Remote work: Lessons from a remote-first company

Remote work has become the new normal: But many companies face a learning curve. Consider these lessons from a company that had moved to an almost fully remote workforce 
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remote work lessons

During the last few decades, with the rapid proliferation of high-speed internet and quality collaboration software, the number of “remote-friendly” companies has grown significantly. That number is growing even more due to the COVID-19 pandemic, replacing remote-friendly with fully remote and forcing companies to reconsider the model for work overnight. Suddenly, it's become the new normal for staff to have flexibility in where, how, and when they work.

[ What can leaders do to support their people right now? Read also: How to lead in the age of newly remote teams. ]

However, there is going to be a learning curve. Many companies still have traditional communication structures that put remote workers at a distinct disadvantage; they don’t get to participate in water cooler conversations or key in-person discussions with management, who have tended to work out of a central office. These remote workers are out of sight and out of mind, and thus evolve into second class company citizens of sorts. That can't be the case now. 

Why and how we went remote-first

When we started Grafana Labs in 2014, we realized that mere remote-friendliness wasn’t good enough. We had three founders living on three different continents. To successfully build our company, we had to be remote-first, and over the past six years we’ve learned a lot about how to do this in a thoughtful way.

Grafana Labs comprises a large and vibrant community of open source developers who are spread out all over the world. The fact that some of the largest and most successful open source projects (such as the Linux kernel and  Kubernetes) are remote-first was not lost on us.

Hire for talent, not location

Even our hiring process is done remotely via video calls.

Thus, our strategy has been, and will always be, to hire the best talent, regardless of location. Even our hiring process is done remotely via video calls. Candidates apply, complete multiple interviews, receive offers, and make career decisions, usually without ever meeting a member of the Grafana Labs team in person.

Today, nearly all our employees are remote, spread across 24 countries. While we do have offices in locations where there are concentrations of employees, we don’t require anyone to report to an office.

How we make remote-first work: Lessons learned

Being remote-first removes the possibility of having two classes of employees. Ultimately, it is more than thinking about where people work; it’s a culture that permeates throughout our organization. How do we do it?

Communication is key

Given our open source roots, we at Grafana Labs value community and collaboration, and our culture centers around openness and transparency. We hold weekly team update meetings and monthly all-hands calls.

Onboarding buddies

Each new team member works with their manager on a personalized onboarding plan.

We also organize co-located team offsite meetings, annual company-wide events in the U.S. or E.U., and quarterly onboarding bootcamps for training and team-building. Each new team member works with their manager on a personalized onboarding plan, which includes being assigned to an onboarding buddy (read one developer’s account here).

Keep teams small

Because our managers are responsible for teams spread across multiple time zones, we keep our teams small. That way, managers have more time to support and develop every team member.

Trust: Track output, not time

Perhaps most importantly for a remote-first company, we operate on trust. We track output, not hours. We set clear objectives and priorities and hold our team members accountable for delivery – but beyond that, everyone manages their own time.

The best ideas and most productive hours can come at any time of day. While this often results in some employees working non-traditional hours, it can also help them improve work/life balance. We encourage employees to take time to pursue other activities and hobbies, and in doing so, find sources of inspiration for their work.

Benefits of remote-first: Diversity and customer service

Being a remote-first organization came with additional benefits. In software development, for example, the needs of a globally diverse customer base are best met with a diverse set of employees. Our customers are located all over the world and come from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures, and the same is true of our teams.

This geographic diversity has improved our customer service. When a customer has a problem, we have someone in the same time zone address the issues. This means the customer never needs to wait for a response. Our support follows the sun.

Another significant benefit of being a remote-first organization: Our turnover rate is well below the industry norm. Despite perks like ballooning salaries and stock options, free meals, laundry service, gym memberships, unlimited vacation, nap rooms – and yes, the option to work remotely – the turnover rate for software developers is approaching 25 percent, with an average tenure of less than two years. Our developers are happier and more committed to the success of the company, and they stay longer.

Of course, running a remote-first organization also comes with challenges. Every time we get the team together, closing comments usually include, “If we only had more time together…” However, for us, the positive aspects of being remote-first far outweigh the negative.

With more than 100 employees across the globe and growing, we have been one of the few remote-first organizations on the bleeding edge of the remote-first trend. But make no mistake: The future of software development means enabling teams to do what they do best, wherever in the world they may be. The cost of not having access to this talent is too high. In ten years, I believe remote-first will be the norm across the industry and around the world.

[ Are you leading culture change? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

Douglas Hanna is COO of Grafana Labs, the company behind leading open source projects Grafana and Loki, and the creator of the first open and composable observability platform. Prior to Grafana Labs, he spent nearly four years at Zendesk, most recently as VP of Operations.


It seems like this outbreak triggers a world experiment of working from home practices. I find this to be one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic.
Remote working has been working like a charm for me the past years having a great set of tools well integrated to each-other to help me be productive. Slack, Asana, Zoom, Slite and
Geekbot is the golden combo so far.