We’re three months shy of a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic, and it’s safe to say that remote work culture has become a necessity for a huge number of businesses. It was a challenge at the start, and new challenges keep appearing as everyone attempts to scale remote work up. At the same time, we’ve all been learning important lessons about how to work more effectively. In the spirit of sharing some of our learnings, we convened a virtual CFO roundtable comprising several companies in the Storm Ventures portfolio.
SignalWire, one of Storm Ventures’ latest investments, hosted the roundtable on their platform
Relocating for good
Relocation is the first question everyone wants to answer. Since there are no offices anymore, many employees are packing up and moving to new places to accommodate their new reality, citing family, cost of living, or other entirely valid personal reasons. A certain number of these cases are temporary, but a lot aren’t. As more and more companies close their offices permanently, we’re all starting to wonder: How do you move from an office-based culture to a remote, distributed one that still manages to support everyone, especially where location and compensation are concerned?
Location still matters
It’s true that remote work is the new reality. But it’s also true that there’s a lot that needs to happen to make remote work function, especially for CFOs, and it can get very complicated very quickly.
There aren’t a lot of early-stage businesses out there who are equipped to support employees in multiple US states, much less globally. That said, it’s easier to support people who want to go somewhere your company has already established itself. If you’ve got a satellite office in Pittsburgh or Chicago, that means you should’ve already worked out the tax and compliance issues involved, which saves you a lot of toil. If an employee wants to move somewhere else, however, you’ve got a whole new set of considerations to work through. Sure, you can pay a service provider to manage it for you, but those costs can be non-trivial; watch your budget. Interestingly, our roundtable also agreed that New York, in particular, puts up a lot of tax issues that are best summarized as “inconvenient.” Plenty of businesses out there make it happen, of course, but it highlights the fact that there are a whole host of details to suss out and questions to answer, which means you have real work to do.
Time zones was another hot button. While abandoning the daily commutes was easy to welcome, dealing with teams in disparate time zones is a new challenge for many. Is it reasonable to expect people to be working in the middle of the night because of a choice of location? Should others be expected to accommodate those choices? How flexible does the organization need to be: changing workflows and all the other ways to get work done? These are all challenging questions.
Cost of living varies from city to city, so many take the point of view that there ought to be adjustments to compensation based on location. Others also have the reasonable opinion that the same work ought to be rewarded with the same compensation, and location is a choice. Questions are easy, but answers are more challenging, especially as we’re forced to think about the answers at warp speed. Compensation policy is critical to communicate clearly, as this will factor heavily into employees’ decisions. It’s vital to be up front about compensation adjustments and policies when someone expresses the desire to move, especially if they’re going somewhere with a lower cost of living—and it needs to be clear to everyone at the company. It would be a mistake to make exceptions and ad hoc decisions.
Over the long term, it’s possible that the software industry may need to revisit compensation adjustments in a truly remote work culture. Market forces will always exist, and companies need to be competitive. For instance, an employee could accrue a unique set of skills and experience over time that make them highly sought-after. If there’s only a dozen people in the world who can do what they do, it doesn’t matter where they live: you may have to pay them a certain rate just to make sure they don’t jump ship. You might also find that it’s advantageous to reward loyalty: someone who’s been with the company a long time might see a smaller adjustment even after moving to a cheaper town. But then what do you do about hiring the same role in the same location for the same work?
Establishing your remote work culture
Shutting down your office should free up some money. Use it to help establish or reinforce company culture in the new world of remote work. In our experience at Storm, those companies with distributed teams generally invest almost as much money as they save in making the remote culture work. Give everyone a stipend to use improving their home office setup; it could be one lump sum or a smaller amount spread over a few months as new needs occur to them over time. Surprise treats can help morale; brainstorm a few fun things to send people. Before the pandemic, many companies got the entire team together once or twice a year at an industry conference, or sometimes sponsored “offsite” events in exotic locations, even with families. It makes sense that events like this will be important when we’re past the pandemic as well.
Problems and solutions
Some common patterns of remote work challenges have also emerged over the past six months. People who are fresh out of school and at the start of their career need more support as they enter the workforce; they’ve never done this before, much less entirely from home. In general, new hires need more help onboarding to a remote culture no matter their level of experience. We’ve discovered that more meetings in a wider variety of contexts can be very beneficial: schedule more frequent 1:1 check-ins during the first month or two, as well as some occasional informal meetings with the new hire’s team and other groups. These gatherings won’t fully replace the spontaneity of the office watercooler moment, but they go a surprisingly long way toward recapturing the spirit behind it.
Welcome to the new normal
Remote work is here to stay in the mainstream: while many of us will go back to offices, few of us will go back to work life as it was before the pandemic. It feels as though things have changed and we’re not going back. No one misses the two-hour commute time. No one misses being away from their school-age kids all week for a questionable business trip the boss said was important. What’s important is execution; many have found working remotely is possible, and in plenty of cases even more effective.
The first few months of the pandemic have been strangely productive. Email and Slack volume have gone up as people log in earlier and leave later. It makes sense: if your office is in your house and you can’t leave, where else are you going to go? It’s also dangerous: we see a lot of burnout on the horizon as the home and workplace continue to blend unhealthily. Encourage your employees to take breaks, enforce strong boundaries between work time and home time, and actually use their PTO.
Good luck establishing your permanent remote work culture; please feel free to share with us any best practices you’ve found helpful. It’s here to stay, I think—and we all just need to get comfortable with the new normal.
This post is based on a roundtable discussion between CFOs from AtScale, GuideSpark, Logikcull, SalesLoft, Sendoso, SignalWire, TalkDesk, Tekion, and Workato, hosted by Ryan Floyd, co-founding MD at Storm Ventures, and Chris Seidensticker, partner at Attivo Partners.