“Remote-first” is an organizational strategy that makes working remotely the primary option for most or all employees. By definition, remote-first means that few (if any) people are regularly required to perform their jobs from a centralized office. Employees instead work from another location, such as a home office or co-working space.
While this is not a brand new approach, remote-first began receiving a lot more attention because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many companies to rapidly adapt their business operations to accommodate most or all of their staff working from home.
Unlike fully distributed or remote-only organizations, remote-first companies operate a physical workplace of some kind, which is available to employees who need or prefer a traditional office space outside of the home. However, the majority of people on a remote team work most often from home or another location outside of the corporate office.
These companies build a remote-first culture that establishes remote work as the norm rather than something approved of only in certain circumstances. Even when people on remote teams do go into a company-owned workspace, they perform their jobs using the same tools and processes as if they were in a different location.
A growing number of companies are planning to become remote-first on a permanent basis after they realized the benefits of shifting to a work from home model during the COVID-19 crisis.
In a remote-first workplace, working outside of a main workspace or corporate campus is the default mode of working rather than an exception or occasional practice.
This is different from a “remote-friendly” company. A remote-friendly organization typically enables some employees to work outside of the corporate office for various reasons, but still conducts most of its daily operations in person. A remote-friendly company might allow employees to work remotely a certain number of days a week, or hire remote staff for specific roles, but this is not the overall organization’s primary mode of working. In a remote-friendly environment, for example, a person working from home one day per week might dial into a conference room where most of the other employees are meeting face-to-face.
Remote-first companies, on the other hand, tailor their operations around a consistent employee experience no matter where the person is working. In the above example of a team meeting, for instance, in a remote-first company all employees would meet via a videoconferencing tool, even if some of them are in the same physical location when that meeting takes place. This ensures that all participants can hear and see the others equally well. In general, a remote-first company assumes a fully remote workforce and sets up its operations to be able to run consistently and effectively regardless of where people are at any given moment.
A remote-friendly company allows employees to work outside of the corporate office at least part of the time; a remote-first company assumes employees are working outside of the corporate office all of the time.
Companies adopt a remote-first work policy to support a variety of short-term and long-term business goals. These include business continuity, talent recruiting and retention, financial savings, employee wellness, and long-term flexibility and adaptability. While there are certainly some businesses and industries that still require some degree of face-to-face interaction, modern technologies and business culture have made remote-first a very attainable—and in some cases preferable—way of working for some organizations.
Companies typically become remote-first workplaces because they see clear-cut business advantages in this way of working. Remote-first benefits include:
- Cost savings: One of the commonly cited benefits of remote-first approach is that it enables organizations to reduce their physical footprint. This means that large companies in particular don’t need to spend as much capital on office space. A firm with 5,000 employees, for instance, could lease or purchase much less commercial space if it only expects a maximum of 20 percent of its staff to work on-site at any given time. Moreover, some organizations may be able to reduce their compensation budget if they are hiring people in areas with lower costs of living.
- Deeper talent pool: In a remote-first environment, recruiters and hiring managers have access to a much vaster pool of prospective employees. This can be a crucial advantage in terms of attracting and retaining talented people. That is especially true for roles where there is a lack of qualified or affordable local candidates, such as certain specialized IT roles.
- Improved employee satisfaction: Remote-first employees often report boosts in their overall outlook on work. Reducing or eliminating commuting time and transportation costs is a good example of how remote-first environments can enhance quality of life.
- Long-term flexibility: Remote-first in general enables a company to be able to grow (or scale back) without worrying as much about the constraints of its physical spaces. A high-growth firm does not constantly need to be adding office space and equipment to keep pace with its hiring. Moreover, companies can more readily adapt to changing conditions without being concerned about wasting spending on physical infrastructure. Similarly, remote-first is a boon for business continuity planning, since companies already have the tools and culture in place needed to successfully achieve their business goals even when employees cannot access a central headquarters or workplace.
Remote-first tools include remote working software and platforms that enable people to get their jobs done from anywhere. These include software applications that are usually delivered “as a service” (SaaS) over the internet. SaaS applications can provide remote desktops, chat tools, digital workspaces, file sharing and storage, videoconference and other virtual meeting tools, project management applications, and tools for a variety of industry- or company-specific needs. No matter their purpose, remote-first tools share a common denominator: They enable people to accomplish their daily jobs effectively from virtually anywhere.