Taking a people-first approach to becoming remote-first

A step by step guide to making the transition to distributed work

A laptop screen showing a busy video call on a desk, with several other screens visable
Photo by Gabriel Benois on Unsplash

The coronavirus pandemic has been a forcing factor for all of our awesome clients at Unleashed. By way of response, many became remote, overnight! The best bit of this (from our perspective) has been witnessing businesses embracing a new way of working. It’s great to see companies and their people recognising the benefits of more distributed teams, more individualised experiences of work and increased flexibility.

As we start discussing and planning for our ‘new normals’, we want to empower you to be creative in your design. We think this should include thinking about what becoming remote-first (not just remote-friendly) might look like at your company.

But first… what does “remote-first” actually mean: Remote-first means that remote or distributed team members are not an afterthought. Being remote-first means being highly intentional about not just the tools that are used, but also how we plan a company culture to be as inclusive as possible of remote workers while allowing everyone to be the most productive. It is about taking into consideration all employee touchpoints (from the tech tools that enable collaboration, benefits that support individual growth, or ways to solidify communication and cultural norms internally) all in order to support individuals to do the best work (and be happy whilst doing it!) whether they are remote and distributed or not! True remote-first businesses work as if people are remote even when they are all in the office!

As with everything People + Culture, there’s no ‘one size fits all’… Transitioning to full-time, remote-first working needs care and attention. Luckily, we have guided many businesses through this process! We have designed this handy guide to ensure that all the necessary touchpoints are considered and to enable an empathy-first approach throughout.

Clear communication from the founder/CEO and the rest of the leadership team, is really important. You will set the tone for discussing what you’re considering as a business, and solidify the vital role that the team will play in that process. Remember whenever a big change is debated or announced, it is human instinct to immediately think of the self; your team will jump straight to a ‘what is the impact of this on me?’ internal narrative. From a neuroscience perspective, lack of clarity about the answer to this question or dissonance caused by not knowing where to find more information will trigger an automatic threat response.

Spoiler alert! In the next section of this guide, we’ll suggest that you gather some data to make sure you’re being people-first (understanding your teams’ perspective on remote work) and, of course, to better inform your response.

By way of whole-company communication, therefore, below is an example email which you’re welcome to tweak and use, mentioning this survey. We would also highly recommend relaying the same message during a whole company meeting (with time for some Q+A) before sending this email. You should do this to be inclusive to those who prefer to consume information in-person and to ensure you’re creating and protecting space for questions. Re: this Q+A, if no immediate questions are forthcoming, don’t assume this means that your team don’t have questions! People often need time to consider and process their thoughts. You should also make sure that this protected space is provided on an on-going basis. As part of your communication, make sure you’re emphasising the prioritisation of a participatory, inclusive approach that welcomes two-way conversation.

“Dear Team,

I’ve felt incredibly proud watching you all adapt so seamlessly to the challenges we’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes how we’ve all adapted to working remotely. Of course, It hasn’t been without its challenges, but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve all accomplished!

As lockdown starts to ease, it gives us the opportunity to think about what our future of work looks like. Many of us have enjoyed certain elements of working from home ( I, for one, have loved ….**insert something you’ve enjoyed — ie less commuting, more family time** ), so this is a really great time to reflect on what remote working has allowed us to do and how we can incorporate this into how we work together moving forward.

This doesn’t mean we’re making the decision to go fully remote first for the long haul right now — nor does it mean we’ll all be back in the office in a few weeks’ time. It means that we have the opportunity to design something that’s better for everyone. And when I say ‘everyone’, I mean EVERYONE!

This is new for us and I can’t do it alone. To create something that benefits all of us, I need your ideas, concerns, feedback — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that we can make something that is bespoke and works for us as a business.

I’ll start off by sending around a short survey to gather your feedback and I’ll also be calling upon some of you for a chat to hear your thoughts. Off the back of the survey, please also feel free to reach out for a virtual coffee if you’d like to chat about it further!

Let’s build something fantastic!

Best

XYZ”

To take a true Design Thinking approach to working out whether remote-first is right for you, you need to collect data — both quantitative and qualitative. It’s important not to make assumptions about what people think about remote working, or what will be needed to make it work — ask the right questions and use the answers to design something that will be bespoke for your team.

Luckily, we’ve already designed an amazing survey to understand how your team feels about the challenges and benefits remote working has given us, and what kind of a future they would be interested in as lockdown eases.

You can find this survey here in Typeform (this also includes a link to a Google doc with all the questions so that you can create your own version in your favourite platform).

You should also book individual meetings with various team members — especially those who will be more impacted. For instance, those in multiple occupancy homes who may have more difficulty creating or accessing a space where they are able to feel productive, or those whose roles may not translate so seamlessly to a fully remote environment. The aim of this conversation is to understand their concerns and what they would need, in terms of support from you, their manager or the business to make remote-first work. They didn’t join a remote-first business so take them on the change journey with you!

Remember — try to create multiple avenues for people to feedback how they feel about the prospect of remote working, both anonymous and non-anonymous. This will help everyone feel comfortable being honest about their feelings/concerns and will therefore make the data more comprehensive.

Use the quantitative and qualitative data that you’ve collected to design something bespoke for your team, taking into consideration the feedback your people have given across multiple touchpoints.

Additional questions to answer during this process are:

  • What will our ratio of Office vs. Working from Home days be (if we are planning on mixing it up at all)?
  • What are our motivations for creating a remote-first environment?
  • Do we need to introduce any additional benefits to ease the process? Has anything we currently offer been rendered obsolete or can it be adapted?
  • Are there any company benefits that are no longer relevant if we’re remote first? Or more importantly, are there any benefits that would be more relevant for us now?
  • Is a large office still necessary? If not, will there be money saved through having a different sort of office space? How might we use that money to make remote working even more productive + successful?
  • Remote working will affect different teams in different ways — how can we work with individual managers to support their teams in the best way possible?
  • How will we track whether our new remote first policy is working? Let’s create clear measures of success, and then create a framework to test upon.
  • What new tools, if any, will our team need to succeed?
  • What tools, systems and processes will we need to introduce as a business in order to succeed?
  • Which bits are we finding hard about remote working so that we can mitigate for these if we are going to be remote-first?

Luckily, right now, we’re already working remotely, so the transition to remote-first will be hopefully far smoother than if we were all in the office. However clarity and alignment on the above questions is vital in order to create a sustainable remote-first approach.

It’s important that we set the boundaries and standards of behaviour within the team, as we move to a different way of working. Contracting is an amazing tool for defining the rules of the game, building trust and alignment, and setting clear expectations.

Organise a group workshop to do some contracting with the team and agree some ‘rules of engagement’. Ask questions like:

  • What do we all need from our peers to get the most out of meetings? (Think virtual meeting etiquette)
  • What do we all need in order to feel supported and trusted to do our work remotely?
  • What do we need in order to feel psychologically safe whilst working remotely?
  • How do our company values translate when we’re working in a distributed way? Do we need to add additional ‘behaviours’ which speak directly to how we work together whilst remote?
  • If you’re looking to move to a mostly remote environment, how frequently do you plan to meet in person? What do we want to get out of those in-person gatherings?
  • How will we ensure as a team that we remain aligned and collaborative? What tools might we want to use, and what initiatives might we consider implementing?
  • As a team, how will we remain socially connected in a remote environment?
  • What commitments will we make to ensuring we maintain recognition, giving thanks, asking for help and providing feedback?

Some people love the discussion, whereas others need to have the time to read and absorb information. Make sure that once you’ve made a decision about where you fall on the spectrum from co-located to fully distributed, it’s clearly signposted.

Create supporting guidance with clarity, explain it to the team during your all hands, send it to the whole team via email and make sure it’s hosted in a few places (get it on your internal wiki, pin it to a Slack channel). If specific questions are asked following the introduction of your remote-work guidance (and any associated policies), make sure notes are taken and answers are also published (if one person asked something, it’s likely others were thinking it too!). As a recommendation, create an anonymous Google doc which your whole team has access to — allow anyone to add their questions, and make sure that leadership is in that document regularly, responding to those questions.

Do the same with Contracting; share the outputs from the contracting workshop in an open-source format. It’s vital that the team are aligned on everything discussed and agreed during the contracting workshop, so again, take notes and publish in multiple places. By keeping everything written down and making it available in a fully self-serve way, you’re not only enabling your teams’ understanding now, but also providing resources to enable ongoing understanding, as your remote-work changes are implemented. Furthermore, making sure that leadership plays an active role in this documentation process is a real opportunity (one not to be missed!) for some brilliant role-modelling. In all that the senior team contributes to the discussion + the documentation and in all the subsequent ways they operate under your ‘new normal’, leadership should be embodying the behaviours that you’ve collectively agreed to embed as a company.

Proper documentation is key to success when remote-first especially!

There is no definitive end to this process! Post going live with the new way of working, it’s incredibly important to keep collecting feedback on how your team is adapting to this new way of working — so keep meeting with the team, keep allowing people to submit feedback anonymously, and continue getting your line managers to check in with their teams about how remote is working for them, during 1:1s. This feedback should be used to adapt your approach to remote working to better serve the team.

Consider sending a message to your team like this (you’re of course welcome to copy, paste + send this, but feel free to also tweak if it doesn’t sound like you!)

“Dear Team,

Your input on shaping our new post-COVID way of working has been completely invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughts and concerns with us so far — it’s been amazing to see all of your commitment to helping us really create something new that we believe will ultimately benefit us all!

For a reminder of where we’ve got to so far, click here <insert link to internal wiki remote guidance>.

Realistically, it might not be quite right yet — and that’s ok. This is our first draft, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say!

We are, however, committed to making it better, and that means hearing and actioning your feedback. Over the coming weeks you can expect…

  • An ‘open door’ policy from me — if you’d like to share your thoughts and opinions on how this is working, just put time in my diary and I look forward to chatting.
  • Vice versa, I might pop some time for a virtual coffee in with you, as I’m keen to hear how you’re getting on.
  • Your line manager will ask you about how the new remote-first guidance is working for you, so have a think before your next catch up about some benefits and challenges that you’ve found so far, and share your feedback with them.
  • Here <insert link> is a google forms sheet where you can anonymously share any feedback you have. I encourage you to do so :)

Thanks, Team! Some exciting things are happening, and together, we’ll continue to make it even better!

Best,

xyz “

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