Where Are They Now? Remote-first Companies 1.5 Years After Making The Switch
Quora, Dropbox, Coinbase, and Upwork went remote-first during the pandemic. Like many other businesses, they were forced to implement a distributed work format to maintain their daily operations and keep themselves afloat.
Now, as many companies return to their physical offices, these four companies will remain permanently remote. Quora and Dropbox will convert their commercial office space into coworking spaces for employees. Others, like Upwork, have made remote work the default for all employees.
These trends continue to gain momentum throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
- Dropbox grew its revenue by 12% in the first quarter of 2021 to $511.6 million
- Quora is valued at 2 billion and the company has grown to 950 employees in 2021.
- Upwork now has a market cap of 6.1 billion
- Coinbase had the seventh largest U.S IPO in the history of the stock market.
Their success has proven that being remote-first is in no way a limitation and has let companies thrive in a post-pandemic world.
Let's take a look at the lessons these companies have learned after a year and a half of being remote-first and what it means for the future of remote work.
DropBox made an announcement back in October 2020 that they would be switching to remote work. Before this shift, almost all of their employees worked in a traditional office setting.
Wanting to start from an informed position, they commissioned a study that found workers were more focused and just as engaged from the home office. They also conducted an internal survey which got an overwhelming majority of their staff (nearly 90%) in favor of remote work.
This was enough to convince them to make the change. DropBox found itself favorable compared to many companies because its’ software was designed for remote communication and collaboration.
However, they still faced some growing pains as they made the change. Here’s what we learned from DropBox’s shift to remote-first.
DropBox is a great company to learn from because they conducted several internal and external studies on remote work. Here’s the most valuable information from their transition.
Company Culture Can Suffer in a Distributed Format
While DropBox was set up for success in terms of its software, it still underwent the typical turmoils of a remote switch. Their survey with the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that “company culture suffers with no in-person interaction, risk of miscommunication is higher, and it’s harder to start new projects with multiple collaborators.”
When making the switch to remote work, businesses need to be wary of these transitional complications. Fostering a solid and open line of communication and avoiding these possible mishaps must be a priority for remote-first companies.
Going Virtual First
DropBox felt that going to a fully remote or hybrid model had too many shortcomings. In both these plans, employees’ interests can be disregarded, or a duality can form in the employee performance, leading to inequities in career trajectory.
To do so, they built a strategy called “Virtual First,” where employees would work remotely by default but would have access to collaborative spaces called “DropBox Studios.” DropBox is in the process of converting office spaces with long-term leases and a high concentration of employees into these studios.
Their goal is for employees to have a physical place to meet when they want to work together collaboratively.
Eliminating Rigid Scheduling
Different time zones and lifestyles make it harder to coordinate schedules in a remote-first company. DropBox addressed this problem by creating a “non-linear schedule.” Instead of the traditional 9-5, they’ve set core collaboration hours that overlap well between timezones.
They’ve also encouraged remote employees and teams to develop schedules that work best for them.
The Virtual First Toolkit
Realizing their success among remote-first companies, DropBox has provided a roadmap for thriving in this format. They call it their “Virtual First Toolkit,” which has all the advice a remote company could need.
Their toolkit comes in four different varieties: Teamwork, Effectiveness, Communication, and Well-being. Inside the kits are various articles and group/individual exercises to better a remote work experience.
You’ll find advice on reducing unnecessary meetings, getting to know a remote worker or remote team member, rethinking unhelpful thoughts, and much more.
Predictions for the Future
Now that we’ve learned from DropBox’s accomplishments let’s look at their visions for the future.
Paving the Way with Remote-First Technology
As a collaboration and cloud application, DropBox has its sights set on bettering their technology to make remote collaboration and communication more straightforward and adaptable. They think that their own experience with remote work will help them “better understand our customers’ needs and be well-positioned to evolve [their] product accordingly.”
Building a Stronger and More Diverse Workforce
Moving to a remote-first format provides companies the opportunity to enter into a global pool of talent. DropBox recognizes the advantages of an internationally diverse workforce and plans to hire more individuals from “increasingly different backgrounds and perspectives.”
A vital part of making the shift to a remote format is everyone staying on the same page. DropBox made its announcement of a mandatory remote work plan through June 2021 all the way back in October 2020. This gave their employees the benefit of certainty and predictability when making decisions about their careers.
Back in June 2020, Quora announced that it would be officially transitioning into a remote-first organization. While this wasn't that ground-breaking at the time of the Pandemic, it is interesting to see that not only has the company continued the policy, it has thrived.
So what are the developments at Quora that point to the trends for many organizations moving to remote-first model?
What are the key moves that are essential to succeeding at remote-first?
The Quora team relies on written communication to keep everyone on the same page regardless of location or schedule. Every process and meeting is recorded and transcribed. This expedites remote onboarding and resolves conflicts quickly.
No Hybrid Meetings
Everyone calls in from where they are at. There isn't always a group of executives in the office while everyone else is on a screen. This creates an equitable meeting environment.
Remote Starts from the Top-Down
Everyone, from the CEO to the managers, needs to understand remote work policy and strategies. It is the only way it can be implemented effectively.
They provide a stipend for employees hired after the transition to remote-first so they can equip their workspace with things like HD videocameras, upgraded internet connections, and ergonomic furniture. This way, employees don't have to go out-of-pocket and are more committed to staying with the company.
Predictions for the Future
Quora has big plans for its remote-first future. Their evolution isn’t finished yet.
Exodus from the Bay Area
Since moving on from their HQ in San Francisco, 10% of their Bay Area employees have already moved out or are planning to do so. Another 23% of employees are seriously considering leaving. This points to a larger shift away from tech centers like Silicon Valley to more affordable locations in a cut-throat housing market.
Global Recruiting Pipeline
Despite never hiring for technical roles outside of the Bay Area, Quora has already hired employees in 9 non-US countries and across 12 states where they never had offices in the past. A great example of how remote work allows companies to access great talent regardless of location. It also points to organizations becoming more distributed in the coming years.
Instead of focusing on returning to the office, the fully remote company is planning on renting co-working spaces where there are clusters of employees in certain cities or areas.
Employees can choose when to go in based on their projects or schedules. This is relevant to people considering the office as more of a tool for collaboration than a place where work must be done. It will also lead to more emphasis on suburban locations and reutilizing empty spaces.
Investing in Meetups
With the money saved on office rent and gains in productivity, the company is planning to re-invest the savings into international in-person meets. A larger trend among many companies to take advantage of vaccinations and COVID-safe countries to bring their remote teams together for bonding experiences.
Coinbase made a bold statement in May 2021 to close their San Francisco headquarter by next year. They plan to fully commit to being remote first. This was probably one of the less surprising switches given the decentralized nature of the crypto industry.
The company released a statement speaking against headquarters, saying that the closing of the San Francisco office will prevent the formation of an “unofficial HQ and will mean career outcomes are based on capability and output rather than location.”
Coinbase has released several articles on their blog about their journey to becoming remote-first. Here are some of the more telling points from their experience.
Open to Disrupting the Routine
Coinbase’s office culture before the covid 19 pandemic was robust and growing stronger, the center of which was their HQ in San Francisco. After several months of working through the Pandemic, they had to revisit their culture and ask the question on everyone’s mind: “What if working remotely was... better?”
Despite the overall satisfaction of all their employees, they adopted a remote-first culture because it made more sense in the context of this new world of work. Other companies need to be open to adjust their cultures as well, regardless of how successful they were in the past.
Choose Goals over Unanswered Questions
There is an uncertainty that goes with taking the plunge for remote-first companies. Coinbase understood the value of setting goals for their transition instead of setting out to figure out the answer to every question about remote work. They prioritized acquiring top-talent for every position, encouraging independence among all their staff, and striving to dominate the crypto-market with a distributed workforce.
By setting goals, you can shape your distributed team accordingly. If you wait for answers to every problem that occurs while working remotely, you may find yourself delayed and struggling to strategize.
Principles of a Remote First Company
Coinbase also laid out some of the principles that helped them evolve as a remote-first company.
They wanted their employees to have as much decision-making power as possible during the transition. Equity among employee experiences regardless of title was also prioritized. Finally, they defaulted to trusting employees when there was a roadblock or they had to wait for a superior's approval.
Whenever faced with an important decision, Coinbase used these principles to expedite the process.
Don’t Wait for Perfection when Implementing Changes
When shifting to remote-first, you’ll realize early on that nothing will get done at 100% perfection. There will always be counterpoints and alternative solutions, but as long as things work you can keep improving. Companies need to prioritize implementation over perfection.
As a company with 1,200+ employees, Coinbase realized it would take forever to get everything right for every change. They were satisfied with deploying culture-related changes/updates at 80% approval, realizing things will continue to improve.
Predictions for the Future
As Coinbase takes its next steps in a remote-first format, they understand that there are more challenges to come.
It Might be Harder to Adapt after the Pandemic
While many people and companies feel like the hardest part of working remotely was dealing with the coronavirus, Coinbase would disagree. They feel that the “hard part” is yet to come, acknowledging that people were more open to fast changes and collective mentalities when there was a clear threat knocking at the gates.
Now, companies will need to do their best to foster that remote community mentality as the world shifts back into normality.
Maintaining Equity Among All Types of Employees
While Coinbase is shifting most of its operations to remote workers, they will still have a combination of employees who work five days a week in the office, half in the office and half at home, and entirely from home.
They have prioritized maintaining the same standards for collaboration, career advancement, and compensation regardless of the setting where their employees work.
Paving the Way for Decentralized Companies
Coinbase is a decentralized company. While some of their offices will remain open, they are completely opposed to labeling one of them as an HQ because it would be counterintuitive to their newfound company culture. Instead, they plan on running the company online through several different offices and upper managerial positions in the company.
Upwork had 20 years of experience as a remote work company before officially embracing a remote-first model.
Their business saw significant returns during the pandemic, and after a $6.3 billion market cap, they became the number one freelance marketplace. They saw their number of freelancers and corporate registrants increase by 50% in just six months.
Before the pandemic, one of Upwork’s biggest struggles was convincing companies to trust their freelance remote workers. Now that mentality has changed. Upwork continues to shift its own company strategies to better fit the new global perspective on remote work.
As a company centralized around remote work with a new remote-first mentality, there’s a lot we can learn from Upwork’s changes during the Covid-19 Pandemic. They also provided analysis of remote work in general, which’s very insightful.
Remote First’s Benefits for Productivity
Upwork also did surveys among their workers and analysis on their transition. They found that 61% of their employees were more productive than before the pandemic. Their hiring managers agreed, as 68% found their remote team members more productive than in March.
This proves that a dip in productivity is nothing to fear. Even when making an extensive change, people are capable of adjusting and growing into successful teleworkers.
People Don’t Need to be Bound to Their Commute
Without the need to be present in a physical office, employees gained the freedom to live wherever they want. According to Upwork, about 23 million have thought about moving now that they work remotely.
Most of these people were close to major cities, with 20.6% wanting to move out from a significant metropolitan area. 52.6% planned to move to a more affordable location.
Remote Work is a Great Financial Decision
Remote work has incredible financial incentives for people who make the switch. From skipping the commute alone, people had big savings during the pandemic. It’s estimated that the average car-commuter saved $4,350 and more than nine days of commuting time in one year.
Freelancers are Joining Teams
If your team doesn’t switch to remote, then you might get a new team member that already is. 58% of professionals are now considering a freelancing model, and 10% to 16% of companies are thinking about accepting or hiring more freelancers.
Upwork saw its revenues growth increase by 12% from 2019 to 2020 because people needed more freelance work.
Predictions for the Future
With all their data and analysis of remote work, Upwork also has some exciting ideas of what the future might hold for remote-first companies.
Employees will be Less Distracted after the Pandemic
One of the most common distractions during the pandemic was children who were held out of school. Parents were required to be teachers and babysitters while also holding onto their day jobs.
After the coronavirus restrictions subside, Upwork expects distractions to lessen at home, going as far as saying, “fewer interruptions is one of the most cited benefits of remote work, according to hiring managers.”
The Number of Remote Workers will Increase
Upwork also expects the number of remote workers to grow significantly in the next five years. The percent of professionals working remotely “will be closer to 20 to 25 percent.” Many people will return to the office, but as companies adjust to remote-first formats, others will remain in the home office permanently.
Companies are Planning a Shift to Remote Work
A survey that Upwork administered revealed that many companies plan to transition to a partially or fully remote format. Almost 62% of the companies surveyed were planning to have more remote work than before the pandemic.
All of these companies have their lessons to learn. They bring first-person perspectives on how a dramatic shift into a remote-first format can be smooth and successful. If you’re planning to evolve into a leading remote-first company, then it would be wise to take a page from their notebooks.
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