How to Design a Remote-first Workplace
Living and working through a pandemic requires changes that were unimaginable even just five years ago. For companies hoping to sustain business or even thrive during this time, there is no more “business as usual.” Instead, they’ll need to overhaul how their teams will work together not only in the coming months, but much farther into the future. And that overhaul starts with a remote-first mentality.
Online real estate company Zillow admits that their leadership was resistant to moving to a work-from-home setup for a long time. Dan Spaulding, Zillow’s Chief People Officer, attributes this resistance to the decades-long practice of what many Americans consider to be a typical workday.
In an interview with CNN Business, Spaulding said of Zillow’s leadership, “They’d been in that rhythm for 10, 20, 30 years of our professional careers and I think there was a belief, that wasn’t just isolated to us, that if people weren’t in the office that they were doing something else, and maybe that something else was not being focused on their role.”
To the company’s surprise, however, employees were just as productive and more connected than ever. The change was such a success that three months after the initial switch, Zillow announced they were offering around 90 percent of their employees the option to work from home indefinitely. Other major companies like REI, Reddit, and Google have gone in the same direction or are exploring ways to be more remote-forward in the future.
Designing a remote-first workplace involves more than simply having your team take their laptops home at the end of the day. Critical evaluation, thoughtful planning, and creative solutions are necessary to creating long-term success. Read on to see what changes your company can make to offer a more accommodating work situation to your employees.
Remote-first vs. remote-friendly: what’s the difference?
First, it’s important to recognize the difference between offering the option to work from home on occasion and making work-from-home (or WFH) the first and foremost option. In other words, will your company be remote first, or remote friendly?
Chances are you’re already familiar with remote-friendly companies. In this kind of company, the option to work remotely is available, but on an as-needed basis. Working from home might be limited to certain days of the week, specific teams, or only under certain circumstances. The expectation is that employees will still report to the office most days. Essentially, WFH is more of a perk than a standard operating procedure.
Being a remote-first company means team members can work from anywhere—whether that’s a central office, at home, a coffee shop, etc.—and have the same work experience. They can communicate easily, access the same files, and complete the same projects with no disadvantage to choosing a different workspace.
At Vibe, we’re a remote-first team located in five cities on two continents. Like many fully remote and remote-first teams, we’ve found that with the number of reliable collaborative apps and services available, this kind of work situation is more possible now than ever before.
Related: The Vocabulary of Remote Work
Who should consider going remote-first?
A company’s ability to be an effective remote-first workplace does depend on the industry— retail workers, restaurant employees, and maintenance professionals immediately come to mind. And if your company has always relied heavily on face-to-face conversations (such as real estate agencies or any human resources department), it might be hard to imagine how to evolve your practices.
But consider how a wide range of medical offices now offer telehealth appointments, or how major corporations have started onboarding new hires completely through online portals. Think of the schools that have quickly adapted to offering hybrid or 100 percent online education. You might be surprised by how many jobs can be successfully completed from outside the office.
Turning traditional office practices into remote-first strategies
Every company will have its own unique set of circumstances to evaluate when making the move to remote. However, these areas are a good place to start writing your new guidelines.
1. Develop a communications system to keep employees fully informed. Today’s companies use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous communication throughout the day.
In traditional office environments where the majority of employees are on-site every weekday from 9-5, synchronous communication is likely the default. This means quick email responses, in-person meetings, dropping by a co-worker’s office, or unscheduled chats in the break room.
While synchronous communication still has its place in a remote-first company, the focus should shift to developing an asynchronous system that team members can rely on as their go-to option for office communications.
The asynchronous communication toolkit should be robust enough to keep every employee, regardless of location, fully informed and reachable as needed. This means using applications that allow for (but aren’t limited to):
- the easy exchange of large files
- meeting recordings and transcription
- team chats with searchable histories
- remote collaboration
Communication needs will vary between departments, so take the time to gather input from your team and be open to testing different platforms.
2. Decide how productivity will be measured. One of the biggest concerns with remote work is whether or not teams will manage to be as productive outside of the office as they would be on-site. Fortunately, companies like Zillow have found their employees to be as engaged and on-target as before their WFH shift.
But how do you measure productivity? Well, there are different factors to consider. Cesar Abeid of Automattic offered a couple of examples in an interview with Remote-How:
“If your team is composed of salespeople, measure the amount of sales. If you manage programmers or developers, measure the features/products shipped per unit of time. And so on. With that mindset, it doesn’t matter how many hours your team has worked, as long as the output and the results are what they should be.”
3. Have a plan for child care and caregiver assistance.
If the current WFH boom has taught us anything, it’s the value of access to quality child care and other caregiving options. There are many larger companies who offer on-site child care, so providing a stipend or child care program to employees who work off-site is key to being a truly remote-first company.
Additionally, you might have employees who are primary caregivers for elderly parents or relatives, so it’s worth considering a general caregiving budget to help them in this area of life.
4. Budget for stipends to replace the perks you’d find in a traditional office. If you have employees who need to work away from the office and won’t have access to company-provided equipment or supplies, offering a stipend to complete their home office gives them the best opportunity to create a productive and inspiring workspace. This kind of assistance could also go toward paying for a co-working space closer to the employee’s home.
Are your employees accustomed to having access to an exercise room, workout equipment, or on-site fitness classes? Then look into offering a health and wellness stipend to replace those perks.
5. Have employees who typically work in-office spend a week working remotely. With the ability to work from anywhere, you will inevitably have employees who work best at the office. To help them get a sense of how to communicate and what challenges might arise for the remote workers, have them spend a week working remotely, whether at their home or at a co-working space.
And if possible, remote workers should be encouraged to spend some time on-site as well. In both cases, your employees can benefit from the insight that comes from experiencing what a typical day is like for their co-workers in various situations.
Establishing remote-first practices gives your team the flexibility to work where they can be the most focused and productive. For some, this might still be at the office, but having more options gives your team members the ability to care for their family, their work team, and themselves. Zillow’s Dan Spaulding said it best on the company’s blog: “We are not returning to work in the future, we are working right now, and are grateful for the hard work from our employees to find new ways to help our customers move forward to their next chapter, safely.”
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