Designing a Remote-First Company Culture

The world as we know it has shifted, are you ready to adjust?

People across the globe are now working independently from their homes rather than in offices. For most, remote work has unlocked a new way of thinking about work, life, and how to approach one’s day. The majority of people working from home want to continue in some capacity, even after the world no longer faces a pandemic.

Remote working enables people to spend more time in the ways they want:

  • Rather than commuting, employees can focus on their families without having to give up their careers.
  • Employees have a greater sense of personal effectiveness and productivity.
  • Remote work provides greater opportunities for those with a disability or chronic illness.

The same can be said for companies. Organizations have quickly pivoted to offer a more flexible work environment for their employees—a strategic imperative in today’s world. When organizations offer remote work, they realize a host of benefits:

  • Access to new talent markets
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduction in turnover and absenteeism
  • Increased diversity
  • Potential cost reduction in real estate and resource usage

It’s safe to say that remote-first‚ or at least some version of remote flexibility, is now the expectation of the majority of employees everywhere.

Building Remote Teams

For growing organizations, structuring the right remote talent strategy is critical. Creating a remote-first, people-centric culture takes intention. Without this, companies could run into serious issues with collaboration, communication, employee feelings of isolation, and distractions—leading to decreased productivity, high turnover, and ultimately, a significant impact on the business.

Setting up a successful remote-first organization is possible—but it starts with defining your optimal operating model for remote teams and fostering a people-centric culture.

Deciding Which Operating Model is Right for Your Organization

Remote work doesn’t have to be an all or nothing mandate. Many organizations offer the flexibility of working from home, while also designating time for employees to be together in-person. Here we’ll explore the scope and scale of what “working remotely” can look like.

HQ-Centric / Fully Co-Located

Within a fully co-located or HQ-centric organization, all team members work together in-person. This can happen in a single office, or in offices across different locations.

ADVANTAGES

  • The employee experience is consistent—norms are more easily understood and company culture is often reflected and amplified in the physical environment
  • Communication and collaboration are facilitated by proximity

CHALLENGES

  • Talent is limited to a specific geographic area
  • Employees may struggle to find work/life balance with rigid in-office expectations
  • Office distractions can impede overall productivity

Fully Distributed

In a fully distributed organization, all employees work independently from the location of their choosing. There is no definitive headquarters or office. Everyone is remote—separate, but together, working within the same norms.

ADVANTAGES

  • Employees can live and work where they want—a competitive advantage for talent brand and recruiting strategies
  • Employees and companies have increased productivity
  • Businesses don’t have to maintain overhead costs like real estate

CHALLENGES

  • Increased focus on communication and collaboration
  • Team connection can be a challenge, leaving some employees feeling lonely or disengaged
  • Overworking—employees’ computers are always a few steps away, and they don’t have regular cues to remind them to take a break

Hybrid

In a hybrid-remote model, an organization supports a blend of both in-office work and remote work. As companies look to experiment with and even embrace remote working, the hybrid-remote model is often a logical first step.

As with all types of remote working, hybrid-remote can look different, depending on how your organization chooses to define its operating model:

  • Employees may work remotely one or two days a week.
  • Employees may work remotely for most of the time, but come into the office regularly for certain meetings.
  • Employees within certain roles or departments may work remotely full time, while others work from the office.

ADVANTAGES

  • This model expands your talent pool beyond your office location(s).
  • Depending on the hybrid-remote setup, some employees enjoy the flexibility of working remotely while also getting the opportunity to work with teammates in an office, and sometimes travel.

CHALLENGES

  • Establishing and maintaining two distinct, but equitable, employee experiences—like perks & benefits, cultural norms, and even workload.
  • Risk of remote workers being left out—leading to fractures in culture and communication.
  • Remote workers having less opportunity for career advancement, mentorship, or opportunity to contribute to impromptu decision-making.

Fostering a People-Centric Culture

Now that you’ve thought through your operating model, it’s time to think about culture. Hubspot describes this so well:

“It’s easy for an employer to say that they are remote-friendly, but it’s another thing to ensure that the dynamic and inclusive company culture you promise to employees is delivered to your remote workforce, as well.”

Many People Leaders and executive teams were thrust into remote work, almost overnight with the global pandemic. Now that we’ve been working remotely for many months and some companies have decided to give remote work a go long-term, companies need to do the work to evolve their business to truly being remote-first. Using the “we’ll figure it out as we go” method will likely lead to disengagement of employees and negative impacts on your business. It starts with setting the foundation.

CULTURE

Company culture is a critical component of any business. It illustrates an organization’s philosophies, ways of working, and expectations—in part, it defines who you are. While company culture isn’t a top-down initiative that can be planned and implemented, it is something that leaders should pursue with intention, design well, and treat with care—especially in a remote organization.

In an office, you can “sense” what a company is about by observing the physical environment, how people interact with one another, the way meetings are conducted—the culture comes alive in these everyday interactions. In a remote-first company, you have to be much more explicit in the ways in which culture “shows up,” especially in how leaders demonstrate culture through their actions, which brings me to Norms.

NORMS

If culture is who you are, norms are how you act. They define how employees and teams behave. Often, these are “unwritten rules” that employees learn over time through interactions and observations with others. In a remote environment, picking up on these norms can take much longer. To set employees and teams up for success, remote-first organizations must write down the norms and share them widely. Without this, communication and collaboration challenges arise. Organizations should spend time documenting these norms on your company intranet and training new hires during onboarding.

COMMUNICATION

Remote-first companies need to invest more energy into communication by making the implicit explicit, and creating a plan. If you are serious about making remote work durable for the long-term, you need to consider areas such as:

  • Whether communication happens synchronously (in real-time) or asynchronously (independently, not time-bound)
  • What time zones will your team work in? Will you have a set of core hours when most employees work?
  • When will you host company meetings, such as company-wide All Hands?
  • Will video conferencing be the norm to allow for face-to-face connection? 

GOALS & EXPECTATIONS

In a remote-first organization, the focus is on output rather than physical presence. Setting clear goals and expectations is critical to ensuring the team is moving forward together.

  • Have you set objectives at the company level, team, and individual level?
  • Do you have a clear process to define key projects, outline timeline and major milestones?
  • Do your leaders drive accountability by regularly having teams and individuals report out on their progress towards goals?
  • Do you use 1:1 meetings to establish trust and stay in sync on work progress?

TOOLS

Finally, come tools. Tools are the backbone of any successful remote-first company. They are needed for automation and transparency, and should be considered to solve your culture, communication, and goal setting challenges.

Get Started Making it Happen!

Remote is the future—and it’s happening now. People from around the world will continue to evolve and evaluate their expectations for how work fits into life. To stay competitive in the talent market and grow your business through a more productive and fulfilled workforce, a well-designed remote-first operating model is a necessity.

Decide Which Model is Right for You

HQ-centric, hybrid, and fully distributed operating models each come with their own set of advantages and challenges—now it’s time to decide which is right for you and your business.

Outline Where You Want to Be

Transforming your company into a remote-first organization won’t happen immediately. Outline where you are today, and compare that to where you want to be in the future. What gaps exist? What steps will it take to build towards your desired future?

Build a Plan to Get You There

Like any other major organizational change, shifting to a remote-first culture and mindset will take commitment, trial and error, and a constant aptitude for measuring, learning, and iteration. Listening to your employees is the number one thing you can do to create and maintain a sustainable culture—and should be baked into your plan to get to your optimal remote-first operating model.

Shelby consults with CEOs, People Leaders, and Venture Capital firms who believe people-first cultures empower successful companies.

She provides her clients with guidance in the areas of:

  • Remote & distributed work expertise
  • Interim people leadership
  • People technology strategy

Learn more at shelbywolpaconsulting.com