Remote-first company leader Paul Hershenson is standing in a wooded area and smiling into the camera in casual clothing.
Paul Hershenson. Image: Art & Logic

Remote-first versus remote-friendly: What’s the difference?

17 Feb 2020

Paul Hershenson, co-founder of software development firm Art & Logic, discusses the different aspects of leading a remote-first company.

With remote working becoming more common across many industries, it might seem like a recent trend. But for nearly three decades, Paul Hershenson has been at the helm of a company that is remote-first.

Hershenson co-founded US software development firm Art & Logic in 1991. Given his wealth of experience in managing employees outside a traditional office space, he gave us some insights into the world of remote-first working.

‘I’ve worked from gyms, trampoline parks, horse ranches and music studios – you name it’

Why is remote working becoming such a popular trend now, do you think?

Employers are finally recognising the compelling benefits of remote work, more from necessity, I think, than enlightenment. It’s hard to find, attract and retain talent. It’s especially hard to do that when restricting your talent pool to people who live within commuting distance of your office.

I also think there’s a growing awareness among employers that this generation of top workers expects a greater degree of freedom and flexibility than previous generations.

What does ideal remote working look like to you, for employers and employees?

We’ve always said at Art & Logic that we’re exactly like any other company. We just don’t have an office. And just how every brick-and-mortar company is unique, every remote-first company is unique.

I think the only ideal is to find what works for you and your employees. It won’t be the same for every company.

Are there any particular benefits to working remotely that you have experienced?

Firstly, access to top talent. An employer can be far more selective in hiring when recruiting across a much larger and broader geographic area than the employer’s local market.

Then there’s retention. There are three aspects to this. First, the practical aspect. Things change in life. Perhaps an employee’s spouse gets a new job in a different location. A remote employee can move without switching jobs. We have one long-tenured employee at Art & Logic who has moved more than 10 times in 20 years.

Second, the lifestyle aspect. Employees really appreciate the ability to bend their work around their family obligations. I know I do.

I pick my kids up from school two to three times every week and drive them to activities. I’ve worked from gyms, trampoline parks, horse ranches, music studios – you name it.

Third, the spiritual aspect. Remote workers know their employers trust them. Trust is the basis of remote work. And it’s human nature to repay trust with loyalty.

Are you more likely to leave the employer who you know trusts you and respects your ability to contribute without them looking over your shoulder, or the employer who requires you to be at your desk from nine to five?

Finally, there’s a reduced carbon footprint. Workers in large tech hubs are spending more and more time in their cars sitting in traffic to and from work.

They may be spending their commute time productively – conducting phone calls, listening to audiobooks and podcasts – but they can’t stop their cars from polluting the environment. Workers sipping coffee in their backyards while they work have a demonstrably lower carbon footprint.

What are the challenges facing a remote-first company?

I have owned and operated a remote-first company for 29 years. You may be surprised to learn that those 29 years have taught me the irreplaceable value of face-to-face communication. The highest quality human communication occurs when you can read the body language, facial expressions and voice tones of the person you are speaking with. The farther away from that ideal you travel, the greater the risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Face-to-face is better than video conferencing. Video conferencing is better than phone. Phone is better than text or [online] chat. Text and chat are better than email. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all communication needs to be face-to-face. If that were the case, remote work wouldn’t be viable at all.

But to be successful in a remote work environment, employers and employees all need to be aware of the limitations of the various communication channels in use and should never hesitate to bump up to a higher quality channel – when necessary – to communicate clearly and avoid misunderstandings.

Do you have any advice for a company considering bringing in a remote-work policy, but have no experience in this area?

There is a difference between a remote-first company – a company that operates primarily in a remote environment – and a company that allows telecommuting – one that operates primarily in a brick-and-mortar environment, but allows some employees to work remotely some of the time.

Telecommuting companies have to deal with issues remote-first companies don’t have. When the primary culture of the company is established in the office, telecommuting employees can feel like outsiders or second-class citizens. Informal conversations can happen at the office and decisions can be made that don’t include telecommuting employees.

This dynamic can have a negative impact on the morale of telecommuting employees. My advice is to be aware of this and be proactive in addressing it. And if you’re starting a new company, consider a remote-first work environment from the get-go.

What about for maintaining remote work successfully alongside day-to-day business and outputs?

Just like any other company, a remote-first company has to get its work done. Remote workers should be evaluated on their output. As an employer, you can’t see your worker doing their work.

You have less insight into how they get their work done, so you have to focus on what they get done. If you can’t adequately measure and monitor their output, they probably shouldn’t be working remotely.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading