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Remote-first model works best if you avoid ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset

11 Aug 2023

Nataly Kelly has led tech teams at the likes of HubSpot and AT&T. Here, she talks about what to do and what not to do when implementing a remote-first model.

Picture this: you wake up one morning, decide to run a marathon despite never having run a kilometre before, and face inevitable muscle aches and early defeat. Surprisingly, many companies have approached flexible working in a similar manner. While remote work was hailed a success during the pandemic, the transition to long-term remote and hybrid models has proven challenging for companies across industries, with a growing number returning to the in-office model.

Why is it such a challenge for employers to implement flexible work, and what do the best companies do to make it a long-term success? Drawing on my experience working in global tech companies, such as AT&T, HubSpot and Rebrandly, where I currently serve as the chief growth officer, here are some important things I’ve learned that may help you if you’re trying to embrace flexible work arrangements, but experiencing friction.

Enable remote teams to spend time together in person

While this advice might seem like a paradox at first, bear with me. When the pandemic hit, and companies began to hire people they had never met in person before, and proceeded to work that way for months, then years, I became very concerned. This simply wasn’t the best way to build a remote team, and I knew as much from one of my earliest work experiences.

My first job after college was working in a division of AT&T that provided over-the-phone interpretation, back in 1996. Like most employees, I worked from home. Hiring people throughout the US was the only option for us to recruit enough speakers of the 180 languages we covered. Fortunately, AT&T had access to unlimited phone bridges, so we could all connect easily and regularly over the phone. But we also saw first-hand that working remotely 100pc of the time was not sufficient to build a great team.

Nataly Kelly of Rebrandly headshot.

Nataly Kelly. Image: Rebrandly

AT&T flew all of us from around the US to our office in Monterey, California to gather in person. Our newly discovered dynamic of working together allowed us to cement our relationships and team bonds. We got to know each other much more quickly. Collaboration was easier. We used this time to plan, to come up with big ideas, to do in-person training sessions and more. After a week in person together, all of us felt a renewed energy, combined with fresh gratitude for the jobs that enabled us to work remotely at a time when that was extremely uncommon.

Avoid all-or-nothing approaches

I get nervous when I hear about remote teams that are never allowed to travel to meet in person. But conversely, I also become concerned when I hear that companies are adopting an attitude of, ‘Let’s get everyone back into the office’.  The future of work requires flexibility, and approaches that are too extreme in any direction are likely to create uproar and backlash from employees, especially when they were asked to transition to remote jobs by that very company.

Remote work options have been positive, and a game-changer, for so many people across many identities, such as people with disabilities, working parents, individuals who might have other caregiving responsibilities, and even those with pets that provide them with emotional support. But by the same token, when the pandemic forced many people to work from home so suddenly, I saw panic in many of my colleagues who would have fared much better with even a small window of time to prepare for it. Suddenly, people worried about their physical workspace, including space limitations, the noise levels at home, and how to prevent their children from running into the room. Pandemic remote work was nothing like remote work in ‘normal’ times.

Adopt a remote-first mindset

What if, instead of thinking in such stark terms about ‘in-office work’ or ‘remote work’, we tried developing a different mindset? Preferences around working in an office or at home can change rapidly, and people should not have to be boxed into just one or the other. By challenging rigid policies that dictate when and where employees work, you can foster a culture that aligns with employee desires while expanding your talent pool and driving overall productivity.

‘While working at HubSpot over the course of nearly eight years, I built one of the earliest teams that was not only remote-first, but highly global’

To do this, you can choose to adopt a remote-first mindset. To me, this simply means that you set up your business to make it as remote-friendly as possible, by designing everything from a starting point of assuming that a large number of people will want to work remotely. The mindset, once adopted, frames the processes, technology and decisions that stem from there. By making ‘remote-first’ your starting point, you enable your employees to flex in any direction.

Having a remote-first mindset is actually a lot easier than you might think. While working at HubSpot over the course of nearly eight years, I built one of the earliest teams that was not only remote-first, but highly global and needed to overcome barriers not only of physical distance, but of cultural and linguistic distance too. We had team members who went into an office each day, and many who worked remotely, but everything we did had to be remote-friendly, to ensure equal participation from all team members globally.

At Rebrandly, where I work today as the chief growth officer, our sales team is based in Dublin, our product team is based in Rome, and our marketing team is spread across the US. We experimented with having some teams work fully in person together, but that felt forced and did not spark the level of collaboration we hoped it might. So instead, we adapted, and now everyone who works out of the Dublin office has the option to meet in a physical office once a week. They can also go in more or less often if they choose. But because we know that some people will be working remotely by default, we always have a remote-first orientation, and that is critical to our success and productivity.

Develop a nuanced approach to communication

Communication cadence is important, but so are the actual tools you need to make your company remote-friendly. I’m a huge fan of Slack, including features like Send later, Huddles and audio messages with auto-transcription. But tools like Loom and Google Slides are also critical for me, as they are for most remote teams today.

But tools are simply not enough. The most mature companies with a remote-first orientation develop very clear channels for communicating, with clarity around how and when to use each. Building good relationships is the heart of communication. The effort required on the communication side with remote work is a much heavier lift than with an in-person team. You need to make sure you ‘over communicate’ when teams are remote. Silos can form more easily, assumptions can be made and communication can quickly break down.

However, if you drive a remote-first mentality at your company, you’ll find that the extra effort it takes is worth it. While you might find that it takes you longer to drive home key points and build strong relationships through continual refinement of your communication system, it will pay off hugely for all the remote workers you already have today, and any you might have in the future too. Bottom line, remote versus office is no longer the debate, but neither should remote versus office versus hybrid. It’s no longer about forcing employees to choose between a narrow set of options. Instead, the focus should be on changing the underlying system and migrating to one that is remote-friendly from the start.

By Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is chief growth officer at marketing link management platform Rebrandly. She is also the author of Take Your Company Global, which is due for release in September 2023.

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