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Remote work culture enables employees to do their best work. It doesn’t force them to work a typical 9-5 schedule, work overtime, or neglect their personal life.

Instead, it relies on documentation, asynchronous communication, and ownership to create flexibility, balance, and a deep sense of belonging and connection. It allows everyone to work at their peak hours of focus, distraction-free. No pings, unnecessary meetings, micro-managing, or overworking.

But hiring global talent is hard. Without a solid system in place, you’ll create a poor employee experience and high employee turnover. From hiring and onboarding to communication and management, things can quickly get out of hand.

You can avoid this by focusing on a remote-first work culture. It drives every step of an employee’s time with you and how they get things done — and it’s beneficial for everyone.

What is a remote-first work culture?

A remote work culture is a culture that puts connection and sense of belonging of remote workers front and center.

Companies with remote-first work culture transcend geographic boundaries and time zone differences. They’re built on values like trust, inclusivity, autonomy, and transparency.

A remote-first work culture isn’t about adding a ‘remote’ label to an office-based type of work and allowing employees to work remotely at times while not upgrading the way things get done. It’s about treating remote work, and the needs of remote workers, as the default way of working.

Remote-first principles then become the foundation for the way work gets done, not an afterthought or a fix.

When you champion and nurture a remote work culture, you don’t leave connection to chance. Remote-first companies are people-first companies. They enable people to bring their best selves to work regardless of their location because they foster flexible hours and asynchronous communication.

Why a hybrid model needs a remote-first culture to succeed

In March 2020, 88% of companies encouraged or required employees to work from home due to COVID-19. Within a year, companies like Microsoft, Spotify, Apple, Cisco, and others moved to a hybrid model.

Some of these companies now let all employees choose if they want to permanently work from home, from the office, or a mix of the two. Others ask employees to be in the office a few days a week or 50% of the time.

The challenge for those that choose to stay remote is the information that stays siloed in the office. As Twist’s guide on hybrid work outlined, “the result is an unintended hierarchy where office workers are naturally heard, recognized, and promoted — while remote workers are left out.”

This is why a remote-first work culture is essential if any of your employees chose remote work over spending time in the office. It’s not optional; it’s the only way to create a truly inclusive working environment for everyone.

Challenges of hybrid and remote working environments

In Buffer’s State of Remote Work report, 45% of people said they’re working more since starting to work remotely. On top of that, 52% are in more meetings as a result of the shift to remote work.

Without an intentional approach to collaboration, meetings, and expectations, people in remote and hybrid positions can feel overworked, overwhelmed, disconnected, and ineffective. For example:

  • Employees who feel isolated and lonely won’t contribute their best ideas to projects
  • Those with decreasing work-life balance will struggle to support their family and seek a less demanding job elsewhere
  • If people feel they can’t switch off as it risks their chance of a promotion, they will burn out, and their efficiency and performance will drop

This is harmful to your success as a company and to employees’ satisfaction and happiness at work.

Opportunities and benefits of building a remote-first work culture

The shortest way to summarize remote-first benefits: empowering every employee to do their best work.

When we unpack that, we’ll find many layers to what makes that happen. True remote work culture is intentionally inclusive and creates equal opportunities for everyone. Without geographical and other barriers, people can bring their knowledge, life experiences, self-expression, unique capabilities, and talent to work.

As a result, employees in a remote-first culture are:

  • Productive and efficient because they work during hours that match their energy and on their terms
  • Happy and easy to retain because they feel valued and rewarded as an important piece of the company puzzle
  • Rested and balanced because they can live their preferred lifestyle and support their family
  • Connected thanks to the deep trust and belonging with coworkers and managers

There’s also the reduced fixed costs of running a remote company compared to a traditional, office-based company, meaning you have more resources to empower, support, and reward your employees for their impact.

See also: 4 essential elements of a sustainable remote work culture 

How can you build a remote-first work culture?

A strong, supportive remote-first work culture is made of seven parts:

  1. Recruitment
  2. Compensation
  3. Onboarding
  4. Communication
  5. Meetings
  6. Benefits
  7. Management

Your company culture can only be remote-first if you deeply integrate all seven parts into it. Hiring from a diverse, global marketplace isn’t enough; fostering true ownership and belonging throughout different time zones, life situations, and work styles is crucial.

Each of the seven parts plays an essential role in a remote work culture. Let’s dive into them.

1. Hiring with a remote-first mindset

The success of regions like Silicon Valley created a rise in living expenses, which means that the best talent can’t necessarily afford to move there for job prospects. Remote-first recruitment is the opposite: it creates opportunities for talented tech workers and gives companies access to a global talent pool.

To reach potential candidates worldwide, use your job posting to outline and advertise a global benefits package and a company culture that endorses work-life balance and flexibility. This can include paid time off, sick leave, parental leave, mental health support, allowance for learning and development, home office budget, and more.

Remote-first recruitment also gives you the power to build a diverse workforce. Instead of relying on your job description alone to attract non-homogenous candidates, be sure to seek out a diverse applicant pool. This can include searching for talent in developing nations, or posting a job on a site for female engineers or people of color.

See also: How to build belonging for women in remote work 

At Remote, we encourage belonging, inclusion, diversity, and equity (BIDE) and believe that the more diverse we become, the more attractive we are to a wider range of people who might consider Remote for their next career move. When you make this a non-negotiable, you create a space your future hires can thrive in.

2. Create a remote-first compensation structure

The goal of a remote work culture is to pay well to hire great people. The good news? As a remote-first business, you no longer have to offer San Francisco salaries for the best talent. Our Global Workforce Revolution Report revealed that many jobseekers are willing to take a pay cut to work remotely.

This, of course, doesn’t mean you should go for the lowest compensation possible for a given location. Fair and competitive pay is key.

Here’s how some remote companies approach this challenge:

  • Basecamp pays the same salaries based on seniority levels, regardless of the location
  • Buffer adjusts pay based on seniority and cost of living
  • Gitlab includes San Francisco benchmark, location, level, experience, contract, and exchange rate into their salary calculator

The goal is to make your employees feel rewarded, connected, and like they belong.  You’re competing with local and global businesses for the same talent, which means you need to do as well or better than both of them to hire the best of the best.

3. Curate a remote-first onboarding experience

Employee onboarding is the bridge between hiring an excellent candidate and making them successful in your company. Some 59% HR professionals believe that the battle for top talent is shifting from acquisition to retention.

Successful employee onboarding results in role clarity, social integration, knowledge of company culture, and taking ownership of the work. It prompts confidence. 

But this is much simpler to achieve in an office, where you can let your new hire explore and discover the company culture on their own. They can also approach colleagues in person, get real-time support from HR, and physically feel like part of something bigger.

See also: Onboarding Remote Employees: Expert Tips & Advice 

For remote-first companies, you need to intentionally curate the new hire experience. If you just leave them to it, they might feel lonely and disconnected. And if you throw every piece of documentation at them, they might get overwhelmed.

Here are some suggestions for a balanced, deliberate remote onboarding experience:

  • Communication and documentation guidelines are key, so reinforce this early with your new hire
  • Create an onboarding page with direct links to most important content
  • Encourage new hires to progress through onboarding at their own pace and schedule, and to learn and explore as they go
  • Consider pairing a new hire with a buddy in their timezone, so they can gain new perspectives and have someone for typical “I’m new here!” questions

Remote-first onboarding means you can scale a curated, positive employee experience from day one.

4. Default to asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication (async) is the keystone of true remote work. It allows every person to work at their peak periods of energy and creativity, and to do so in deep, distraction-free focus mode — no notifications or interruptions.

To make async work for everyone, you need tools that support transparent work and thorough, always-updated documentation. At Remote, Notion houses our employee handbook and our meeting notes, and GitLab is our engineering single source of truth. 

Rely on tools like Loom to record videos for questions and updates, and share those updates in public spaces like Slack a channel. The goal is to make the status of ongoing work visible to all, so everyone can stay productive in their timezone and on their schedule.

It’s up to managers and leaders to set the right example with asynchronous communication. They must stay proactive with tool usage, respect calendar boundaries, and regularly meet with their reports to make sure they have everything they need to succeed.

See also: Easy communication guidelines for remote teams

Remote-first communication assumes that people won’t be online at the same time. It removes FOMO — the fear of missing out — and allows employees to do their best work and to fully disconnect when they aren’t working.

5. Give all meetings a clear purpose

The State of Meetings report found that professionals spend two hours each week in pointless meetings, which cost companies nearly $400 billion in 2019 just in the US. The good news is that there’s a better way. Even with async work, some sync meetings will have to happen — but none of them should be pointless.

The most impactful way to run remote-first meetings is to make sure they actually need to happen. Ask yourself: can this be done just as well async? If yes, don’t have the meeting; if no, consider the reason and ways to mitigate that. If the answer is still no, then schedule the meeting.

From here, create some clear meeting guidelines. This doesn't just refer to and agenda, some note-taking, and the way you conduct meetings. To maximize efficiency and facilitate fast growth for your remote team, you should clearly define the tools to use for meetings, steps for finding a meeting time, and suggestions for what to do before, during, and after the meeting.

Before your meeting

  • Zoom link and agenda in the calendar event
  • As short as possible
  • Time that works for all attendees

During the meeting

  • Start on time
  • Take notes in the shared document
  • If you’re not benefiting or contributing, leave
  • If it’s not on the agenda, it’s not discussed
  • End the meeting on time or before

After the meeting

  • Clean up notes and add links to documentation
  • If there was a recording, link it from the page

Feel free to swipe parts of our own meeting guidelines, or our dedicated article on managing meetings effectively. Broadly, you should try to avoid meetings where possible to increase productivity. When meetings are required, try to stick to a few key principles:

  • Always have a meeting agenda, with bullet points that start with a participant’s name
  • Take notes in a shared document, and clean them up after the meeting
  • Encourage people to leave the meeting if they aren’t benefiting from it or can’t contribute

For any meetings that happen on a regular basis, rotate them to include all timezones. This gives everyone the chance to participate instead of always catching up with notes and the meeting recording.

6. Build a customized remote-first benefits plan

The essential benefit you can offer as a remote-first company is flexibility. Can your employees shape their work around their lives and not the other way around? Before you consider added benefits like learning stipends or co-working allowances, make sure your foundation is rock-solid.

Then, consider what your employee’s home country already offers, and how your benefits fit into that. For example, some countries mandate 6+ months of paid parental leave, so an employee in that country won’t consider parental leave a bonus benefit.

Use our Country Explorer to learn about the statutory benefits required in each country and some helpful advice on what makes up a competitive package.

Remember that not everyone wants to permanently stay in one country. Our research found that 81% of people would move regions, states, or countries if they could do so without it affecting their work prospects. 

If you have employees who live as digital nomads, make sure your company can support their relocation. This includes compliance with local labor laws, taxes, visas, benefits, and international payroll.

7. The importance of supportive remote-first management

Remote-first leaders and team managers have a huge goal: protect and prioritize the physical and mental wellbeing of their teams and themselves. Without physical presence, it can be hard to notice when a team member is at risk of burning out or feeling physically unwell.

First, make sure you’re aware of your employees’ workloads. This way, you’re able to proactively clear paths and encourage feedback when your direct report needs assistance. This also helps you notice overworking, avoid setting unrealistic expectations and deadlines, and reduce stress

See also: Common mistakes of first-time remote managers 

Build processes that allow people to take time off and get the rest they need. This includes off-work hours as well as vacations. Being offline shouldn’t create anxiety, and returning from a break shouldn’t be overwhelming.

As a leader, it’s important you do this, too: you deserve the rest, too, and you’ll set a powerful example for your team. If team leads and directors don’t use their PTO, employees will feel they’re expected to work and minimize breaks and vacations.

Finally, it’s important to foster connections through agenda-free, zero-work meetings and activities. Consider virtual workshops, group activities, volunteering initiatives, and bonding calls (we added a question of the day to help more introverted team members ). Explore and try different ways to connect and make them a recurring activity.

Employee wellbeing can’t be an afterthought. People can only bring their best selves at work when they are being their best selves.

Pioneering companies to inspire your remote-first work culture

Need some first-hand inspiration from companies excelling at remote-first work culture? Start with these businesses and useful resources about their approach to remote work.

GitLab

GitLab is among the largest remote-first companies in the world, with more than 1,300 team members in 65+ countries worldwide. GitLab empowers its people to work and live where they’re most fulfilled. Check out their guide to all-remote, where you’ll find The Remote Manifesto, their values, hiring practices, experiences, and more.

Buffer

Buffer’s team of 85 people is fully distributed across 15 countries. Since their beginning, they’ve worked in the open and shared their commitment to remote-first work culture. Check out their public salaries, salary calculator, and diversity dashboard.

Help Scout

Help Scout is made of a team across 80+ cities around the world. Nick Francis, Help Scout’s CEO, says he doesn’t remember remote being a conscious decision over a decade ago when they started out, but a survival strategy. 

But he knows what it takes to build a thriving remote culture. “Go all-in on remote, or don’t bother. A culture’s effectiveness revolves around how information flows. Everyone needs to feel like they have access to the same information.”

Zapier

Zapier was founded in 2011, never had an office, and counts 400+ employees over six continents. One of their values is defaulting to action. “When you have a distributed company, you have to try to hire folks who are predisposed to finding problems and solving them,” says Wade Foster, Zapier’s CEO.

See also: Remote Talks: Episode 5 with Wade Foster - Global Leadership, Working Async, and International Compensation 

Like every remote-first company we admire, Zapier embraces the remote-first approach to documentation, hiring, compensation, benefits, mental and physical health, and connection.

Doist

Doist is the company behind the Todoist and Twist products. The team has been remote from day one and now counts 68 people across 25 countries. Flexibility, async, and transparency are deeply built into the way things get done in Doist.

Doist hires based on values like independence, passion, focus, clear communication, self-mastery, and courage. Check out the comprehensive How Doist Makes Remote Work Happen article, and Doist’s remote work guides.

Rippling

Rippling is the first employee management system that sits underneath both your HR and IT so you can manage and automate all of your employees’ key business systems in one hub. Remote's Global Employee API powers Rippling to help users compliantly onboard remote employees and consolidate domestic and international payroll (you can read more about the Rippling product in our Marketplace).

The product itself is a platform that helps enables a team to work asynchronously and RIppling practice what they preach. Founded in 2016, Rippling offers 100% remote jobs to U.S. applicants nationwide. Rippling also has hundreds of employees throughout India, leading to a remote-first approach for project management and collaboration across borders and timezones.

SafetyWing

SafetyWing is building the first global safety net for remote companies by providing insurance and pension products for remote workers and nomads worldwide. The team at SafetyWing is fully remote, filled with digital nomads distributed across three continents. The company is passionately working towards a mission to remove the role of geographical borders as a barrier to equal opportunities and freedom for everyone, something we hold dear to our hearts here at Remote.

Remote’s publicly available employee handbook

Everything we covered in this guide to remote-first work culture, we live and breathe at Remote.

Want to see how we work asynchronously, run meetings, share information, and document progress? Curious about our hiring process, inclusion and diversity efforts, how we onboard new hires, and the PTO and benefits we offer?

You can see all of this and more in our publicly available employee handbook.

Remote-first and people-first is the way to go

Embracing and living the remote-first work culture leads to sustainable, balanced, productive work. It equally benefits your employees and your business; neither need to be compromised for the benefit of the other.

Remote-first culture starts with:

  • Dedicated effort to recruit a diverse workforce
  • Offering custom compensation and benefits to match the needs of employees in different countries
  • Prioritizing asynchronous work and over-documentation
  • Supporting the physical and mental wellbeing through leading by example

If you build this foundation for remote-first collaboration, you’ll be able to scale a globally distributed team, open up the largest possible talent pool, and build a platform for sustainable remote work success.