Engaging remote employees: 10 companies leading the way

Remote working is becoming increasingly prevalent and it’s no surprise its popularity is growing. For employees, it’s a mode of working that clearly has a lot to offer – in fact, 70% of millennials have considered leaving a job for another boasting flexible work options.

But businesses are also cottoning on to the fact that there are significant advantages for them too. From lower overheads to access to a much wider talent pool, there are many reasons why an increasing numbers of companies are taking a careful look at what remote working can do for them as well as their employees.  

The reality, however, is that this way of working can present challenges too: teams working in more than one place, the lack of face-to-face contact and a potentially reduced level of interaction with management could all hamper instilling a company culture and values, and overall engagement. Here are 10 companies that have succeeded at making remote working a core part of their workforce strategy whilst maintaining, and in some cases increasing, employee engagement.

1. Automattic

Automattic is the company behind such well-known names as WordPress and with 800 staff in 67 countries, they certainly know the meaning of the word remote… although they don’t actually choose to use it.

Instead, they prefer ‘distributed’ as it avoids the implication that there’s a central hub of more important staff. In fact, some employees are so distributed, they have no official base at all, home or otherwise. They’re digital nomads – as long as they can find good WiFi, the company doesn’t mind where they work. The key says CEO Matt Mullenweg is to approach setting up a distributed workforce consciously. He believes talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world – but opportunity is not. Automattic didn’t want to only fish from the small pond the Silicon Valley companies were in; why do that, asks Matt, when you could fish from the entire ocean?

At the heart of working this way is the desire to give people autonomy over how they work: they can have the corner office they want, with the music playing that they love, with the room at the ideal temperature that suits them… all while putting the time that would have been wasted on commuting into things that are more important to them.

But what if you haven’t set up the company to be distributed – how can you still make remote working work for you? Automattic’s tips include documenting everything so everyone has access to the decision-making process and a trail to explain what others are thinking about. Do as much communication online as possible so it’s accessible to all and everyone can catch up quickly. Create productive face-to-face time: Automattic chooses to have a grand meet-up once a year, half work, half play, with the basic goal of connecting people, increasing understanding and empathy and ensuring they’re aligned. And help people create their ideal work environment by giving them the right tools and even money to assist them. Automattic provides a stipend employees can choose to use to create a workspace that works for them. It can be spent on all sorts – even on coffee if they’re working from a coffee shop so they don’t get kicked out!

2. Monzo

Founded in 2015, Monzo is a relatively new digital challenger bank based in London and it has really embraced the remote working concept (although they also tend to call it ‘distributed’).

The company is happy for employees to work from home from time to time including every other Friday. One of the ways they keep employees up to speed is by recording their all-hands meetings to let remote employees stream them or catch up on them later. And given the positive comments on Glassdoor, it looks like this is an approach that’s really resonating with employees who, amongst other things, value the fact they’re helped out with financing equipment to set up their own home office.

Every fortnight, the whole company works from home – and around 37% of the company work from home the entire time.  The face to face stuff matters to them though, with regular monthly socials taking place with other staff members to keep everyone engaged.

3. Buffer

Social media app company Buffer has a remote team of over 80 employees spread across more than 50 cities on five continents. It’s an organization that’s built upon transparency (including salary information). The democratization of power is a major part of its ethos, and that focus on transparency has become a significant element in the way remote working operates. Everyone has access to the information they need and the thought processes behind decisions; it’s viewed as an important way to build trust and has been key to making remote working successful for the company.

Buffer recognizes the need to find ways to build connections amongst its distributed workforce. So it has specifically organised activities designed to capture the spirit of things that would otherwise be missed out on like those spontaneous ‘water cooler’ moments. Every Friday the company has ‘Impromptu Hour’ dedicated purely to having social chat on Zoom to help employees form and maintain relationships with each other. It’s very supportive of employees getting the balance right, putting a great deal of emphasis on wellbeing initiatives including things like providing online access to therapists.

A steady pacing of the growth of both the remote working infrastructure and company as a whole has worked for Buffer. As for how large the company could grow in the future, who knows? As CEO Joel Gascoigne says, he doesn’t think there’s an upper limit to how large companies can go with remote working – it’s the future and technology will continue to offer more possibilities to make it more achievable for other companies.

4. Basecamp

Basecamp has its headquarters in Chicago but currently has around 50 employees spread across 32 different cities around the world. After all, as it says, why would you want to restrict yourself geographically when it comes to finding the best employees?

You could say they are advocates of remote working – in fact, they’re such advocates, they literally wrote a book about it! In it, they share their experiences as a company with the whole remote working set up. There are a lot of great examples in there about how remote working has delivered not just for employees but for the company overall – for example, working from home has actually boosted the quality of work people are doing.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges they face with managing remote employees is that they work too hard and they need to be reminded to strike a balance. There’s also an awareness of the damage that isolation and cabin fever can do too, so the company nudges its employees to make a point of finding what works for them – like getting out into the real world and interacting with neighbors and family.

5. Atlassian

Australian enterprise software company Atlassian carried out a survey of its 600 employees and one of the big takeaways was the fact that 95% of them wanted to change the way the company worked to enable more remote working. So that’s what it did.

The company really did its homework before going ahead with remote working. It carried out assessments of ‘remote-readiness’ based on an individual’s personality, their role and their team. It also scrutinized the successes and failures of other companies with remote employees.

As a result, this year Atlassian launched its remote worker program, aiming to address the desire of employees to work from home (and other remote bases) more often. It wasn’t only done for the benefit of employees; the company also wanted to increase the available talent pool, particularly software engineers. And it worked resulting in an impressive 25% increase in interest expressed in their available positions.  

It’s early days. The company is happy to admit it has taken a cautious ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach with it all – taking each step with careful consideration to mitigate the risks and maximize the benefits.

6. Github

Microsoft’s Software development subsidiary Github is well known for hiring remote employees. Over 40% of its employees work in the US outside its San Francisco headquarters. And another 20% are based internationally. 

Github views the opportunity created by this kind of working as one that improves the organization as a whole. It believes that by constructing the remote workforce with thought and consideration and encouraging them to have their own culture within the larger Github culture, they’ve created benefits for the whole company. Some of its core working beliefs center around developing empathy and building trust, creating symbiosis by helping people to do what they’re good at and making the processes easier by writing them all down. Perhaps most importantly of all is the need to ensure remote teams are successful by finding ways to build those vital interpersonal connections remotely. The company helps remote employees feel engaged by holding an annual summit plus facilitating opportunities for face to face get-togethers throughout the year too.

It’s a company that recognizes the value of accessing talent without boundaries, using remote working to find talent across countries and states. And as this employee interview explains, this kind of working is a brilliant way to create a diverse culture, ensuring a vast range of perspectives.

7. Zapier

American company Zapier has 200 employees and they all work remotely – there are no office buildings (although a handful of employees might set up their own co-working arrangements if they choose to). The company believes there’s no need to physically be with people to know they’re getting the work done. That’s apparent in the output and from their results, not from simply sitting right in front of them.

Transparency of communication and excellent documentation really stand out as factors for ensuring remote working is successful. That doesn’t mean they don’t value the importance of face to face time though. To keep remote employees engaged, there’s a substantial focus on helping employees connect with one another and build relationships. For example, they use Slack app Donut to randomly connect up three employees to have social chats about, basically, anything! With retention rates that are around 95%, it certainly looks like it’s an approach that’s working for the employees. Interested in hearing more from CEO Wade Foster? Then listen to his hour-long podcast which you can access here.

8. Gitlab

Open-source software development tool company Gitlab has just one employee working in the head office and that’s the CEO!

The company does offer to pay for people to access office space, but most of its other 159 people, who are spread out over 37 countries, generally opt to work from home. It evolved organically and it means there isn’t that sense of missing out on what’s going on in the office – as nobody is. Isolation isn’t an issue with the company consciously scheduling time for non-work Zoom meetings and social chat.

Read more: Nine ways to support mental wellbeing in the workplace

There’s a big focus on ‘The Handbook’. It’s a huge part of what they do, from getting the onboarding right to outlining all the processes they have. The philosophy is to write it down once then it’s there for everyone joining the company to refer to – it’s the most efficient way to capture information covering the big issues all the way down to the minutest details. Keeping everything well documented makes sure the information flow works. The handbook’s openly available for the world to see and even add in their own comments.

Gitlab hadn’t particularly set out to run this way. As CEO Sid Sijbrandij says, ‘We care about results. We don’t care about where you choose to work …if people are results orientated, they’re motivated to do their best work.’.

9. Magellan Health

With a focus on offering a healthy ‘work-life flow,’ it’s not surprising that Magellan Health is a keen advocate of the benefits of letting employees work from home, something that over half its staff choose to do.

The company recognizes the stress that can be created by a daily commute and instead favors a way of working that lets employees put 100% of their energy and attention into work instead. They’re keen that employees don’t miss out on the moments that matter in their personal lives, and having a calmer working space where they aren’t dealing with constant interruptions helps achieve that.

This is as much about how it benefits the business as it is about how it benefits the employees. A common theme you’ll have noticed in this article is the desire to grow the talent pool to find the right person. For Magellan Health, it’s the cornerstone of their whole philosophy and it all comes from this simple question: ‘Would you rather have the right person working remotely or the almost right person sitting down the hall from you?’

It all adds up to better productivity and happier customers and employees – which all means greater overall success. As the company says, with a little give and take and some great technology, everything flows.

10. PartnerCentric

Performance marketing agency PartnerCentric grew up around a business model that has remote working at its heart. It explicitly identifies three pillars that support remote working: culture, transparency and improvement.

The culture has evolved around the company’s values of professional intimacy, improvement, expertise and responsibility – with a large dose of fun in there too. The sense of team is helped by a process that rewards at the team level, encouraging everyone to cheer on everyone else’s efforts. Hard work is expected – but transparency makes sure that people feel comfortable communicating about what they’re doing and asking for support when it’s needed. And improvement comes in various forms but notably the “Deep Work” time every Friday from 10am to noon. This is time for personal development and continuing education – and it’s followed up by everyone sharing valuable learning nuggets with the rest of the team afterwards.

PartnerCentric makes sure it takes care of its employees with a menu of financial and wellbeing benefits in place – and if employees are saying things like “They have 100% figured out how to be successful as a fully remote workforce” and its rating on Glassdoor is 4.9 then you know you’re looking at a company who has remote working pretty much sussed out…