The coronavirus has forced a massive, unexpected shift to remote work for millions. How long this lasts is hard to say. But it’s likely that some companies will never return to their offices, and anyone starting a new company will give remote operations a much closer look. At GetThru, we’ve been 100% remote from day one. While that’s made it easier to adapt to COVID, pandemic resilience is just one of many benefits. So for those thinking about starting a fully remote company, or making their new work-from-home policies permanent, I want to share why we love it, and some tips for making it work.
Before delving in, I want to acknowledge that working from home is an enormous privilege right now that is inaccessible to so many people.
How we got started working remotely
Our decision to work remotely has its roots in the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, where I ran the national texting program. My job was organizing 2,000+ volunteers to send millions of text messages to Bernie supporters. With volunteers spread across the country, working remotely was the only option. This was my first remote work experience, and I was struck by how much we got done and how much community we were able to build. So when I teamed up with several Bernie alums to start GetThru, it felt logical to continue in that vein, especially since our founding team was spread out.
100% remote. Seriously.
When we say GetThru is 100% remote, we really mean it. We have nearly 40 full time employees spread across 15 states. Everyone works from home or a co-working space. There is no headquarters. We do rent office space where we get mail and store conference materials, but no one on our team works there regularly. To be clear, we’re hardly the first to do this, and we’ve borrowed many ideas from pioneers like Zapier and Basecamp. Here are some other basic aspects of our setup:
- We do a monthly all staff meeting on Zoom and weekly team meetings (sales, engineering, etc.). Most meetings with 3+ people are held on Zoom to facilitate more face-to-face time.
- We hold an in-person, all team retreat once per year for a full week. The fate of our planned 2021 meeting is uncertain in light of the coronavirus.
- Many of our teams (e.g., sales, engineering) also do 1-2 in person retreats per year, which likewise may not happen in the coming year.
- For communication, we rely heavily on Slack and Zoom. But we also use email for things like HR announcements and complicated asynchronous conversations.
- We do regular "GetTogethers" via Zoom and also pair people for bi-monthly "GetAcquainted" conversations so they can get to know each other better.
- We provide basic office equipment to everyone (e.g., laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse) and give employees a $500 ergonomic stipend to set up their workspaces with equipment to keep them healthy, like a standing desk.
Benefits to our employees
At our most recent all staff retreat, we asked some team members why they like working remotely. Three themes rose to the top:
- No commute -- People cited numerous benefits of not having a commute, including more time for family, hobbies and exercise and improved physical and mental health. And there’s a lot of science backing them up!
- Control / focus -- People like having control over their workspace and reported being better able to focus. This echoes the open secret about open offices: they look cool, but are actually bad for collaboration and productivity.
- Flexibility -- Finally, people love the inherent flexibility of remote work. They can work with pets around, manage household tasks, more easily care for sick kids, and choose when they exercise. Not to mention the most important flexibility of all -- people can live wherever they want!
Benefits to the company
When I tell people that we are remote, they usually respond that “it must be great to save so much money on rent.” To be sure, these savings are real -- an office in Oakland, CA, (where I live) would cost us $300k - $400k per year. But that’s just one of the important benefits to the company. Other top reasons include:
- Hire from anywhere -- We can recruit people all over the country vs. limiting ourselves to a specific geography or people willing and able to move there. Relatedly, as a software company, we don’t have to compete with Facebook and Google, which lets us organically find people who care more about mission and quality of life than salary. A broader recruiting pool also makes it easier for us to build a diverse team.
- Raise our communication game -- Because communication is harder at distance, we’ve had to be much more conscious about how we do it from the start, which I think has broad positive effects on our culture.
- Not managing a physical space -- Saving money on rent is nice, but we also save a ton of time not creating an office that looks good and works for everyone. We spend that time on other operations priorities, like improved benefits and thoughtful charitable giving.
Is fully remote right for your company/organization?
If you are starting your new company/organization fully remote, or making your pandemic-induced work from home approach permanent, here’s some recommendations:
- If you are going to go remote, go all-in. If you have a main office where some people work while others are remote, your team will have different levels of access to information and company culture. This can leave remote folks feeling out of the loop, especially if the company leadership works out of your "HQ."
- The leadership has to really want to do this. One reason remote is a good fit for GetThru is because I personally love it, so I have lots of energy for working through the inevitable challenges.
- You will need to think a lot more about communication. Communication is the lifeblood of any organization, and even more so for a remote one. We developed communication norms from the start, and are constantly updating them. It’s impossible to understate the importance of this topic for the success of remote workplaces.
- Hire people who will do well in a remote workplace. While it’s hard to know this in advance, at a minimum you should talk about remote work in your interview process. Ask candidates: have you worked remotely before? Will you work at home or a co-working space? What do you think will be hard about this for you? And if you are transitioning from an office, ask yourself -- do I have a team that will do well in a remote setup?
This post presents an admittedly rosy picture of remote work. There are also plenty of challenges for both employees and the company that I plan to discuss in a separate post, along with how GetThru tries to address them. But in the meantime, I leave the “remote curious” with a final exhortation -- if you think you’d be into it, go for it. I promise you won’t be remotely sorry!