Remote-first: Strategic win or workplace struggle?

November 18, 2020

remote-first remote-only

How going remote can increase innovation, make your employees happier and unlock new growth opportunities

Remote work has been on the rise for years. Between 2005 and 2018, the U.S. saw a 173% increase in employees working remotely at least part-time. And then in 2020, COVID-19 drove a steep uptick in the number of people working from home all over the world.  

Going remote can pose its share of challenges, but if you plan for them and work through them diligently, you’ll benefit in a number of different ways. How you position your organization for success with a remote-first or remote-only approach depends on how it’s working for you right now.

How do you view your remote workplace today?

So far, so good

“We had to go remote so we’re turning lemons into lemonade.” You want to know what processes and policies to adopt in order to improve employee engagement, productivity and morale, and to increase your profitability.


“Going remote is working out great, and we want more of it.” You’re ready to hear about how remote-first and remote-only companies are reinventing the workplace.

Strategic win

“Going remote is part of our long-term business strategy.” What matters to you is learning about all the competitive advantages you’ll gain from going remote and formulating the questions you’ll need to address as you develop a plan to transform your organization.

Not for us

“As soon as it’s safe, we’ll return to the office.” Although you don’t plan to continue working virtually, there are a lot of ways it can benefit your organization, from increasing employee satisfaction and retention to adding to your bottom line.

Making it work

Going remote may have presented serious challenges to your organization, especially if you were forced to transition hastily as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that you’re here, you can learn to make going remote work for you, whether you plan to commit to it for the long-term or you only want to continue working this way as long as you have to.

The truth is there are many upsides to a remote-first or remote-only approach, and organizations who embrace it—and prepare themselves for the transition—will thrive.

remote work by the numbers

Remote-first makes employers more competitive

Increased productivity, happier employees and becoming more appealing to younger employees are just a few of the benefits you stand to gain from doubling down on flexible work policies. A whopping 94% of employers report that overall company productivity increased (27%) or remained the same (67%) when they shifted to remote work during the pandemic. And studies show that remote employees are 20% to 25% more productive than their office-based colleagues. In fact, Cisco Systems estimates that they save $277 million every year because of increased productivity.

People who work from home also report being 25% less stressed. For some, it’s about the daily commute. In fact, 71% of people in one survey wanted to work from home specifically to avoid the stress related to driving back and forth. Others point to things like avoiding office politics, working in a quieter environment with fewer distractions, and achieving a better work-life balance. Companies with flexible work plans have 25% less employee turnover.

Millennials and Gen Z employees both value flexible work options, which matters since they’re the future of the workforce. In fact, together they will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2030.

remote work cost savings

Remote work saves money

Sun Microsystems reports that they save a whopping $68 million each year thanks to remote work policies. One of the biggest savings comes from office space; studies show that companies save $10,000 per remote worker per year. That includes related expenditures as well, like furniture, utilities and office supplies.

Besides real estate, you’re likely to see savings from lower healthcare costs and fewer sick days thanks to happier, less stressed employees; reduced travel expenditures; and even lower salaries. By casting your net outside of competitive and expensive cities like San Francisco, London and Tokyo, you can find skilled employees who need less to enjoy a high standard of living. And since more satisfied employees increase retention rates, you’ll spend less on recruiting and onboarding new employees.

Remote-first policies open up a wider talent pool

Being remote means you can hire anyone from anywhere, and though it’s difficult to quantify the value of that, there are many clear advantages that organizations can reap from this opportunity.

To begin with, it means being able to find someone with the right skill set for every job, which means positions are filled faster and retention rates go up. Since no one needs to relocate, it simplifies negotiations, makes it easier to bring on staff from other countries without the hassle of H-1B visas and gets people to work sooner.

Remote-first policies can also increase the diversity of your workforce, which has a direct correlation to increased earnings. Cities that are heavily populated by highly skilled immigrants are more innovative, and organizations with diverse leadership teams credit innovation with 19% higher revenues.

When remote works well

Gitlab and Doist are both leaders when it comes to the remote-only workplace. Not only have they figured out how to make it work for them, they’ve both published in-depth write-ups of how they do it.

With over 1,200 employees in 67 countries, Gitlab is the largest remote-only company in the world. It has dedicated years of effort to documenting what does and doesn’t work, and why.

Written documentation is at the crux of the company’s success, and it applies to all business processes and practices, including meeting agendas, notes and the company handbook. Everyone at Gitlab has access to the handbook and are both encouraged and expected to contribute so that knowledge never disappears when someone leaves the company. Meetings are always optional, which makes sense given that half of the team might be eating dinner or sleeping while the other half are at work. Each meeting comes with a written agenda, all participants add notes and ideas to the agenda in real time to document the discussion and every meeting is recorded so that the folks who don’t attend don’t miss either the decisions that were made or the rationale behind them.

Gitlab also emphasizes the value of finding ways to include both structured and unstructured time together. From always-on videoconference rooms where team members can come and go, chat or work together, to company-wide meetings led by the leadership team, Gitlab finds lots of ways to help people connect throughout the workweek.

Doist is considerably smaller, with 68 employees in 25 countries, but it’s just as much of an expert in remote-only work. The company looks for a specific set of qualities in everyone it hires, and there are only two hard rules. The first is if a job applicant doesn’t include a cover letter with their resume, they don’t get an interview—no matter how qualified they are. That’s because Doist’s values include clear communication, passion and craftsmanship, and it can’t evaluate whether a candidate possesses those without that letter. The second rule is that the candidate should evoke “Hell yeah!” or “no.” A mere “yes” is unacceptable and means “no.”

Another ingredient in Doist’s secret sauce is that it strictly enforces work hours. No one works more than eight hours a day, five days a week. No nights or weekends. And no checking in when you take time off. The theory is that if even one person does it, it creeps in, and since Doist’s product is all about productivity, this is one way of keeping everyone honest.

remote work communication

How to successfully embrace the remote workplace

You may have already experienced some of the difficulties of moving from a traditional or remote-friendly office to a primarily virtual model. As you develop a plan to roll out the next phase, here are some things to consider.

Communication and collaboration

You may have the tools in place to work effectively, like Slack, a VPN and a videoconferencing platform like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Thinking through how and when you use them is the next step. Successful remote-only companies like Gitlab have defined when to conduct meetings versus write emails, how to document live discussions and how to use videoconferencing to replicate opportunities for casual conversations as well as a team working environment.

Do you want to establish a synchronous or asynchronous schedule? With a synchronous schedule, everyone works the same hours or a meaningful overlap of four hours, whereas asynchronous work hours mean that everyone works in their own time zone when they can be most productive. Asynchronous requires more written communication or documentation like recording video calls.

How will you handle leadership training, team-building or collaborative tasks where you’d rather meet face to face? Dropbox, which is going remote-first, plans to refurbish its office spaces to become desk-free studio hubs used purely for these kinds of activities.

Employee advancement

Managers need to be trained how to effectively monitor and manage remote employees. Some may struggle with trusting that everyone is doing their job; others may not know how or how often to check in. Rely on company values and culture to help you establish what works best.

On-the-job learning and knowledge-sharing happen in a variety of ways, from casual conversations to demonstrations. To replace that, especially for newer or junior employees, consider creating training and mentorship programs.

If you have a hybrid work environment where some people are in the office more than others, you’ll need to address issues of equity when it comes to promotions and raises. Who managers and colleagues work with and see in person day after day directly impacts who comes to mind when new opportunities arise. Trust can affect these decisions as much as performance; the awareness (or lack thereof) about job openings also plays an important role in who applies for a new position. 

International hiring

When work can be done outside an office, your workforce can live anywhere in the world. As a result, a remote-first policy lets you look beyond your borders for hiring opportunities. That expands your hiring pool and makes it easier to find the skill sets you need, which is an important competitive advantage since the global workforce is shrinking. It can also translate into lower workforce costs since you can hire people who live in smaller cities or regions, which often have lower average salaries.

You’ll want to revamp your benefits packages. Relocation costs may or may not stay; on the one hand, you won’t need to move anyone to your location any longer, but you may want to offer relocation as a perk for employees who want to move away from wherever HQ is or used to be.

You’ll also have to tackle how to recruit, hire and pay employees internationally in accordance with local employment regulations. Working with someone with this kind of experience is crucial, since laws can be labyrinthine, and mistakes can come with fines. One option is a global employer of record, sometimes referred to as an international PEO, which hires and pays employees on your behalf. An employer of record is well-versed in local labor laws, benefits and customs and can ensure your new international workers meet all employment compliance requirements.

Still not convinced that remote is right for you?

If significant increases in employee productivity, satisfaction, innovation, profitability and meaningful cost savings aren’t enough to persuade you to reconsider your opinion of a remote work policy, consider these statistics:

Your ability to keep your organization running is likely to one day be dependent on your ability to accommodate employees’ increasing demands for remote work. While some industries or jobs don’t lend themselves well to being off-site, most organizations can create remote work opportunities for at least some of their employees.

Consider that Microsoft, with more than 150,000 employees worldwide, announced in the fall of 2020 that it would make its flexible work policies permanent, including where people work and when they work.

Already, 16% of global companies are 100% remote. This is the future of the workforce, and early adopters will be able to work out the kinks and reap rewards their competitors may miss out on. This is a tremendous opportunity to reimagine not only how we work, but also what we value and how we grow.

Learn more about the strategic advantages and challenges of adopting a remote-first or remote-only work policy in our new ebook, “Remote-first: The guide to unlocking your global potential.”

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