To address the challenges of InterNations becoming a remote-first company, our Human Resources Team recently published a Remote Leadership Guide. Even if we’re not team leads or heads of departments ourselves, their insights can help us improve our self-management skills and our general team spirit.[Read more…] about Why We All Benefit from Our Remote Leadership Guide
In mid-March 2020, the InterNations Team started working from home as a response to the spread of COVID-19. And this temporary change has become a permanent one — going to the office each day will stay a thing of the past for us. This retrospective discusses the reasons behind this fundamental decision and its wide-reaching implications, both the benefits and the challenges. Let’s make remote work work!
For the past 16 months, our more than 100 team members have been working mostly from home. What started as a temporary health and safety measure during the first wave of COVID-19 has led to us rethinking first the way we define workplace and then our entire company culture.
“Of course, we also had official remote-work guidelines before COVID-19. However, our so-called ReFlex Policy mainly applied to employees working from home for a few days per month,” InterNations Founder & Co-CEO Malte explains. “Switching to working remotely every day was a major change for all of us. But we were pleasantly surprised by how quickly and how smoothly our team has adapted to this situation. Since the new way of working has a lot of benefits, we have decided not to return to the status quo once the pandemic is over.”
In this regard, InterNations is part of a larger trend that cuts across companies and organizations, especially in knowledge-intensive white-collar industries: In the latest edition of our annual expat survey, the Expat Insider 2021, nearly half the working respondents (48%) report that their employer has permanently changed their remote-work policy due to COVID-19. And a Deutsche Bank research paper from January 2021 puts it even more simply — its title is “Work from home has come to stay”.
Going Remote First: Our New Working Arrangements
At InterNations, this management decision was also prompted by the results of our annual employee satisfaction survey, the InterNations Barometer. Last year’s data was collected in July and August 2020 when our team had been working remotely for at least four months: 65% of respondents state that they’d like to keep the opportunity to work from home. However, most team members don’t want to do entirely without office life as we know it. The majority of survey participants (77%) would also like to come in two or three times per week in a post-pandemic future.
InterNations acted accordingly, opting for a remote-first model. The new regulations allow more or less all employees of our expat community InterNations (based in Munich) and our relocation service provider InterNations Go! (based in Porto) to work from anywhere in Germany or Portugal, respectively. We can pick and choose if we would like to go back to the office — once the local COVID-19 regulations permit it — if we’d rather prefer working from home for a couple of days per week, or if we want to go fully remote after all.
Does this mean that we’ll all become “digital nomads” and ship the next code update or publish the next blog post from a hammock on the beach? Sadly, the answer is no. This lifestyle, which has become increasingly popular among freelancers, will not be an option for our team members.
“We would have loved to give the InterNations Team this kind of freedom,” Malte says. “But due to the legal situation and the social security system differing from destination to destination, it is simply not possible for our team members to work in a country where they aren’t legally employed.” But anyone who wants to move abroad on a permanent basis is now free to do so — so, a new office near the beach is not entirely out of the question after all. “In this case, we’ll have an Employer of Record draft a new contract for them. This also applies to new international hires who can’t or would prefer not to relocate to Germany or Portugal,” he adds.
Larger Talent Pool, Lower Office Rents: The Benefits for InterNations as a Company
Speaking of international hires: Switching to a remote-first model offers our Human Resources Team far more potential recruiting opportunities. “We don’t want to make any trade-offs when trying to find just the right person for the job. But it’s not always easy to find the perfect candidate who either lives in the Munich area or who’s willing to move here. With our new working arrangements, we have access to a much larger talent pool,” says Christa, the Team Lead Human Resources for our Munich office.
Since both InterNations and InterNations Go! have an international customer base, our corporate language has always been English. New employees don’t have to worry about language barriers in a team that includes around 40 different nationalities from all across the globe. However, international recruiting for a remote-first company poses its own challenges for our HR Team.
“We’ve already updated the profile of our ideal candidate. They need to be both well suited to working outside a traditional office environment and highly motivated to do so. We would like to make sure that our future team members will thrive in a remote-first setting. They should still deliver a strong performance and communicate effectively with their co-workers,“ Christa explains.
On the one hand, an asynchronous work schedule should be possible for those working from outside of Germany or Portugal; on the other hand, team members in selected other time zones still need to be available during core working hours.
“Last but not least, we don’t want to lose all opportunities for personal networking and socializing. As soon as the pandemic is completely under control, we want the entire team to gather once or twice a year, for example, at in-house conferences or team-building events. So, our ideal candidates need a bit of flexibility and the willingness to travel occasionally,” Christa says.
The remote-first policy also means that all team members will no longer be present in the same office building at the same time. InterNations will therefore be introducing a hot-desking system. Team members won’t have their own personal desk anymore, but they will rather get desk space as needed.
“We hope that this prevents the kind of ‘silo syndrome’ where teams don’t share enough information. With a hot-desking policy, employees from different teams can also create a new shared workspace while collaborating on a joint project,” Malte says. “And from a business perspective, hot-desking obviously helps reduce a significant cost factor. We have already been able to save on office space — and thus on rental costs in central Munich.”
And InterNations is far from the only organization to recognize those benefits. In fact, a recent analysis by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts that the rise of hybrid remote work may have important implications for urban economies in general, starting with lower demand for office real estate.
More Flexibility, Less Commuter Stress: The Benefits for the InterNations Team
Even if a perfectly cost-efficient and well-thought-out management decision has been taken, it won’t work in the long run, if it doesn’t meet with the team’s approval. So, what about InterNations becoming a remote-first company? It does seem to be a win-win situation for everyone involved. In last year’s InterNations Barometer, the team members themselves had good things to say about the increased flexibility, the improved work-life balance — especially for employees with family commitments — and the reduction in stress without the daily commute. Four in five respondents (80%) say they prefer working from home to working at the office — more than one in three (35%) even very much so.
“I really like no longer having to spend half an hour on the train before and after work each day,” a survey participant comments. Others also report being able to focus better on their tasks. “Without the many distractions and interruptions at the office, I have actually become more productive,” another team member adds. And yet another respondent highlights that “it’s a lot quieter at home than in the busy city center.” In fact, 93% say that they find working from home at least as efficient as working at the office.
Not Just a Hybrid-Remote Compromise: Remote First as a Level Playing Field
Despite new freedoms and various benefits, building a remote-first company is not all smooth sailing. A hybrid model that makes it possible to choose between working in an office environment and working from home leads to a number of organizational challenges too. The aim should always be to avoid any undue (dis-)advantages arising from a team member’s personal choice. This includes access to information and technical equipment, career development and personal growth, socializing opportunities, and even everyday topics, such as meetings.
Meetings are actually an obvious example. If the majority of our team is sitting in the same conference room, while just a few participants join via videocall from home, the discussion can quickly become unbalanced: the team members at the office will probably dominate the agenda, whereas the remote co-workers may have difficulties contributing. In a remote-first work environment, meetings actually need to be all-remote. Every attendee joins from their own laptop, no matter where they are. That way, all participants are on an equal footing. As this overview of the various stages of remote work puts it: a remote-first company is more than a hybrid-remote compromise. In such an organization, “offices are simply venues to work (remotely) from, instead of being the epicenter of power or culture.“
Smells like Team Spirit: The Challenge of Creating a Remote-First Company Culture
There are other downsides to not being in the same room as our fellow team members. Over the years, respondents in our employee satisfaction survey have described our team and our company culture in very positive terms. The friendly and welcoming office atmosphere has always made teamwork easier and helped our most recent hires to settle in more quickly. Now we have to do without the weekly team breakfasts, the spontaneous lunch dates, or the casual chats in the office kitchen. While the vast majority of participants in the 2020 InterNations Barometer say that the practical aspects of teamwork have not been affected by going remote, it remains to be seen how our team spirit can survive and thrive in a remote-first setting. Especially since the team keeps growing and we keep hiring new members that have never been a part of the “old” InterNations.
“In the short term, we’ve been focusing on providing enough socializing opportunities for our team. So far, we’ve organized several virtual team events — from a Zoom magician to an on-brand version of the popular social deduction game Werewolf — and they’ve generally received positive feedback,” says Head of Content & Communications Kathrin. “But our long-term challenge will be identifying the ‘DNA’ of our company culture and figuring out how exactly to transfer it into a remote-first setting.”
One thing is for sure: We’ll be closely keeping track of what it takes for remote-first work to work.
There are usually several interns at InterNations, working in various teams from Corporate Communications to Corporate Partnerships. Our current interns have written about their internship experiences in times of COVID-19, about what they have enjoyed and what they hope for future generations of remote-first interns.
While we have embarked upon our internships at InterNations, many changes have been getting underway. The fluctuating COVID-19 levels, followed by the new remote-first policy, meant there has been a loss of the stability that comes with the daily routine of going into the office. However, there are also many positive aspects about remote work: more free time instead of commuting, spending less money on lunch and transportation, and more flexibility in working hours, to name a few.
Here’s what we think about our remote(ish) internships, with all their pros and cons![Read more…] about Remote First: The Interns’ Perspective on Our New Policy
This post is the latest installment in our new “Remote First” series. We’ll be exploring what becoming a fully remote company means for the InterNations Team and how this policy will be implemented across different workstreams — from HR to IT support.
In the second half of 2020, working remotely had turned into our “new normal” due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When it became increasingly obvious that certain restrictions on where and how we were able to work would apply for longer than expected, our management board also started discussing what working at InterNations should be like in post-pandemic times.
It was then that the idea for our new remote-first policy — as announced during the InterNations Kick-Off 2021 — was born. In the future, the team members of InterNations and InterNationsGO! will be able to work from anywhere in Germany or Portugal, respectively, at any time. Even working permanently from another country may be possible on a case-by-case basis. Once this game-changing decision had been made, the first step was to define all workstreams that it would affect. Several project teams have been busy working out what exactly will change with regard to legal and financial issues, HR, our internal IT infrastructure, our office setup, our corporate culture, and — last but not least — communication and documentation.
Actually, we began to change the way we communicate and collaborate on the very first day of remote work. “We started planning a new concept for internal communication the moment we all went remote back in 2020, but we’ve had to rethink our way of organizing it since then,” says Caroline, our Team Lead Corporate Communications. In short: It was time to systematically evaluate our approach, not only to internal communication, but also to meetings and documentation, and see whether it would hold up in a remote-first setting.
“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, though,” adds Franziska, our Team Lead Product Content. The aim was rather to come up with best-practice advice on what is most relevant for our organization, drawing inspiration from Silicon Valley tech companies, such as GitLab, who have embraced remote work for quite some time now. Building upon the technical infrastructure we already have, the tools we have all been using, and the team culture we’ve established, the project team wants to ensure equal participation for everyone, regardless of their location.
No Such Thing as Too Much Communication
The abrupt switch to remote work in March 2020 highlighted the importance of internal communication for a large team such as ours. Though it might often be deprioritized in favor of communicating with an external audience — for instance, reaching out to media contacts or replying to social media comments — internal communication is now more vital than ever, and not only to keep all team members informed of the ever-changing COVID-19 regulations!
A situation where all or part of the team work remotely makes it more difficult to keep everyone up to date and engaged, simply due to the lack of casual interactions at the office. Therefore, internal communication needs to be as timely as possible and create maximum transparency. “Basically, there’s no such thing as too much communication,” Head of Content & Communications Kathrin emphasizes. “The physical distance created by the situation should not lead to an emotional distance or to people feeling left out of the loop. That is one of the challenges internal communication faces in a remote setting.”
To adjust our internal communication strategy, we relied on the tools we had already and intensified our scheduled communication on the instant messaging service Slack. It has also become a little more personal in nature, focusing on posts that will spark engagement and discussions among our team members. Off-topic and off-beat questions can help recreate those casual conversations that would normally happen in the hallway or the office kitchen. Be it favorite meals or childhood cartoon heroes — such non-work-related chats get a bit of social interaction going. (For example, I was quite relieved to find out that I wasn’t the only one majorly obsessed with Sailor Moon as a kid!)
As the novelty of working remotely has worn off and we all settled into our routines, we are planning to return to a stronger focus on the InterNations community in the near future. For the past year, posts promoting our events in Munich and Porto among our team have been rare as there have also been fewer events during the various phases of lockdown. But one of our goals in internal communication is still to bring the members of our community closer to our team members who may not interact with them on a regular basis.
Internal communication can be used as a tool to help us understand who our members are, how we can support them best, and what kind of impact our work has. “We are currently brainstorming ideas for sharing personal quotes and stories from InterNations members,” Caroline explains. “For example, we might use Slack to showcase some stories from a member survey on how COVID-19 has affected their expat life.”
A Meeting Culture to Ensure Equality Regardless of Location
While internal communication is probably the most visible part of the whole communication and collaboration workstream, the rest of the cross-departmental project team — Kathrin, Franziska, and our CTO Lars — has been hard at work behind the scenes.
“Like in the other workstreams, the starting point and the goal of a remote-first meeting and working culture is to ensure equal participation independent of location. Nobody should feel left out or disadvantaged because of where they work,” Kathrin explains. “Being able to come to the office in person shouldn’t give you any advantages in terms of infrastructure, participation, or access to information.”
Even when we no longer have to stick to COVID-19 health-and-safety rules at the office, every meeting will still take place online by default. There should never be a situation where part of the team is in the same room together while just a few team members are joining remotely. This setup automatically creates a hierarchy where the people sharing the same physical space have an advantage, whereas the remote participants aren’t on an equal footing. For them, it’s always more difficult to really get involved in the conversation. So, everyone will be joining all future meetings with a headset from their own laptop, even if they are at one of the InterNations offices.
This one decision has various implications for our meeting culture, for instance, concerning the technical setup and functionalities required for a virtual meeting. “Most of our guidelines are dictated by common sense, but it’s still worth spelling them out,” Kathrin stresses. Best-practice recommendations vary depending on the type and size of the meeting, but some rules always make sense: keep background noise and visual distractions to a minimum, mute yourself while not talking, use the software’s reaction features instead of interrupting the speaker, to name but a few.
In addition to this, the presenter needs to keep in mind that Zoom fatigue is real and videoconferencing can actually be more exhausting than attending an in-person meeting. They should always include some interactive elements to keep the participants from mentally checking out in long meetings with a large audience. Fortunately, remote meetings do have certain advantages too. They often tend to be more focused and effective exactly because the participants may find long video calls tiring. And they also enable collaborative notetaking during the meeting to keep the relevant documentation as detailed and up to date as possible.
Once introduced, the new meeting culture guidelines should become second nature to our team: all future colleagues will also hear about them during our remote onboarding process. The guidelines might even impact the design of the new and improved InterNations office in Munich. Huge meeting rooms might become obsolete, for example, while smaller spaces reserved for video calls could accommodate our virtual conferences.
An Increasing Need for Documenting
While collaborative documentation during remote meetings can be a huge benefit, a remote-first policy also increases the general need for documentation. “The purpose of the documentation project is actually twofold,” Franziska explains. “First of all, there should be a certain shift in everyone’s mindset.” All team members should be aware of how important documenting their work is and be able to quickly find the information they need. “Such a change takes time, though. People need to get used to it, and they also need role models who foster this spirit among the team.”
Franziska and her Product Content Team are setting an example: they have been busy expanding our company wiki with an overview of all the tools widely used for remote communication and collaboration across the entire organization. GitLab — one of the role models for this project — has published their entire documentation on their internal tools and processes for an all-remote team. This has, in turn, inspired Franziska’s team to document the way we work with specific tools. “For example, if our new meeting guidelines specify that team members should make sure their Outlook calendar shows their standard working hours, we’d better provide them with a quick how-to,” she says.
The documentation focuses on best-practice tips to make our day-to-day work as easy and frictionless as possible, reacting to actual questions asked by colleagues and pointing out options that might be especially helpful for some team members. “One of our colleagues is using a screen reader, for example. So, you can’t just share your desktop as a video. Instead, you need to share the actual PowerPoint presentation in MS Teams to enable the reader to ‘view’ your slides, and our documentation tells you how this works,” Franziska explains.
On top of the various wiki pages, organizing personal trainings for specific tools is the next step. Of course, like internal communication, proper documentation is never finished. “That’s the other thing about documentation,” she adds. “Tools get updated, workflows keep changing, and the work is never done.” It is an ongoing process — as is changing our company to a remote-first organization with a remote-first mindset and an adapted team culture that’s stronger than ever.
This post is the first article in our new “Remote First” series. We’ll be exploring what becoming a fully remote company means for the InterNations Team and how this policy will be implemented across different workstreams — from HR to IT support.[Read more…] about Remote First: The InterNations Kickoff 2021