Remote working or remote-first is being explored as an option or benefit by companies large and small around the world in the wake of COVID-19. As company leaders look to provide the physical infrastructure and craft a strategy for success what are the actions HR can take and drive if their company is one of those transitioning to a remote setup?

We analysed remote first companies with 10 – ~150 employees from Europe and the US to understand what makes their HR function, strategy and focus stand out from non-remote companies.

Our belief is that by looking to these peer companies, HR functions in start-ups and SMEs who do not have the resources of a Facebook, Google or Twitter can discover some best practice and a path to success in a remote world.

Based on our research, below are 6 key actions that HR can implement to enable their company’s transformation into a successful remote organisation. 

#1: Expand HR for Employee Engagement  

We discovered that leading remote companies recruit and build HR as a dedicated function early in their lifecycle and look to recruit for a role focused on developing the level of employee engagement among a distributed workforce. In doing this, companies are looking to account for one of the most prevalent criticisms of remote being a negative for culture and leading to isolation.

By establishing HR functions early companies are empowered to tackle the additional challenges associated with pay, regulations, onboarding across multiple geographies. This can be then strengthened by recruiting a “Team Engagement or Experience manager” who’s focus is on building relationships, culture and engagement amongst the company.

If your company is looking to transition to remote it is important to consider how central HR is to that and thus should be invested in earlier in a company’s lifecycle to manage the administrative and people challenges that can emerge. Additionally, companies should recognise that a role with a specific focus on and responsibility for bringing the dispersed team members together and developing a culture while remote will be a necessity in this remote environment.

#2: Hire Locally First then Scale Out  

With the adoption of remote working, comes the freedom of a geographically dispersed team from all over the world. This is a key benefit in gaining access to a wider talent pool and being able to provide attractive flexibility to employees around their work location.

Remote is not an instant activity though and does require practice and effort. When starting out it can be beneficial to focus initial remote hiring within one’s own geography or time zone. This can limit some of the challenges around scheduling, payroll, laws and regulations and other administrative issues which may arise. In doing this, HR and company leaders can be freed to focus on building the processes, tooling and culture for their new reality.

In transitioning to remote but first looking to the local area companies can gain experience and travel a learning curve around culture, comms, software, reporting etc. and once the foundations have been laid and embedded expand their horizon and gain access to the broader talent pool when they are ready to offer them a great remote employee experience.

#3: Invest in your Talent team  

For remote, it is not only important to invest in your HR function and create an employee engagement role but also to grow an internal talent function to compete in a global market and to capture the benefits of the broader talent pool. With the rise of remote the competition for talent will increase with greater opportunities for candidates outside their immediate locale. Additionally as mentioned above, companies will have access to a larger talent pool themselves.

Equally, a company’s culture is only as good as the people in it which is particularly important in a remote environment where the individual may have more power. This gives added value to finding and attracting the right hire: If companies invest time in ensuring they hire the best people for their team, they will be making the process of natural team culture forming a lot easier. Excellent recruitment is enabled by an internal talent team who deeply understand a company’s culture and purpose and are able to convey these to candidates and then recognise the best candidates to hire for the company.  

From our analysis it is clear that investment in an internal talent function can ensure companies have a strong talent pool and community around their brand in the move to remote. This will allow companies to react to growing competition, leverage the full benefits of a larger talent market and recognise recruitment as the first step in building a great company culture. 

#4: Document, publish, and actively manage your Culture

With companies dedicating a HR resource to employee engagement and integrating cultural fit into recruitment it is clear that there is a great import attached to culture in a remote organisation.

When creating a culture with a dispersed team, it may not happen naturally, serious effort and time must be invested for it to be successful. Some of this comes from building out the right organisational design as above but there is an additional need to clearly document a company’s culture and values. In the absence of physical interaction, it can be harder for employees to see company leaders and colleagues live the culture and demonstrate it in their day to day. In its place a clearly documented and managed culture can be a reference or guiding star for employees in everything from hiring, onboarding and disciplinary actions, to the day to day decisions they take and their understanding of company norms.

By investing time to properly define and manage a culture in a remote environment companies can draw together a distributed team and create a sense of cohesion. This will be key in the overall success of a remote company and the creation of  engagement in employees which will drive productivity and happiness in employees.  

#5: Place Emphasis on communication and team building  

Remote working has several impacts on the day to day company culture. One such impact is reduced informal office communication. No longer can an employee pop their head in their manager’s door and friendships and relationships cannot develop through “watercooler” conversations. This can lead to isolation amongst employees and a feeling of being disconnected from the business goals.

To combat this, remote companies should invest in strong internal company communication mechanisms. Recognising the right collection of tools to enable communication and engagement is important. In the move to remote companies may need to consider internal blogs, social networks, engagement software and analytics and a variety of other tools to empower informal communication and understand their employees engagement beyond the basics of messaging and email.

Additionally, team members being apart means that opportunities for team bonding are limited. To overcome this, HR should take active steps to organise company gatherings to enable team and culture building and align employees on overall goals. Alongside these large scale events companies should consider virtual social gatherings whether that is a quiz, book club, buddy system, or happy hour to establish and build relationships in their beyond work alone.

Companies often take for granted the informal communication and team building that is achieved through physical proximity. In a move to remote, HR should identify replacements for this to ensure that employees feel connected with each other, aligned on company objectives and more than just a cog in a machine.

#6: Create a New Era of Transparency  

Flexibility is a key cornerstone of remote work and a major benefit when it comes to achieving greater gender balance and attracting a wider pool of talents to companies. Employees need to be trusted in a remote organisation to achieve targets while working with this greater flexibility. HR can lead this by looking to develop a focus on transparency as an key value.

There are three main ways in which transparency can be encouraged in remote teams 

  1. Simplify Communication. Without physical cues and body language it is important for employees to be able to communicate succinctly and clearly so that objectives can be achieved and miscommunication is avoided. HR should advise on communication styles, frequency and medium to enable this.
  2. Insist on accountability. Making employees accountable for output is a key element of transparency as everyone is aware of workload and objectives creating a common goal and purpose. HR can encourage a greater focus on output and ownership among managers and employees to drive greater awareness of work
  3. Use the right software. There are a variety of tools which can enable collaboration or real time updates on work and projects. HR can work with teams to understand their needs and collaborative touchpoints and find the best technology to suit them. This can enable greater transparency on work status and quality among dispersed colleagues.

Remote work allows for greater flexibility but a key role for HR in managing this flexibility is developing a value of transparency in the company to avoid bottlenecks and create the environment for collaboration. 

Our research showed that investing in employee engagement and internal talent teams, hiring locally initially, documenting and managing culture, recognising the renewed focus on internal communications and team building and finally driving transparency can help a company succeed when moving to remote. With these 6 actions HR can be central and drive the success of a move by their company to remote.

Of course, there are a variety of other factors from business strategy, logistics, market dynamics and many more which will have an impact but with these HR will be enabled to contribute in their area to ensure employees feel connected while being further apart.