What do we mean by remote-first working?

The concept of remote-first working is more nuanced than you might imagine. It would be easy to decide that as long as we facilitate remote workers with strategies that allow them to join the in-office meeting the job is done; or to assume that we’re asking everyone to stay at home as we did during the pandemic lockdown. But that would be to ignore the valuable lessons that have been learned through having to work remotely.

Lessons that put meeting quality right at the heart of every interaction we have going forward. Why? So that communication flows, meetings are productive, and everyone is in the loop.

So what is remote-first?

A remote-first definition needs to encompass everything we’ve learned as working practices have evolved since the 2021 pandemic. Think of it like software development. In the same way software transitioned from being designed for desktops with mobile devices as an afterthought (desktop first), to a strategy that puts the mobile experience at the core of the design (mobile-first), remote-first teams deliberately design the team experience around the virtual office rather than the physical one.

A remote-first working approach should be at the core of the team’s working practices and take into account the constraints and behaviour associated with the virtual office.  Essentially, we’re looking to create a colocation space virtually, with high bandwidth communication that operates at the same level as if you were physically colocated.

The principle of virtual colocation is to create the conditions that allow teams to be highly collaborative even when some members are working in a remote setting. The setup should increase the connection strength between each link to the point where there is clear common ground across the team that doesn’t rely on everyone being in the same place at the same time.

What does remote-first mean in practice?

Remote-first work culture compared to on-prem, remote-ish and remote-only

On-prem: Old  school office working. Your company processes, tools and meetings revolve around the physical office.  Key assumption: Communication is designed around the physical workspace (physically colocated).

Remote-ish: Your company may allow you to work remotely. But, most of your company’s processes, tools, and meetings will revolve around the physical office. As a result, remote teammates often feel excluded from important meetings and company decisions, even if that’s not the intention.  Key assumption: Communication is designed around the physical workspace (physically colocated).

Remote-first: This empowers team members to work remotely, whatever their location. A remote-first team makes decisions online and individuals have their videos on, even if most of the team are in the same room. Tools, ways of working and processes level the communication playing field providing equal opportunities to contribute ideas and access information. Remote-first doesn’t prevent team members – or the full team – from holding meetings when needed, eg. for team building or major new project launches, But as long as one person is remote, everyone is considered remote.  Key assumption: Communication is designed around the virtual workspace (virtual colocation).

Remote-only: Everything included in remote-first plus no expectation to physically colocate.

Source amended from https://doist.com/blog/remote-career-advice/

Why remote-first working should be the default

Regardless of which office location model you are looking to adopt, as soon as a single team member is working away from the office (eg. for medical or childcare reasons, to allow access for the electrician, or even a dental appointment!), the most efficient communication will happen by adopting remote-first practices.  What it boils down to is this: remote-first working allows the kind of flexibility that means team members could be sitting right next to each other, or anywhere in the world, with no difference in experience or outcomes!

Don’t mistake remote-first for remote-only

Be very clear about this. Remote-first working isn’t about outsourcing everyone, nor does it mean avoiding physical meet-ups. Instead, once you’ve decided to go remote-first, the crucial thing is to be intentful about the type and frequency of any meetings that do need to take place in-person.

How to maximise the introduction of remote-first practices

This is where a team charter comes into play; by agreeing on a set of fundamental working practices, you are then able to trust your teams to decide for themselves when an in-person meeting would be most advantageous. Revisiting the team charter regularly, means you can set and revise principles that will inform behaviours to ensure a consistent approach from all members of staff.

Having deliberate, considered factors around the teams’ behaviours can also be used to support successful recruitment practices, so that expectations are clear for new team members, and to inform recruiters about geographical constraints.

Why remote-first working is the most productive model

A remote-first culture just makes sense! By maximising remote-first working practices you remove the typical distractions of an office environment, and allow for much more focus, wherever your team is.

But more than that, you gain endless flexibility of choice around how your business operates. Now that we’ve learned how to make remote-first work so brilliantly, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater as we consider how we will plan our meetings from now on. Instead, we advocate retaining the continued benefits people have received from working remotely, whilst emphasising the unique opportunity to decouple meetings from locations.

That’s really what remote-first means. And the benefits of buying yourself this kind of flexibility are immeasurable!

On 6 May 2020, Save the Children and Equal Experts co-hosted a remote-working workshop at the Global Digital Development Forum, an annual get-together focused on digital technology in social and economic development.

For the first time the forum was completely online, compacting a three-day conference into a single day. The 20 continuous hours, follow-the-sun event kicked off with the Asia Pacific, and finally closed with the Americas Pacific sessions.

Equal Experts has been working with Save the Children in Rwanda and Burundi since the end of March, helping them be a high-performing team while remote-working and in the most challenging of circumstances. We’ve had the privilege of witnessing their extraordinary work to deliver critical healthcare and child protection services, in refugee camps and other settings, and as they respond to devastating floods and landslides. 

Rwanda flag

On the 22nd March, Rwanda became the first sub-Saharan African country to go into full lockdown.  At the same time devastating floods created humanitarian crises in the region. Many international workers were forced to fly home and many NGOs went into hibernation, leaving many vulnerable people to fend for themselves.

Working from home is hard for everyone and the in-country team at Save the Children had never worked remotely before. On top of that, Save the Children needs to respond with urgency to the unfolding events happening on the ground.


Save the Children team

I realised my colleagues at Equal Experts could help by sharing their remote-working experience and know-how.  

Equal Experts has many, many collective years of experience of remote-working with high performing teams across hundreds of companies. We’ve been sharing that with  the Save the Children team, to help them regain their effectiveness while under strict lockdown. We have learned a great deal from them, too, as much as they have from us. 

Phoebe (Operations Director at Save) shared a story about connectivity and access to WiFi. 

“In the total lockdown in our country, they were not ready to work from home—we were not prepared. Not everyone has internet connectivity or WiFi in our homes. So we used our phones using our internet bundles. One of my colleagues had to get access to the internet, by hanging his phone in a tree. At the office you have an IT person who is supporting you, but at home we do it ourselves.” 

Save the Children invested in upgrading home IT, but challenges remain. The quality of internet connections is a common complaint.   

Phoebe said “We relied on emails, which was not effective and productive in the new environment and situation. We would have to wait for someone to send an email when asking for information, and we wait for a long time to get the feedback from a colleague.” 

It was not easy to access information. To get visibility of what colleagues were doing was not easy. So, it’s important for us to be creative and empathetic and keep the tools simple, acknowledging that not everyone has a good office set-up at home, and not everybody has flexibility. 

We now have short calls a few times per week, reducing reliance on emails. The team has a shared understanding, and everybody has equal access to information. We’ve reduced the amount of time that people have to spend waiting for feedback, or writing reports and emailing—now you get immediate updates on a call. 

To begin with, not everybody attended calls regularly.  Making sure that everyone attends a short and regular team meeting, means we can work effectively and reduce time wasted due to  miscommunication. People have many calls booked into their calendars and prioritising between them is a challenge that we continue to work on resolving. 

We’ve reduced the amount of overall time on video calls to let people work in their own time. Remote team work is not just about video calls, it’s about a mix of collaboration tools that work under low bandwidth or patchy connectivity. Video platforms can fail gracefully to low resolution video, but often simple audio is all that works. That’s fine if we are flexible and go with what works for everyone. 

A continuous process of learning is really important – to make sure we continue to adapt. Phoebe’s team is drawing up a Team Charter, so the team can stay on top of working together well. 

We accept that stuff happens – WiFi gets patchy, or we speak while we are muted, which creates that awkward silence. Sometimes home life collides with work life. Everybody’s digital literacy is in a different place. We each try our best to be empathetic and help each other in an inclusive way, so that we can be a remote-by-default team where each person is on the same page. 

The team is also thinking about how to be more social by dedicating some time to bringing that “lunchtime canteen experience” into the online world. So all that important chit-chat and some important work stuff get discussed, in a socially engaging way. 

We are making a big shift, from being remote-friendly to remote-by-default. Remote-friendly says, “Let me continue doing my job as before, but now try to figure out how it fits into this remote world.”  Remote-by-default means you completely redesign how you and your team work–designed around remote working, right from the start. There are lessons to be learned from designing for accessibility needs, and being inclusive by designing the experience around those at the edges – around the most excluded.  

The Rwanda team – Francois, Marie Claire, Patrick, Paulin and Phoebe – have made incredible progress and are an effective, productive and impactful remote team. Even though lockdown restrictions have eased a little and some team members could be in the office, they have chosen to continue working in remote-by-default mode.  

Remote-by-default enables teams to be resilient in the pandemic.  It is also an opportunity to have an impact on a larger scale, and to make use of globally distributed expertise.  All organisations are becoming much more carbon conscious and will travel less post-lockdown. So getting used to this way of working is an essential skill, despite IT and other challenges. Organisations will hugely benefit from adapting the way they work to make remote-by-default teamwork part of their playbook. 


You can find the session details on the GDDF website. During the session we share some best practices from the Equal Experts remote-working-playbook

We share some stories of how Equal Experts and Save the Children have worked together to increase everyone’s visibility of team activity, improve flexibility, and gain more control despite the challenges that everybody’s facing.