As hard as making the shift to remote work was during the pandemic, remote is here to stay. But making remote-first a reality isn’t as easy as it sounds.
While some companies didn’t miss a beat, others believe the increase in productivity was fear-induced and cannot be sustained.
Do the pros of working remotely outweigh the possible cons? Is remote better? And why do some companies fail?
Prezly – PR software that helps companies connect their content with their contacts and stakeholders – has spent a while figuring it out. Prezly has been remote since the beginning, with employees from 13 different countries.
Here to discuss his perspective on remote work, culture building remotely, why face time is still essential, and advice for other companies planning to go remote, is Jesse Wynants, CEO and Co-Founder of Prezly, who had a chat with Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence.
Going remote: A practical decision to end stressful commutes
From its inception, Prezly decided to go remote.
“It was a pretty pragmatic decision. We simply couldn’t find people in the city that had an office. And, we couldn’t find people to commute to the city because it was an hour. Even if you lived on the other side of the country, or just maybe 50 kilometers away, it was a hassle to get there,” shares Wynants.
This was at a time when remote work was being bashed online. Few companies were remote, and Yahoo had even banned working from home.
But when faced with commuter hell, Wynants said:
“Well, let’s just widen our range, and let’s start hiring remotely.”
Prezly made its first remote hire from Ukraine, who’s still at the company.
Hiring exclusively outside Belgium: A new filter for the talent pool
After the first successful remote hire, Prezly decided not to look for talent in Belgium anymore.
“It was more of a negative or a downside that they were in Belgium then it was an upside,” shares Wynants.
When you’ve got companies like Apple insisting that employees work out of their offices at least three days a week, this might seem like a strange move by Prezly.
Wynants explains the reason. We said, “Let the banks of Belgium and the big corporations fish in that pond of Belgium. Talent trumps everything, so that was the initial reason why we started doing that.”
Leading a distributed workforce: The highs, the lows, and everything in between
Going remote for companies means low overhead costs, increased productivity, and revenue growth.
Employees sign up for remote work to experience freedom and flexibility, financial stability, and location independence.
Wynants also adds, “Sometimes [remote] is better.”
But getting here isn’t a cakewalk.
Get things right, early on: Document everything + Tech stack
Wynants explains, “You need to get your shit together earlier in the company, even if you’re small. You need to make sure stuff is documented. You need to make sure that people are involved. You need to have processes in place, regular catch-ups, all hands, stand-ups. You need to get them under control really quickly because otherwise there is zero communication.”
When you examine why remote work fails at some companies, a lack of solid infrastructure is one reason that emerges.
Prezly has a great project management tool to ensure communication and an internal blog so information flows both ways.
Other tools used include Slack, Linear, Figma, Prezly, Zoom, Github, Productboard to create a virtual office.
“Prezly also invites feedback from the team, and that’s been a benefit because it prepares you to scale later,” shares Wynants.
The introvert vs. extrovert debate
A recent BBC Worklife article stated that introverts are more likely to thrive in remote settings while extroverts prefer in-office or hybrid.
Neuroscience studies back this up. Extroverts are less sensitive to dopamine and require constant interaction, while introverts are more sensitive and over-stimulation tires them.
Is that true at Prezly? Do only introverted people want to work remotely?
Well, it depends.
“I’m not sure if it works like that because if you’re an introvert that wants to become extroverted, you might prefer to work in-office. It is also dependent on the role you’re hiring for. We’ve had highly extroverted people who have always been remote. And, we have highly introverted people who have always been in the office, and it’s their first remote role,” explains Wynants.
But one thing is clear. People that want to work at Prezly are looking for remote roles and aren’t considering in-office roles.
Remote is the new perk
Employees would rather quit than return to office. A Bloomberg survey of 1,000 workers found that 39% of workers would quit their role if their employer didn’t allow remote work.
And with the Great Resignation in full swing, some employers are finally listening.
Hiring has gotten a lot more competitive since lots of companies are going remote. What used to be an advantage for Prezly is now a perk that most companies offer.
“We used to be one of the few companies that offered these fully remote roles, and good pay, and benefits. There weren’t that many before COVID hit, and now, almost all are doing it. That’s a little bit of a challenge that came with that, but at the same time, we do feel that we’ve got some experience under our belt on how to build cultures remotely, and how to deal with that. There’s still a little bit of an advantage for us,” explains Wynants.
Culture-building remotely can feel constructed
Water-cooler moments, lunch with your colleague, or a team outing aren’t always possible when working remotely. Teams can use a tool like Airspeed to recreate these moments virtually.
Some things Wynants personally misses the most.
“The drawback for me as an extroverted person is that you can’t go out for lunch together. In Belgium and other European countries, especially in summer, you go out, have something nice to eat, and then you go back [to work]. And during those informal conversations, actual things are decided.”
These organic moments when you’re building and sharing culture have many benefits on the work floor.
When employees have the space to blow off some steam, bounce off ideas and connect with colleagues, it leads to innovation, collaboration, and cross-team networking.
In remote settings, these don’t happen spontaneously and can feel constructed before they start to feel routine.
At Prezly, an open Slack channel called Water Cooler is connected to an always-open Zoom. When someone joins, others can see that and join in too.
Culture starts at the top and it’s a continuous exercise
Culture always starts at the top and trickles down.
Wynants agrees, “You cannot change the people in the founder team and their personalities. It’s always seeding through in the culture.”
Prezly’s culture started with a handbook with roughly thought out company values. But culture building is a continuous exercise.
“We’ve made tons of mistakes there,” shares Wynants. For example, a team member once asked, “How the hell does this thing in the project management tool apply to these company values?” and Prezly realized that it didn’t.
Companies need to rephrase certain things in their handbook and constantly ask themselves if their values are things they still stand behind or if it needs changing.
Thinking of culture like lego blocks helps.
“I think the big building blocks pretty much still stand, and probably will remain, but it needs to evolve in how you apply them. That’s where we started, and that’s also where we constantly make tweaks to sentences in how the value is described, or how we can improve, or bring better examples in how to live by that value,” explains Wynants.
Remote Onboarding: Values in action
Remote onboarding is equal parts art and science. You need a sound onboarding plan backed by a robust tech stack and demonstrate your values in action.
Prezly’s onboarding has that covered. Wynants shares his perspective with new hires and takes them through onboarding.
There’s also a mentor-like program where employees take new hires through onboarding in a practical way.
New hires are invited to an internal forum where they can see the company values in action.
“We have some interesting threads where we talk about diversity, and how we have different discussions about that, and we link to them. The thread can be two years old, but it’s still a very good application of how we apply a certain value,” shares Wynants.
Reading a company’s values is one thing but seeing them in action is when it starts to click for most.
Most employees look for a person-organization fit – a company that echoes their personal values. Onboarding is a crucial time because it assures new hires they’ve made the right choice.
Meeting 1x a year to improve employee retention
A study of over 2,000 employees and managers by Virgin Pulse and Workplace Trends revealed a troubling statistic. ⅔ of remote workers are disengaged, and ⅓ never get any facetime.
Disengagement leads to poor retention rates. Something Prezly knows all too well.
“We’ve had a set of people who weren’t able to join [our annual retreat]. There is a bigger chance that they’re not going to end the year with us. That’s been something that we’ve been noticing, so we work really hard to get them there,” explains Wynants.
Wynants promotes annual events and gatherings because there’s a clear correlation between face time and retention.
“You get to connect on a deeper level on the retreat,” says Wynants.
Other remote-first companies like Buffer and Zapier do the same. They hold company retreats at least once a year and have witnessed similar benefits.
Fun activities, dinners, games, and a few team-building sessions let people across teams connect and have fun together.
The energy that people leave the retreats with has them buzzing for days. “That kind of energy pushes them forward in their job, and new connections exist between different teams that weren’t there. There automatically will be conversations going on that will benefit Prezly in the end,” explains Wynants.
These retreats have another benefit – making those dreaded Zoom calls better thanks to newfound camaraderie.
Prezly has an all-company retreat once a year and flies in the team twice a year. Before the pandemic, the team met up 2-3 times a year.
And these aren’t always employer-led initiatives. Employees often drive these meet-ups.
But what about companies that never meet up?
Wynants doesn’t believe that for a company to create collective memories meeting in-person is necessary but it is better.
“In-person just allows you to really focus on [the moment] or creating [moments] in a more natural way than you can do remotely. We do fun things remotely as well and create memorable experiences.
But, there is something different about being in the same place for four days in a row and spending a lot of time together that’s, for me, irreplaceable by something virtual.”
Holding remote workers accountable and aligning them with the company’s goals
A common myth about remote workers is that they’re unproductive and out of sync with the company’s mission and goals.
One way Prezly gets employees excited about the long-term vision is, of course, the retreats. But there’s a whole system at work too.
Celebrating wins and owning up to mistakes on the internal blog
Apart from facilitating information flow, Prezly’s internal blog serves to improve transparency.
“We are very transparent in where we’re going, what the revenue is, what went well, what went bad, the mistakes we made. I think that’s something that’s in every modern leadership book, as well.”
Wynants is right. Transparency is a top priority for companies trying to gain trust and establish psychological safety.
When companies own their mistakes, it encourages employees to feel safe at work and share risky ideas.
“I think you really need to be open in saying, “Listen, we messed up here. We messed up there.” I basically say this, probably, once a quarter, once a month. I don’t mind saying I’m still figuring these things out. Just help me. Just give feedback. Be open. Be honest,” shares Wynants.
Creating a culture where feedback is appreciated
Prezly pushes people to give written feedback to each other.
Not surprising since feedback is critical for growth. Being able to give and receive feedback is what helps teams avoid repeating the same mistakes and optimize processes.
“We’re a small company, so there’s not a lot of hierarchy in any role. You can’t become a VP. We don’t have titles, so the only way that we can push people to become better is that we are expecting a lot from each other,” shares Wynants.
Feedback culture encourages learning
Apply the growth mindset to feedback, and you put yourself in a constant state of learning.
“Where we say, “Listen, this was great, but I think we can do X, Y, Z to do it even better.” Then, you’re growing, because you say, “Okay. He’s actually right. I could actually do that better,” shares Wynants.
Creating a culture of recognition and openness
New hires are encouraged to share positive messages for the person that helped them with onboarding.
“That makes someone’s day, and I think that’s something powerful that people sometimes miss,” shares Wynants.
Wynants is right. A lack of recognition is among the top reasons employees quit or feel disengaged at work.
“If you’re happy with someone, share it. If you’re not happy with someone, you need to share it. Basically, we tell you it’s your obligation because otherwise, you’re not working at the company. You’re just doing your own thing, if you hold back,” explains Wynants.
Pro Tip from Wynants: Encouraging introverts to share feedback can take a lot of work, but if you give them anonymous tools and examples of how to do it, you’ll be able to push them out of their comfort zone.
Work-life balance: A constant balancing act
Companies that hadn’t figured out remote work before the pandemic ended up setting unrealistic expectations inevitably letting work bleed into personal life.
So does being remote from the start give you an advantage?
When Prezly was formed, both founders had young children, and the company was bootstrapped with no VC funding to fall back on.
It was vital for the founders to develop a plan to avoid burning out.
“I’m not saying that this is easy. It’s actually hard, and during COVID when they were home, during the lockdown, it was really hard. But you need to be understanding of that, as well,” shares Wynants.
Just like Prezly’s culture trickles from the top, Wynants welcomed the occasional kid or pet on Zoom calls as an example to the team that this was okay.
But juggling parenthood and your job can get very messy and leave you feeling like you’re failing at both.
“As a company, you need to empathize and understand that this is the situation and give people some time off if you see that they’re struggling with that. And, be very conscious of these things happening.”
Is work-life balance possible at the top?
On average, an employee’s mental health is better than a CEO’s.
A CEO has to worry about way more, and when you mix parenting with managing a remote company during a pandemic, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Understandably, last year was the hardest year for leaders. So, reaching out, practicing empathy, and connecting is critical to maintaining work-life balance.
Advice: What should other companies trying remote work know?
For companies trying to increase their chance of successfully supporting remote work, Wynants has 3 strategies –
- Become a better writer
- Talk to the stakeholders
- Learn to communicate in different formats
BTW, if you’re interested in taking your PR team remote, check out Prezly’s PR Roundtable here.
Become a better writer
Writing makes you a better thinker. And going remote requires a lot of conscious thought.
Wynants suggests, “Write enough about it, even if you don’t publish the writing.”
Don’t attempt to approach remote work by examining how things were before or how other companies did it.
“Keep asking yourself the question, “Where did we go wrong? How could we communicate better?” implores Wynants.
Wynants recommends signing up for a writing course, and here’s why:
“If you’re good at writing, at bringing over ideas in a short way during these weekly updates, that really helps. If people like reading what you write, and the message that you bring, that does help. I think that’s just a very powerful tool, which is much more powerful.”
Talk to the stakeholders
While convincing someone by talking is easy for an extrovert like Wynants, writing can help you share more concise and less convoluted thoughts.
But before taking the plunge, make sure you talk to your co-founders, leadership team, investors, and employees.
Because sometimes, words can be misinterpreted and lead to non-constructive discussions. Wynants recommends jumping on a call is better than trying to Slack the team.
“It feels like those written communications don’t give all the signals that you need or the wrong signals,” explains Wynants.
The bottom line is you need to over-communicate.
Learn to communicate in different formats
There’s different etiquette at play depending on the medium you choose – Slack, email, text, or your internal blog.
Learning to communicate in different formats and revving up the writing engine is essential to making sure remote processes stick.
What is the future of remote or hybrid work?
“I think it’s only going to grow. We had to figure everything out ourselves, so it wasn’t that easy. Now, there are a lot more tools coming for remote people as well, and they’re doing really well.”
Take Zoom, for example. Prezly tried five other tools before landing on Zoom because the audio quality was paramount.
But look up video conferencing tools now and you’ll find a whole host of options. Setting up the right infrastructure to support remote work is only getting easier.
Even something like a home office budget that was uncommon is now a perk most companies offer.
At Prezly, the concept of office budgets started over two years ago. Borrowed from Zapier, the goal was to create a suitable environment for work.
Remote isn’t about cutting costs for most companies, and it’s the same for Prezly.
“For us, it has never been about cost-cutting. People need to have a good place to type. We don’t like seeing people with bad cameras, or when they’re working from a couch constantly,” explains Wynants.
For work to happen, you need to create the right environment for it.
“You need a good camera. You need a good microphone. You need a good internet connection. I do think it’s important to create that environment where you can relax and get some work done.”
With remote becoming the norm and most office spaces going away for good, we’re witnessing a disbursement of offices.
That’s why home offices have to be equipped with the right facilities and tech to make the future of work more collaborative and equal.
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