What it Means to be a Remote-First Company

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At Stack Overflow, we often talk about why we believe in remote work, and we’ve been extremely successful with our results. In fact, our 2016 company-wide survey revealed that 88% of remote workers felt high overall engagement with the company (as compared to an overall response of 85% among the whole company, with the average being 71% among employees at other companies in our industry). Remote workers also rated “work life blend” and “social connection” more highly than employees as a whole.

So how do we do remote work right? It takes much more than the half-hearted “you’re allowed to work from home” policy you see at companies nowadays. Similar to how a software company might take a mobile-first strategy with its products, we embraced a remote-first strategy with our company culture.

Remote-first means working remote is the default. It means making sure your remote employees are as much a part of the team as those in the office.

Is this something that appeals to you and your team? If so, we’ve pulled together a few of our best practices your company should consider if it wants to be a remote-first company.


With more than 300 employees spread across our NYC headquarters (113 people), Denver (44) and London (64) offices, and 85 remote workers, we designed our meeting best practices carefully.

Remote-first for us means that when we have a meeting with anyone outside our physical location, it’s “face-to-face” on Google Hangouts. If you’re at a desk in the office, that’s where you take your meetings, and if your desk is at home, you do it there. We get so used to this practice that sometimes people within the same office will jump in a Hangout. On a recent visit to the New York office, I was amused to see two of my coworkers sitting at cubicles across from each other… having a conversation via video chat.

It seems ridiculous at first, but there’s a reason for it. If we’re all taking meetings via Hangouts, we’re all on equal footing. If I’d needed to join that two-person conversation from across the country, I could have, with no issue. In larger meetings, it means no side conversations are happening at the table that the remotes don’t get to be part of. When I’m in a meeting at home, I don’t always know who’s in an office and who’s not. Everybody’s at a desk with a headset “remoting” in to Google Hangouts.

Remote-first means when somebody wants to present something, they’re not going to stand up at a whiteboard and write while the remotes squint at their screens trying to see it. We present electronically. It means when somebody refers to a document, they’re not pulling it out of a file folder and passing it around the table, leaving the remotes out of the loop. They send a link to the whole group.

These seem like small things. But they’re not. When you treat the coworker two desks down the same, for the most part, as you do your coworker in Illinois, everyone has a great feeling of belonging and engagement. That leads to greater happiness and productivity for everyone.

Chat, Trello, & Google Docs

When I’m at work, I have a number of chat apps running at all times. Slack, Hangouts, and our own internal chat are all in the background, and I can hop in anytime and skim (which is very helpful when you’re in different timezones), or I can ping a coworker to start a Hangout or just ask a quick question. Persistent chat is also asynchronous enough that I can ignore a ping for a few minutes to finish my thought before I shift my focus (unlike a ringing phone or a knock on your office door).

We also use Trello extensively for all kinds of projects and communication. It helps us keep track of who’s working on what when. And most of my writing is done in Google docs, so I can easily share with others for instant feedback and collaboration.

Home Office

One of the first things our CEO Joel implemented when he began hiring remote workers was providing them with a home office that included all the equipment and furniture in-office employees enjoy. I’m sitting at home right now in a Herman Miller Aeron chair, at a Steelcase adjustable-height desk, on my MacBook Air with external monitor. All provided by my company.

The company also reimburses me a set amount each month for “home office expenses” such as high-speed internet.

Remote Bev Bash

Every week, remote workers at Stack Overflow meet up via Hangout just to chat and catch up. This grew out of our New York office’s “Bev Bash” tradition, which is basically a happy hour. Since we couldn’t get to a happy hour at an office, we started our own. Everybody brings a beverage of choice, and somebody is usually chosen to be the host (aka the Bev Bash Baron) and given the task of coming up with a topic of conversation. It’s completely informal, and naturally spins out into whatever random direction our chat takes us.

Regular chances to socialize as a remote worker give us the same kind of personal context officemates have by default. It allows us the chance to go beyond coworking and become friends.

Tis the Season

This was my first holiday season at Stack, but I was surprised by a box in the mail one day containing a holiday gift, the same thing everybody in the offices got. And do you assume remotes miss out on office parties? We were given a small stipend to have our own miniature holiday parties—a lot of us used it to take our significant other out for dinner. Little things like this remind us that we’re really part of the team, and not just afterthoughts.

The Bottom Line

At Stack Overflow, most of us remotes don't feel like remote workers. I personally feel like somebody who’s incredibly lucky to work from home doing what I love, with people I love to work with, and I know all my coworkers feel the same. We’re proof that remote teams can be every bit as close-knit and cooperative as those who spend 40 hours a week in close quarters together. We’re also every bit as productive, maybe even more so, since if I need an hour of quiet all I have to do is turn off my notifications and nobody’s going to barge into my office to ask me anything.

The company as a whole works hard to ensure that every last teammate feels included and valued, no matter where their desk is located.

Does your company do remote first? What’s it like? Let us know in the comments.

Want a remote job? Get one on Stack Overflow Jobs here.

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