Your Candidates Want A Great Remote-First Culture. How Are You Creating One?

July 14, 2022

Before coming to OpenView and in the pre-pandemic times, my role was remote-first. When I told people that I worked from home all the time, they considered it a foreign concept.

When COVID hit, we all witnessed office-first companies scramble to get up and running remotely. Once the dust settled, people realized that living with the pandemic was just going to be reality for the foreseeable future. As a result, we saw this wave of companies announce that they’re moving to remote-first or hybrid-first.

Now we’re in year three, and remote work is totally mainstream—if not an expectation. While hiring has slowed down and some companies are laying off employees, a remote-first culture has become an even more critical piece of the puzzle.

Regardless of the state of the economy, remote-first and employee-first cultures help many businesses win and keep the best talent. It has become a standard point of consideration in the job seeking process. Most companies are just as likely to be asked about it by candidates as company size, product, and compensation.

Remote work is here to stay. Our recent 2022 State of SaaS Talent report showed that the average company expects to be 86% fully or partially remote post-pandemic.

As some companies move in towards a hybrid workplace, they are marrying the in-person and remote together. Other companies have doubled-down on their commitment to being fully remote, if not asynchronous.

What does culture look like in a remote-first company?

A major concern that arises for fully remote companies is the question of how to maintain—or in the case of a startup, establish—an organizational culture.

Culture can be a vague term, so the first step is to define what it means to your organization.

No matter how you define it, having a strong culture matters. Once defined, you then need to put a plan in action to make it a reality. A strong culture increases employee retention and attracts top talent. That much has always been true. But in an age where good candidates are hard to come by, businesses have to cater to a talent pool that wants total flexibility and great culture.

You could define remote-first culture as an organization or location strategy that makes working remotely the primary option for most or all employees. That means few, if any, people are required on a regular basis to do their jobs from a set office space.

But there’s more to it than that. Candidates seeking remote-first opportunities say they’re looking for a culture fit. A lot of times that means more than getting to decide where they put their desk.

What candidates are looking for in remote-first opportunities

In order to build a successful remote-first culture, you’ve got to understand your remote employee’s top priorities. The biggest things that candidates are trying to get out of remote work, in addition to feeling fulfilled in their jobs and connected to their company and coworkers, is work-life balance.

Although this is the biggest appeal of remote-first, it means something different to everyone. Some value the hours saved from commuting to an office, while others might want to be closer to their family. For many, it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

There are three ways companies can cater to work-life balance for their remote employees:

Allow for day-to-day flexibility

Entrust your people with the ability to control their working schedule, even beyond the hours of nine a.m. to five p.m. One example I see often is where people are working in different time zones or asynchronously. They are able to establish boundaries regarding when individuals are and aren’t expected to respond to emails and messages.

Some companies require employees to be available during a designated window of time during the day or week for meetings and synchronous communication. Aside from that, they let employees dictate their own daily schedules.

Offer ample time off—and encourage people to use it

Unlimited discretionary flexible time off is another big trend we’re seeing in terms of benefits offered. However, there is a lot of discourse around its effectiveness, especially if employers aren’t encouraging it or enforcing it.

Instead, we’ve seen some companies set a time off minimum, requiring employees to use a portion of their PTO whether they like it or not. This sends a message to your people that their personal lives are just as important to build and invest in as their careers.

Provide competitive benefit packages

This means the whole nine yards—healthcare, vision, dental, family leave, and other important benefits. This can be a dealbreaker for candidates, and can even define your brand. The #ShowUsYourLeave hashtag has been huge—yet another trend that reinforces that benefits that used to be seen as “perks” are now simply expectations.

Home office reimbursements are another example. It’s not necessarily a huge shiny flashing gold star to lure candidates in anymore. In fact, it’s pretty much standard for any remote role.

Considerations for developing hybrid and remote-first cultures

Whether your business decides to go fully remote or accommodate a hybrid workforce, the reality is that neither option will be 100 percent ideal. Both present challenges that require thoughtful and intentional solutions.

There are three big challenges can get in the way of developing culture when some or all employees work from home:

New employees may feel stranded during onboarding

Something that can be really challenging with remote-first cultures is onboarding. It can be difficult to learn your new role, responsibilities, and team dynamics if you’re not sitting right next to your peers to watch what they’re doing. Additionally, this is the most important time period to have lots of direct one-on-one time with your manager.

We often see it’s helpful to have new employees go into a physical office space to meet some of of the team in their first week. Usually it’s whatever amount of time fits the needs of your company and team. That said, it’s also just a great way to get to know new coworkers. If you have onboarding in groups or some kind of cohort there, too, it establishes a sense of community.

On the other hand, your company might consider standardizing remote onboarding for all employees. Not only does this level the playing field for remote and in-person team members, but it can accelerate the onboarding process and time-to-value of each new role.

According to hyperexponential’s co-founder and CEO Amrit Santhirasenan, switching to a fully-remote process has come with such unforeseen benefits.

“All our onboarding is done remotely. We have an incredible small-but-mighty ops team that built our completely remote-first onboarding processes,” he said. “One of the amazing things about having a remote onboarding process is you can run it before people start. We have a high-passion, high-enthusiasm team who are raring to go—and they can pre-board now.”

It can be hard to form bonds with teams in a remote-first culture

Even at home, feeling connected to colleagues makes working more enjoyable. People want to feel fulfilled and have an affinity to their team even if they don’t occupy the same physical space. This is hard in remote environments, which can also result in a lack of social interest in work.

Hosting regular off-sites can be great to counteract this. Especially for fully remote teams, meeting once a quarter or every six months can really bring people together socially.

It’s crucial to sit down to do work and really capitalize on that time together in person as a team. But it’s also important to make it fun. Incorporate social team outings, consider picking new and exciting destinations for each off-site, and ask for input from employees on what they’d enjoy when planning it.

Virtual social events work, too. Creative offerings like wine-tasting or cooking classes often generate more excitement than the generic virtual happy hour.

Hybrid environments can be unintentionally exclusive

In a hybrid company, you can run into the challenge of sharing information with both in-person and remote-first employees.

There’s several ways to ensure inclusivity. A rule of thumb is to always default to video conferences. Another is emphasizing the documentation of tasks, works-in-progress, decisions, and meetings. Even if it’s a watercooler chat, or you just share an idea next to someone, some companies will really encourage you to write that down. That way, you can make note of it for your broader team, especially your remote coworkers.

Amrit shared how his company set expectations around inclusivity in a hybrid workplace.

“When you have a hybrid meeting with remote participants, you need to treat the whole thing as if everyone was remote. So, if we have 20 people in a meeting and one of them is remote, that means everyone gets on the laptops and we set it up so that everyone is remote,” he said. “We also have a very clear culture, which means that if we have 20 people in a meeting and 19 of them are in person, then the other person should attempt to come in. That’s also a very clear antecedent to any engagement.”

Increased complexity in offering competitive benefits

According to Postscript’s VP of People Jennifer Raines-Loring, “administering competitive, inclusive benefits is also more challenging in a remote organization, especially in multiple states and countries. This can be especially challenging to maneuver when your company is not at a massive scale that would typically warrant large national and international benefits partners.”

That being said, this comes as a trade-off in comparison to the host of challenges that come with coordinating an on-site office space. And, like any organizational challenge, there are solutions available.

“We have had to be very thoughtful in choosing partners and providers that can handle these complexities,” said Jennifer. Juggling the logistics of different benefit providers across the nation—or even globally—is a small price to pay for access to diverse, top-tier talent.

Remote-first culture can build loyalty and increase retention

“One of the things that remote and hybrid working has allowed us to do is it’s allowed us to achieve more. It’s allowed us to achieve more family time and more work, if done in the right way,” said Amrit.

It’s the ultimate win-win. When you promote employees’ wellbeing, people do better work—and when they’re happy in their work, they become stronger advocates for the business. This is how you retain employees, especially top talent.

Turnover is expensive in terms of training and onboarding replacements. Happy employees are economically advantageous for your business.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. I’ve seen companies bring on a new role titled Head of Remote, akin to the traditional Head of Office. For smaller companies who might not need a dedicated full-time role, consider hiring a consultant or reaching out to your VCs or investors for insight. It’s in the best interest of the business.

Advice for companies looking to create a great remote-first culture

When asked what pieces of advice he had for other leaders looking to build great remote-first cultures, Amrit Santhirasenan recommended, “Do it early and make it everyone’s problem.” It’s not hard to read between the lines when everything is made transparent.

  • Hire great People leaders. “A great remote culture starts with a great people team who can continually manage and improve your remote work experience,” said Jennifer. In many ways, your people team is the internal face of your company culture, so look for HR professionals who know how to foster a positive and inclusive remote-first environment.
  • Invest in communication tools. Go beyond the basic text-based direct messages and encourage employees to use tools like Loom and Slack Huddles to allow people to connect more effectively while also capturing a higher degree of nuance and personalization. “Being able to convey emotion and personality, without needing to always arrange a live meeting, is critical in high-functioning remote companies,” Jennifer shared.
  • Publish your culture docs publicly. Nothing holds you accountable like the public eye. Having a subset of your culture docs available on your website helps cement your culture internally. It also has the benefit of attracting talent that is already familiar and on board with your company mission and way of working. Hyperexponential shares their way of working on an external-facing company wiki, and have seen success in the expectation it sets for their culture.
  • Keep iterating. If you really want to build a best-in-class remote-first culture, first you’ll need to accept that your work is never done. Postscript’s attitude towards continuous improvement is a great example: “We have been remote since inception and always plan to be remote,” said Jennifer, “Our efforts to improve our remote model are never done—this mentality is one of the reasons we feel we are successful at making remote work really work.”

Note: Postscript is an OpenView portfolio company. For a full list of OV portfolio companies, please see our website.

Maggie is a Senior Talent Manager at OpenView. She focuses on helping founders build out their executive teams.