Throughout human history, watershed moments often occur during moments of crisis. World War I ushered in the age of the airplane, World War II ushered in the Jet Age, and so on.

The rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 (aka, the Coronavirus) pandemic has forced organizations to rethink their remote worker policies and, in some cases, has forced companies to move to fully remote working on an emergency basis.

We believe that this is a watershed moment in organizational development because it has the potential to revolutionize how most companies think about management, staffing, and real-estate procurement, not to mention the positive effect it can have on employees’ personal health and well-being.

As a remote-first organization, Crowdbotics has, thankfully, been more insulated than most because we don't follow conventional office practices – we never have. However, it did get us thinking about what we do on a daily basis to successfully navigate our "remote" business, and we wanted to write about it here so that others can benefit from our experience.

We hope that more companies adopt a "remote-first" approach, especially for knowledge work. With nearly ubiquitous Internet access and awesome tools for collaboration, there is no reason that most knowledge work cannot be done remotely.

What is a "remote-first" company?

A company that optimizes its operations to function in an environment where no employees work from a central office can be considered a remote-first company.

Taking Crowdbotics as an example: while we have a headquarters in the Bay Area, we don't require our employees to go to work at this or any other specific location. They can work from anywhere – provided they are connected, and the location does not introduce distractions to the successful completion of their tasks. Because of this, we’ve successfully brought together team members in far-flung geographies – Austin, Los Angeles, Brazil, Portugal, and even Kathmandu.

Why would any company want to do this?

  • Flexibility: Companies can rapidly scale up their organizations by accessing a global talent pool. Employees can work from wherever they choose, setting whatever schedule they choose (within reason, of course).
  • Lower overheads: Remote-first companies eliminate one of the larger line items of overhead in their P&Ls: real estate/rental costs.
  • Business continuity: Having a globally-dispersed workforce makes the business resilient against local issues. It also enables a virtual 24-hour business cycle.

What are the key drivers of success?

Organizational commitment: As with any corporate initiative, success in remote-first operations starts at the very top. The entire organization needs to commit to a remote-first lifestyle. Management commits to empowering their employees to work remotely. Employees commit to being available and to completing their tasks on time. The entire organization commits to making remote-first operations a success.

Trust impacts human dynamics more than any other factor. It governs how we interact with people and with whom we share our most intimate secrets. Success in remote-first operations can only be built on a foundation of trust.

At the most visceral level, remote-first operations require that managers trust that their teams will work without in-person, minute-by-minute supervision. There is a fairly significant escape velocity required to break free of the gravity of traditional management models which emphasize in-person supervision, but it is worth the effort.

Trust is a two-way street. There is also significant onus upon the employees to ensure that they build this trust with their managers and their peers. It is easy to do this – show up on time to meetings, deliver on time, be there to support your peers.

Honestly, establishing trust in a remote-first organization is not that much different from doing so in a "traditional" organization – it just takes a little more effort from all parties.

Flexibility: Organizations must accept that when employees are remote, they may need more flexibility with their schedules than when in a traditional office setting. In fact, one of the most rewarding aspects of working in a remote-first company is the flexibility that it gives the employee – flexibility to go to the gym at a time of their choosing; to run a quick errand; or to pick up their kids from school.

Flexibility does not mean that team members do what they please, when they please. It comes with rules. At Crowdbotics, we have kept these rules very simple:

  • Commit to working at least 6 hours during US Pacific business hours.
  • Feel free to take time off for personal tasks, but inform your manager and your team in advance.
  • No matter what personal work you have, be present for key meetings during the week: daily standup, sprint planning, sprint retrospectives, etc.

Managers are the primary drivers of success or failure in an organization, more so in a remote-first organization. They are the organizational interface for their teams. It is paramount that your managers represent your organizational values, create a welcoming environment for new employees, and take extra efforts to create well-integrated, tight-knit teams regardless of the locations of the individual employees.

Tools: Remote-first organizations must commit to using collaborative tools to simplify their work. We've detailed some of the tools that Crowdbotics uses to be successful in our business. This list is neither exhaustive, nor is it exclusive – feel free to substitute your tool of choice.

What are some tools that you use?

  • Slack: Crowdbotics is a Slack-first organization. We conduct most of our business on Slack, and even have private Slack channels established to interact with our larger customers. We use Slack for discussions, making decisions, and reporting via its many integrations with tools like Jira, GitHub, and Hubspot.

    We also use Slack and its channels to help build a fun company culture with channels like #random (pet pictures, anyone?) and #shout-outs (recognition). Slack is also great to keep office banter going – a key component of ensuring employees feel connected to the company regardless of their remoteness.

    We use Slack calls extensively for 1:1s and impromptu meetings. Screen sharing is really great – and it's been a huge help for code reviews, design discussions, and other meetings where whiteboarding is needed.

    On the engineering team, we insist that we use video calls for our 1:1s so that the manager and the team member are able to sense each other's body language and non-verbal cues. Plus, who wants to talk to a disembodied voice?
  • Google Hangouts: If you already use GSuite for your email and document collaboration, using Google Hangouts for audio/video conference calls is a no-brainer. It integrates seamlessly with Google Calendar, and works flawlessly in most browsers – not just Chrome. The one downside is that Google Hangouts doesn't record conversations, and screen sharing isn't where it should be. It is still a (no-added-cost) option for audio and video conferencing if you're using GSuite.
  • Zoom is our go-to solution for larger meetings (company all-hands, for instance) and for meetings where we want to record the conversation. The interface is simple and the audio and video quality are great. Screen sharing works well too.
  • Google Docs / Dropbox Paper are wonderful tools that allow collaborative, real-time editing. We could not survive as a remote team without these tools.

We hope that this article has been informative, and that it helps you in your journey to becoming a remote-first organization. It is not an easy lifestyle, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy!