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I’m the president of Articulate, a highly profitable SaaS company that’s been fully remote since its founding in 2002, has more than 250 employees, and will reach $100 million in recurring revenue this year. So when I heard that Twitter is breaking new ground by letting its employees work remotely, as this article by Margaret O’Mara in The New York Times suggests, I felt the need to set the record straight.
For more than 18 years, our team has proven that building a happy, healthy, connected remote workforce is not only possible — it’s not even that hard. It just takes intentionality.
And we aren’t the only long-time fully remote company around; there are a number of us, including Automattic, Buffer, Edgar, GitLab, InVision, and Zapier.
O’Mara’s article quotes Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, pondering how companies will address connection, teamwork, burnout, and overall employee mental health in remote environments. The assumption is that these are inherent challenges with remote work. They aren’t. They are human challenges, and remote work actually gives workers a leg up on addressing them.
They gain back, on average, 225 hours a year by not commuting. That’s a lot of time people can spend instead doing activities that enrich their lives and improve their mental health, such as meditating, exercising, or spending time with family and friends. They’re also avoiding one of the least pleasant, most stress-inducing things we do: commuting. The average person spends 54 minutes a day fighting traffic to get to the office.
Furthermore, remote workers have control over their work environment, deciding how warm, how light, how quiet, how neat, and how beautiful they want it. If you’ve ever shared cubicle space with a messy coworker or an open office with a loud talker, it won’t surprise you that research shows that typical work environments negatively impact well-being.
And about burnout. It has nothing to do with the office and everything to do with company culture and management practices. Leaders at any company, remote or not, must insist that employees take the time they need to recharge. And they must have paid vacation policies (we offer unlimited vacation) that make that possible.
Now let’s talk about fostering connection, teamwork, and community in a fully remote environment. News flash: Forced proximity in an office does not translate into connection. People don’t have to play ping-pong, stroll in a greenhouse, or lounge in a huddle room to feel connected to their coworkers — or feel a common purpose.
What people do need to connect is focused time collaborating, communicating, and sharing their personal narratives. The first step is setting the expectation that people must regularly collaborate and constantly communicate with one another. Those are non-negotiable table stakes for all our employees.
The second step is setting up channels and workflows for that collaboration and communication to happen. Before Slack, we connected using Skype, baking regular calls and instant messages into our workflows. Now, we collaborate on video calls where we share our screens, break out into separate “rooms,” and talk face-to-virtual-face. And we communicate continuously in channels on Slack (think of these as virtual hallways). In the last 30 days alone, we’ve sent each other more than 245,000 messages.
Finally, people need ways to connect around shared interests, experiences, and wins. Our Articulate and Rise teams have 523 public channels in Slack. If you’re interested in something –from music and animals to cooking and astrology — there’s probably a channel where people are talking about it. We have employee resource groups where people with shared experiences connect and support each other. We regularly celebrate new hires, promotions, and sales wins in company-wide Slack channels. And we do regular brown bags, company-wide town hall meetings, and parties via Zoom.
While much of our community building happens virtually, we also have an annual company-wide retreat where the only goal is person-to-person connection in real life. In non-COVID-19 times, people also go to conferences together, staff industry booths together, and organize cowork weeks to connect in person. We create space for authentic connection, and most folks show up as their whole selves. So, when we see each other, it’s always a special treat, but only because we’ve already built so much connection virtually.
If you’re a human-centered organization concerned with the well-being of employees, building a fully remote workplace with happy, healthy employees is nbd.
Lucy Suros is president of e-learning software company Articulate.
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