In the past 3 months companies have completed a dramatic shift to remote work. What had previously taken decades to accomplish happened overnight.

Long before 3 months ago, a limited number of great companies were built to be remote first. These companies (certainly in hindsight) are truly visionary for a range of reasons. From access to talent, reducing overhead and all the way to really believing that you can build a better product or service as a remote team – it’s hard to argue with their results. What they offer is more than open vacation policies, home office allowances, paid continued learning, insurance, parental leave, and at least one company-wide meetup every year. It’s more. It’s ideological and in every case they seem to put people first.

5 Particular examples stand out. Basecamp, Buffer, Automattic, Zapier and Helpscout. It’s not (only) due to their successes, but because for them remote work isn’t just happenstance. These organizations were founded on the principle that remote work produces better results.

Here are 5 lessons to take away from 5 of the most impressive remote-first companies.

Basecamp: Understand How People Work Best

Basecamp, or more accurately, its founder, Jason Fried, literally wrote the book on remote work. They’ve been a remote company for over 20 years (that’s 7 years before the iPhone came out) and become a leading project management tool with over 3.3 million accounts.

The big idea, in a nutshell, is to ask yourself an important question: where do you go when you want to get work done?

Jason points out that generally, people will gravitate to a special space (a favorite coffee shop or the train) or a time (early morning after a run). The answer is never “the office at 3pm on a Tuesday”. With ideas that align very well with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”, the office doesn’t allow you to work your way. It is intended to function as a space to work collectively. It’s about meetings, facilitating management, and (as a positive) create serendipitous interactions. This structure leads to a very disruptive environment.

The key Basecamp lesson is – are you empowering your employees to work where and how they are most productive?

Buffer: Transparency Breeds Trust

I’ve been a big fan of Buffer for the better part of a decade. It was always about their highly intuitive product that works really well. And Buffer is 100% remote.

When I came across their content – it changed from a great tool to a great brand. It’s not just great ideas (“Top 10 Lessons from Growing to $10 Million ARR”). It was the remarkable transparency on every facet of running a startup…and successfully.

They published a spreadsheet with every employee’s salary. Joel Gascoigne wrote an article on how and why they spent $3.3 million to buy out investors. They publish performance reports – even though they are a private company. Their blog subdomain?

It’s a remarkable approach. And it has paid off very well for them. Can you imagine how much easier it is to attract talent when they know exactly what they will get paid? Or where anyone from entry level to executive knows how the company is doing? Or when customers can see how the company is run?

I don’t know of any other companies that are this transparent internally – let alone externally. The key lesson here is that with a remote first workforce, transparency becomes an agent for creating a unified experience, along with building a deeply shared identity. It builds trust and teamwork, even when you can’t physically interact with your colleagues.

Trust is often the biggest reason there’s a hesitance for management to move to a remote first or flexible model. Establishing transparency and trust as an embedded feature within your company sends very empowering signals. Given the lack of physical proximity and communication cues that come with that, in a remote environment transparency breeds trust.

Automattic: Remote work is…Freedom.

You might not have heard about Automattic, but you’ve certainly used their products, such as tumblr and WordPress. In fact, you are on a WordPress site right now. 35% Of all websites use WordPress. It is valued at over US $3 billion, with over 1000 employees scattered around the world.

Their motto?

“We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom.”

If you are a company that believes you are making the world a better place, freer, more accessible, how are you delivering on the same values for your team?

The big idea at Automattic is that freedom is to work how you want, when you want and where you want. Perhaps most importantly… why? For their employees, work should feel like a “Choose your own adventure”.

It’s not just a tagline, it is the company. No one counts your time off. They expressly believe talent doesn’t need to be, perhaps shouldn’t be, in “a tech hub”.

When you are looking to build an open source, inclusive internet it starts with innovative ideas about how and why people are working. Automattic highlights the idea that it starts with freedom. And that can lead billion dollar valuations.

Another interesting lesson from Automattic, Matt (CEO) believes in the importance of writing “Skill in writing is one of the things I look for the most in hiring, because I feel that clear writing represents clear thinking, regardless of someone’s background, or whether they’re a designer or coder or whatever.” Communication in a remote workforce has to be at the foundation.

The Automattic WordPress Creed

Zapier: How Culture can Happen with Remote Teams

Building connections is at the core of what Zapier is. With a team of 250 in 28 countries, building connections between people would inherently be an existential objective.

Emphasizing teamwork might feel cliche in many office spaces, but when you are only meeting up a couple times a year at most, putting an emphasis on culture makes a huge difference.

Transparency, empathy, and growth through feedback are at the core of their values. Here is an example of a few tips from their blog on how they build culture in remote teams:

  • Culture is about more than ping pong tables (or kegs of beers)
  • Culture is about how you work
  • Tools allow for collaboration and fun
  • In-person meetups are still important
  • Local community sponsorship shows presence
  • Trust is the foundation
  • Get things done

An interesting aside here – to prove culture doesn’t only happen in the Bay area, they started offering new hires 10k to move out of the Bay area with their families. They saw a 50% increase in applicants after opening this program.

Helpscout: The Importance of Inclusivity and Diversity

Being inclusive and diverse can be lip service in many organizations. When you are a company like Helpscout, having a remote team across 40 countries, working in a range of languages, you can’t get away with faking it.

In a typical office environment, diversity can only go as far as the diversity in your city (or team). Not only that, office culture and selection biases can breed herd mentality. With remote working, everyone is inevitably bringing a different set of cultural circumstances to the table – given the geographic diversity on a global scale.

Every 6 months or so Helpscout releases an update on their diversity and inclusivity initiatives – such as announcing a slack channel for #impostersyndrome or bringing in Jason Wong, a former VP at Etsy, to speak about bootstrapping inclusion.

They are a certified B-Corp. They have hit gender parity company wide. They publish breakdowns on how they are doing on a range of fronts, including racial, gender, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, and whether someone identifies as neuroatypical.

There’s something great about this. Especially for a company that caters to the customer service industry. Identifying with marginalized groups makes empathizing with a customer that much more natural.

Perhaps the most important element on diversity and inclusion is not glossing over areas for improvement. An example here is that only 1 in 5 of their executive team is female – and they publish that as a challenge to themselves. With that level of transparency, I’d bet on them improving on that front.

Where You Work From Can Inform What You Do

What all these companies share in common, aside from being wildly successful, people empowering and mostly – if not completely – remote, is that their products and services have benefited because they are remote and not in spite of it.

For example, Basecamp being remote forces them to examine their own collaborative processes. That in turn improves their product and ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of how their customers are using their platform.

There are plenty of situations where a remote workforce can’t work, but for many, where it’s possible, there are big advantages and ways to develop a leaner and more people empowering structure by going remote. And deliver stronger collaboration.

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