Hello, startup CEOs! Suggestions from a remote worker’s perspective
Mehak Siddiqui gained a few insights into what employers can do to ensure that a remote team thrives — which in turn, can help their company thrive.
When I landed my first remote job in late 2018, it was a dream come true. Exactly a year later, the dream morphed into a nightmare when I was abruptly laid off, along with forty colleagues. Two months later, the company — a startup — shut down. I admit I’m no expert on the intricacies of tech startups and what makes them flourish or fail, but as someone who experienced the heights of both fulfillment and frustration in my first remote job, I gained a few insights into what employers can do to ensure that a remote team thrives — which in turn, can help their company thrive.
Care about remote workers
It sounds like a no-brainer but I feel that since remote work itself is a privilege (just 7% of American companies offer the option to most or all of their employees, according to recent BLS data), there’s a tendency for employers to not care about remote employees in the same ways as they are predisposed to about regular office workers. This can reflect in both policies and work processes.
For instance, I was hired as an international independent contractor and I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work from anywhere that I didn’t really mind not having any paid vacation time off or even paid sick days, let alone any other benefits. I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off given how I was earning substantially more than I would be in a regular job in my city, thanks to the exchange rate.
However, even fellow colleagues based in the same country as the company we worked for had similar contracts and could not take a single paid day off. We were essentially treated as freelancers while handling responsibilities almost similar to those of regular full-time employees. For most of us, the job was our sole source of income rather than a ‘gig’, and while I understand that one of the major reasons behind companies opting for remote teams is to save on costs, some basic benefits would go a long way to keep employees motivated and fulfilled.
There is a general perception that a remote job means unlimited vacation time and working on-the-go from beautiful locales around the world. However, from personal experience I have learned that it is in fact quite difficult to manage constant travel and serious work. This is because when you’re in a foreign country, there are more unpredictable factors that can thwart your work schedule, from being stranded at airports to poor WiFi or catching a stomach bug!
Moreover, remote work is by nature ‘always on’ which makes it difficult to truly unplug from the virtual office and enjoy some much-needed downtime. The 2019 State of Remote Work report by Buffer states that 22% of remote workers struggle with disconnecting from work. Keeping this in mind, I think the least that companies can do is provide a minimum amount of paid time off for real vacations or to cover contingencies.
Walk the talk
The company that gave me my first remote job was a real champion of transparency and open communication, and this was just another reason I loved working for them. That is, until they stopped operating in alignment with their own values.
While I was incredibly grateful, motivated, and happy for the first half of my remote employment, I began feeling disconnected and isolated as the team and company began to grow. There were still Slack conversations and weekly meetings and newsletters but I felt that many important pieces of information were not reaching the remote team on time.
Several major changes were implemented in a rushed manner, causing much confusion about what exactly was expected from us and how our performance metrics would be affected. This culminated in the most harrowing experiences of my professional life so far, which was logging onto Slack on a Monday morning to find out that my entire team would be having personal meetings with the CEO to be told if we’re being let go or kept onboard as the company experimented with a new operational model.
My meeting was scheduled for two days later and the wait was even more agonizing than the moment I was finally told I no longer had a job. A handful of team members were kept on while a majority were laid off, but it was never disclosed exactly what criteria or metrics were used to determine the choices. It felt incredibly arbitrary and personal, and the one thing that would have made the situation slightly more tolerable would have been more information from the outset.
In retrospect, I realize that plenty of little red flags had begun appearing for several weeks in the form of a series of resignations. However, in a meeting following one core member’s abrupt departure, just two weeks before the layoffs, we had been explicitly reassured that we didn't need to worry about our jobs. Needless to say, this left us all feeling cheated and manipulated because if we’d been at all forewarned, we’d have had some buffer time to begin looking for alternative employment.
I think keeping employees up to speed with a realistic picture of the company’s behind-the-scenes is even more important when remote workers are involved since they don’t have the common space of a physical office to personally keep a pulse of the day-to-day goings-on at executive level.
Focus on sustainable growth
I think one of the major reasons I lost my dream job was that the company tried to scale-up way too fast. It was incredibly exciting to be a member of a growing team at an innovative startup but there were several times I wondered to myself: why are they still hiring more people? This was because there were intermittent periods when we didn’t have enough work for the existing team to achieve the required metrics to qualify for bonuses. It didn’t make sense for the team to be growing when work was just trickling in, but we were assured that some big sales were in the pipeline and soon, we’d need even more people!
As it turned out, the sales fell through and we experienced more severe phases of drought during which there just wasn’t any work to do. Added to this, new people were also hired for leadership roles and swiftly implemented new ideas and experiments right after joining. Keeping up with such dynamism is complicated enough in a traditional office setting but even more so when a team is spread out across time zones. We weren’t given much notice about changes in processes and policies, and were expected to simply accept them as they came. While there was a generic call for suggestions and involvement, it often felt pretentious and pointless because decisions seemed to have already been made without any consultation with us.
Instead of taking the time to fine-tune and improve existing processes, it felt like we kept grasping at straws in an attempt to scale up quickly. Of course, this completely backfired and we were left with both a broken system of working and disgruntled employees who had done their best for naught.
Rather than see people as just numbers, it would be far more lucrative to genuinely treat them as integral parts of the organization, who need to be adequately involved in decision-making processes. Instead of focusing on just quantitative outputs and a top-down approach, companies would do well to invest in the quality of a remote team that feels heard, valued and cared for. I think that’s the best way to get employees to invest the best of their creativity and skills into the company to help it scale and succeed in a sustainable way — slowly but surely.
Mehak Siddiqui is a writer, blogger and traveler based in India. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications and she is currently looking for her next remote opportunity where she can make use of her creative writing and communication skills. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about her at https://www.mehaksiddiqui.com/ or connect on Instagram @worldofmehak.