We originally published this article in April, 2016—four years before the COVID-19 virus forced companies to become remote in a very short amount of time. Now, at the tail-end of the pandemic, Canadian employers have a choice to make: remote, hybrid, or return to the office entirely?
As the Amazon Business Return to Office report recently uncovered, most Canadian employees want remote work to stay for good. "Only one-in-eight (12%) say that working entirely at their physical workplace is their ideal working scenario moving forward, and more than two-in-five (43%) Canadian office workers say they would be likely to look for a new job if their current employer mandated they return to the office full time."
With that in mind, the virtual-only companies we feature in this article—pioneers in remote work and still in business today—prove that workplace culture doesn’t depend on the proximity of team members.
Who says that team-building is impossible with distributed companies? Fire Engine RED, a software provider in the education sector, proves otherwise. A virtual walking club and virtual book club keep team members connected, while biweekly all-hands meetings, conducted via conference call, ensure everyone is on the same page. “By not spending money on office space,” Director of Communications Chuck Vadun explains, “we’re able to invest more in serving our clients better.”
The company encourages employees to save also, as evidenced by the company’s “REDuce Your Bills” event. “Our CEO put together a tip sheet,” Vadun explains, “then gave our team the entire day off to call our cable providers, cell phone companies, insurance agents, and others to get better deals.” Together, Fire Engine RED employees saved an extra 25,000 dollars each year. It’s clear that this 100% virtual company has made cost-effectiveness part of its culture, to the benefit of clients and team members alike.
Zapier has been completely remote since the very beginning. “Even though Bryan, Mike, and I lived in the same city, we had different schedules and were bootstrapping Zapier on the side,” co-founder Wade Foster explains the company’s origins. “We worked on Zapier in every spare moment we each had, but those moments didn’t magically line up at the same time where we could work in the same room.” And as the company grew? “Since we were already a distributed team, it made sense to keep moving that way…we could hire people we knew were awesome, but just didn’t live in the places we lived.”
Foster acknowledges that it’s more challenging for an established company to suddenly become wholly virtual. That’s why he advises starting slow: “Have a single department try remote and have everyone work from home for a month to see how it goes.” Soon enough, you might find your team spread over several continents, just like Zapier’s own!
At the end of 2012, Buffer—whose app facilitates social media sharing—became a fully virtual company. So far, so good. In fact, CEO Joel Gascoigne says he is “in love with the choice we made to be distributed all across the world.” Buffer’s team members (over 85 at last count) work all around the globe and do so with unquestionable synergy.
How? Well, that collaborative spirit is fostered by “Buffer Bootcamp,” a 45-day probationary period that allows potential new hires to see if remote working, as well Buffer’s overall culture, suits them. During this time, candidates for full-time positions first come on as contract workers. Several in-depth chats over the course of six weeks ensure they and Buffer are a good cultural match. In the end, about 70% of these candidates are hired on full-time and connect on a more permanent basis with the Buffer team—remotely, of course!
FlexJobs is dedicated to helping people find flexible work options, including remote opportunities. The company has been office-less itself for the last eight years. It hasn’t held them back. “Creating a company culture is an interesting task in a virtual environment,” notes Director of Online Content Brie Reynolds. “We think about how to translate traditional office happenings into a virtual environment, and that’s led us to try activities like virtual trivia happy hours, virtual yoga classes, and even a remote book club.”
Some of those ideas, of course, have been more successful than others. The key, according to Reynolds, is constant check-ins with your team and a willingness to experiment with what works best. Sure, a virtual environment can never function exactly like a physical office, but with a little effort and ingenuity, it might work even better.
This digital PR firm is 100 percent virtual, a decision that owner Kari DePhillips has never regretted. “I’m not limited to searching for talented workers who live within a 20-mile radius of where I am,” she explains. “I get to hire the best person for the job, no matter where they live.”
That virtual model also led to a more diverse workplace. “We have two employees with chronic health issues,” DePhillips explains, “and although they can work from home, they wouldn’t be able to regularly work in a standard office environment.” The Contact Factory’s flexible environment creates career opportunities for people who might not otherwise have ready access to them. As a result, the company benefits from additional perspectives.
They’re the people behind WordPress—and in fact, it’s that very platform that inspired the company’s business model. “Automattic made a decision from the beginning that distributed is the future of work, and that future also matched perfectly with the mission of WordPress.com: to be a global platform for users around the world,” the company tells us. “Why not have our own team represent that same global community?”
Automattic team members mostly communicate through the WordPress platform, publishing internal blogs to keep everyone up-to-date. Google Hangouts and Slack fill in the gaps, allowing colleagues to connect virtually. “Going distributed made sense and continues to work for us,” Automattic explains, “because we built our entire culture around it.”
Ready to tear up your lease? We don’t blame you. Slack, Zoom, and Basecamp (to name just a few tools) facilitate collaboration so that working remotely is as good as being there. In any event, the success stories of these companies show that the typical workplace model is on its way out the door.