Remote-first Versus Partially Remote Work Cultures


COVID-19 has forced nearly every company to adopt some semblance of a work remote culture. It’s great to see companies take the initiative in flattening the curve through social distancing. However, the work remote culture your organization adopted in response to COVID-19 is necessarily not a remote-first work culture.

At surface level, it may seem like an organization has a remote-first work culture. Nearly everyone in the company works remote. All meetings are held using chat tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts. Maybe no employees have seen each other in person in months (and will likely not see one another for more months to come). None of this necessarily makes your organization a remote-first culture.

Remote-first vs partially-remote work cultures

There’s a big difference between being a remote-first company and being a remote-supporting (or partially-remote) company. A remote-supporting company may allow employees to work remotely, but the culture will lead others to treat them as second-class citizens—even if the majority of the company is forced to work remotely in light of COVID-19. If someone is invited to meetings, it may be only as an afterthought. Often, in remote-supporting companies, remote employees are less visible and may be the first to be let go during a downturn.

However, in a remote-first company, all solutions are incorporated to allow the best possible experience for remote employees. Remote workers aren’t afterthoughts, nor are they seen as secondary to in-person employees. They’re essential members of the team and are given every resource they need to thrive. The COVID-19 crisis forced many companies into remote-supporting status. With no end in sight for the pandemic, these organizations will need to begin thinking more like remote-first companies in the coming months. 

Decide to be intentional about remote-first

There are many things to consider if you want your company to be remote-first. Do remote employees have the same opportunities to socialize and converse with coworkers? In other words, are you proactively fostering an environment of interoffice relationship building? In remote-first environments, managers and employees have to seek out what might otherwise be chance encounters. 

Does everyone have the same experience in a meeting, or are remote employees struggling to hear side conversations of the people in the meeting room? Do remote employees have to consistently advocate for themselves to be remembered or are there clear systems in place to make sure the right people are always invited to appropriate meetings, conversations, and decisions? Is it disruptive in any way if a “non-remote” person decides to become remote? If so, then you probably are still leaning too much on being in-person. The main benefit of remote-first is every employee not only gets to work from home, but can work from anywhere, and nothing about their role within the company, either implicit or explicit, really changes. Take meaningful steps to ensure all team members are included and communicating effectively, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a successful remote-first environment.

If you’re coming from an office that isn’t remote-first and you want to adopt a remote-first environment, you must be intentional about everything you do and take active, measurable steps towards this goal. Being in the same room as your team brings a lot of side benefits unintentionally, such as social dynamics and cohesion, culture, inclusion, and advocacy (who is top of mind for the manager during promotion time?) etc. Remote-first work requires an intentional and deliberate strategy to ensure your team can benefit from all of these things while working towards your shared goals.

Lay the foundation for effective communication

In a remote-first working environment, it’s important to facilitate communication and collaboration between the company in a way that is natural and human. This should be a core emphasis of any remote-first organization’s culture.

Today, a lot of emphasis is placed around productivity tools and communication stacks. In reality, there’s little functional difference between video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Google Meet, or productivity tools such as Slack and Teams. Technology can help optimize and guide productivity, but at the end of the day, the tools don’t matter—it’s the people and their ability to comfortably and effectively communicate, as well as their outcomes, that should be measured.

To make a culture of effective communication possible, it’s important to proactively encourage interpersonal relationships amongst everyone and to promote inclusion around various work-style preferences.

Chance encounters and unplanned meetings lead to valuable outcomes in office-driven environments. The headquarters of Pixar and Apple was specifically designed to encourage chance run-ins. The digital analogy for this would be creating #random Slack threads around shared interests, scheduling digital happy hours on Fridays, and encouraging digital workflows that help make people comfortable scheduling collaborative meetings on the fly.

It’s important to be intentional about creating remote-first spaces to encourage relationship building and digital “run-ins”. Having deliberate social time is important! These spaces will help foster a digital sense of community and inclusion among team members, allowing them to work more efficiently, collaborate more effectively, and have a better experience overall.

Creating spaces for both collaborative and asynchronous working styles

In remote-first business development roles, some employees may live by the calendar. An open calendar across the organization makes it easy to see whether people are busy with a prospect, meeting with others, or are able to join a call to help solve a problem or provide input.

As a remote-first worker, an open, cross-organizational calendar makes it easy to know when one can pick up the phone and call a coworker for an urgent issue, or if one should hold off and communicate asynchronously via Slack or email.

An open calendar also makes it easier for an employee to dedicate time for deep and focused sessions, preventing distractions and interruptions. Open-calendar culture allows anyone to block off time in order to focus on activities like integration testing, writing, or even personal wellness activities like meditating or working out.
We hope these suggestions help you and your organization on its journey to being a remote-first workplace. Share your experience with remote work below.

This blog is the first in a series on remote work. In this series, we share examples of how we address remote work at Storj Labs, where the majority of our team works remotely. To view the rest of the blogs in this series, visit: https://storj.io/blog/categories/remote-work.