What gets, and keeps, remote workers engaged in their jobs? At a high level, it’s the same set of things that appeal to their office-bound peers: clear communication, decent pay and benefits, strong leadership, good relationships with managers. But the specifics might look very different.
The employers on Quartz’s 2021 ranking of the best companies for remote workers understand those nuances. We gathered executives from several of them on Sept. 15, for a workshop on how to run a company that remote employees love. Click the large image above for the complete video replay. Below, you’ll find our top takeaways featuring highlights from the hour-long session.
Oftentimes, companies treat remote work as though it “is the perk—that’s the end, you get to work from home,” Flatfile CEO David Boskovic says. “But there’s so much more to a productive work environment than just working remotely.”
Software maker Flatfile, the top-ranked company on Quartz’s list of the best small companies (25-49 employees) for remote workers, offers everyone on staff a $10,000 stipend to set up a home office. It’s an investment in their comfort, and ultimately their productivity, Boskovic says.
“We invest a lot of time in that,” says Vijay Tella, CEO and co-founder of the workflow automation technology company Workato. “I meet with every single new hire in the company when they join, and also about a month later, I meet some of the new hires as a cohort. The feedback is just amazing.”
Workato, No. 1 on Quartz’s list of the best large employers (250-plus employees) for remote workers, has expanded its headcount from 200 to 500 over the course of the pandemic. It also has become more deliberate about keeping people aligned on the direction of the company. One practice it has adopted: holding open board meetings, with all employees invited to listen in. “That happens once a quarter,” Tella says. “We do more communication than that; we just have rethought a lot of things about how you communicate and keep people on the same page.”
“We don’t want information to live in someone’s head,” says Nadia Vatalidis, director of people at Remote, which provides international payroll and other HR services to global employers. At other companies, “people are sitting in meetings for hours every day, essentially trying to copy what they did in an office environment, just in order to gain information from one another.”
At Remote, which placed second on our list of the best medium-size companies (50-249 employees) for remote workers, communication is largely asynchronous, with informal, day-to-day chat on a messaging platform and formal announcements on email. It’s important, Vatalidis says, to choose just one chat platform; don’t let your communications sprawl across so many systems that the information becomes difficult to find.
Though it considered itself remote-first before the pandemic, Noom, the popular weight-loss app, found it had plenty to improve on as more of the world was forced into remote work arrangements. For example, says Noom head of talent Mark Horton, “We were used to doing interview loops that were four to five hours long. That’s grueling to a candidate; that’s maybe more grueling in an environment that has more stressors than they perhaps had pre-pandemic.”
Noom recalibrated its recruiting process, spreading out that block of time across several days when possible. “It allowed us to get the same signal of job readiness from the candidate, while also providing an opportunity to show [the candidate] we care about their wellbeing as well,” Horton said. “The downside to doing that is our interview processes did elongate a bit. We were comfortable with that. … You can’t spend five hours in front of a screen turned on; it’s mentally exhausting for a lot of people.” Noom was the largest company to appear in our ranking of the best companies for remote workers; it has more than 3,000 employees.
Amir Salihefendic knew he was going against the grain when he founded Doist, maker of the Todoist to-do list app and the workplace communication app Twist, as a fully remote company in 2007. “Work was location-based for most of human history,” he notes. “If you needed a job, you needed to be in a specific location, close to a factory, close to an office—even hunter-gatherers” needed proximity to work.
“If you look at the productivity graphs of the modern nations, they have been dropping,” Salihefendic says. “And I think one of the reasons is that we haven’t adapted to the new digital age. In order to reset productivity or improve it, we need to rethink how we work and live.”
“If you can’t make decisions on your own, if you can’t work independently, this is a really tricky environment,” Remote’s Vatalidis said.
Another tip she gives to people considering going remote for good: “You have to have a life and you have to have hobbies and interests outside of work … otherwise, unfortunately, burnout becomes very real very quickly.”
“I like this saying I heard somewhere, which is: ‘If you have one remote employee, you have a remote company.’ [So] you have to make the investment,” Flatfile’s Boskovic says. “A lot of it is just A/V. So much of it just comes down to making sure there’s video and an ability to participate in conversations.”
Don’t make the mistake of beaming a camera into an office conference room and expecting remote workers to have a good experience. Instead, several panelists endorsed the idea of having everyone dial in separately, so that everyone’s face gets the same size square on video.
“Workato is my fourth company and I’ve come to realize that I’m not really worried about people not working hard enough,” Tella said. “It’s really the other way—you worry about burnout.”
“We’re a small company, so our engagement tool is talking to each other,” Flatfile’s Boskovic said. “We’re not at the stage where we would over-engineer that with specific tools.”