FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton on what newly remote companies tend to get right and wrong

Over the last few months, just about any tech company that can go remote has gone remote.

Are companies adopting remote for the long haul, or is it just a holdover until they can get people back in the office? What are newly remote companies getting wrong or right in the transition? If a company is going to be sticking with a remote workforce, what can they do to make their roles more enticing and to build a better culture?

FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton has been thinking about remote work for longer than most. She founded FlexJobs in 2007 — at a time when she herself was looking for a more flexible job — as a platform tailored specifically for jobs that didn’t keep you in an office all day. In 2015 she also founded Remote.co, a knowledge base for remote companies and employees to share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

I recently got a chance to chat with Sara about her views and insights on remote work. Here’s the transcript of our chat, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

TechCrunch: Can you tell us a bit about what FlexJobs does?

Sara Sutton: We help people find remote and other kinds of flexible jobs — remote is predominantly the interest for our job seekers. We curate [these jobs]; we really go to great lengths to screen them and make sure that they are viable, professional jobs. No scams, and we don’t allow MLMs, commission-only, or any other kind of lower quality jobs. All of our jobs have some clear professional path associated with them.

FlexJobs itself is a remote company, is that right?

Yes! FlexJobs has been remote for over 13 years — since we started. We’ve loved it, and it’s been amazing to see the field grow. We’re happy to have been able to contribute to some of it, in terms of sharing knowledge and paying it forward.

How big is your team?

About 100.

Where is everybody? Mostly U.S., or all over the world?

Primarily U.S., but we’re all over.

What made you decide to go remote in the first place? 13 years ago … that’s way before most people were doing remote.

A little bit of history on me: This is my second time starting a job company. I actually started the first online entry level job service back in ’95. I dropped out of Berkeley and started that site really early on. We sold that to Korn Ferry International in 2000, 2001. So I am not your average job seeker, I guess I’d put it. My history in the space is quite deep.

Fast forward to when I was looking for a flexible job — my personal reason was that I was pregnant with my first child, but I wanted something that would allow me to stay in line with my career path but also have the flexibility to be the kind of parent that I wanted, which was to be a little more present.

For me, it was my own personal search. When I started looking at the market of what was out there, I was shocked to find how difficult it was to find these needle-in-a-haystack jobs. There was a lot of interest in them … but most of them were very low quality, or hard to find, or buried under other jobs. There were about 20 different keywords to find these types of jobs — work from home, work at home, remote, distributed, anywhere, virtual, etc. 

It was pretty confusing for a job seeker. I wanted to solve that pain point and create a high-quality resource that you trusted to help people find these jobs faster, easier and more safely.

But from the very beginning I was really keenly aware that I didn’t want … I identified that remote work was not just for working women or mothers in particular. This was really something that was wanted and needed by all kinds of people and that also has a ton of benefits for employers. I wanted to keep it quite broad in terms of who our audience was, as well as the industries we served.

Obviously the whole remote landscape has kind of shifted in the last couple of months. Have things changed much for FlexJobs?

It’s been … a very busy time.

Although all of this is absolutely not the reason we would’ve wanted remote work to be thrust into the forefront of how we work, it has also been a big opportunity for employers to learn how and why it’s necessary and beneficial to their organization from productivity, engagement and … quite honestly, insurance standpoints — meaning that you can ensure your company can remain productive and engaged during times of crisis or during times when you need to be more flexible with how people work.

It’s been exciting in that sense. It’s been, I believe, a tipping point. I do believe that all responsible, forward-thinking companies will have to integrate some element of remote work moving forward just because of this experience. It’s shaved probably 10, 15 years off of the adoption cycle as we’d seen the trend going.

Does it seem like most companies you’re seeing are in it for the long haul?

It’s a good question. I think that many organizations who have been … let’s say, dragging their feet aggressively to not adopt remote work are now using it and they’re evangelizing it and saying they’re fully committed.

I would say I’m a little skeptical on some of that, because as quickly as you go in, you can come out.

But I do think that employers have seen that this impacts their financial bottom line, and that will make this a more staying trend that they have to incorporate into their work forces moving forward. 

I don’t think it’s fully going to swing back, but I do think there will be a pendulum swing a bit … you’ll see some companies, who if they don’t keep it at the front of their mind, will let it go by the wayside. 

Of the companies I’ve spoken to, or seen making announcements recently, there’s kind of a mix. Some are saying, “We’re happy to stay fully remote for the long haul!” Then there’s those that say, “Oh, you know, we’re going to kind of mix it. We’ll let people go back to the office, and let other people decide to stay remote.”

Does that second option actually … work? Does a mix of remote and co-located employees tend to work out?

A hybridized workforce can absolutely work, but it does take intentionality. 

Of the scenarios — being all on-site, all remote or hybridizing — it’s probably the most challenging, because you have to address to some degree the balancing out of what’s included in an office, and making sure that your remote workers are also included.

In that, though, is a really interesting and important opportunity with inclusiveness. For example, a lot of Fortune 500s we’ve spoken with, for example — when they go remote, they’ll almost treat all workers as remote workers. For example: if you’re having a meeting and one person can’t be there, you’d generally all meet on video [with individual cameras], instead of having one person up on the big screen who can kinda hear, kinda can’t.

The other beautiful thing about remote work is it’s not one-size fits all. It’s something that truly, depending on the makeup of your team and the communication styles of your team, you can customize to work best for you. But in customizing, you have to pay attention to what that means; you have to ask questions, you have to get feedback, you have to measure results. I think ultimately those are best practices and things we should be doing anyway, whether you’re in an office or not — but it does force the issues, a little bit, when you have a hybridized situation.

When it comes to benefits, for example. It’s a great opportunity to think [about] benefits you have for your in-office workers, to make sure that they’re inclusive for everyone. Something like, for example, Happy Hour Fridays. That might sound inclusive … but it’s actually not. If you’re a working parent and you have to rush home to the babysitter, it’s inherently leaving people out. Or you have a long commute and have to catch that train … it’s very different things for different people. Remote benefits can be much more equally accessible.

What are some of those benefits that those looking for remote roles tend to look for? Silicon Valley tech companies are known for these kind of … almost silly “perks.” “We have pool tables and candy dispensers!” and whatnot — things that are ultimately fun, but no one’s really looking for that. What are the perks that remote workers actually looking for?

It’s a mix. My first company had a pingpong table back in ’97, or basketball hoops in a different room … you have these really fun things, and they’re buzzy and great … but how many people actually use them?

When you look at remote work, the kinds of benefits people are looking for are probably around the home office setup — some kind of stipend, or [provided] technology setup. It depends on what you’re doing and what the role is — maybe it’s a dual monitor, but if you’re a traveler, or a “digital nomad,” maybe you’ll need a different setup, something you can take with you. Some sort of tech stipend for all that can be very helpful.

We also do a lot of flexible scheduling. That’s something thats largely bucketed into benefits historically, but it’s something that can be incredibly beneficial for both the employer and the worker.

And we do fun things. People get birthdays off, we send flowers for people’s birthdays. Go through a conscientious effort to find the best parts of the culture or benefits of an office and think about how those can translate into a remote environment. For example … on Halloween, I loved going over to someone’s desk, grabbing a little bit of their favorite candy  — so now when people on-ramp, we ask a lot of questions, and one of them is “What’s your favorite candy?” Come Halloween, we’ll send out little candy care packages for everybody. Or for team meetings, we’ll do pizza parties sometimes, and deliver pizzas right to people’s doors. It’s different versions, sure, but there are things you can do to make people feel included and very special.

We’ve been honored to have won Outdoor magazine’s Top 50 places to work last year, and several culture awards from other organizations. Creating culture and making people feel special and valued as part of the compensation package, but also as a part of who they are … it’s really important. And it’s very, very possible with remote work.

What tools does you use as a company? What is FlexJobs tool stack?

There’s a bunch of different ones. Some teams use Slack very heavily, and we use JIRA for project management. We’ve used Sococo over the years, which is like an architect schema of an office building, essentially; you can see who’s in what [virtual] office, and then you can similarly just click on their office and, say, knock on the door. I’d hear a knock on my door, and say “Come on in.” That was something we’ve been using even pre-Slack. Zoom we’ve used for a long time.

Are there any gaps in the toolset that you’re seeing out there? Are there tools that don’t exist that remote companies could really use?

What I would suspect is that there are tools that exist that we’re not even necessarily up on yet.

I’m just testing out Workona recently — a tab management system. That’s one thing: having 900 tabs and never being able to find things.

Overall we’ve really gotten to a place where we’re always looking for newer and better. But it’s really not just about only doing new/better; it’s about finding what’s best for your team.

The flip side of all these [new] tools and platforms can be creep. You don’t want to have so many different platforms that all different kinds of teams are using.

I know some companies mandate, you know, you use this project manager, everyone uses this project management tool. We don’t go that far; we have some teams that use Trello, some teams that use JIRA, some that used to use Basecamp. But we do try to reassess every once in a while — internal reviewing and assessing so that you don’t have overlapping and unnecessary costs.

One thing I’ve heard as a common challenge from founders of remote companies is that when they put a new role out there … just the sheer number of applications that they get. It’s a good problem to have, I guess, but it’s still a challenge. When you’re staring at five or six hundred applications for one role, how do you even start to narrow it down?

One of the goals of FlexJob is that if you post a job on here, you actually get fewer but higher quality candidates. Because we’re a low-cost subscription service, our job seekers are more invested and a little bit higher quality in general.

That being said: Be really clear in what you’re looking for and have that scorecard concept. Did the jobseeker follow every single instruction on the application? I really look at the beginning, because if a candidate isn’t going to put 110% forward on the application, what kind of employee are they going to be?

Beyond that, have different tests very early on in the process. For the first … you know, 50% that get to that mark, give them some sort of simple task. Not-a-heavy-ask at all, maybe ten minutes. It just kind of helps filter it down for us before we get to the interview stages where things are a little more in-depth and time consuming.

It’s important to look at your hiring process. You know, it’s interesting: Right now, with so many people doing remote work, I’ve actually done more video calls in the last three months than I’ve had in the last 13 years. We don’t use video internally as a primary default. We use the phone and screen sharing, and I think there are a lot of pros to that. I understand why people are using video so heavily right now particularly … but with interviewing, we don’t use video unless there’s a really specific need for it, like it’s an on-camera role or something that’s very public facing. 

It’s something to consider, because you hear a lot more [on the phone]. There’s less distraction. There’s something really valuable about the phone — I’m trying to encourage everyone who is a little overdosed on video to remember that there’s other mediums of communication.

I get that. If I’m in a meeting and I can just be on voice, my insights and ideas tend to be 1000x better because I’m not focusing on trying to make eye contact with someone who literally can’t make eye contact with me. I walk away from it feeling so much less fatigued.

Yeah, it’s pretty intense! And it can mean higher bandwidth usage in their home, and tech issues and it can also just be pretty distracting. 

In an ideal scenario … like, it looks like you have a nice home office setup. I’ve had a home office setup for a long time. But certainly in the more recent scenarios where people are working in all kinds of locations around their home, it can actually be challenging. Both with distractions, movement and noises … but even personal information that organizations have to be careful of, so that they’re not violating HR law, technically, in some of the information that might be gathered in these video calls.

Voice is really underestimated. Really being able to listen to people is a skill that, in many ways, could be improved upon.

Being this close to coworkers [she gestures at the distance between herself and her camera] … really, how often are you a foot or two away for like an hour, staring at your coworker? You’re really not. You’re around a conference room, or you’re milling about [an office]. It’s a little bit different.

I know for a lot of companies and folks who rely heavily on video, being “face-to-face,” in theory, can make a team feel more unified. So what other ways can you do that? I know that a lot of teams used to fly everybody out for these “retreats” — take everyone out to these vacation destinations, so they can bond over a campfire. In the middle of a pandemic, that’s probably … a little bit less enticing. How else can you make a team feel like one?

It really starts with the basics. 

We’re in a pretty different era of remote companies right now. When I started FlexJobs, there were very few models of this. So much about how I was creating it was just on instinct … but it was also just about, mostly, heart. 

Really consider how you want your company to be. Really consider how your culture is.

Culture is intentional. If you don’t make it intentional, you’ll still have a culture … it will just be a bad one. 

That’s one of the things that I think is an important reminder for remote work: You have to think about it. There are a lot of companies that don’t actually think about their culture, and they just rely on the fact that they’re all in-person, and it kind of just evolves. 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly worked in toxic offices. The stories out there are abundant. Being in an office isn’t inherently good; being in an office doesn’t equal having a healthy culture, or making people feel engaged. 

There are a lot of people who express that, whether it’s the politics of the office, or clique-y ness, or disruptions, or lack of consideration amongst coworkers … there’s a lot of things that can really be harmful to a company’s engagement of workers. I don’t even mean that as a criticism; it’s something to be aware of.

We’ve taken a survey for the last seven years — every year, we do an annual super survey. One of the questions we ask is: If you had a really important job to deal with, a project, where would you go to get it done? Over 80% say they would not [do it] in the office during work hours. 

That’s unfortunate, right? I mean, that’s a problem in how we’re working. So when you think about that … okay, let’s ask the reason why. And a lot of the reasons have to do with distractions, uncomfortable workplaces. 

Can you elaborate on what you mean by making culture intentional? How do you do that in a remote setup?

Think through how you treat your people and your stakeholders. Have a mission statement.

I think mission statements get, yeah, to some degree [she makes finger quotes] “mission statement.” But really … what are the words that are core, what are the values that are core to your organization? How is that going to guide you with every interaction?

For us it’s integrity. That’s number one and has been. But probably the most valued trait is practiced communication. Those are both really important things, and we treat people that way and with care both internally and externally.

Think through how to show that; don’t just say it.  

Caring about people’s birthdays, caring about when they mentioned last week that a family member was ill and asking about that. They’re small human connections, but I think they’re a core of culture. 

I really think it’s about the human connections. 

Any common mistakes you see companies — those that have been doing this for a while, or were recently thrust into remote work — or employees getting wrong with regards to remote work?

I think there are a lot of historical stigmas and associations with remote work.

Typically it’s not all-or-nothing. So that’s one thing I think people do … I’ll say, “get wrong.” But right now, in a pandemic situation, we’ve had to do it all-or-nothing. But really, overall … like I say we’re a 100% remote company, but I still see my team sometimes.

The hardest part is getting set up. No matter whether you’re going to be a permanently remote worker or not, it’s always the hardest to get all the systems and your workspace dialed in. But I do think that getting a workspace dialed in is really important. If you’re three months into the pandemic and still finding yourself hopping around different places in your home, or finding yourself in a busy area of your house … try to identify, is that working for you? 

If it is, great! If not, try to find a place where you can actually set up and get into a mental space when you sit down at your desk and be productive and engaged. Investing — even if it means a small cost or asking your employer if they’ll supplement for small tools that’ll make your job easier (such as noise-cancelling headphones or a better video camera, or the little things that might help make your space more comfortable) — is really important. 

Being comfortable is important! Don’t be sitting in a folding chair anymore, please, unless you don’t have any other options.

Communicate and think of your team members as you would family that’s not nearby. Realize that relationships aren’t just built in person; they can absolutely be built remotely. We keep in touch with people remotely all the time! If you’ve ever worked in a large organization that had a different headquarters, you’ve worked with people in a distributed manner. It’s the same thing whether you’re seven desks away, seven floors away, seven buildings away … seven countries away, in some cases (except for the time differences.) But it really … if you’re using cloud-based technology, it’s really very transferable. 

Any final advice for companies finding themselves suddenly remote?

Keep an open mind. Really take the time to consider not just how this has been hard and different … but [see it] as an opportunity to rethink how you work.

I was on a panel recently and somebody said that they had hoped to get through this with some level of productivity, but they didn’t expect the same [levels]. But they were actually surprised! In some areas they were definitely getting the same, but they were also identifying that there was almost this … their term was “creative amplification” that they were seeing in certain roles. They worked in a design role, so that made sense. But they were really surprised it was actually better.

Why? Look at those why’s, look at the glimmers. We talk a lot about the future of work and what that means. Part of that is rethinking how we work.

We have all this wonderful technology. We’ve had it for decades, in some cases — but much more so in the past 10 years. Let’s use it! Especially tech companies; we have this opportunity, why would we possibly want to work the way we were 30, 40 years ago, all in the office? There’s beautiful parts of this, both for the workers and for the companies.

It’s been a really interesting opportunity for employers to tap into their empathy. We’ve all been humanized through this.

Even myself … I think I could be considered a pro remote worker, right? 13 years! But this has been harder for sure. I’ve got two children. And I don’t have childcare. And they’re not in school.

I think there’s a real empathy here, in that we all have seen how life has mixed in to work more than ever before. And that’s wonderful! We should see each other as humans more. And it gives us an opportunity to maybe eliminate some of that commute time and spend more time with our kids, and our family and our friends.

Honestly, I’ve loved seeing my coworker’s families running around in the background [of video calls], or seeing their dogs stomping around and barking behind them. I’d never have gotten that side of things in the office.

I think it’s really amazing. For employers who are happy about that, it’s really nice. There are, unfortunately, still quite a few old school managers who that angers, or who let that work against the employee. That’s one of the things I’m concerned about during all this; I think that employers do have to realize that we’re all juggling a lot, and to, again, tap into that empathy and understanding.

I had one of my fantastic team members come to me and say “Sara … I’m sorry, but I’m like a C- today.”

I know her situation. It’s hard, basically. She has children at home — but it’s not just about the kids. It’s a lot.

I think what employers have to think is … think about the context around us. If everything is optimal, I want to be an A-player every day. I even would like to be an A-player when it’s not optimal! But when it’s really suboptimal, when it’s pretty darn hard … and you know what, you’re still performing pretty well? In my book you’re an A.

Because everything that’s going on? It’s really hard. The context has changed. Every day, it’s getting a little better — but we’ve had a lot going on in this country lately, and it’s a lot of stress. Pay attention to the mental health of your team members, and yourself.