Why Remote Friendly Won’t Do
Remote Friendly is a Vague Term
Remote friendly is a term that has abruptly outlived its usefulness. In today's world where 70% of companies hiring on Hacker News are open to permanent remote positions as of January 2021, one could argue that most of the tech industry is remote friendly. Remote friendly is ambiguous — it could mean that remote candidates are welcome to apply. It might mean that remote employees are surely first-class citizens. Or that the team is remote only.
Many companies have made formal transitions to embrace remote work in 2020 and they've spelt out their intentions in announcements and interviews. Going through these and the Hacker News job posts in documenting the shift to remote during the pandemic, I've noticed that more nuance and specificity had developed to describe a company's stance on remote work. The binary labeling of remote friendly or not doesn't cut it — remote friendliness is a spectrum.
In 2021, as founders look to guide their onsite team back to the office while blending them with the permanent remote team, they will feel pressure to clarify the company's stance towards remote work. My hope is that the full remote spectrum presented in this article can serve as a framework to help founders decide and articulate where they want to land.
The Remote Spectrum
Broadly speaking, once the pandemic is over, I propose that all companies should fall under one of the five categories on the remote spectrum. The most remote friendly companies are on one end and the least remote friendly companies are on the other end. Here are descriptions of each of the archetypes:
Onsite only companies will not hire permanent remote employees. Some allow a flexible schedule where employees are free to work from home a few days a week. But employees are not allowed to work remotely indefinitely. A new employee must be either local or willing to relocate.
Many small startups fall under this category. I could not confirm any scaled technology company (500+ employees) having a 100% onsite employee base. Please correct me if you know otherwise.
Remote OK companies are comfortable with having some permanent remote employees. Certain functions like engineering or sales may even have a substantial remote contingent. However, the default mode of work is office-centric. Workflows, collaboration, communication, and events are planned around the onsite team. The remote minority often has a sense of missing out. Founders and most members of the executive team are onsite.
Remote equal companies take the affirmative stance that remote employees are first class citizens and want to ensure that they are as empowered and productive as onsite employees. The remote employee experience is proactively designed from onboarding and team-building to meeting policies. Personnel — a head of remote or a remote council — and resources are dedicated to ensure remote employees are supported. However, many non-engineering roles may only be offered in an onsite format.
Remote first companies assume the vast majority of employees including the leadership team are remote and remote is the default mode of work. Offices are encouraged to be used for in-person collaboration and team-building activities instead of individual work. Efforts are made to erase synchronous meetings and emphasize documentation. Companies choose remote first over remote equal because they do not have to maintain two modes of work or worry about subtle inequities developing against remote employees.
Examples are Shopify, Dropbox, Coinbase, Brex, and Quora.
Remote only companies exist without an office — the purest form of remote. Some companies were remote only from founding (e.g. Shogun) and others became incrementally embraced remote (e.g. Sourcegraph). Many companies that started during the pandemic are remote only by accident. Remote only companies may have aligned working hours (e.g. InVision does 10am to 6pm EST) or not (e.g. GitLab). Rapport building and social interactions cannot be left to spontaneous hallway interactions, so remote only companies will regularly host in-person offsites and virtual events.
Gitlab and InVision are scaled examples (~1,000 employees) of remote only.
Traversing the Spectrum
Many companies have moved to a different part of the spectrum during the pandemic, with the vast majority moving to a more remote friendly stance. For example, Shopify, Dropbox, Coinbase, Affirm, Quora, Brex have all announced their decision to be remote first. As more management teams update and clarify their post-COVID remote stance, here are some questions that are worth asking.
First, how will you make sure remote employees aren't second-class citizens? The inequities will surface in subtle but pervasive ways — remote employees may feel harder to interject during meetings, only onsite employees may hold the marker if you use a physical whiteboard, and onsite employees may have better access to onsite leadership. This is a tricky problem that requires commitment from onsite and remote employees to address.
Second, what is the role of the office? The office will continue to host day-to-day work for onsite employees. But as a company hires more remote employees, the office will also take on the role of a home base for remote teams to hold off-sites like for FullStory. And as the company further leans into remote, the office may become purely a place for in-person collaboration and team-building, like for Dropbox. Consequently, you may need less office space.
Third, how are you reallocating your budget based on cost-savings from shifting to remote work? Immediate savings will be from reduced office rent, which is estimated to be $1,100-1,400 per employee per month in large cities. In addition, adopting location-based compensation could result in up to 15% compensation adjustment for US companies if an employee moves out of SF or NYC. Companies should partially re-allocate cost-savings into home office or co-working subsidies, travel budgets for team get-togethers, and best-in-class collaboration software.
Fourth, should you re-think communication protocols? A unanimous refrain among seasoned remote forward companies is the importance of written asynchronous communication. Remote first Grafana Labs anticipates "you will need to persist and distribute more data than you can imagine". And as for synchronous meetings, meeting etiquettes need to be reexamined. For example, GitLab encourages everyone to use their own camera even if a subset of meeting attendees are sitting in the same room to provide equal footing for everyone.
As companies start charting their paths back to the office, management teams that have not figured out a formal go-forward stance on remote work should do so now. Just like the exit from the office happened swiftly across the board, so will the return back to the office. But this time the transition need not be so chaotic and disorderly. Your employees and candidates will rightly be asking to clarify your remote work stance. Where does your company stand on the remote spectrum? The only wrong answer is to not have an answer.
Follow me on Twitter @_shinkim as I continue exploring these trends.
Thanks to Yin Wu and Chris Cheng for reviewing drafts of this article.
 Assuming 200 sqft per employee. Average lease rate was $5.4/sqft/month in SF and $7.1/sqft/month in NYC as of November 2020 per Yardi CommercialEdge Office National Report.