If you read the news, you might think that remote work is a new phenomenon, one wrought entirely by the pandemic, an untested experiment in revolutionary workplace thinking. And, while the media makes it seem that way, the truth is that remote work is neither new nor particularly revolutionary.
Companies like ours have quietly embraced a remote-first mentality for decades and thrived.
I have worked at SemanticBits for almost 14 years and, in that time, I’ve been to the SemanticBits office in Herndon, Virginia less than 10 times. Many of our almost-400 employees have never visited the office. I talk on a regular basis to hundreds of colleagues and know them really well, though I’ve never met them in person. And, our team is motivated, enthusiastic, and committed to our company and culture.
So, how did we create a company that thrives in a remote work environment, that avoids the so-called “productivity tax” where productivity drops and relations diminish? While we don’t have all of the solutions, we have found certain corporate philosophies make a difference.
Be a Remote-First Company
Is remote work ancillary to your in-person team? Is remote work something that you just haphazardly threw together during the pandemic? Or, is remote work an integral part of your corporate culture? These are crucial questions.
If you expect a remote team to succeed, you must be a remote-first company.
We have been using Slack, Zoom, and many other remote work tools for nearly a decade. When we only had forty employees, we were still running meetings via web conference calls. And, now, with hundreds of employees, these tools are more heavily utilized, meaning that we are constantly reassessing our tech to help us succeed remotely. Every week, our team sends out over 90,000 Slack messages; the average employee sends out about 250 messages each week, or 50 Slack messages per day.
Our Human Resources team thinks about remote work as an asset rather than as a liability, meaning that when we hire, we rarely think about location. We are focused, first and foremost, on bringing in the best possible team members regardless of where someone lives.
Likewise, our on-boarding and training process is focused on orienting and supporting people in our remote culture immediately, because remote work is not an afterthought. We assign all of our new employees a buddy, which sounds corny but helps facilitate the introduction to our remote culture; our buddies take their mentorship role seriously and new employees appreciate having someone who they can reach out to in the company beyond their supervisor and HR. We also organize our teams in scrum teams of 10. So, it’s very easy to develop connections with your small team with daily standup calls via Zoom, reducing loneliness among our remote workers.
Remote Work Should Be Human
One of the most common criticisms of remote work is that, in remote teams, work becomes transactional rather than relational. That argument just doesn’t hold water. If you work for a giant corporation, are you really going to be able to walk down the hall and talk to every person in your company? Of course not.
I have worked for a massive organization in the past, where I went to the office every single day, and I spent a lot of time on the phone with colleagues who were in other offices or even down the hall.
Colleagues can build relationships remotely in the same way they build relationships in-person, if the company encourages relationship-building. We have Slack channels about everything from parenting to gardening to our random channel where discussions always seem to “steer back to Nic Cage and mayo, both at once, always.” And, yes, that’s the real description of our #random channel because we spend a lot of time arguing about the best mayonnaise (btw, it’s Duke’s, imho). Yes, that means that there are times when our team isn’t working and is, instead, chatting about mayonnaise, but that’s because we aren’t automatons: we are humans.
Everyone in the company turns their videos on when we talk to each other because we like seeing each other’s smiling faces (and new post-pandemic haircuts). When people have babies, we celebrate “SemanticBabies” with a shout out in our corporate newsletter and on our parenting Slack channels. When people are struggling, we share our support for them. We have quarterly all-hands meetings with virtual team building events where we have fun and relax with each other. Our teams do frequent happy hours or monthly tech talks.
Simply put, working remotely shouldn’t stop you from being a human. In fact, remote work should allow you to be more human. For companies that value work-life balance, remote work is a choice that makes a huge difference in our ability to be human.
Remote Work Requires Trust
In Cathy Merrill’s infamous Washingtonian editorial leading to the strike by her employees, she claimed that remote work would lead to an “erosion of collaboration, creativity and culture.” We have, instead, found that collaboration, creativity, and culture grows in our remote work environment because we hire smart, responsible adults and expect our teams to be independent without micromanagement. We value productivity and creativity, but we also value independent thinking and supportive team members who care about seeing each other succeed.
This means developing open lines of communication between project teams and Human Resources. Communication is critical in any company, but even more so in a remote company, because strong communication nurtures a culture of trust. We hope that our employees trust our leadership to be honest and share our successes and our challenges, just as we trust our employees to do their work independently, in furtherance of our corporate mission. We are also fortunate in that we have a corporate mission that truly matters: we build the software tools that help doctors, nurses, and patients around this country, resulting in less government waste and fraud. It’s a corporate mission that everyone stands behind.
Since our corporate culture and leadership values independent thinking and active collaboration, remote work has been a boon where people can get real work done without distractions and office politics.
Remote Work Still Needs In-Person Time (But Probably Less Than You Think)
Pre-pandemic, our entire company met in-person once per year for our corporate retreat. And, many of our teams met in-person every quarter. Those in-person meetings enhance our remote work culture and help solidify the relationships we have already built. Plus, it’s just fun to get together and work and toss around ideas, but also to learn from each other and share our successes. It’s a time for us to present awards and to chat and to be together doing fun things like playing at our annual ping pong tournament.
We have seen many companies moving toward hybrid models with companies requiring in-person work and meetings at least two or three days per week. Not to put a fine point on it, but could any of those meetings have been a Slack thread? Because there’s nothing more annoying than dropping my kids off at school, driving through traffic, parking, and arriving at the office for a 30-minute meeting that could have been a 5-line Slack message.
And, while there’s a lot of angst about how important it is to be able to drop into someone’s office to have “spontaneous” conversations, I have spontaneous conversations all day long even though I am not face-to-face with our teams. Spontaneous conversations occur when it’s clear that we trust and value each other’s opinions; it’s not the location that creates those spontaneous conversations but rather receptive leaders and colleagues who encourage free thinking and fresh ideas.
Remote Teams Are Motivated Teams
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, and other high-ranking executives say remote work “doesn’t work for those who want to hustle.” They paint remote workers in broad-brush as pajama-wearing slackers. And, while there may be the occasional day that we’re still in our pajamas, I don’t see that stereotype as true at SemanticBits, among our leadership or our employees. Instead, our remote workers care about hustling, but also crave the flexibility to live beyond work.
Our leadership team are all parents with young children and we all want to finish the day at 5:00, too. By working remotely, I never waste a moment commuting. Every night, I have dinner with my family, I put my kids to bed, and I am still able to work hard to keep our company thriving. Our girls can hang out with their grandparents because we live where we want, without worrying about how close I am to SemanticBits. I can attend end-of-year school functions because my children’s schools are just two minutes away and make up that work in the evening after they go to bed. And, at this age when my children are so young, I never miss a moment of this precious, fleeting time.
At the same time, in the last fifteen years, SemanticBits has won dozens of federal contracts, built dozens of tools for the federal government, and grown from a scrappy team of 10 to nearly 400 engaged and exceptional employees. Our work has helped reduce Medicaid and Medicare fraud and facilitated the work of doctors and nurses around this country. We have received accolades from numerous federal agencies and supported mission-critical government initiatives.
I can do both things because I work remotely. Remote work has allowed me to balance work and life. And, it’s allowed us to thrive as a company of humans—with lives beyond work—who build exceptional software tools.