Startup Life/Analysis/

Digital nomads and the global office: Five ways startups make remote working work

How can startups build a digital nomad-friendly business?

By Sifted

Matthew Wilson from Omnipresent

During the pandemic many startups and larger firms shifted to remote work out of necessity. But now we’ve had a taste of flexible work and the benefits it can bring, employees want more. 

The remote work revolution has begun — and it’s giving savvy companies a competitive edge in a tight talent market.

So how can startups build a digital nomad-friendly business? We asked a panel of experts about the building blocks of a truly global office. We spoke to: 

  • Matt Wilson, cofounder of Omnipresent
  • Jessica Zwaan, chief operating officer of Whereby
  • Vera Lakmaker, remote working champion at Unlock
  • Gonçalo Hall, CEO of NomadX 

Here’s what we found out. 

1/ Remote workers need to get onboard (in the right way)

Onboarding employees into a new role at your company used to be simple. They’d turn up, sign some papers, get an email and maybe an intro into some working systems. 

For remote workers, onboarding is a totally different process. But it can set them up for success — if done correctly. It can give remote workers the chance to understand the culture, skills and working conventions of a workplace, which they’d perhaps naturally pick up if they were in a physical office in their first weeks of the new role.  

To do this, Wilson suggested making the process as personal as possible — for example, sending personal notes to employees. He added employers also need to take extra care with compliance, as each remote onboarding process needs to be tailored towards the employee’s contract.

“Onboarding remote team members is partly about ensuring everything is compliant from an administrative standpoint but also ensuring that they feel part of the team as quickly as possible. Structure, documentation, and regular, personal check-ins will really help new employees” — Matt Wilson, Omnipresent

2/ Remote work isn’t a ‘perk’, it’s an operational model 

Often, when companies list remote working jobs, it’s framed as a perk or benefit. But remote work can be more stressful and draining than an office job if you don’t have a concrete operating structure tailored for remote work.  

Managing a team remotely requires different skills than managing a team in the office. This means managers should be trained on how to handle their remote teams. 

Managers should check in on teams regularly and actually know how they’re getting on with work — not just assume they are. 

“If there’s a Venn diagram for companies that are failing at remote working and communicate ‘This is a perk’, I think there’s probably quite a large crossover. Remote working is an operating model, and that means there’s a certain set of skills you need in your team” — Jess Zwaan, Whereby 

3/ Be intentional — with everything 

So your company has gone remote — brilliant! Meetings are now on Zoom, you have a daily catch-up and a Slack channel for every problem. Sorted… right? 

Wrong, said Lakmaker. To succeed, startups need to be intentional about how they’re going to get the work done, by when and by whom. She added remote workers knowing why processes are what they are can be an enormous help. 

“The biggest difference I found with working remote compared to an office is that things don’t happen automatically… So for everything that we do within the company, I always ask the question, why are we doing this?” — Vera Lakmaker, Unlock  

4/ This meeting could be an email 

For a lot of workers, lockdown often felt like one long Zoom-filled hell. Live-streaming your face for hours on end, desperately trying to look interested and engaged. 

Hall said that this was not sustainable. Asynchronous communication, where employees can send a message or email in their own time and receive a response in the recipient’s own time, can reduce stress of remote workers compared to Zoom calls. 

He added that knowing what remote workers were doing and when was a massive help. Thinking about whether remote workers need a schedule or if they choose their own, and if they can be fully flexible or need to be online for core hours, all help to reduce stress. 

I’m a big fan of asynchronous first, meaning that 90% of the communication in the companies I run are asynchronous and I avoid videos of hell… This is the one that has actually a big impact on the productivity and on the wellbeing of the employees” — Gonçalo Hall, NomadX 

5/ The mysterious digital nomad, explained 

With the onset of the pandemic, remote workers everywhere started seeing the potential. But when travel restrictions eased, some went one step further and asked what was stopping them from traveling the world while earning a good wage? 

So, most likely, you’ll be working with a digital nomad in your startup at some point. In Hall’s experience, digital nomads tended to be more creative and generate more ideas — often inspired by their travels — than the average employee. Practically speaking, though, he said that there wasn’t much difference in terms of working habits than your average, stationary remote worker. 

“When I worked in sales, I had so many ideas just by talking in different coworking spaces, in different cultures. It just made me much more creative” — Hall

Like this and want more? Watch the full Sifted Talks here: