Remote-first companies are like greenhouses

At Aula, we ditched our offices entirely to become remote-first in 2019. You know, before it was trendy.

Since then, every job interview at Aula ends with the candidate asking: ‘How are remote-first companies different from office-based companies?’

Remote-first companies are like greenhouses; office-based companies are like wild gardens.

In a greenhouse, nothing grows on its own. There is no default level of rain. No seeds come with the wind. It’s a clean slate. You have to design everything deliberately.

Yet greenhouses enable environments can be much more fertile than wild gardens. You can design everything, tweaking it as you learn.

Similarly, in a remote-first company. As we’ve all experienced the last year, nothing happens on its own when you are not in an office: big news doesn’t travel smoothly via the watercooler. Half-baked ideas don’t emerge over lunch. Relationships don’t start during Friday Drinks.

Yet, being remote-first lets you design more fertile environments from scratch. You can hire people from around the world, foster communities without alcohol-fuelled events, and design how information flows through your organisation. You get to build the organisation you want.

I won’t share a full overview of the pros and cons of remote-first, but give you a gist of how it differs.

When a storm hits a greenhouse

8 months into our journey of being remote-first we let go of 30 % of our team. We had missed our targets for the first time. It felt like a do-or-die moment for the company. This episode showed both the ups and downs of remote-first.

As I pressed ‘Leave meeting’ from the last lay-off conversation, my heart started racing: What kind of reaction would we get from the team that still remained? I pictured Emotional Sahara: a large zoom call with people turning their video cameras off, not responding. Silence. I was sweating through my shirt.

We couldn’t rely on people digesting the news in the comfort of their few closest friends at work. We couldn’t rely on the body language of the team to notice who needed a hug. We couldn’t even give a hug. There was no easy way to gauge when our team was ready to look ahead.

The clean slate prompted the question: What kind of environment do we want to create for the company to get through this tough moment?

We brought the whole company on a zoom call and shared the news of the layoffs, the rationale, our mistakes along the way.

Body language couldn’t tell us much about how our team felt. Many had even turned their cameras off. Instead, we immediately divided the team into small groups to name how they felt using an exercise called ‘red, yellow, green’, to share how they felt. Most were red.

The watercooler wasn’t there to provide an informal place to discuss what the layoffs meant for different parts of the company. Instead, we invited them to ask the scary questions in a live, anonymous Ask Me Anything session. We didn’t have good answers to most questions, but the forum instantly connected us.

Our leaders couldn’t huddle their teams for a pep talk to look ahead when they sensed the team felt ready. Instead, we brought the whole team together in a zoom call for a shared journaling session on a virtual whiteboard. We provided a place to reflect individually on the question: ‘In 6 months, how would I like to look back on the role I played in getting Aula back on our feet?’.

I’m very proud of how our organisation healed. The clean slate prompted us to think more carefully about the environment we wanted to create.

Weeding out exclusive behaviours

Greenhouses keep out weeds that make it difficult for other plants thrive. Similarly, remote-first makes it easier to weed out exclusive behaviours.

Let me introduce you to three particularly invasive weeds: Friday Night Drinks, The Loudest Voice in the Room and Long Chunks of Time Away from Home. They creep into most office-based companies and make it hard to create inclusive organisations.

Friday Night Drinks introduce alcohol to the workplace. If we designed an organisation from scratch, no one would introduce alcohol as the answer to “How do we built trust, respect and care between all our team members?” Remote-first doesn't solve socials: it’s harder to create connection. But no one has to tell their drunk boss to stop flirting.

Loudest Voices in the Room describe how decisions are often made by the loudest voice in the room rather than on who has the best arguments. It’s usually the same people who speak the loudest. Remote-first companies don’t get rid of power dynamics. But in remote-first companies more communication happens in writing. Writing lets everyone give input - at the same volume.

Long Chunks of Time Away from Home makes it hard to have caring responsibilities. Remote-first doesn’t make raising a child easy. But an Aula team member got to see their child’s first steps in a lunch break. Talk about employee benefits.

It’s not all rosy

At Aula, our biggest struggles with being remote-first are Loss of Serendipity and Getting Out of Sync.

Wild gardens are based on Serendipity. The wind carries seeds. Bees cross-pollinate. Plants and animals help each other out. In office-based companies, new ideas emerge and travel across teams over lunch.

By contrast: In a remote-first company, you mostly talk to your colleagues when someone proactively starts a conversation. There are fewer unplanned, free-floating conversations. As a result, there is naturally more execution than brainstorming. Loss of Serendipity. The scariest part: no one talks about the ideas we haven’t had since we went remote-first.

Wild gardens don’t need gardening; the ecosystem self-regulates. In a greenhouse, your plants wither if you don’t water them regularly. Similarly, in a remote-first company you Get Out of Sync if you don’t actively garden relationships and information flows. Interpersonal challenges need to be dealt with more explicitly; you can’t make peace with a smile in the hallway. Teams lose touch; you don’t hear what others are working on over lunch.

More gardening is required.

In summary

Greenhouses enable competent, resourceful gardeners to create gardens that would otherwise be impossible.

Similarly, remote-first enables more effective, more inclusive and more intentional organisations.

It’s not always easy, but it’s the garden we want to grow. And it’s where I want to work.