Are you ‘remote-first’ curious? Here’s how it works…

Tessa Clarke
Mar 9 · 7 min read
An OLIO team meeting — spot the person in the ski resort & someone else in an airport!

As the corona virus unfolds I firmly believe one of its major impacts will be that it heralds a new dawn in the future of work — ‘remote first’. Why? Because companies across the world are rapidly cancelling travel and events, and yet business-as-usual needs to continue. This will inevitably push them to set aside the skepticism usually associated with any suggestion of ‘remote first’, and to instead seriously engage with the multitude of technologies that enable remote-first to be hyper-effective — such as Zoom, Slack, Invision, Zapier and more. It seems I’m not the only one to think so — Zoom’s stock price is hitting new heights as we speak:

Meanwhile flights from London to California are pretty empty…

Flight from London to California last week

So what is ‘remote first’ and how does it work?

At OLIO ‘remote first’ means:

  • We’re a business with ~30 employees and we don’t have an office 🤯
  • Team members work from home, in 6 different countries (and counting)
  • We’ve built all our systems, processes & communications from the ground up to support a ‘remote-first’ way of working, so transparency happens by default
Most people have a Dilbert-like response to the concept of remote working

But doesn’t everyone just slack off and binge on Netflix?

Whenever I mention we’re a ‘remote-first’ company, I’m immediately met with skepticism (the 20th century model of office-based working is deeply embedded) and a host of questions that tend to centre around a couple of themes:

  • What about your company culture? (implication: an office is needed for a strong company culture)
  • What about performance management and employee motivation?(implication: an office is needed to manage people properly and to ensure they don’t waste away their days)
  • And… does it really work?!? (implication: we must’ve taken departure of our sanity!)

Thankfully my co-founder Saasha and I have had 40 years’ of experience working in offices, and so can credibly defend our firm belief that ‘remote first’ is going to be the future of work. Here are 6 reasons why:

  1. Recruitment — when you’re not tied to a particular city you can immediately tap into a much larger talent pool where the competition is less intense, and the same calibre of talent is generally cheaper due to a lower cost of living. For us this means we’re not competing against all the other startups (over)paying for London-based talent.
  2. Retention — remote working gives people complete autonomy and flexibility over their lives. Once experienced this can be extremely hard to give up, as Dan Pink’s talk explains. This in turn drives excellent retention, which is a significant business advantage when scaling rapidly.
  3. Culture & morale — at OLIO we have a company culture and morale that’s second to none (and I’ve worked at iconic companies such as Dyson and in its day, Emap Plc). Over half our team say that working at OLIO is the best job they’ve ever had!
  4. Diversity — being able to recruit outside of the core cities and offering a fully flexible and autonomous way of working means that we’re able to attract a far more diverse type of candidate. For example women (and increasingly men) looking for a career that fits with family life; plus neuro-diverse team members who wouldn’t thrive in a classic corporate office, but who are some of our very best performers.
  5. Business continuity — as Corona virus continues its spread, there’s a significant advantage in that all our core business operations can continue un-interrupted, even in the face of a global flu pandemic.
  6. Carbon footprint — by cutting the commute and the office overhead, we’re significantly lowering the carbon footprint of our business which as the world looks to get to carbon neutral by 2050, or earlier, is going to become increasingly important.
There’s some truth in Dilbert’s maths

So how does it work in practice?

  • Everyone works from home, and works whatever hours best suit them
  • London based team members have optional access to a co-working space
  • Scheduling non-work activities during the working day (e.g. yoga, dog walking, picking up the kids) is actively encouraged, and role modelled by us as founders. This tends to be offset by people working early mornings or late evenings as suits them and their families/lifestyle
  • The cornerstone of ‘remote first’ is good recruitment — we recruit for proactive self-starters, who are mission obsessed and ambitious for both the company and themselves.
  • Management best practice is ruthlessly enforced including a weekly all-hands meeting (via Zoom), weekly 1:1s (via Google Meet), bi-annual performance reviews, an annual employee morale survey and constant feedback on a daily/weekly basis about what is and isn’t working
  • Documentation is critical and so we rely heavily on Github, Dropbox, Google Docs, wiki and the company intranet (Nuclino)
  • We enforce two critical rules for meetings: cameras must always be switched on; and one person per camera, even if several people are in the same room. This is essential to avoid those in the same room splintering into side conversations that exclude the fully remote team
  • We have a number of *extremely* active company and team chat channels, where wins, gifs, spontaneous inspiration and banter are shared. We have a number of tricks such as our Fri-YAY question to help encourage camaraderie.
  • We have bi-annual away days for the whole company; and the tech team, which is fully remote, has two additional away days
  • One of our biggest challenges is preventing burn-out in the team, as everyone is so dedicated and motivated (the exact opposite of what everyone expects when you say you’re a ‘remote first’ business). Apparently this is not unusual as a Stanford study shows a 13% improvement in productivity when working from home, due to fewer distractions. We therefore enforce a minimum of 20 days holiday per year, and allow limitless holiday above that.

Still not convinced? Here’s what our team have to say…

“Working remotely allows me to increase my output per hour, because I can choose to work in alignment with my body clock. It increases my well-being because instead of feeling late to work at 8.30am, I can chose to work out, or to meditate. Meanwhile I feel that this is accepted, because everyone could do this, not just the ‘higher-ups’… This creates a strong sense of equality, and thus unity, as a team.”

“Remote first is a revelation. Meetings that are constructive but brief. Silence for deep work. Balanced for family life. Space to stay healthy, global rather than parochial.”

“I think the best thing about remote working is that it demonstrates the trust a company has in it’s employees. Allowing them to be fully autonomous and knowing they’ll do the job even if they’re not stuck in a typical office setting and being micro-managed. It also means you can have a truly international company, and make hires based on how well someone can do the job, rather than where they’re based. It doesn’t restrict someone who has a young family to look after, or a pet etc. from taking the job. Lastly, it saves commute time, travel costs and lowers carbon footprints! 👣”

“OLIO’s remote first policy has enabled me to spend the past two month working from Bali which was rather fantastic.”

“Besides being able to work in my sweats some days (currently in them as I write this), I value that the quality of my work is what matters. Not on how much you show up. We live in the 21st century — there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to work from a beach or a snowy mountain as long as you have good wifi and continue to deliver.”

“I really enjoy the flexibility and autonomy and I find it refreshing not having to be sat at the same desk each day. I’m also able to fit appointments and hobbies into my day without it being a hassle to request to time off. Especially in London, not having to do the regular commute and avoid the rush hour is a dream! Plus it’s helpful to take advantage of off-peak travel.”

Here are some advantages off the top of my head…

* Work with a more diverse team

* Work when you are at your best

* Reduce stress by getting other issues sorted

* Save house work time by performing quick jobs whilst boiling the kettle

* Always at home to receive parcels

* No office politics

* Able to work from other locations when needing inspiration / change

* No fights over office thermostat

* Some protection from this season’s colds/flu

* To give my baby daughter a hug every time I have a break

* No queue for the toilets

* Being able to let of steam at the time without anyone knowing (I’ve never actually done this!)

* Loud pumping music, quiet time, relaxing classical — your choice!

*No expensive/timely/boring commute — use the time/money for better things”

As we look to the future, and scaling OLIO to hundreds or even thousands of employees, we will inevitably encounter some challenges to our model. For example, we will need to select geographies to focus our employer brand-building and recruitment efforts in order to avoid an ineffective scatter gun approach. And we will need to think about how we scale access to co-working spaces, particularly for younger team members who tend to place more value on face-to-face social interactions. However all of this feels imminently achievable, and in no way challenges our conviction that ‘remote first’ is the work model of the future.

Could your business become ‘remote first’ do you think? If not, why not?

Tessa Clarke

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO of OLIO, the food sharing app. Getting my head around the climate crisis. Passionate about sustainability, startups & diversity.

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