The nature of work is shifting significantly in the early 21st century—from traditional, corporate structures where every employee commutes to a nearby office for eight hours a day, to gig economy models and a deconstruction of what the “workplace” means. While checking into a physical office every day is still the norm, remote work—working outside the office (primarily from home)—has been steadily on the rise in the U.S., with over 50% of U.S. companies supporting some form of remote work,* and at least 5% of the population consistently.*
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2017)
A variety of factors have contributed to this shift, including:
Broadband access. Decreased costs of—and increased access to—broadband internet have led to the widespread prevalence of high-speed internet.
Technological advances. Easier, cheaper access to technology and tools that facilitate digital communication—like computers, smart phones, video meetings, and an explosion of widely available, largely inexpensive cloud-based services—have made being together in an office less necessary for getting work done, even for more team-based, collaborative work.
A rise in knowledge worker jobs. These are largely “thinking-based” jobs focused on solving problems and typically coming up with new products and services. Management consultant and writer Peter Drucker characterizes knowledge work as “ever-changing, dynamic, and autonomous,”* and predicted as early as the 1950s that it would be increasingly intertwined with computers and technology.*
Increased costs of living. Housing prices are becoming increasingly out of reach up through the middle class in dense, urban areas, and are often paired with lengthy, expensive commutes. People are either looking to live in less expensive, smaller locations, or to at least avoid commuting hours per day.
Environmental concerns. * (It’s worth noting, however, that remote work incurs different environmental impacts related to company retreats and potentially increased airline travel for some of the workforce, notably managers and executives. No data that we’re aware of factors these aspects into the overall environmental impact analysis of remote work.)poses a number of environmental benefits, from reducing or eliminating commuting to minimizing waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with centralized offices.
Changing individual values. Evolving attitudes regarding work, personal time, and life/work balance are pushing employers to shift strategies to continue to retain talented workers who wish for more flexibility and better quality of life.
Source: Brookings Institute
Remote work is just work.Hiten Shah, co-founder and CEO, FYI*
Depending on whom you ask, remote or distributed work is The Future of Work—the biggest shift in the workplace since the industrial revolution; a trend that’s not going to last; or a phenomenon that’s been growing for decades. We embrace the latter view, noting that remote work as we know it now began back in the U.S. in the 1970s (when it was initially referred to as “telecommuting”), and has been on the rise in terms of popularity and reach slowly ever since.*
In 1973, NASA engineer Jack Nilles wrote The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff,* in which he posited that was a way to reduce gridlock, sprawl, and reliance on fossil fuels (this was the era of OPEC oil embargoes). He saw a not-so-distant future in which “either the jobs of the employees must be redesigned so that they can still be self-contained at each individual location, or a sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications and information storage system must be developed to allow the information transfer to occur as effectively as if the employees were centrally collocated.”*
A big part of the rise of remote work is tied to technological advancements over the past decade or so. When Hiten Shah notes that remote work is “just work,” he also adds that it’s because “software is everywhere.” But while technology has greatly aided the expansion of remote work, it’s not why remote work will succeed (or fail) at any given organization. Nilles saw this truth early as well: “organizational—and management—cultural changes [are] far more important in the rate of acceptance of .”
importantNot every job can be done remotely. Outside of physical jobs like healthcare work, construction, and service industries, every company may have a range of what’s feasible and some specific constraints. A hardware startup might have a mix of roles that can be done remotely, but the core product has to be built and tested in a physical space. Some industries (financial services, healthcare tech) have such significant security and compliance constraints that a remote workforce might be too much effort or risk to maintain.
Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, assesses whether a job can be done remotely based on the following set of criteria:*
Even within knowledge work, some roles may have heavier in-person needs at various times, such as sales, where closing a deal (especially a big one) likely means getting on a plane and meeting face-to-face. More junior roles that require much higher levels of mentoring and hands-on learning can also be challenging in a remote environment.
Finally, remote work can prove challenging for anyone who thrives on the built-in social and collaborative aspects of working in an office with other people. While many of the necessary skills for remote workers—increased autonomy, adjusted communication practices, managing potential feelings of isolation and loneliness—can be acquired and improved by individuals, and enabled by companies and managers, remote work is not for everyone.
Successful remote work requires intentionally examining how and why people communicate, make decisions, collaborate, and learn to trust each other. Being together in the same space makes up for a lot of messy, inefficient human tendencies, all of which are critical to examine and account for when you won’t be together. It has little to do with which new SaaS app your company tries out or how many channels you have in Slack.
Even in fervently titled posts like “Why Naval Ravikant Thinks Remote Work Is The Future,” Naval Ravikant acknowledges that remote work isn’t a magic solution. “It’s going to be done through lengthy trials. It’s going to be done through new forms of evaluating whether someone can work remotely effectively,” Ravikant says.
This Guide covers knowledge work at startups and high-growth companies where everyone does not work from the same physical office location. While this applies to companies with offices in multiple geographic locations (aka “satellite offices”), we intend the Guide more for companies (and their employees) that intentionally have at least some percentage of their workforce working entirely remotely, rather than coming into a physical office location.
Remote work (or distributed work) is an organizational approach where employees of a company do not conduct their daily work from the same physical location on an ongoing basis. In-person communication and coordination are typically replaced by a combination of telephone calls, email, internet video calls, online chat, and written documentation. In the past, remote work was referred to as “telecommuting,” but this term has fallen out of favor with the advent of ubiquitous internet access that supports online forms of communication.
We do not cover large, multinational companies looking to dramatically cut costs via offshoring or other related methodologies; nor do we cover remote work for or freelancers/contractors as a broad category (though will will discuss how play a role in international remote teams, and the legal and other complexities associated with such approaches). For the time being, we are also not addressing remote work at non-profits or government agencies, though many of the ideas and practices in the guide will be relevant to both. We also don’t cover how to find remote jobs for prospective employees.
This guide covers material of interest to anyone involved with remote work, including:
Full-time employees at companies where not everyone works in the same office. This includes both companies with all remote employees, and companies with a mix of remote and on-site employees; people who go into an office every day but work with people who are remote will benefit from this material just as much as their remote colleagues.
Managers of teams at remote companies.
Remote work advice is often based on individual or anecdotal experience, or presents the perspective of a single specific company. Much of this advice is also hyperbolic and lacks nuance around the complexities and challenges for both individuals and companies. We see a need for a consolidated and shared resource written by and for people involved in all aspects of remote work—including managers, founders, and employees; including HR, legal, and operational staff; and including those at beginner levels and the more experienced alike.
Every company and remote employee is unique, and this Guide is not perfect; but it aims nonetheless to be the most inclusive and practical resource available on the subject. Whether you’re a remote worker or anyone else involved with distributed teams, we want to supply you with both the principles and the tools to empower you to flourish in a remote environment.
dangerWhen thinking about remote work, both startups and larger companies often look to other, often famous, companies for inspiration. But you are (probably) not GitLab or Basecamp, and “just use the GitLab handbook” can be inappropriate advice. The approach to remote work that you want is not necessarily the same. Each company’s size, growth, philosophies, and financial outlook may be very different from those of other companies. And if you’re an employee, one company’s or philosophy won’t necessarily help you succeed elsewhere. We can learn a lot from seemingly successful remote companies, but we shouldn’t blindly copy them.
The Holloway Reader you’re using now is designed to help you find and navigate the material you need. Use the search box. It will reveal definitions, section-by-section results, and content contained in the hundreds of resources we’ve linked to throughout the Guide. Think of it as a mini-library of the best content on the subject of remote work. We also provide mouseover (or short tap on mobile) for definitions of terms, related section suggestions, and external links while you read.
A reference like this cannot be perfect or complete. Please suggest improvements, add other helpful comments, or call out anything that needs revision. We welcome (and will gladly credit!) your help.
important Most of the contributors to this Guide have worked in the United States, in the Silicon Valley job market, and at growing, technology-focused companies of various sizes. The principles and high-level advice apply much more generally than these constraints, though culture, values, and the nature of remote teams may vary in different geographic areas and across the industry. If you have experience in other contexts, we’d love to hear from you.
This section was written by Courtney Nash.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for remote work. The forms it takes depend on the size, stage, and philosophy of each organization, and will change as a company grows and matures. Often, remote work is framed in the context of people and not having to commute; however, any company that has multiple offices deals with many of the same challenges (and may more accurately be described as a distributed company, as described below). Once an office expands beyond a single floor, the nature of how people work together inherently changes. Remote work largely exaggerates those changes, and successful remote teams depend on more attention being paid to them.
confusionTerminology about remote work is fraught with debate and inconsistency. Despite the fact that there’s a growing movement behind using the term distributed over remote—notably, viewing team members as remote can have hierarchical implications about what is “central” and what is not—for the purposes of this guide we will use “remote work” throughout to refer to the broad category, and draw distinctions about fully distributed companies or teams when relevant.
It’s also tempting to categorize companies as “remote or not” in a binary fashion, or perhaps as a point along a continuum between those two ends. Andreas Klinger, Head of Remote at AngelList, thinks about remote work as a space within a grid, where one axis is how close people are to the next hub or HQ (if one exists), and the other is how distributed across time zones individual teams or people are.* All other things being equal, a company with remote employees clustered near typical urban hubs within U.S. time zones has a different set of constraints, requirements, and pain points than one with remote employees scattered across the globe.
Concerns about productivity used to be one of the foremost roadblocks for companies considering supporting remote work. Anecdotally, we’re seeing this decrease somewhat in the list of worries for companies; but for many it’s still not a foregone conclusion that remote work means individuals or teams will be more productive.* Despite that, improved productivity (typically expressed as a lack of interruptions) continues to be one of the main reasons remote employees prefer working outside an office.*
cautionBut despite what a quick Google search will tell you, there’s not a lot of concrete data on whether remote work is really a win-win situation for employees and companies. There’s an endless supply of blog posts telling you that “remote workers are more productive,” but if you dig in, nearly all of them are either:
Reciting results from surveys of remote employees, who are providing anecdotal, self-reported estimates of whether they are more productive when working outside an office.
Many companies remain doubtful about a “remote work revolution,” but the benefits of remote teams are hard to deny. From faster, less costly hiring to more satisfied employees and a more diverse workforce, supporting remote employees is reshaping modern corporate structure in many positive ways. But as with much of remote work, there are tradeoffs, and every organization needs to assess whether the benefits outweigh the risks or potential downsides.
Real estate is not cheap—in tech hubs like the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle, the costs of office space and housing are increasingly a major barrier to entry for smaller companies and startups. According to The Square Foot’s office space calculator, a 200-square foot allocation per employee costs as follows per year:
|City||Cost per employee|
Hiring is one of the biggest pain points for companies, especially startups looking to scale rapidly. The majority of companies we spoke with pointed to hiring as one of the primary reasons they’ve embraced remote work. One of the clearest benefits of remote teams to companies is a global talent pool that is not restricted to highly competitive, expensive urban tech hubs.
importantHiring a single employee can cost between $4K-$7K (and often more for highly technical or specialized roles), and can take upwards of two months.* Hiring remotely opens up a world of candidates, greatly reducing the time and costs companies incur to find talent. Fully distributed companies take 33% less time to hire a new employee (4.5 weeks vs. 7 weeks).*
Hiring is expensive, but hiring people who don’t stick around very long is even more costly. The 2019 State of Remote Work report by Owl Labs and Kate Lister of Global Workplace Analytics have some of the most compelling results about the power of remote work to improve employee satisfaction with their job and increase willingness to stay with their current company. They found that companies that allow some form of remote work have 25% less employee turnover than companies that do not allow remote work, and that remote workers are 13% more likely than on-site workers to say that they will stay in their current job for the next 5 years. The benefits don’t just apply to full-time, remote-only employees, either—even people who work from home occasionally report higher levels of job satisfaction.
Remote work also means that companies won’t lose people if they have to move for any reason. If their spouse gets a job in another city or they need to be closer to family when they have kids, a remote employee can relocate and keep doing their exact same job with almost no impact (although time zones are the potential complicating factor here).
Companies stand to benefit from more diverse pools of candidates by being able to hire anywhere in the world. Employers no longer need to rely on hiring people who can only afford to live in expensive urban areas, which excludes a significant slice of the population, often along socio-economic and racial lines. Supporting remote work allows employers to hire people who want or need to stay close to home. This can include those who have caretaking responsibilities, which can have an impact on diversity and inclusion, because women are still more likely to be caretakers than men. Hiring remotely also lets employers select people whose disabilities impinge on their ability to commute and/or work in an in-office setting.*
Still, we don’t yet have the data that proves increased diversity of teams is in fact happening at remote companies. Remote.com found that more women have CEO, founder, or President roles at remote companies: 28%, compared to 5.2% CEOs in S&P 500 companies and 6.4% in Fortune 500 companies. We don’t know of any data related to the diversity of remote teams, but hope that as remote work proliferates, more information will emerge.
contributeWe’d love to hear of any other studies with data on diversity at remote companies. If you know of any, please let us know!
The increasing rate of natural disasters around the world have forced many companies and local governments to consider remote work as part of their disaster and emergency plans. U.S. events like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Harvey, or the 2018 California wildfires kept thousands of people from going into work, and disrupted business operations for a large number of companies. During a severe East Coast snow storm in 2010, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management originally estimated the shutdown would cost $100M per day in lost productivity. They later revised the number to $71M per day to reflect the fact that their teleworkers (remote workers) were still able to work.* Companies that already support remote work are at an advantage, as they don’t need a separate set of policies, technology, and equipment for when people suddenly have to work somewhere other than the office.
importantRemote work can help in localized, non-life-threatening situations. Of course, in the event of larger incidents that threaten people’s safety, companies will want to ensure that no one is put in danger in the name of business continuity. It also raises the reality that individuals may be impacted locally themselves when the rest of the company is not. While companies may not necessarily have full-blown disaster and emergency response plans and protocols for remote workers, it’s wise to ensure remote employees know what steps to take, including whom to contact at the company, when a disaster or emergency happens.
Early forays into remote work in the 1970s emerged in direct response to growing gridlock and concerns over fossil fuel consumption.* More recent studies have turned up some very convincing data when it comes to remote work reducing daily commutes, which has a positive environmental impact. FlexJobs reports on a host of positive outcomes, including:*
7.8B car miles not driven
530M trips avoided
Flexible schedules are one of the most prominent benefits universally cited by people who work remotely. Whether it’s more time with family, mid-day exercise, working when you want vs. set 9-to-5 office hours*, flexible schedules typically lead to self-reported improvement in people’s work/life balance—often because of powerful drivers that can include the increasing demands of parenting, the growing number of older relatives that need care, and the desire for a career as well as a family.
The benefits to remote employees when it comes to saving time and money are almost indisputable. The top ones include:
Commuting. Aside from the environmental benefits, no longer jumping in a car (or on a train or bus) can save remote workers thousands of dollars per year.*
Cost of living. Remote workers aren’t tied to major cities and urban centers, where costs of housing and other related factors continue to increase. They can move to better-priced locales with lower costs of living.
Over eight in ten remote employees work from home, with most of the rest working from a coworking space or a coffee shop. This location independence was the most important benefit to around 30% of remote workers. It’s easy to understand why—people tend to be more comfortable in their homes; remote workers are less likely to be interrupted by colleagues when they don’t want to be; and 90% feel that they’re more productive.*
Control over your work environment means you can change locations to best suit your work style preferences or the kind of work you’re doing. If you prefer quiet times to focus on work, then a home office is your best option. If you thrive on the buzz of people around you, then communal work spaces or coffee shops may be a better choice. Not being tied to an office means you can choose which suits you best and at which times.
While the time- and cost-savings benefits are largely inherent to remote work, reaping the potential health-related benefits requires dedicated attention (from both the employee and their manager). One remote employee could use their extra time saved from commuting to go to the gym or for daily walks, while another could simply log more time in front of the computer. The same goes for mental health—you have more flexibility and time to take care of whatever helps you feel better, but remote workers commonly suffer from overworking and not being able to disconnect at the end of the day. (See Morale, Mental Health, and Burnout In Remote Teams and Personal Health for more in-depth coverage of this topic.)
People living outside urban technical hubs—especially in less economically developed areas—stand to gain significantly when it comes to how much they can earn.* Depending on a company’s compensation philosophy, a software engineer in Bogotá, Colombia could stand to make the same as someone in San Francisco, with a corresponding vast difference in how far that salary can go because of the lower costs of living. Even when companies adjust for local geographies, remote roles often still pay far more than anything someone could find in their own city.
Attitudes about remote work are changing rapidly as more companies choose to embrace it. But there’s still a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). Remote work is neither universally good nor bad, but is rather a series of ongoing tradeoffs and adaptations to a company’s approach. Here we dispel a few (positive and negative) myths and call out common pitfalls that companies and employees can avoid along the way.
Today, only 30% of * Despite a degree of punditry on this topic, especially from early-stage startups, remote-first or all-remote companies aren’t guaranteed to be “doing remote” better. Remote is very rarely all or nothing. Almost every company is a hybrid and each person or team is on a continuum of on-site to fully remote. companies are all-remote.
The vast majority of companies are going to have to ease into supporting remote work and intentionally design the right culture, processes, and systems to support it. What matters is that they consciously examine what will work for them, and plan to revisit that as their company grows and plans change. There are a few common pitfalls to look out for as this happens.
cautionWhen no one in management or a leadership position is remote—as often happens in many hybrid remote companies—you’re more likely to be missing key pain points or cultural problems for remote workers. You’re also more likely, (although not guaranteed) to have a system where decisions are made centrally and remote employees feel they are “out of sight, out of mind,” and left out of what’s happening in the office.
When companies or managers say this, what they really mean is, “When people are in the office, I think I know when they’re working.” But Key Channels and Tools for Remote Communication, the practices of clearly setting team goals and establishing more asynchronous channels of communication allow remote teams to thrive without constant managerial oversight. doesn’t guarantee productivity, and it certainly doesn’t mean employees have clarity about what they should be working on. As we discuss in
cautionInstalling monitoring software will not help your company know for sure if people are working instead of slacking off. In fact, it will erode trust, which is the backbone of a healthy remote team.* A properly aligned remote team with clear goals and autonomy won’t require tracking. (See more in Managing Distributed Teams and Remote Company Culture.)
This is true in principle, but complicated and not always possible in practice. Hiring outside your home base, especially once you start hiring internationally, raises a whole host of legal, financial, and operational concerns that may constrain how aggressively you pursue this. Additionally, managing time zones turns out to be one of the more thorny problems that remote companies face, which may also impact how you choose to approach hiring from afar.
There’s a grain of truth to this concern about remote work, but only if your company doesn’t intentionally design how it will support remote workers. The way co-located teams collaborate doesn’t translate to a distributed model. Teams can’t rely on being in the same space to get context, share ideas, give and receive feedback, and iterate or brainstorm. The nature (and, sometimes, timeframe) of collaboration shifts when people move outside an office. But it’s not necessarily ineffective. Remote collaboration requires rethinking how remote teams work together, and also designing practices to support more asynchronous progress while still helping team members trust and learn from each other. (See more in Remote Collaboration Ground Rules.)
Much like workplace communication norms, Remote Company Culture, shared values—and the specific practices of communicating and promoting those values—largely shape a group’s culture whether group members are co-located or not. Values can and should be written down, shared liberally and regularly, and revisited as a company grows and changes. Like many other written, asynchronous practices, values—and the culture built from them—can survive, and even thrive, in remote settings. has been heavily shaped by physical . Proximity has long been a proxy for what constitutes culture, despite not being the primary factor that establishes any given culture, nor a guarantee that a culture will be healthy. The belief that remote teams won’t have a cohesive culture is the same belief that maintains that have good cultures to begin with. As we cover in
importantWe don’t intend to downplay the difficulties involved with establishing and scaling a healthy remote culture. But like any other aspects of remote work, it’s a matter of doing the work. And most importantly, it’s a matter of realizing that culture isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it phenomenon. Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab—arguably the fastest-growing all-remote startup out there—acknowledges the work required to maintain their culture:
It’s a daily, intentional challenge. I’m working a lot on onboarding right now. One of our biggest risks is “losing the values that bind us.” When we have too many new people coming in too fast, they are figuring out where they fit in. If you’re not careful, they don’t realize they have permission to do things differently. If too many of those people come in and “talk louder” than others, then the culture starts to tip in that direction. Any leader who appreciates the culture they’ve built has to continually watch out for that. Your natural inclination is to get them in and working quickly, so you don’t have the time to teach them to do things differently. The thing that GitLab has going for it is that stuff that we let people leave behind is what people usually want to leave behind. It’s like hiring a new soccer coach, someone who views the field the way the old coach taught them. If you take that person and then add a flood of new players, it’s hard for the existing players to teach them their playbook.*
can and do thrive in some cases, but traveling consistently consumes more time, money, and energy than staying in place, and many remote companies still are not willing or organized enough to support nomadism for one or more employees. The unique demands of digital nomads (along with other remote work factors like isolation and lack of social support) are some of the inspirations for organizations like Remote Year, which puts digital nomads into cohorts and provides logistical and on-site support for people traveling and working remotely.
contributeWe aren’t covering in this Guide, but we’d love to hear more from people working this way to help us inform potential future updates.
60% of remote workers still work a fixed-schedule job five days a week, involving meetings, video calls, and plenty of collaborative work. It’s likely that this schedule correlates with the majority of remote companies still being hybrid, which could constrain remote team members to more traditional in-office schedules. But even if your schedule is not a traditional 9-to-5 routine, that doesn’t mean you truly get to do whatever you want, whenever you choose.
caution In some remote teams, handling time zone differences can mean occasional odd hours for meetings. Distributed teams often work across time zones, and you’ll be collaborating with people on the other side of the country or the world. We’ve provided ways to manage that later, but differing time zones can be either a benefit or a drawback. Managed well, time differences let you get stuff done in your working day with fewer interruptions; but managed badly, they can lead to long lead times, misunderstandings, or meetings at undesirable hours—and can even exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Despite favoring remote work over an office environment for reducing distractions, many people who work remotely end up managing a whole set of surprising new distractions. Barking dogs, construction next door, family or friends wanting to visit, door-to-door salespeople—they can be just as frustrating or disruptive as colleagues tapping you on the shoulder, especially when you’re on a video call with a group of people. A few consistent examples include:
Family and friends. It’s important to set strong boundaries on your availability with your loved ones—just because you’re mental health. As with any other possible work distractions, balance is what really matters.doesn’t mean they can turn up any time for coffee, or treat you as an emergency babysitter. Having a separate office space where you live helps significantly with this, though we realize that’s not always possible. That said, getting the balance right with friends and family can be excellent for your
Digital distractions. While these are an issue for office workers as well, digital distractions (social media, e-mail, IMs, et cetera) can be particularly tempting when you’re on your own and don’t have as much built-in social interaction as you would in an office. We’re big fans of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which helps people set aside distractions and get into a flow-based focus mode. The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) also has a set of helpful tips for managing your digital appetite, and Zapier lists a few apps you can try as well.
In a healthy remote company, there is no “out of sight, out of mind.” Remote teams have to have high levels of trust, and individuals need to be able to work autonomously without constant oversight. But that doesn’t mean there’s no accountability. Most remote workers still have clear reporting structures, goals, meetings, and so on. (In fact, many companies unintentionally overcompensate for the lack of in-person interaction and end up having far too many video-call meetings.)
cautionRemote work makes it harder to communicate and collaborate with the rest of the team, with 20% of respondents of remote workers saying it’s their most important issue.* Whether or not your company addresses this problem with more meetings or more emphasis on depends heavily on your company’s philosophy and communication practices. If fewer meetings are the default, be prepared to trade off that time for more writing and documentation. Although managers and supervisors have a part to play in cross-team communication and collaboration, it also requires individuals to take the initiative.
The negative corollary to the benefit of up to 43% more. and having more time and flexibility is that work and home are more entwined. Many remote workers report difficulty detaching and stopping work at the end of the day. When you work from home, it’s easy for work and personal time to blend together, and many remote workers report working longer than if they were in an office—
cautionIt’s not as easy for remote employees to maintain strong social connections with work colleagues, which can cause feelings of isolation. Distribute Consulting notes that isolation isn’t necessarily about being physically isolated:
We find that remote work isolation is more informational than it is social. Meaning, workers don’t miss sitting next to someone; they miss having access to someone. They miss being able to spontaneously ask a colleague a question, or celebrate a small victory, or brainstorm a solution or a problem, or even just chatting about weekend plans. If remote workers are craving some daily physical interaction, that’s where social hobbies, coworking spaces, and dedicated relationships with friends and family can be utilized.
This section was written by Steph Smith.
Remote forces you to do the things that you should be doing anyway, earlier and better.Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO, GitLab*
From the outside, a successful remote team looks like a successful team. They hit their goals without burning people out; team members understand what they should be working on and feel ownership and pride in their work; they have open and honest communication and can positively resolve conflict; they are resilient and can adapt to failure and change.
Speaking only helps who’s in the room; writing helps everyone.The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication*
The need to communicate well is not unique to remote work, but it’s one of the key areas that can make or break remote work for an organization. Distributed teams must decide on and document how they will communicate; otherwise chaos and confusion will follow. An effective communication system requires:
Building an architecture. In order to streamline communication, whether between ten early-stage employees or across dozens of global teams, companies need to set up guidelines in a *. These guidelines will help your team communicate requests on a sliding scale of urgency, lowering the risk of burnout and helping individuals to prioritize tasks.
In a remote environment, it’s essential to provide documentation of what it’s like to work at the company, including policies, processes, protocols, tools, values, and culture. In a traditional office environment, these things should also be written down, but often aren’t—it’s easier to get context on something when you can just stop someone in the hall and ask, or watch others model the expected behavior. Remote offices have no choice. These processes need to be codified such that people can work asynchronously and autonomously and still track toward the same goals and foster the same values. Documentation about company and team processes should be:
Asynchronously available. Ideally, your practices will make it abundantly clear to all members of the team where they can find information, regardless of the specific tooling that is selected by the company.
Regularly updated. This will prevent people from constantly having to ask where they can find X, or what the status of something is. The more regularly and predictably this information is updated, the less often people will have to schedule extraneous meetings or rely on othersimply to be up to speed on what is happening or how to get something done.
Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.Daniel Pink, bestselling author, Drive*
Successful remote teams enable individuals to be self-directed and have a certain amount of autonomy or control over what they do and how they accomplish their assigned or chosen tasks. In order to foster autonomy, teams need to be structured so that each person can work independently, while still contributing to the collective goal. Autonomy is not just a psychological structure, but should best penetrate into logistics, including employees having agency to build their own schedules—the ability to swap calendar tetris for some deep work. Companies and managers can do a number of things to help these employees thrive:
Establish your values. When values are documented in the company and permeate the , employees are empowered to make decisions on a daily basis that are aligned with these values, and can be trusted without constant managerial oversight.
If you feel trusted, you feel more responsible, and if you are responsible, you earn more trust. It’s simple.Nuno Baldaia, software engineer, Doist*
Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. It’s also one of the most important aspects of successful, high-performing teams. In a Harvard study of trust on professional teams, they found that high-trust teams report:
74% less stress
The only time a manager is allowed to inquire about how many hours you work is when they suspect you’re working too many hours.Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO, GitLab*
While striving for impact, burnout becomes a big risk for remote employees. Without institutionalized boundaries, people are left to create their own. And in some cases, those are neglected entirely. As Adam Grant and Reb Rebelle put it, “The road to exhaustion is often paved with good intentions.”* The unfortunate consequence of increased autonomy and self-regulation for remote workers is that sometimes people struggle to set their own boundaries due to a multitude of contributing factors, including tendencies like giver burnout, as Grant and Rebelle describe. Managers and employees can work together to:
Set boundaries. The burden for creating boundaries at work should not fall to employees alone. The steps that employees can take to protect themselves should be encouraged; but it’s far more important for managers to look out for signs employees may be working too much. It’s the responsibility of the employer to help their people establish the right boundaries. This isn’t heroic—it’s smart and sustainable. Employers can use specific constraints like a minimum vacation policy, a mandatory set of holidays to take off, and asking employees to block off non-work time on their shared calendars.*
This section was written by Paul Millerd.
Company culture is not the office foosball table.Paul Spiegelman, author and speaker*
Company culture is a description of the and behaviors of people at an organization; it is defined by the set of behaviors that are tolerated, encouraged, or discouraged. Culture may or may not be founded on a set of , and company culture and an individual team’s culture may differ.
A section about culture in remote companies could quickly become about, well, everything. Culture is a notoriously permeable phenomenon—with different incarnations across different organizations—and it impacts and is shaped by nearly every aspect of how people within an organization interact. To help think about fostering a healthy remote culture in your company, we suggest thinking about culture in three ways: what you value, how you communicate and enact those values, and how you get together.
The terms and are often used interchangeably to refer to a company’s beliefs about the world and their “way of doing things.” But they are not the same. Having a clear set of company values is tremendously important to the success of a business. These values guide decision-making in all parts of the company, whether high-stakes strategic decisions, ethical decisions, or smaller day-to-day decisions (which, in aggregate, are just as important). Clearly stated values also provide a structured way to resolve disagreements.
cautionCulture without values puts you in the dangerous position of repeating patterns and behaviors that do not line up with how the company wants to see itself or what the company wants to accomplish. It’s worth noting that a company without explicitly defined values will still have a culture—just one that stems from the personalities and behaviors of its leaders and early employees, rather than one having any careful thought, design, or purpose. This can breed similarity of thought, behavior, and demographic makeup, none of which are good for a company’s business or employee retention.
It’s also worth noting that explicit values won’t prevent the development of toxic or unhealthy cultures. For example, a company might create a toxic culture by prizing overwork and self-sacrifice “for the greater good.” Uber’s culture was infamously tied to a set of well-documented and regularly reinforced values.* A company whose stated value is, say, “move fast and break things” might not expect cultural behaviors like asking questions, seeking input from all sides, or documenting process.
Remote culture has to be an inalterable part of your company’s DNA.Nick Francis, CEO, Help Scout*
A major issue for remote companies who want an intact culture is not making the necessary changes to involve remote employees in that culture. Companies do face different degrees of challenge here. Some must come up with a way to manage culture across a main physical office space and a handful of remote offices; some have to contend with major time zone differences among a more largely distributed team; others are looking to create a cohesive culture across international borders.
What is more important is that remote companies, whatever model they choose or is feasible for them, operate within certain constraints that force the development of new practices, norms, and behaviors that can be useful for all types of companies. The fact of a distributed team—no matter how it is distributed, no matter how far—factors into almost all decisions, and it’s imperative for companies to be explicit about the values and associated practices that people need to support when working autonomously and asynchronously.
If I had to pick the one thing to get right about any collaborative effort, I would choose trust. Yes, trust. More than incentives, technology, roles, missions, or structures, it is trust that makes collaboration really work. There can be collaboration without it, but it won’t be very productive or sustainable in the long run.Larry Prusak, Senior Advisor and Faculty, Columbia University, author, Working Knowledge*
In most organizations, trust goes in many directions. The organization trusts the individual to perform their duties, and the individual trusts the organization will provide the means to do their work, and will also fulfill their end of their agreement, such as paying for that work. There is also a network of trust among employees. Organizations that rely on knowledge work are built on the expectation that individuals will fulfill their duties to each other, so that collaborative work can happen. We trust that everyone will play their part, on time, so we can all perform well.
It’s harder to build trust when teams are separated. Remote employees don’t have access to serendipitous opportunities to physically spend time with coworkers, like having lunch or going out for ice cream or happy hour. Being in the same space makes it easier to bond, so distributed organizations may need to be deliberate in how they build and maintain relationships that foster trust with their employees, and also may need to strive to create a culture and environment that enables employees to build trust with each other.
At its core, organizational culture shapes how an organization learns and solves problems. In the early stages of a company, culture may be shifting rapidly, but also be very coherent, meaning there is a clear connection between the day-to-day employees are making, and the espoused values and . Early employees understand the “why” behind most decisions as a result of the company being smaller and typically having direct access to influential decision makers.
As the company scales, subcultures may emerge, typically across specific teams, functions, or business units. Schein specifies that culture may emerge at the group level, among “a definable set of people with a shared history,” when they have:
Been together long enough to have shared significant problems;
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
Communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT*
Communication is a foundational human behavior. We communicate for a wide variety of reasons: to gather and share information; to ask questions and learn from other people; to express our wants and needs; and to form social relationships and deeper connections.
All growing teams eventually become distributed, whether it’s across rooms, floors, buildings or cities. It’s not a new problem—organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Hudson Bay Company managed distributed work before the invention of most communication technologies, and found effective ways to manage ambiguity and distance over time.*
importantReliance on being close to each other limits how fast a team can grow or where it can be distributed. It also makes communication fragile when one or more team members can’t be close to the rest. When you’ve built a team that relies on physical to operate, you’re unintentionally building communication patterns that will eventually break with growth, or when life happens.
Although you’d think being in the same physical place would make communication easier, it actually can emphasize suboptimal habits, such as:
Thanks to the internet, written communications are accessible and aren’t subject to the limitations of physical , serendipitous encounters by the seltzer machine, or inconvenient taps on the shoulder.Juan Pablo Buriticá, remote engineering leader*
Before looking into the specifics of various communication channels and tools and how they should be used, it’s important that we understand the difference between the two basic modes of communication that can make distributed teams successful:*
Synchronous communication happens when messages can only be exchanged in real time. It requires that the transmitter and receiver are present in the same time and/or space. Examples of synchronous communication are phone calls or video meetings.
Presence is the state of being synchronously available for collaborative activities that need to happen in real time. In , this means being physically in an office. In distributed teams, presence usually means being available to meet with other people rather than doing individual work.
cautionOne of the most harmful behaviors that can surface in a distributed team is the constant expectation of presence. If employees are expected to always be on email or in a group chat to stay informed, it impacts their ability to do focused work, which is a required component of knowledge work and can be in direct opposition to virtual presence. If someone can’t ignore their email for two hours because their company has a culture of being always on email, their ability to do their work may suffer, which impacts the team’s collective productivity.
Since knowledge workers oscillate between highly collaborative modes and highly focused modes depending on the task at hand, balance becomes key. Distributed teams that want to be effective across time and space will seek this balance and communicate in ways that neither require constant attention, nor create frequent interruptions for employees.
Friction is the amount of effort required to transmit or receive a message on a specific communication channel. It includes the time and thought that it takes to plan, edit, or create the message.
Friction is relative. It depends on the transmitter, the receiver, and the channel used to communicate. For some individuals, speaking can be a low-friction channel if everyone is in close proximity or on a conference call. It can also be a high-friction channel for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Too much friction in a communication medium slows us down, but low friction isn’t always desirable. If a message can be sent too quickly, it might mean that workers invest less time in processing and composing responses, which can lead them to communicate less thoughtfully or without considering the impact of their words on others.
We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.Stephen Covey, bestselling author, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything*
“Assuming good intent” has become a common recommendation for modern workplaces.* However, it poses some problematic dynamics in distributed teams, especially those that strive to be diverse and inclusive.
cautionAsking individuals to assume good intent in written communications shifts the burden towards the receiver of the message and not the originator. When it comes to communication in distributed teams, what someone meant to say matters less than what was understood. This intent-impact gap can be perilous. No matter how well-intentioned, the wrong message can set a distributed team back significantly. Effective communication between two or more parties requires that everyone understands the message in the same way.
Tone is the emotional content of a message. When we speak, the tone we use helps others understand our mood. When we write, we replicate tone by using punctuation or symbols, and by varying the formality of our messages.
An exclamation mark will never replicate what our voices can do! Emoji can be ambiguous too: 😬
Another challenge with email or other written communication is not the lack of tone, but rather, the implicit tone.* For instance, messages that are too direct can have a negative effect on recipients by coming across as rude or mean—especially if they’re coming from someone in a position of authority. Accuracy in the emotion conveyed with a message is crucial in helping us understand the reason behind the message and figure out an appropriate response.* You can use Grammarly to analyze your writing and get a tone score in real time. Tools like this help people pause and rewrite before sending.
Consider the following versions of feedback on a proposal:
This is a terrible idea.
This is a terrible idea!
This is a terrible idea 😉
Now, think about each statement as it relates to the key communication concepts above:
When building a distributed team, you may be tempted to require every member to write everything down. But an overabundance of information can be as problematic as the lack of it—overabundance makes it harder for remote teams to filter what is signal and what is noise.
Instead of writing everything down, an effective distributed team will focus on how to write what matters.
The clarity of information isn’t directly related to the quantity of information, but rather the quality, and surrounding context for it. As you determine the ways in which you will communicate as a distributed team, you’ll want to create a collective understanding of what to communicate, and how to communicate it in a way that shortens or eliminates physical, temporal, and cultural distances.
The overabundance of communication options in today’s modern workplace requires that we tend to them like a garden. The weeds of poor communication management can easily overtake distributed teams and choke their growth.
Understanding the different properties of the various communication channels available is necessary before deciding on your own communication architecture.
A communication architecture is a company’s documented set of practices, tools, and associated processes for how and when people communicate. It describes all the types of communication—such as email, meetings, phone calls, online chat—and the tools and protocols for using each one. The architecture guides each employee’s decision-making process as they communicate with other people at the company.
Email is a method of sending electronic messages between individual people or groups of people. It’s semi-synchronous, meaning it can be synchronous or asynchronous, depending on how an organization uses it. Examples of email tools include Outlook, Gmail, ProtonMail, Superhuman, and email accounts from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast.
Broadcasting. Email can be useful to broadcast information. For example, it can be used to inform the company of new funding, to describe new features coming soon, or to share a summary report for last quarter sales.
Web forums are web-based messaging groups where people write messages (typically called “posts”) in a hierarchical category structure organized by topics. Forums can be either public or private. Typically, public forums are for communicating with customers and private forums are for internal company communication. Examples of forum tools include Discourse, Flarum, and NodeBB.
Asynchronous. Forums can be used in an asynchronous manner to provide more static, broadcast-worthy information that people can refer to as needed. Forums can also work for brief discussions or to expand on clarifying questions. For example, a new employee can ask where to find important information in a forum, and get answers from their peers. From then on, all new hires can use that same post to get up to speed.
Mailing lists are a broadcast form of communication based on email. Generally, one email address broadcasts information to all members of the group, and replies are then threaded under the same subject. Some mailing lists keep historical records, giving new members access to past discussions.
Grouping. Mailing lists can be used to cluster individuals under one shared topic or group. For example, this may include grouping all members of a team, a project, a department, the board of directors, the entire company, or specific interests.
A knowledge base (or wiki) stores structured and unstructured information online. Both are asynchronous and support rich text formatting and the embedding of different kinds of media like images, videos, or audio. Knowledge bases require that specific individuals be responsible for maintaining specific articles or documents, whereas wikis allow and expect for anyone with access to be able to add and modify anything posted. Examples of knowledge base or wiki tools include Confluence, ZenDesk, and Notion.
Easy contribution. Wikis are designed for easy contribution, which makes them excellent resources for shared knowledge.materials, collaborative processes, or instructions on how to use specific systems are examples where office wikis can be better than knowledge bases.
Real-time chat (or chat or instant messaging or IM) allows for instant transmission of text between individuals or groups across a variety of devices.
Some forms are designed exclusively for communication, while others allow for group conversations or the separation of conversations into different channels that can be public or private. Beyond text, different chat tools incorporate like images, animated GIFs, voice memos, and emojis. Examples include Slack, Microsoft Teams, and messaging via social media like Twitter or Facebook.
Phone and video calls allow one or more people to have a conversation in real time, either via telephone or online video conferencing services. Calls are an exclusively channel, but can also be used to broadcast information when only one person speaks to a group. Example tools include Zoom, BlueJeans, Google Hangout and GoToMeeting.
Synchronous. Calls are great for resolving questions quickly or realigning when miscommunications over written mediums like email have happened.
There are plenty of benefits to meeting in person occasionally as a remote company, especially for fostering meaningful connections and building trust. But there are associated costs and potential downsides worth considering when thinking about how often people get together.
Connection. Getting together fosters human connection and helps build trust.
There’s a plethora of tools that we have at our disposal for different kinds of work. Tools like project management software, collaborative design tools, distributed source control for code, and others, become communication channels when we’re doing distributed work. Many of these types of tools support commenting, assigning people to tasks, and other means of communication that cross over with the other channels we’ve already covered—and many tools are aiming to handle a broader spectrum of uses, blurring these lines even further. We can’t cover them all here, but a few examples include Basecamp, Asana, Trello, and Jira for project management; Google Suite for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations; Figma and Sketch for collaborative design; GitHub and GitLab for code source control; and many other options.
Purpose-built. Tools can be better at serving a specific purpose than general-purpose work suites are. For example, project management tools that support collaborative teamwork are generally preferable to trying to keep track of everything in a spreadsheet.
In order to determine how best to communicate, you will need to inventory the tools and channels your company uses, and pair those with your own values and communication philosophy. This should apply to everyone at the company, including in-office employees in a hybrid environment.
Here’s an example of what a more traditionally co-located communication structure might look like:
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
For collaboration to work well in a remote organization, not only is healthy, intentional communication required, but a distributed team must clearly understand the direction they’re heading together: they need goals. Teams also need to determine a predictable rhythm to work towards those goals, giving space and autonomy to individuals to focus on their work. Goal alignment and autonomy thrive in a trusting environment supported by explicit working agreements that eliminate about how to work at a distance.
Getting teams to collaborate effectively takes effort, time, patience, and practice to refine the skills that support effective collaboration and coordination. Consider the concepts in this section as a set of capabilities that your team can strive to understand, try out, and adjust to their localized contexts. Every team is unique, and objectively defining what success looks like for your team is not something we can achieve in this guide. We hope that as you build these capabilities, you share what you learn with us and others so we can continue moving remote work forward.
Before teams can collaborate, they need an end goal. Most often, teams employ some kind of strategic planning to set goals; this is not unique to remote work. Commonly used frameworks, like objectives and key results (OKRs) or SMART goals, can help teams create strategies and goals over specific periods of time that fit their business needs. For small teams, a roadmap may be more than enough, or minimum viable products (MVPs) can also align startup teams to quickly bring a product to market.
Whichever you choose, all goals for remote teams can benefit from these universal guidelines:
Clarity. Every member of the team understands the goals’ importance and the reason for setting them.
Almost anyone who has worked in a corporate environment is familiar with the litany of methods for communicating about progress and status. Status reports, burn-down charts, sync meetings, and weekly or even daily updates—they all presume that everyone needs to dedicate significant time updating everyone else. Remote work is an opportunity to re-evaluate this set of cultural . Establishing a set of conventions about collaboration can eliminate assumptions about status, and give a clear set of expectations for everyone in a distributed team.
The first convention for your team to consider is making its default state be “on track.” This means everyone assumes the team is able to accomplish its goals, giving individuals the autonomy to finish their tasks, release their products, or reach their sales milestones—unless someone explicitly says otherwise. This helps everyone reclaim time otherwise spent confirming whether they’re on track or not, and use it to focus on their work.
Defining this convention is an opportunity for you and your team to evaluate whether you understand your goals and each other’s role in achieving them. This depends on your context. A sales team, a customer-experience team, a people-operations team, and a product-engineering team will all have very different definitions for what being “on track” means to them.
An organization’s cadence is the rhythm created by defining periods of planning and periods of execution.
Developing a work cadence—one that is specific to a team, and that uses explicitly defined work practices—is important in enabling distributed teams to make work more predictable. When teams define a rhythm, the next beat is known, and everyone can play on-tempo.
What cadence you choose is highly dependent on the context of the team, and arriving at the right one will take some experimentation. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you choose what works for your company or team.
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
When co-workers or managers aren’t readily available, it may take more time to get help from others. To mitigate this, remote teams and workers need to develop practices that bridge information pockets.
An information pocket occurs when individual members of the same team have access to differing levels of information. Individuals could have access to more or less information depending on social relationships with peers or managers, their time zone overlap, their ability to ask for help, or whether they come to an office or not. Access to the outcome of decisions, or how to do administrative tasks like getting expenses approved, are examples of information that could form in pockets if it’s not broadcasted adequately. Confidential information, or other information that should be shared on a need-to-know basis, doesn’t count as information pockets.
A handbook (or content cache) is a written document that contains a company’s goals, policies, procedures, teams, methods, and any other relevant information for employees to do their work.
The GitLab handbook has become one of the most cited examples on how to do this well because it’s thorough and extremely transparent. Basecamp has an open-sourced handbook too, which is much simpler than GitLab’s.
In general, any company handbook should include:
Company leadership, departments, and teams can help the organization be better informed by publishing regular updates on the state of the organization.
Stand-up meetings (or stand-ups), are short meetings—typically no more than 15 minutes—with the purpose of keeping teams informed and unblocked. Stand-ups typically happen daily at the same time, and are supposed to be brief—deep discussions or follow ups are pushed to other meetings or asynchronous documentation options.*
Question and answer (Q&A) spaces are double-sided information marketplaces. These spaces build collective knowledge and community spirit, and can contribute to employee engagement.
Ensuring that there are people who can answer questions (and have time dedicated to answer them completely) is important for the success of this effort. Departmental leaders and team managers can help fill this role and eventually delegate it to other team members.
Collecting common questions often leads to the creation of lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that you can include in your . This practice creates resources that cross-reference each other and make it easier for people to stay informed.
and Q&A spaces are only valuable if individuals actively use them. Greater autonomy brings greater individual responsibility and the need for self-management, requiring workers to be proactive and work independently, staying aligned, informed, and unblocked.
Some recommendations that remote workers can adopt to make this easier include:
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
For distributed teams, knowing where to share information or how and when to have discussions has become increasingly difficult thanks to the proliferation of communication and collaboration tools. To reduce the cognitive load and increase the effectiveness of how distributed teams collaborate, we suggest implementing a set of team agreements.
A team agreement (or a team contract) is a written document detailing how a team agrees to work together. Team agreements can describe procedures such as decision-making processes, how to get support, and the tools and communication methods that the team uses.
Professors Christine M. Riordan and Kevin O’Brien underscore that social contracts emphasize a few key elements of how teams interact:
Like most factors in remote work, time zone management depends on how each company (or each department or team within it) chooses to deal with the spectrum of time zone differences, as well as the tradeoffs they want to make.
Time zone protocols are outlined in the , clarifying how people communicate when they are not in the same time zone, and hence may not have periods of overlapping availability for like video calls.
In general, you have two broad options here: establishing windows of “core hours” overlap during which things like video calls or can occur, or designing collaboration plans that push more collaborative communication to asynchronous mechanisms and don’t rely on overlaps that are needed for regular .
It might be good to know who’s around in a true emergency, but 1% occasions like that shouldn’t drive policy 99% of the time.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*
Availability protocols are a part of a that clarify how people communicate what times they are present and available to respond in communication tools like email, chat, and calendaring apps.
If a team is skilled at working asynchronously, becomes secondary to getting work done. When everyone defaults to “on track” and has thorough documentation available about best practices, they shouldn’t need to interrupt anyone to get things done. But sometimes, someone on the team will be stuck without the information they need, or something may be truly urgent. In those cases, it helps to know who is available when, the best ways to contact them, and what to do in the case of emergency.
The benefit and curse of many modern communication tools is that they can be used in a variety of ways. (See Determining Your Communication Architecture for more.) When Slack first arrived on the scene, many people were thrilled with an easy, instantaneous way to communicate with colleagues that could keep conversations out of dreaded email threads. Joy often turned to despair as the same people realized they now had an easy, instantaneous way for their colleagues to communicate with them, and suddenly everyone was drowning in Slack messages constantly screaming for their attention.
Not knowing when help will come can be a source of frustration and isolation for remote workers, and will also impact the speed and quality of their work. If there’s an established rhythm with associated protocols, then remote and office workers can structure themselves around it. Establishing the timeframe within which members of your team respond to communication across the channels you use can reduce people’s anxieties about their questions getting answered, and let people get back to work knowing that they will eventually get a reply.
For example, a software engineer may need someone’s eyes for a code review. Common requests like this needn’t be considered urgent, but rather can rely on a cadence of feedback and review, supported by appropriate tools. A software team may use a process like Pull Reminders to manage the pipeline of work moving forward, independent of time, which on top of a source-control tool like GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket, enables work to continue without requiring frequent interruptions. A marketing team might use Trello to move tasks through stages of work or to assign tasks to people asynchronously.
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
As our organizations grow, the decisions generally become more frequent, more complicated, and have more serious ramifications. Sometimes it’s not about making the right decision, but just making a decision at all.Brent Gleeson, Navy SEAL veteran; founder and CEO, TakingPoint Leadership*
Acting on work is necessary for collaboration to happen, and to act, decisions need to be made. Groups in nature have developed different ways to make collective decisions, and also react depending on the outcome of their original decisions. Some groups decide through explicit leadership, like elephants, where the matriarch leads others to water and food. Bees, on the other hand, “vote” when they swarm and find a place for a new hive. In both cases, lack of decisions leads to inaction and potential starvation.
For the purpose of decisions in a business context, there are four general models most organizations use (whether they’re aware of it or not).
Command. Decisions are made by someone in a position of authority with no involvement from anyone else.
. A group discusses options and then calls for a vote. The majority vote decides.
Without a proven, organization-wide approach, there may be, at best, isolated pockets of high-quality decision making where individual leaders have elected to take a rigorous, transparent approach. Otherwise, the organization is at the mercy of the biggest bias of all: the perception that it is good at making decisions.Larry Neal, former Manager of Decision Analysis, Chevron; and Carl Spetzler, CEO, Strategic Decisions Group*
The selection of leaders and method of decision making depend on the structure and purpose of each organization. Which to choose depends both on the desired outcomes, and on the given group’s ability to operate in different ways to collaborate toward a common goal.
Without the relative organizational context, we can’t help you answer who decides, but we can underscore how important this is for you to answer and document for your team. Lack of clarity in decision making will lead to challenges in your organization. When a worker doesn’t know whose responsibility it is to make a certain decision, the resulting block will hold up their work until they can find out who needs to make the decision.
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
When meetings are the norm—the first resort; the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem—they no longer work. Meetings should be like salt—a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO, Basecamp*
in distributed teams is expensive. Getting people together comes at the cost of attention at scale. As Basecamp CEO Jason Fried says, if you’re in a room with five people for an hour, it’s a five-hour meeting. For this reason, distributed teams should strive to rely on meetings only when the outcome warrants it.
Being in the of others has a place in collaboration. When we meet, we get access to such unique collaboration properties as:
Speed. By being in the same time and space, virtually or otherwise, we can collaborate in real-time. Questions can be answered quickly and information can be shared instantly.
Emotional content. When we’re in theof others, we gain access to additional information we may not otherwise get from asynchronous media. , facial expressions, and gesticulations can amplify the message that is being shared.
Meetings definitely follow Newton’s first law—an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. If you aren’t proactive about making your meetings better, they’ll stay mediocre. If you aren’t proactive about canceling or iterating on meetings, they will stay on folks’ calendars for eternity.Lara Hogan, management coach; co-founder, Wherewithall*
Meetings that are unstructured or disorganized can easily end up in awkward silence, or as a tedious waste of time, because conversation doesn’t flow quite as naturally over video chat as if you were to gather a group into a room.
Here are some sensible starting points for productive meetings for remote teams:
When it comes to A/V setups there’s no one-size-fits-all configuration that’s best for remote teams—your setup depends on whether your team is fully distributed or has a hybrid configuration.
Remote meetings via video should be stable, reliable, accessible, and not get in the way of getting work done. Video calls will be as good as the tools you invest in, including video conferencing software, hardware like cameras and microphones, and physical spaces like home offices, conference rooms, or meeting booths. When it comes to software, Wirecutter recommends Zoom as the best video-conferencing service after comparing 19 different options (it’s what we use at Holloway as well). Hardware and physical spaces are trickier, and will depend on the size of your organization, budget and needs.
If you have a fully distributed organization, individual needs are what matter. In this case, it’s important that all employees have access to a good camera, lighting, headset or microphone, and high-speed internet. Scott Hanselman, a software engineer at Microsoft, wrote about his quest to find the ultimate remote-worker webcam setup on a budget, and Wirecutter also has a guide for video meeting hardware.
Remote work breaks down when we try to mirror physical processes in the virtual world. Instead of trying to skeuomorph our way into collaboration, we should focus on the outcomes of any process we use and find alternatives that can help us achieve these outcomes.
Whiteboarding is the process of drawing on a whiteboard on a wall (typically with dry-erase markers) in order to visualize ideas or concepts. It can be used to demonstrate or explain something to other people, or more collaboratively as a tool for brainstorming and coming up with new ideas.
This section was written by Juan Pablo Buriticá.
Most of the focus of this section is dedicated to building predictable and reliable practices as a platform for distributed teams to build upon. A steady , explicit (largely asynchronous) communication practices, and documented free us to focus on being productive despite being separated. This strategy works when everything is going well, but becomes inadequate in situations where the need to react can’t wait. While we recommend relying as much as possible on asynchronous methods for day-to-day operations, we encourage teams to fall back on synchronous methods when communication breaks down or time-sensitive matters appear.
“If everything is important, then nothing is.” ―Patrick Lencioni, author, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team*
Before teams learn how to react to incidents and emergencies, they first need a definition of what counts as urgent. Teams should have a clear understanding of what warrants shifting out of the default way of working, and how and when they should raise the issue.
By having clear guidelines regarding urgent matters, teams and individuals can also learn how to protect their own focus—they understand that unless something is classified as highly urgent, it can wait. You can facilitate asynchronous work by making sure everyone is able to defer non-urgent items. This allows individuals to devote all their energy to the task at hand without refreshing their email or checking the work chat every 20 minutes to see if there’s something important that needs solving.
After defining what urgency looks like, you can focus on how to deal with it.
The first step in handling an emergency is being informed about it, and since we’ve built the “homeostasis” of our distributed work practices around channels, this means we have to come out of being “on track” and signal to our organization that the attention is needed somewhere. Here, interrupting is not only OK; it’s the right thing to do.
This doesn’t mean any interruption is welcome. Before we are in a state of emergency, we should also outline clear protocols so we can all understand as a team that what is happening is serious and needs to be looked at. We should explicitly define what this looks like.
Managing team focus still maters at a distance. When priorities change or opportunities arise, we want our organizations to be in a position to react and take advantage of them. You may need to look at incidents with medium impact or lower urgency without raising a full-blown alarm. For these cases, individuals and teams can build similar protocols to those of incident management, but with more tolerance for time and attention.
For interruptions, you will want to consider delegating an “interrupt handler” for the team. This is someone who will be on a higher state of alert on chat, email, and other channels, paying attention to changes. The interrupt handler can escalate issues or delegate as needed; they’re like a triage nurse for your distributed team. It’s a lighter version of being on call, and may or may not be independent of usual work hours. Since the person will be interruptible, they also can take on maintenance or supporting tasks that don’t need too much focus to handle. This is a good way of getting work done that is not urgent, but is still important.
In addition to designating a point person for interruptions, you’ll need to define protocols for individuals to know when their attention is needed to support such ad-hoc priorities. Relying on instant messaging or phone calls may be challenging if you’re in different time zones, but having a predefined email subject prefix like “[action-needed]” or “[priority-shift]” will allow people to shift their attention promptly, without using channels reserved for real emergencies.
This section was written by Katie Womersley.
When it comes to reaping the benefits of remote work and dancing around the pitfalls, a significant amount of the work falls on managers of distributed teams. Management itself is a vast, complex domain to master, and layering on all the remote challenges we’ve covered—communication, collaboration, productivity, and culture—adds an extra dimension. A manager of a distributed team, even if it includes just a single remote worker, faces a unique set of opportunities and challenges.
This section covers the core aspects of being a distributed team leader, manager, or executive. You’ll find a practical and detailed breakdown of the challenges remote managers and their direct reports face, covering how to capture these much-lauded gains with hiring, compensation, and guidance, and how to minimize the risks to morale, engagement, mental health, and productivity that often accompany managing distributed teams.
Beyond cost savings, easier access to talented employees is one of the biggest reasons employers consider supporting remote work. Especially for startups and high-growth companies, the talent supply is limited and in high demand, making hiring very competitive, especially for technical roles. Being able to hire outside traditional tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area or greater New York City means people can find the talent they want almost anywhere in the world.* Even in less competitive industries, advances in technology make remote work feasible in many roles, granting those employers access to a much broader and more specialized workforce.
A lot of hiring best practices are similar across in-office and remote roles—for example, clarity about the role, sourcing a high-quality applicant pool, and being explicit about cultural values. These practices become even more important when hiring for remote roles. Candidates will be working in physically isolated locales, so small issues can be magnified. We won’t cover all the ins-and-outs of standard good hiring practices, which you can find in our Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring as a companion to this section.
Along with all the key elements of a good job description, a remote role position announcement will need to include the following additional information:
Clarity around geography. As we’ve already seen, there is no single flavor of remote. You will want to make clear in the description whether the role is fully remote, whether there’s an office they can/will need to go to occasionally, and any other details (for example, “U.S. remote only” or “time zone agnostic”).
How remote works at your company. Strong remote job descriptions clarify the values and practices around distributed work. They make clear that skills like communication and collaboration are required. This is your chance both to sell applicants on the premise of the role and to make clear how you expect them to work with the rest of the team.
“To remain productive, effective remote workers need to be able to give themselves structure without the crutch of a standard office environment.”—Greg Caplan, CEO, Remote Year*
The characteristics of people who will thrive as remote workers mirror the practices of successful remote teams that we laid out earlier (and we cover in more detail in Being a Successful Remote Worker). You’re looking for candidates that are:
controversyA common attitude when hiring remote roles is that it’s not possible to have these positions filled by less experienced junior candidates. The tenet that remote work only works for highly experienced, senior hires does have some truth, but isn’t the full picture.
When companies say things like “it’s basically impossible to have a junior remote worker,” what they often mean is “a remote worker who lacks strong communication skills and professional skills like goal setting and independent action will fail.” And to some extent, that’s true. Junior hires often lack necessary professional skills because they tend to be younger. However, this is correlation, not causation. The simple act of being more junior doesn’t by itself imply lower professional and communication skills. In some cases, it can be the opposite: career changers, for example, often bring highly developed professional skills, even though their specific experience is low.
controversyCompensation for remote employees is a controversial topic. What happens if someone changes locations as a remote worker, moving from an expensive city to a much cheaper location for a better cost of living? If another worker were already in that location, would you end up with two people doing the same relative job, but getting paid vastly different amounts? There’s no surer way of undermining the trust between distributed team members than having an inconsistent, unfair compensation structure.
Ultimately, there are two broadly consistent approaches to modeling compensation that you can use for distributed teams:
A global salary model for compensation of remote employees pays everyone the same fixed amount for the role and experience level.
One of the main incentives to hire remotely is that you can hire very skilled people at a much lower wage than in U.S. tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area. This is the general principle behind a local salary model.
In this model, you’d set a base wage equal to that role in one location—usually a head office, or a place with a lot of reliable labor market data. San Francisco is a common baseline. Then you discount the salary for the remote employee based on either cost of living, how competitive are, or both. In general, remote employees outside large tech hubs still end up making significantly more money than they would working for a local company.
story“I live in the middle of nowhere, in northern Portugal. People that study here and graduate with a degree in computer science, if they go work for a local consultancy, they make probably about the equivalent of U.S. $1.5K per month. It’s enough to get around here, but it’s not a lot of money by most people’s measure. But if we hire those people, we triple their salary at least. What we see is that there’s a floor of sorts, where startups tend to pay significantly higher, especially in low-wage areas.” —Job van der Voort, CEO, Remote Employ
importantMany compensation considerations are seemingly practical. But compensation is not just a set of practical choices; it’s ambiguous, emotional, and symbolic. People will interpret their value at work based on how much you pay them and on how the company evaluates that pay in comparison to others. It’s not wise to choose a framework based only on what is most practical or what is cheaper. It’s critical for your compensation policies to be aligned with your company’s philosophy and values, and hold up to principled inquiry. That is what will gain you the loyalty and trust of your staff, who after all just want to be paid fairly for their work.
controversyWhat fair pay means in the context of remote work is unclear, and experts disagree.
Juan Pablo Buriticá argues that remote and office jobs come with different expectations and challenges, and that this should be a consideration when it comes to pay:
Onboarding is the process of integrating a new employee into an organization.
Onboarding plays a decisive role in the success of any new hire, and in your overall culture. Given the complexities of remote work, this is even more important in a remote context. The default setting in a co-located office environment is that people will ask those around them for clarification on how things are done, or watch what others do to learn more about the culture. They learn norms and behaviors as well as problem-solving strategies, how to use tools, and the context of their work within the company through proximity to the team they work closest with or their line manager. This can be efficient in a co-located team (although as many people can likely attest, it’s not a guarantee that it will be!).
In a remote team, need-to-know, ad hoc onboarding won’t work. You run the risk of organizational knowledge gaps being filled with guesses, and risk reaching that critical three-month mark and noticing a remote worker still isn’t productive.
someone remotely starts the moment the candidate says yes. Good onboarding includes making sure they are set up with the following prior to their first day.
Send through their contract and role description. Typically you’d do this via Docusign or a similar online tool, since they are not there for you to hand them physical copies.
Typically, the first 30 days are about learning, the next 30 are about contributing, and the final 30 are about reaching independence (or leading, depending on the role). An effective written plan states concrete goals for each time phase, and ends with the final goals of the position (which essentially will be to independently execute their job description).
As a manager, you will have a corresponding document with your own goals to support the new hire: for example, finding an appropriate project for them to own at the 30-day mark, or delegating a significant responsibility at the 60-day mark. In a remote context, it’s important for both sides to have a clear expectation of the job, and of what success looks like.
The second major challenge with successfully a remote team member is integrating them into the culture. Culture gets shared in casual and social interactions, so co-located teams will find it easier to maintain a certain culture (whether that culture is “good” or not is unrelated—in-office and remote teams can both be healthy or toxic). New hires in a remote team will have fewer interactions to observe, and so the signals they’re collecting to understand expected cultural behaviors are more limited. Additionally, in a growing team, new people may band together, viewing the fellow new hire as the safest person to ask a potentially “dumb” question, rather than their teammate or manager. This risks sub-cultures developing as new hires onboard, further fragmenting the culture away from the overall company’s direction.
When people say that “maintaining culture when you hire remotely” is hard, this is what they mean. The default is a forking, branching culture, with each “generation” of new hires developing their own ethos; maintaining one common shared culture takes continued, focused work. David Loftesness, who has worked at Twitter and Eero, suggests a few tactics for dealing with changing culture as people onboard:
Fostering an understanding of what each team does, what their challenges are, the basic act of putting names to faces after a meaningful interaction, is a great way to sidestep factions down the road… Get new hires in a room with your veteran employees, for example, to maintain a thread to your earliest days. Encourage them to share stories, both difficult failures and energizing successes. This can give the new folks some perspective of what the old-timers went through to get the company to where it is today.
A gelled team (or integrated team) operates as a collective unit where the output is more than the sum of each individual contribution. A key indicator of gelled teams is a high level of psychological safety.
In a remote team, the factors that may contribute to a feeling of psychological safety are more rare, like face-to-face engagement and general social activity. Leaders need to work intentionally to help teams gel. Thinking of teams as being entities that go through development stages makes it easier to anticipate challenges and overcome them.
Bruce Tuckman developed the four stages of team formation: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.* This is useful to use as a diagnostic framework to overcome hitches when integrating remote or virtual teams.
|General Observations||Uncertainty about roles; looking outside for guidance.||Growing confidence in team; rejection of outside authority.||Concern about being different; wanting to be part of a team.||Concern with getting the job done.|
|Content Issues||The team makes some attempt to define the job to be done.||Members resist the task demands.||There is an open exchange of views about the team’s problems.||Resources are allocated efficiently; processes are in place to ensure that the final objective is acheived.|
|Process Issues||Team members look outside to managers for guidance and direction.||Team denies the task and looks for reasons not to do it.||The team starts to set up procedures to deal with the task.||The team is able to solve problems.|
|Feelings Issues||People feel anxious and are unsure of their roles.||People still feel uncertain and try to express their individuality. Concerns arise about team hierarchy.||People ignore individual differences and are more accepting of one another.||People share a common focus, communicate effectively, and become more efficient and flexible as a result.|
Resolving conflict between team members (and across teams) is a classic responsibility for managers, and the challenges are exaggerated on distributed teams due to distance and degraded emotional information from asynchronous, written communication. The solutions, too, are not necessarily as straightforward as they would be in an office setting.
James O’Toole and Warren Bennis describe observable candor as a foundation of successful teamwork. It is the degree to which “people have access to relevant, timely, and valid information.” Without it, teams are simply less effective. Unfortunately, remote teams are especially ineffective at frank conversations: HBR research shows that in dispersed groups, leaders have to actively push team members to be candid with each other.
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni defines “artificial harmony” as the lack of “passionate, unfiltered debate around issues of importance to the team.” Teams may avoid passionate debate in an effort to stay conflict; back-channeling is often the result.
A one-on-one meeting (or 1:1, or one-to-one, or one-on-one) is a recurring meeting between a manager and their individual team members. While the format may vary significantly by organization or team, it is typically a time for the manager and employee to discuss how the employee is doing, and may include discussing projects, coaching, mentorship, establishing context, or helping the employee discuss challenging aspects of their work.
One-on-ones were popularized by Andy Grove in High Output Management, where Grove argues that “[ninety] minutes of your time can enhance the quality of your subordinate’s work for two weeks, or for some eighty-plus hours.” This is a compelling return on time invested, and so for good reason, one-on-one meetings have become a management best practice. Grove recommends that the one-on-one meeting be directed not by the manager, but by the employee, and that it is emphatically their time to bring up what is on their mind.
Treat your peers as interesting fellow humans and you might be surprised by what it does for their motivation, dedication, and engagement.Camille Fournier, Managing Director, Two Sigma, and author, The Manager’s Path*
In a remote team, the manager is by default an abstract, distant avatar and not a real live human who interacts socially with their team on a daily basis. Managers can’t see what’s happening by walking around a physical office or by reading faces and body language, so they must have a way to direct and encourage employees to be open and honest if something is wrong. This requires a far higher degree of trust in the manager/direct-report relationship than when you can simply observe their behavior and office dynamics directly. are both the space specifically designated for employees to share any issues, and where managers can connect more deeply with direct reports, form bonds, and establish trust.
The practices for remote remote one-on-one guide, GitLab recommends that managers have seven, and no more than ten, direct reports because “beyond this, proper [remote] one-on-ones are hard to sustain.” are essentially the best practices for one-on-ones in general, but because they’re so critical for remote work, we’ll cover them in detail here. Even in a heavily asynchronous culture such as GitLab, the one-on-one structure is carefully observed. In their
Over time, I’ve learned that getting some particular data during an initial can be really helpful, as I can refer back to the answers as I need to give a person feedback, recognize them, and find creative ways to support them.Lara Hogan, management coach; co-founder, Wherewithall*
To ensure effectiveness, it’s helpful to make sure you are:
Managing time well. We recommend meeting for one hour, every week.
It’s best to skew timezones in favor of the direct report, and to optimize for the time of day that is comfortable for them to share more easily, where possible.
Keeping the full amount of meeting time signals how much you value these meetings.
Don’t reschedule or cancel: signal how important this time is by showing up.
It’s helpful to have a well of options you can turn to regularly to keep your * fresh and find new ways to prompt interesting or useful answers from your team. Asking deeper questions leads to greater trust and intimacy than small talk does; a key pattern to foster in developing close relationships is “sustained, escalating, reciprocal personalistic self-disclosure.”
Rather than ending a early when an agenda is light, you can ask your direct report one or two of these questions, ideally getting more personal and reflective over time.
A manager’s work is primarily focused on three major tasks:
setting goals to help employees succeed and grow in their roles;
providing coaching, mentorship (advice on how to improve) and sponsorship (access and advocating for opportunities for them); and
For a remote worker who’s performing well, the risk can be that they are not getting enough visibility from their manager or the team. Feeling overlooked and underappreciated, they’re at risk for disengagement and attrition. Research shows that the worry about being “out of sight, out of mind” or of having fear of missing out (FOMO) can lead to loneliness and isolation in remote workers. It is therefore critical for managers to increase high-performing team members’ social visibility with public recognition, and to reward good work.
A second benefit of recognition being given publicly is that it makes clear what types of behavior your company rewards. This helps to build the type of culture that you want. It’s more effective to show people exactly what success looks like, than to criticize what they do wrong. Public recognition is also an excellent tool for improving the performance of those who aren’t high achievers yet. In a remote team, there are many fewer opportunities to directly observe co-workers’ work, and so drawing specific attention to excellent work gives everyone a chance to learn and improve.
In a distributed team, it’s much harder for a manager to get an informal pulse for morale and mental health. You can’t manage by walking around; you don’t see who’s staying late or leaving early, who eats lunch alone at their desk, or who seems unusually withdrawn or dejected.
The very nature of remote work can also contribute to an environment where morale and mental health issues develop more easily and go unnoticed. Studies show that social isolation is correlated with mental health problems.* Loneliness, also associated with social isolation, both predicts depression and is a symptom of depression.* Loneliness and depression drive people to withdraw, often avoiding taking steps that could help them recover or manage. Loneliness also lowers a person’s ability to recognize social cues,* which isolates them further. This emotional disconnection is in turn highly linked to clinical anxiety and depression.* Anxiety and depression can change people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them*—it is more likely that someone suffering from anxiety or depression will interpret an interaction as negative.
All of these factors create a pressure cooker for morale and mental health issues, and are likely to lead to burnout if not treated or addressed. In turn, overwork can precipitate these factors. Shedding light on the importance of mental health by creating an open and safe environment is an important first step for managers of remote teams. Managers can increase the chances of talking openly and respectfully about mental health by doing the following:
Burnout is a warning sign of a toxic work environment. The response should be to focus on making the environment less toxic.Dr. Christina Maslach, burnout researcher and expert*
Remote workers are at particular risk if they are overworked, isolated, and struggling against communication structures optimized for an in-person team. Remote employees are also more prone to job exhaustion because of tacit pressure to ‘prove’ their contributions. In an office, as long as you are physically present, your manager and co-workers are unlikely to wonder whether you’re really working. But when someone isn’t co-located, an unproductive day can trigger fears about whether people will think they’ve been watching TV instead of working. Research shows that remote employees work a full extra day per week compared to their co-located counterparts.*
When a group of people experience the same challenges in the same physical space, human connection can form naturally, without any further effort. This connection can make dealing with bad news a little easier—the small act of looking across the room to see someone else struggling can be enormously important as a group recovers or tries to solve a big problem. Remote teams don’t have the same social outlets, the cues of “we’re all in this together” that help individuals process difficult emotions like shock, grief, uncertainty, and fear. In remote teams, each person can experience their own individual bubble of painful emotions, without the communal processing of grief that allows one to feel less alone. Managers will want to take extra care and pay attention to many subtle details when communicating challenging information.
Voluntary departures—when someone chooses to move on to a new job on a different team or at a new company—can be sad or disappointing, but also can be a chance for the team to express its community feeling. In a remote team, the departing person should receive the same, if not more, celebration and well-wishes than you’d give for the last day of a valued in-office co-worker. It’s easy for a remote team member to just disappear as if they were never there, and the temptation can be to let this happen. We strongly recommend that you not do this; it hurts morale by making people wonder what ‘really’ happened, and by creating the feeling that the company doesn’t care if remote team members leave.
To counteract this, it’s best to be intentional about how voluntary departures are handled. You can encourage the team member to share a company- or team-wide announcement themselves, communicating their decision to move on, and providing personal details so that co-workers can keep in touch. A message from the teammate themself helps dispel any rumor that they were dismissed.
On their last day, you may have their manager organize a goodbye video call, where everyone shares what they appreciated about that person and wishes them well. Having a “cheering you on” celebration by sharing GIFs and messages in the company chat room can also send people off on a positive note. Making sure departures are handled gracefully helps to nurture a culture that your company is both a good place to work, and also a good place to have worked: people go on to good things and aren’t resented, or gossiped about, for leaving. Counter-intuitively, this helps the remaining people feel that the job they’re currently at is a good one, rather than a toxic place where people gossip about those who move on.
In a distributed team, dismissing someone is a precision operation where rumors and panic are the default setting. You don’t have the ability to have a private, in-person meeting and escort the dismissed person out of the building, and then address your staff all together afterwards. As soon as you have a video call to dismiss someone, you will lose control of the narrative and rumors will spread. Your staff will have heard the dismissed person’s side of the story via instant message or online on social media as soon as the dismissal happens.
People rarely expect to be fired, even with serious feedback and performance improvement plans. In a remote setting, when you don’t visibly see your teammate dejected after a meeting with a manager, or appearing stressed or under-performing at work, people will often have no inkling at all that someone else’s job is at risk until they disappear from the company. Given this environment, it’s easy for people to believe that the dismissal was a complete surprise, and that if a surprise dismissal happened to someone else, then they might be abruptly fired, too. The worst case scenario here is rumors of layoffs framed as “firings” starting a panic. In this case, you run the risk of top performers (who will most easily find another job) preemptively quitting before they get “laid off.” This is an expensive mistake.
The best antidote is clear, consistent communication. Following a firing, it’s important that every single line manager tell the same essential story. Broad strokes of that story can be shared to the whole company. You, and all managers, will need to be kind, attentive, and available to your team. Should people across teams discuss the dismissal among themselves, they’ll all enter with the same set of facts, having observed the same calm, caring behavior in the manager who dismissed their peer. This goes a long way to prevent panic.
With a difficult reorganization or when faced with layoffs of people on remote teams, several key risks need to be managed:
Preventing post-layoff quitting.
Operationally, it’s more complicated to remove access from a set of remote tools than to remove a building fob or pass. To make sure you’re able to remove access to tools and virtual workspaces when someone leaves, it’s best to keep up-to-date records of who has what level of access to which tools. In many startups in particular, new tools are adopted and old ones dropped every month, so this needs to be regularly maintained.
Wherever possible, you can benefit from using single sign-on methods, such as Okta or Auth0. This allows you to remove access to most tools at once. To prevent some difficulty in the event of a dismissal or departure, you may wish to consider early on whether or not a team member needs access to the tool. It’s always good practice to grant the lowest necessary level of access. For example, one would not give out “administrator” access when a lower level of access will do. It’s much easier to grant or change access when it becomes needed, than to reverse the damage done by a disgruntled ex-employee who has administrator access to the key tool. These best practices are even more important in a distributed team, where you need to be able to quickly lock down access to a tangled web of online tools and portals, and this is hard to do in a hurry if you’re disorganized or under-prepared.
For communicating other difficult news (such as deaths, illnesses, leaves of absence, or upsetting public news) to a distributed team, you can use the following guidelines as a start:
It’s imperative to talk to anyone directly affected privately first (co-workers close to the affected colleague, team members on the same team, managers or direct reports of the person affected, or people directly affected by political news or traumatic events).
This section was written by Paul Maplesden.
Successful remote working relies as much on self-starting, motivated remote employees as it does on having forward-thinking employers who want to create remote teams. We’ve already discussed what companies can do to maximize the effectiveness of remote working—now it’s time to explore how remote employees can ensure they’re ready.
This section provides insight and practical guidance on many aspects of , from the employee’s perspective. Whether you’re already a remote employee, or you’re searching for a remote working job, you’ll find plenty of advice on what to expect, how to determine if remote working is right for you, what important skills you’ll need to foster, how to set up your remote office, and much more.
You need to know what triggers your productivity, what distracts you, and what makes you feel anxious or focused. It’s also important to maintain social interactions, so warn your friends that they may receive some additional attention or that sometimes you will need their attention. Remote work is not only a job you do for your company, but also a job for your own personal growth.Vytis Marčiulionis, Email Deliverability Manager, Emarsys*
Remote work has many benefits for self-motivated, disciplined employees, and it’s a popular choice: 98% of respondents to the 2020 Buffer remote work survey said they want to work outside an office at some point in their career. For many of us, remote working is both a logical and a fulfilling choice—greater flexibility, more control over where and when to work, and closeness to family are powerful incentives.
At the same time, it’s important to understand what you’re taking on. There are unique demands that come with working outside a traditional office environment, and being prepared for those challenges will allow you to develop the right skills and approach to find success as a remote worker.
If you want to set yourself up for success in remote working, there are several approaches or frameworks you can use that will get you off to an excellent start. We cover each of these approaches briefly below, and we’ve linked to relevant sections to help you put them into practice.
The traditional office environment provides an important structure for employees—when you’re expected to be at work, where you work from, built-in connections with peers and managers, and more. One of the biggest surprises for new remote workers is how this structure almost completely disappears once they’re not in the office anymore. The way that you communicate, receive, and share information becomes one step removed, and it’s just that little bit more difficult to get attention from others.
This isn’t just about scheduling your routine either—it’s important to dissociate a routine from the notion of time. Having a remote work routine doesn’t necessarily mean you have to work a typical 9–5 schedule, just from home instead of in an office (though for some people, this is just what they want!). But it does require that you understand how and when you’re most productive, whether or not you will need to be available to colleagues (for a standup or planning meeting, for example), and how you can work effectively no matter where you are.
We cover having a good routine in Setting and Keeping A Daily Routine.
If it doesn’t persist, it doesn’t exist.Luke Thomas, founder, Friday*
Some employers might think that remote workers are less accountable. You don’t have supervisors peering over your shoulder, and the lack of a physical can drive the perception that you’re not really “at work.”
Trust is a fundamental necessity in high-functioning remote teams, and accountability fosters trust. It’s essential that your team and manager trust that you’ll get your work done, and that you’re all focused on the same outcomes.
Being a remote worker requires that you invest extra time and effort in your own success. For many remote workers, there’s simply less feedback and recognition from peers and supervisors. This can be amplified if you run into problems, especially if you’re isolated or feeling disconnected.
Unless you speak up, it’s not guaranteed that others will notice—they’re simply too focused on their own work. That means it is important that you be proactive and make changes yourself to improve your working life, or ask for help if you need it.
See Personal Health for more on managing both your physical and mental health while working remotely.
Successful remote work isn’t just about your attitude, approach, and skills—there’s plenty you can do in your day-to-day environment that will help you stay on track. Whether it’s the location of your home office or the hardware and software you choose to use, building a strong foundation and structure will help you flourish.
Get the nuts and bolts in Setting Up Your Remote Office.
As remote workers we have to completely self-organize and make sure we motivate ourselves to keep going. Getting a salary alone is not enough of a motivator to do so, especially if your team does not value and work on interpersonal connection. You need to understand how stress affects you, how to deal with loneliness, how to keep yourself motivated, without the helpful structure and external accountability of going to an office.Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*
Every remote-work role has unique, job-specific requirements and skill sets, but there are more general skills that are helpful in any remote employment role.
A lack of communication and daily, in-person interactions can create strong feelings of isolation, and poor communication can also lead to confusion and frustration around who is doing what within your team. Communication also can be a serious nuisance: constant interruptions from Slack or email threads that go nowhere but won’t die can make it hard to get and stay focused. We cover this topic in detail for teams in Working Together When Apart, so here we focus largely on the individual perspective of remote employees and how they can be proactive, effective communicators.
I find that the single most important element of successful remote work has nothing to do with how you are organized, how competent you are, or how much you work, but how good you are in building and maintaining relationships and consequently building trust with the people you work with.Stephan Dohrn, remote working expert and coach*
Maintaining a strong sense of focus is central to deep, knowledge-based tasks. can invite many distractions, especially if you don’t have clear delineation around your workspace, routine, and when you’re available to friends, roommates, or family.
Fadeke Adegbuyi of Doist created a fantastic summary of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which we can’t recommend more enthusiastically for remote workers. If there’s one takeaway from her guide to deep work, it would be to schedule your day methodically. Without the structure of an office, your own schedule (which should be reflected in your calendar!) is what makes or breaks your ability to get deep, focused work done.
Other key aspects for deep work are maintaining self-discipline and having strong boundaries. As a remote worker you will be more successful at supporting deep focus if you:
The individuals who worked at home successfully were found to be highly self-motivated and self-disciplined and to have skills which provided them with bargaining power. Employees demonstrated self-discipline by tending to work in a very strict routine; they worked in the same place every day and tended to have relatively structured hours.Margrethe H. Olson, researcher, “Remote Office Work: Changing Work Patterns in Space and Time”*
A good routine is an important habit to develop as a remote worker. The benefits of managing your time properly include:
Your employer and peers understand when you will be available.
Let me be clear that autonomy does not mean doing less; it means the freedom of doing things in a better, more optimized way.Steph Smith, Integral Labs*
Like so many other aspects of remote work, you will find yourself needing to manage almost every aspect of your productivity yourself. That’s not a bad thing per se—a small set of studies have shown that remote workers actually contribute between 1.5 and 4 days a month in extra individual productivity, compared to traditional office workers.* Given that remote work is increasingly measured via outcomes instead of time working, productivity is make-or-break for a remote worker.
Here are some suggestions for maximizing your productivity when you work from home:
I have a firm belief in the impact of our workplace on our behavior. Large companies invest millions of dollars into strategically designing offices that will fuel productivity and innovation, yet we’re plopping ourselves on a couch and expecting the same results.Laurel Farrer, CEO, Distribute Consulting*
80% of remote workers complete their work from home.* Designing the perfect remote work office is a challenge, however. Spending some time correctly setting up your office will create the right environment for you to be as effective and efficient as possible. This includes:
If you work from your couch, your home is your work.Rodolphe Dutel, founder, Remotive.io*
Just over 30% of remote workers have space for a separate, dedicated office,* and that’s often the best option for optimizing how you work. People who don’t have a separate office tend to use their living room or bedroom. When you’re choosing where to work, you’ll need to think about:
Your floor plan and available space
You’ll probably be spending seven or more hours a day , so it’s important to invest in high-quality furniture that supports you as you work.
Comfortable desk. Whatever type of desk you have (or buy), you’ll have to make sure there’s enough surface area for your hardware, accessories, and any paperwork or other materials you might need. It’s much better to have a good desk and chair than to work from the dining room table. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are some ideas.
Adjustable chair. The type of chair you use is arguably even more important than your desk. It’s critical to choose a chair that offers full ergonomic capabilities, including comprehensive back support, chair- and arm-height variation, and other adjustments. Here’s a buyer’s guide to get you started.
The hardware you choose to work with can make a huge difference to your productivity. While your business may provide hardware to you, it’s also worth investigating upgrades as they can have a dramatic effect on the speed and efficiency of your work.
Fast computer. A fast, up-to-date laptop or desktop computer can shave a few seconds off of the hundreds of tasks you perform daily—and could save you a few hours every month. A better computer with more memory makes it easier to start up your software, keep multiple applications open, and switch between them in moments. If you are considering working remotely for a new company, you may wish to ask in the interview process whether they provide one for you or offer a stipend for you to purchase one yourself.
importantLaptop accessories. If you have a laptop, we strongly recommend an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand. If you’re working outside the home, something like the Roost Stand can also be a great option.
There are thousands of options in the software that remote employees—and the businesses that employ them—choose to use. We think it’s important to keep a few principles in mind when choosing the right software for you:
Employer restrictions. Before you start looking into software alternatives, it’s important to understand your employer’s policies and guidelines. They may insist you only use certain types of software, for privacy, security, quality, or other reasons. You’ll need to learn about any restrictions they have in place, and talk to your supervisor if you have any questions.
Individual needs. Because you’re a remote worker, you have slightly different needs than people who work in a traditional office. The right types of software can help you manage your tasks, stay in touch with colleagues, and maximize productivity.
When you’re maintain an appropriate level of professionalism in all of your interactions with your peers, supervisors, and others in your business., it’s easy for the lines between your personal and working life to become blurred. But it is important to
While remote work rejects the notion of as a measure of your productivity, it’s conversely easy to become virtually invisible when you’re . Being accountable means that you do what you say you will, so your team can depend on you and not need to check in outside planned standups or asynchronous mechanisms they have in place. You can ensure your team knows you’re on track by:
Using the best channels for communications. We recommend following your team’s agreement or, if you don’t have one, asking your colleagues how they want to be communicated with. Ideally most of your communication will be asynchronous, but this will vary depending on your company.
Responding appropriately. This includes replying to emails, calls, and other communications according to your team’s agreed-upon protocols, and keeping your messages focused and on-point. You’ll want to keep an eye out for the ways your team asks questions or needs clarification on any work or projects in process, but it’s important to be careful not to overdo it. Many remote workers report overcompensating for fear of not being visibly available,* which could lead to pestering members of your team or distracting yourself from getting necessary work done.
Even if you don’t have a separate home office, there are steps you can take to project professionalism when you’re working:
Dressing for your role. You might dress a little more casually than if you’re going into a traditional office, but putting on decent clothes each day can help with your mindset and image. You may also want to consider whether you’ll be talking with outside clients, interviewing candidates, or using other forms of external communication that would benefit from you looking more polished.
Keeping the background appropriate. You might need to join video conferences and be on webcam. It’s wise to make sure that you don’t mind your colleagues or supervisors seeing the background behind you.
importantIt’s important to have a backup workspace. If you lose power, the internet goes down, or you can’t work from your usual spot, you’ll need to have a contingency in place. It’s worth spending a little time seeking out other areas you can work from to reduce stress if there’s an emergency. In general, you should have a go-to list of other places you know you can work that have reliable wifi and the kind of environment you’ll need (for example, co-working space with booths or rooms for video calls and meetings).
Physically and mentally taking care of yourself is vital as a remote worker, and requires good self-management. We’ll explore the practical techniques you can use to stay healthy.
Remote workers have more freedom to take care of physical health than traditional, office-based roles. Much of the advice below applies to anyone really, but people with more flexible remote schedules hopefully are able to take better advantage of these opportunities.
Insomnia and not getting enough sleep is a major issue for many people, with 35% of Americans sleeping less than they should.* Remote workers are no exception, and a lack of clear boundaries, anxiety about your work, or feelings of loneliness can all contribute. There’s lots of advice out there on dealing with insomnia. Here is our best take on how remote workers can get enough sleep:
Finding work-life balance isn’t about prioritizing your mental wellbeing at the expense of your work. It’s acknowledging that, in the long-term, all areas of your life are better off when you put your mental health first.Amir Salihefendic, founder and CEO, Doist*
importantThis section contains information for remote workers to help them focus on their mental health. But it’s important to note that mental health is not solely the responsibility of individual employees. Burnout in particular is a systemic problem that more often stems from organizational priorities and dynamics, and only somewhat relates to individual overwork. We cover this in depth in Morale, Mental Health, and Burnout in Remote Teams, notably in regard to what managers and leadership can do to ensure the mental health of their remote teams. It’s critical that remote employees are not left isolated and expected to monitor and manage their mental health on their own.
This section was written by Courtney Nash and Haley Anderson.
With a company, you can hire people from anywhere in the world.Everyone
In nearly every blog post about remote work, and during almost every conversation we’ve had with remote workers, leaders, and company founders, this is a common refrain. The world is your oyster; no longer are you constrained to competing with Google or Facebook for engineering talent. If that growth marketer you really want is in Nigeria, just hire her!
Companies typically hire employees and engage a mix of or . Until more recently in the U.S., this was simply a matter of cost and strategy—hiring contractors helped outsource some work, especially to accelerate a specific project or initiative.
cautionFor U.S. businesses, hiring is financially appealing, as companies don’t need to handle payroll and tax withholding, or provide healthcare or other benefits. It might seem like an easy and less expensive way to expand your remote workforce. But there are federal laws about when someone can be considered a contractor vs. an employee, and getting this wrong can be very painful and expensive.
The IRS worker classification rules suggest that companies consider three aspects of their relationship with someone they are employing:
When it comes to keeping up with all the laws and regulations for remote U.S. workers, you have roughly three options:
Track everything yourself. This means that for every location that you have a remote employee, you manage payroll, benefits, and so on with your own internal HR employees or via external accountants, benefits administrators, lawyers, et cetera. This was what many businesses had to do before more recent SaaS-based HR-service providers came on the market.
Mix advisors with services. This typically is a mix of contract legal and financial help paired with some form of service provider that handles most of the payroll, benefits, and related overhead (like Gusto, Zenefits, Bamboo, et cetera—see our list of tools and services for a list of all these providers).
In order to protect candidates from discrimination, U.S. federal law, as well as many state and local laws, prohibits companies from recruiting new employees in a discriminatory way,* making hiring decisions on a discriminatory basis or using hiring practices that have an especially negative effect on relevant groups,* and asking certain questions during interviews.*
Compensation is a complicated topic in its own right, and crossing state lines impacts what kind of pay and associated benefits you offer employees in a number of ways. You’ll need to factor in state and local laws regarding minimum wage and overtime, among other things. And to do that, you’ll need to know which kind of employees you have.
Although it might be tempting to think of minimum-wage and overtime rules as applicable to all workers, this isn’t the case. Instead, they apply to some workers (non-exempt employees) but not others (exempt employees and independent contractors) based on classifications that are initially set at the federal level.*
Benefits can vary significantly at state and local levels, so this is one area where it’s important to be aware of a host of differences (or ensure whatever third party or service you’re using is doing so adequately instead).
The United States does not guarantee paid family leave, a fact that makes it unique among industrialized countries.* Instead, federal law provides unpaid family leave for approximately 60% of the workforce through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (see more on this in the following section).*
This section covers a collection of concerns that would largely be covered in a company’s employee . For state-based variations on these categories, pay attention to New York and California, which have the most unique laws about these kinds of issues.
Many states, notably California, require companies to reimburse employees for any equipment or other things they are required to purchase in order to do their job.* This can range from office equipment to even something like the cost of opening a bank account in order to receive direct deposits.
In general, most basic employment rights (including minimum wage, overtime, and more) are governed by the laws of the state where an employee works.* When it comes to payroll and taxes, this is very much the case. If your company is in California, but you have an employee in New York, they will need to pay local New York-based taxes, and you will be responsible for tracking and withholding those. You’ll also need to be aware of withholding requirements for things like workers comp and disability insurance. Below we list all the payroll and tax requirements you’ll need to track, noting whether they are merely federally mandated or whether they might vary down to the state, county, or municipal level.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets a national standard for minimum wage for *.
When everyone worked in the same office, maintaining good data privacy, security, and compliance practices was fairly straightforward (and the requirements were much simpler!). Everything was stored on central servers; no one lugged their desktop computer home to work for a few more hours; and few people even knew what a “hacker” was. The largely good news for remote workers is that in the intervening few decades, the explosion in smartphones, laptops, and cloud-based services means that most organizations had to rapidly adapt to an increasingly mobile workforce and rapidly changing regulations regarding protecting consumer data.
Given that this guide is largely for startups and high-growth companies, it’s outside our scope to delve beyond the basics of data security and privacy.
What’s important to know is that generally speaking, privacy and security laws apply more to where your customers are, not where your employees are. If you have solid policies and practices for everyone in your company, remote or otherwise, then you should largely be in good shape.
Accessing pools of talent outside your home country is one of the more appealing aspects of remote work for companies, especially when considering the U.S., where competition for talent is fierce. Being enables companies to cast the widest possible net to find the people they need. This can allow you to hire people at comparable wages outside the competition pools with large companies in expensive urban centers, which can help change people’s lives for the better and bring more mobility and opportunity to underserved communities. Additionally, if your company is aiming to expand into new markets, hiring locally means bringing in people who live and work in the region, who are more likely to know their market incredibly well.
This sounds great on paper, but the reality is far more complex. Hiring internationally means weighing nearly the entire list of considerations from the previous section on U.S. employees, and having to solve for all that in every new country.
importantWhile U.S. companies can hire from any state without needing a physical there, it’s not so straightforward internationally. If you aren’t incorporated in a given country, then you can’t hire someone as a full-time employee.
How do you decide to approach hiring internationally ultimately comes down to your company’s philosophy, growth rate, and risk tolerance. Smaller startups often fall below the threshold for certain kinds of benefits requirements or privacy and data security laws—as they grow and scale their remote workforce, their risk exposure grows, but they also then tend to have more capital and people to invest in establishing and scaling programs to ensure compliance with local laws.
You have a few options for how to proceed:
Hire people as.
International offer many of the conveniences that U.S.-based contractors do: they’re typically responsible for their own taxes, health care, et cetera; and are subject to their national and potentially municipal regulations for compliance. But unlike in the U.S., even if you are hiring a contractor, you’re often still responsible for ensuring they receive all their benefits, including paid leave, minimum wage, holidays, and anything else stipulated by their local laws.
importantDLA Piper provides an excellent resource for researching employment laws by 60 different countries.
A few notable categories that differ outside the U.S. include:
A company can avoid hiring people as by hiring through a temporary employment agency or a partner business that hires the workers as employees.
A local business partner is a company that has existing business contacts or partners in-country and is willing to put another company’s employees on their payroll. This type of arrangement is also known as leased or assigned employment.
We’re not aware of many startups or smaller companies that have this kind of arrangement. It’s much more likely to be feasible for a larger, multi-national company or an organization with large customer or partner companies in multiple countries.
Earlier we covered the pros and cons of working with a PEO. Many also support hiring international employees, and you may also see a similar option with GEOs.
A global employment organization (or GEO) is a form of that is an employer of record (EOR) that employs people in foreign countries on behalf of a company that is not incorporated in that country. A GEO processes payroll, withhold taxes and contributions, and ensures compliance with local country employment laws.
There’s ultimately no difference between a , GEO, or EOR—it’s all semantics; they provide the same services. That said, many remote companies that we spoke with found working with PEOs or GEOs for international hiring to be challenging. The key issues are:
The tools you choose to support remote work have a significant impact on the levels of trust, productivity, and effective communication on a team, often in subtle and surprising ways. The number of software tools and services can be overwhelming—especially for the growing number of companies suddenly switching to a remote model.
We compiled this set of tools by talking to hundreds of remote workers and experts, surveying Quora topics and other available tools lists, and researching each company on Capterra, Crunchbase, and AngelList. With almost 400 entries broken down by category, this table may be the most comprehensive list of remote tool resources available, and includes pricing information and details about how to get started—free trial via self-serve or (everyone’s favorite!) having to contact a sales rep.
importantIf you haven’t yet, we strongly recommend reading the section of the guide that covers key remote communication channels and tools, to help guide your decision-making when it comes to choosing the tools that will work best for your team’s needs. Starting with the Collaboration and Documentation category will help you form the base of your asynchronous documentation strategy.