Cost savings, better scalability, and a seemingly endless pool of potential talent—when my co-founders and I decided to launch our startup Informed in 2021, the benefits of a remote-first company structure were obvious to us. We had no choice anyway, as we were in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown at the time.
Today, I know that with the many benefits of remote-first come some challenges. And it’s not just us: nearly three years after the outbreak of the pandemic, the number of companies that have never had a physical office has grown rapidly.
And I am repeatedly asked: What have you learned since then? And how do you create a successful remote-first culture?
Here are five tips.
1. Create and maintain team spirit
This is elemental, especially for young startups. It takes a conspiratorial bunch to make big things happen and start from scratch. But, the famous “foosball table”, arguably the symbol of startups, is located in a physical space. Shared live experiences and spontaneous conversations in the coffee kitchen hardly exist in remote startups.
Virtual meetings are sufficient in purely operational terms to keep processes running, but they are no good for creating a certain team dynamic. After all, in strongly purpose-driven companies, a common identity is easier to establish; in others, the challenge can be great.
So what can be done? In every hiring interview, you should very honestly clarify whether the employee is keen on a remote-first environment, ideally, they already have experience with it. Then, right from the onboarding of new team members, you should ensure that they feel integrated as quickly as possible, for example by providing mentors.
Looser meeting formats and tools that can be integrated into Slack supplement this in order to at least partially replace the chat at the coffee machine.
However, it’s not possible to do without face-to-face meetings altogether. Companies should budget as early as possible to organize at least two annual offsites for everyone. This is expensive, but it usually pays off, because it gives the group a sense of unity that it can draw on for months to come.
In addition, there should be someone in the company who is responsible for the topic of remote work and everything related to it—from communication channels, to meeting formats, to mentoring. Otherwise, the ongoing optimization of remote work processes can easily get lost in the day-to-day business.
2. Remote work is not for control freaks
No one likes micro-managers; that’s always been the case. But in the reality of remote work, many executives still struggle with a lack of control—even though many studies have now shown that remote teams are actually more productive and in a better mood than those who have to sit in the office.
Moreover, the best work is done in companies and teams in which employees have a high degree of personal responsibility and creative freedom. Employees who can’t handle this are out of place in startups anyway.
But reassuring oneself as a manager through such insights has its limits. Anyone with a strong urge to control will fail with a remote-first company. In this respect, founders should consider very carefully whether a completely remotely managed company is suitable, sensible and feasible for them, even before they found their startup.
3. Clarify administrative and legal issues early on
Hiring employees who are permanently located in another country involves legal and organizational hassles, as well as some pitfalls. This is not an obstacle to remote hiring, but startups should deal with it as early as possible.
One solution can be specialized service providers that take over the labor law and administrative tasks in the employee’s respective country, including payment of the salary. This is a clear advantage when it comes to reducing complexity, but of course it is not free, nor are all providers good.
It is also possible to hire employees directly without an intermediate instance, but then the startup is responsible for all administrative tasks itself, for example payroll, and that can quickly become too complex and expensive, especially for startups.
Each startup must decide for itself what makes the most sense in each individual case. Experts should definitely be consulted for this, as this is the only way to avoid unpleasant surprises. It is important to set up the appropriate structures as early as possible, because nobody wants to find a top engineer somewhere in the world and then fail during the hiring process because of these structural things.
4. Expect many hours of video calls
We all know by now: Video calls as the only possible form of meetings can be very tiring and exhausting. But really, it doesn’t have to be. Over the last few years, we’ve all been able to learn what constitutes the right way to handle video calls per day: some discipline, clear rules and time limits.
The best thing is to reduce the number of calls to a minimum and make sure that only those who are really needed are present. Sounds banal. But for a large part, meetings are simply unnecessary or could at least take place in a much leaner form. Incidentally, this has always been the case, but the switch to virtual meeting rooms has made it even more obvious, because it is even more exhausting. Keyword: Zoom Fatigue.
It is also advisable to consistently schedule meeting-free deep-work phases or entire meeting-free days. In the end, fostering a collective awareness of the issue, focus on it, and make sure that limiting meetings is modeled by the leadership team. It helps.
5. Resolve conflicts
Conflicts happen from time to time in all companies and teams. Resolving them, however, is often much more difficult in remote teams. While tensions in other companies may simply be settled over a beer, this is not so easy in fully remote companies. Added to this is the fact that many remote teams are very international and often encounter different cultures and ways of working.
How can this problem be solved?
First, managers need to be attentive and watch for the smallest signs of conflict. They should also, of course, be in constant conversation with their team leads in order to sense negative moods among employees early on.
Secondly, there must be trusted contact persons for all team members to deal with such issues. Employees must never feel left alone; they simply need a little more attention and active management.
In addition, a strong and positive corporate and leadership culture is also important in the remote set-up. If the entire company lives values such as honesty, openness to feedback, friendliness and integrity, then conflicts are usually resolved faster and better. Cultivating these values starts at the hiring stage. In a remote company, they need to be tested and asked about as early as the selection of new employees.
I can only strongly advise all remote-first founders to deal with all these issues early and consciously. Not doing so will pay back sooner or later. But if you actively deal with these challenges, remote work is a huge opportunity, especially for startups.