clarity.
Cultural considerations focus on how those operational factors align with the values of the company:
- How should remote teams cultivate personal interactions and bonding?
- How should interpersonal conflict be resolved?
- How much visibility into employees’ work is necessary, and how should this be balanced with employee privacy?
- How should managers accommodate differences in learning and communication styles?
While cultural considerations are distinct from operational considerations, companies have to be just as intentional about creating cultures of equality and inclusion as they have to be about the mechanics of how that business operates.
Help Scout learned that inclusion is vital to successful remote work. For Help Scout, this isn’t just a fuzzy, feel-good statement about their corporate values. It’s directly reflected in many of the decisions Help Scout has made as a business, including how a remote-first approach is necessary if your team takes a hybrid work model where some people are office-based while others work remotely:
A culture’s effectiveness revolves around how information flows. Everyone needs to feel like they have access to the same information, but remote and co-located cultures share information differently.
For example, let’s take the common trap a lot of co-located cultures are falling into today, where they make exceptions for certain people to work remotely so they can dip their toe into the talent pool. This is a recipe for disaster because the company hasn’t changed the way they share information. Once someone goes remote, they miss out on information in impromptu meetings, on whiteboards, at the proverbial water cooler, and when grabbing drinks after work. Very quickly, they’ll feel out of the loop and unhappy, unable to do their best work.
Truly remote-first work means ensuring that employees on the other side of the world feel as connected and engaged as employees who work down the hall. But while remote-first work is highly intentional, it’s also an iterative process. What works at one point in a company’s growth may not work as well—or at all—further down the road. This means cultivating a culture in which asking potentially difficult questions isn’t just tolerated but is actively encouraged.
Remote work: How and why—not where
While remote work had been gaining popularity for several years before the emergence of COVID-19, the pandemic served as an opportunity for many companies and employees to reconsider the necessity of working from physical locations. Some companies have embraced remote work wholeheartedly to the benefit of their customers and employees. Others have resisted it bitterly, clinging to outdated ideas about the nature of work and where—and how—it should be done. However, we still have a long way to go before remote work is perceived as a fundamentally different way of working rather than a mere perk or policy.
Special thanks to the folks at Animalz for their help creating this post.