About three years ago, one of my colleagues asked what I thought of remote work. He had run a virtual company and dreamed of being a digital nomad—traveling the world while working on his laptop. He encouraged me to consider allowing more work from home.
We collaborated well (and still do) and shared many values (ditto). But when it came to the issue of remote work, our opinions diverged. In full transparency: I didn't trust others, nor myself, to work and collaborate effectively at home. I was especially concerned that, as a startup, we would lose innovation and momentum if people weren't in the office together.
Fast forward to March 2020, and everything changed. COVID-19 made working from home essential to people's health, which we prioritize. Since then, we've overcome many challenges and seen incredible success with remote work, leading us to become a remote-first company.
Here's how it happened and what we've learned.
You can't argue with the evidence
If you told me at the start of the pandemic we'd be a remote-first company, and I'd be happy about it, I'd say you were dreaming.
I used to believe that work only happens in the office, and the many distractions at home prevent people from getting things done.
So you shouldn't be surprised that in the early days when we were around ten people, our core hours were 9 AM to 6 PM Monday to Friday.
As the company grew, our people asked for more flexibility to manage other aspects of their lives and do their best work at times that worked for them. So we changed our core hours to 10 AM to 5 PM. It was a difference of only two hours a day, but that was a significant change for us back then.
We chose to lead from a place of trust rather than fear, and our team rewarded that trust. It worked. So we decided to provide even more flexibility, allowing people to work one day a week at home, Wednesday or Thursday.
Productivity held steady. But we didn't plan to add more work from home time as I was sure it would slow us down.
Then the pandemic hit. In March 2020, we all started working from home.
And guess what? Nobody took advantage of the situation, our team became more productive, we attracted global talent, and we had our most successful year ever.
I couldn't argue with the evidence. (I am, after all, the CEO of a science-focused company.) So we committed ourselves to being remote-first.
Many benefits, from productivity to diversity
In the past 18 months, we've seen tremendous value from remote work for the company and our team. For example:
- Productivity improved. Contrary to my fears, people became much more productive. In large part, this was due to them spending more time doing focused, deep work.
- Our talent pool expanded to the entire world. Before becoming a remote-first company, we focused on hiring within the Greater Toronto Area. There is tremendous talent here, but we were missing the majority of the globe. Now we hire globally, and most recruits don't live in the GTA.
- People became free to live where they liked. Geographic expansion also applied to our existing team. People are no longer stuck living within commuting distance of our Toronto office. Many moved far from the city, including to more rural and natural settings. Some moved across the country. Many moved closer to their families. And because of our compensation policy, we did not change their salary when they moved.
- It opened opportunities to increase the representation of people from underrepresented communities. By opening our hiring to the world and allowing location freedom, we're improving the diversity of our talent pool and increasing access to great jobs in more communities. Remote work is also more accessible to those who can't work from an office every day.
- The stress, cost, and environmental impact of commuting disappeared. Some people were spending two hours a day or more stuck in traffic or the subway. They were also spending significant money on gas, parking, and public transit. All of this commuting also took an environmental toll. Being remote-first minimizes it all.
- Quality of life improved. Before going remote, many people on our team were unable to easily juggle work and personal commitments, like caregiving. For some, working from home restored time, reduced stress, and enabled better integration of their personal and professional lives.
- People are more likely to stay with the company. For all of the above reasons, BenchSci has become an even greater place to work. People now have autonomy not only over what they do but also over how and where they do it. Such flexibility is in huge demand.
And that's just a start.
Strong convictions, loosely held
Of course, remote work isn't perfect: Zoom meetings can get exhausting, the need for documentation increases substantially, it's much harder to build culture and relationships remotely, and nothing can replace the magic of working together in a room.
Nor am I saying that remote work is suitable for every company.
I am admitting, however, that my initial belief was incorrect. The upsides of remote work far outweigh the downsides.
I'm also observing that thankfully, owing to a culture that reinforces the idea of "strong convictions, loosely held," we were able to move forward with a policy that works for our company and our team despite my initial skepticism.
The key was to not lead from a place of fear but of trust. And seeing that trust rewarded is, to me, one of the biggest benefits of all.