In 2020, much of the world experienced a version of remote work for the first time as people started working from home during the pandemic. Some people, myself included, thrive on working from home and would choose this set-up over working from an office any day. And we’re not alone! According to Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work report, more than 3,500 remote workers said they primarily work from home, even before the pandemic made that the new normal. Clearly, many people prefer working remotely, and companies have been forced to catch up due to the pandemic. Many companies have not only temporarily shifted to remote work but actually moved to permanently allow it for all of their employees. Prominent tech giants like Twitter and Shopify went fully remote, and many small and medium-sized companies did the same.
Companies that aren’t allowing permanent remote work but whose employees enjoyed it will soon find that they are lacking an edge in the global competition for talent.
In my experience, if remote work is the right fit for someone, it’s difficult for them to go back to the office. Many people find they are more productive working remotely as they aren’t in open office environments where they’re asked questions every few minutes. Remote workers are also happier than their office counterparts as a result of better work-life balance and less stress. Asking someone to walk away from a more productive and rewarding work culture is a tough sell.
As a result, I’ve spoken to many people who are currently job hunting and only looking at options where they would be in a fully remote position. Now that a larger portion of the workforce is looking for fully remote jobs, often at fully distributed companies, it’s important for job seekers interested in remote work to understand what makes a healthy remote culture.
Working for companies that are doing remote work because they have to, which often means they aren’t putting any time or energy into optimizing the experience for employees, is a great way to have a terrible experience. For example, you’ll probably want to know in advance if a company wants you to install software to track how you spend your time online once you join their team. If they do, that tells you a lot about the company’s attitudes toward remote workers and trust.
To help job seekers, I’ve put together a description of a healthy remote culture, along with questions to ask during interviews in the hopes that this can help clarify some central qualities of a healthy remote culture.
Understandably, when office-based companies were thrown into remote work last year with little notice and no preparation, not everyone had a great experience. Some companies adapted and thrived quickly, while others are still figuring things out many months later.
Before looking at remote work culture specifically, I want to define company culture more broadly. This is my favorite definition so far:
Company culture refers to the attitudes and behaviors of a company and its employees. It is evident in the way an organization’s people interact with each other, the values they hold and the decisions they make. —Alison Doyle, Job Search Expert
Remote work culture, then, is the same thing, except employees interact online and communication happens via video calls and text messages rather than in-person. With that in mind, here are a few key factors to a healthy remote culture.
Remote work takes a lot of intention. Communication, in particular, requires a lot of attention, or else it can be quite difficult to collaborate on projects and make progress. In a traditional office environment, you can easily grab everyone in a department for a quick conversation, but that isn’t the case with remote work. Meetings have to be planned ahead of time, even if they’re going to be relatively brief.
Remote onboarding also requires extra effort. You can’t simply introduce a new teammate in person and take them around the office. Rather, first conversations need to be coordinated. When someone new joins the team, they need to know where to look for how to get set up, which tools and groups to join, and which of their new teammates to communicate with.
Setting clear boundaries is another key part of building a culture of intentionality. Without careful management, working remotely can turn into working at all hours of the day. As a remote worker, your devices are your office, and many people have their devices on them at all times. Healthy remote cultures set boundaries with concrete do not disturb times and encourage keeping work hours that balance with the rest of your life.
Trust is crucial in a remote work environment. If your manager doesn’t trust you, they could find ways to monitor exactly how you spend your time or send you regular messages asking what you’re working on. This level of micromanagement would not only affect your productivity and ability to do your job, but would also almost certainly take a toll on your mental health.
Healthy remote environments have figured out how to create trust for their team. In my experience, giving people more autonomy creates more trust. At Buffer, we set goals with our managers and then keep them updated on progress. Rather than installing software that monitors where we spend our time or tracking work hours, our managers trust us to get the work done and check in with us regularly during one-on-one meetings to make sure we’re on track. Trust can come in many forms like giving employees more autonomy, sharing information transparently, or taking employee feedback into consideration. The exact method can change, but the basic principle is the same. Trust is essential for a healthy remote work environment.
I can’t overstate the importance of clear communication in remote work. When you can’t rely on in-person communication, you need to have systems in place to foster regular, clear communication between teammates. In practice, this means the team should have a shared understanding of communications best practices. For example, at Buffer, we reach out via Slack for synchronous communication and via Threads for asynchronous communication. Just like building trust, a company can do this many ways, but the important thing is that they have communications expectations and that those are clear to everyone.
I believe some level of asynchronous communication is also important for a healthy remote culture. Fully synchronous culture requires all-day communication and necessitates all teammates being in the same time zone. For teams that are distributed across time zones, fully synchronous communication simply isn’t possible. As a result, it’s often much healthier to work asynchronously so that teammates can have a flexible schedule. Learning about how an organization communicates before joining their team is crucial to both understanding their culture and knowing what to expect once you join them.
As the old saying goes, at a job interview, you’re also interviewing the company to ensure their culture is a good fit for you. The same is true of remote work opportunities: You should ask questions about their culture to make sure you’re not going to end up in a bad situation. Here are a few questions that I believe can help you get to the bottom of what that culture truly looks like on the inside.
What can you tell me about your company culture?
This is quite a broad starting question, but they should have an answer for it. Companies likely get this one a lot, so the answer should come to them easily. If someone asked me this question about Buffer, I would share more about our company values, especially transparency, and explain how this shapes the work we do both internally and externally.
One red flag to watch out for is if the examples are all centered around in-person activities. For example, they might mention something like “We used to all get lunch together in the office,” or “We would all go out together after work.” That answer conveys that there was an employee-directed culture in the office and that it hasn’t yet translated to a remote environment.
How do you primarily communicate? Do you communicate asynchronously?
The answer here might be a list of tools, but I recommend digging in and asking exactly how each tool is used. Some teams use Slack very differently than others. The asynchronous portion of this question should also help you to determine if the company is more meeting heavy, meaning they expect people to jump on synchronous Zoom calls regularly, or if they lean into text- or video-based updates that people can comment on as their schedule allows.
Every company will have a slightly different response here, but ideally, there should be some level of asynchronous communication to allow for flexibility instead of relying on everything happening synchronously throughout the day.
How do people set up work hours?
This question is a good way to determine the company’s flexibility. Some places have a nine-to-five mentality, while many fully distributed companies don’t care about work hours so long as there’s some overlap with immediate teammates. This is also a good question to determine if the company will be keen to track your hours or if they operate differently. Some phrases that will signal you need to dig deeper are “logged hours” or “time spent online” as they indicate the company may have more concrete expectations.
What would onboarding look like in this position?
Ideally, the hiring manager has realistic expectations for remote onboarding that involve slowly learning about the company and starting to meet your new teammates. At Buffer, we give teammates a document with an onboarding outline for the first 30, 60 and 90 days. Having clarity around onboarding removes a lot of the nerves that come from joining a new team. Hearing that a company didn’t have a plan for what they expect from a new teammate in the first few weeks at all would certainly give me pause.
Is it anyone’s role to focus on how the company works remotely or how the team is doing?
Some companies have hired a head of remote to really make sure remote work is successful. At other companies, the head of people or HR might be leading the optimization for remote work. Either way, you can learn a lot based on whether the company has someone focused on remote workers or if their approach is that everyone can figure it out on their own. Note that company size is an influence here. If you are joining an early stage startup, they may not have a dedicated person because their team is so small that they can all contribute to the remote experience together.
Although I’ve truly enjoyed working remotely for the past five years, I know a big part of my positive experience has been that Buffer has a fantastic remote work culture. We have a people team focused on improving our onboarding experience, increasing team engagement and making our company culture work for all teammates. People who love it will often say that remote is the best way to work. In Buffer’s annual State of Remote Work report, 98 percent of the remote workers we surveyed wanted to work remotely for the rest of their careers, and 97 percent would recommend remote work to others.
Sadly, not everyone in a remote role has such a great experience. The difference often boils down to culture. A good remote culture can make or break that remote experience, and that’s why it’s important to know about a company’s remote work culture before joining their team.
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