This post is the first article in our new “Remote First” series. We’ll be exploring what becoming a fully remote company means for the InterNations Team and how this policy will be implemented across different workstreams — from HR to IT support.
Going Remote First
Due to COVID-19, the InterNations Team has been working mostly from home for almost a year. We have faced quite a few resulting challenges together, especially in the beginning when working remotely was still a novelty. But when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade — i.e., you draft a new corporate policy. InterNations has embraced the concept of remote work and is now a remote-first company.
At the recent InterNations Kickoff 2021, Founders & Co-CEOs Malte and Philipp explained what this approach means for us. In last year’s employee satisfaction survey, only 5% stated that they’d like to return to the office full time, even in post-pandemic times. Though some of us have traded in slacks for sweatpants, neither our productivity nor our efficiency has been affected by working from home. By now, the sense of novelty has given way to a certain routine.
Consequently, the team members of InterNations and InterNationsGO! will be able to work from anywhere in Germany or Portugal at any time. Even working permanently from abroad may be possible, though the legal issues will need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. It’s a win-win for both the company and the team.
As a business, InterNations stands to gain from a more efficient use of office space and from having a larger recruiting pool of talented candidates who may not be able to relocate for a new job. And the entire team benefits from having greater flexibility and a better work-life balance (as anyone who’s ever been stuck in Munich’s infamous S-Bahn commuter chaos can attest to).
Although we’ve conducted all team meetings remotely since April 2020, the InterNations Kickoff 2021 was nonetheless a trial run for the new remote-first setup. In previous years, all New Work SE brands came together in the same location to receive group-wide updates and discuss business strategies. This year, the group-wide strategy update was held remotely, and many brands also organized their own virtual kickoff conferences.
“Goodbye, Pandemic — Hello, Future!”
The motto for the InterNations Kickoff 2021 might sound a little hard to imagine in Germany (currently under lockdown) and Portugal (currently a COVID-19 hot spot). However, Malte and Philipp began their presentations with an upbeat slideshow of recent in-person events in various InterNations Communities, such as Auckland, Shanghai, and Taipei, to remind us of what could be possible again soon for InterNations members worldwide.
With this optimistic outlook in mind, it was time for us to get into the nitty-gritty of our strategic objectives for the company, as well as the plans for several departments. The Q&A session after lunch demonstrated how invested our team members are in understanding the whys and wherefores behind business decisions and in achieving our goals. In addition to the 2021 road maps and the brand-new remote-first policy, we also received an update on our ongoing Sustainability Initiative.
In total, the InterNations and InterNations GO! Teams have planned 16 exciting strategic initiatives to keep us busy for the rest of the year and, in some cases, well into 2022. The deep dives on the second day gave us a first glimpse at six initiatives, with various teams presenting their most important or most urgent projects. Community Engagement Specialist Melody, for example, shared her extensive experience with online events, while the Content & Communications Department discussed exploring the impact of COVID-19 on expat life in the upcoming Expat Insider 2021 campaign.
The presentations from Product & Engineering proved particularly helpful for less tech-savvy team members to understand what our Product Experience Teams will be working on: using single-page application architecture to reengineer our user interface, as well as designing a new prototype for the entire InterNations platform. Last but not least, the sales executives from InterNations GO! helped us gain a better understanding of their new product, the relocation consultancy call.
“The individual sessions offered insights into other teams and gave me a good idea of what my colleagues are doing,” a team member wrote in their feedback afterward.
Organizing a Virtual Conference 101
The drawback of having a two-day virtual event: it was rather exhausting to just sit at our desks and keep listening attentively. At an in-person conference, you get up and switch venues in between presentations, you make small talk while standing in line to grab a coffee, and you use the scheduled “bathroom break” for a quick walk around the block. So, our hosts and organizers had to tackle the challenge of keeping more than 100 silent listeners awake, alert, and engaged.
“I hoped things would go off without a hitch for everyone because I’d seen firsthand how much work the speakers put into their presentations and how concerned they were about making them interesting,” says Public Relations Manager Stephanie, who guided us smoothly through the program as one of the co-hosts. Behind the scenes, she also served as the official timekeeper to ensure that all the speakers stayed on schedule and left enough time for a Q&A session after their talk.
While Stephanie never had to invoke the strict time limit for the individual presentations, she had other things to worry about: “I was very nervous because I’d never hosted an online event before, let alone a two-day one. I think I was even more nervous than the one time when I hosted a political panel discussion during my career as a journalist. It felt a bit awkward to present such an important event largely without seeing the audience. Hosting an online event just doesn’t feel as interactive — you miss out on all the non-verbal communication with your audience. It’s hard, not being able to tell if they’re perhaps losing interest.”
Since all the speakers would face this problem, interactive elements were a part of the preparations right from the start. “We wanted to provide the presenters with some live feedback instead of them just talking into their mike and camera,” says Franziska, our Team Lead Product Content, who doubled as our “Slido-master” for the event. “And we especially wanted to give the audience a way to participate in polls and ask questions. Sometimes, when giving a presentation, you can just tell when someone has a question from how much they’re itching and squirming in their seat — this gets lost online. But audience participation tools, such as Slido, can help bridge this gap, at least to some extent.”
During the breaks between the presentations, it was Community Engagement Specialist Christoph’s job as a co-host to avoid potentially awkward silences and get the participants to chat over a cup of coffee, no standing in line required. Of course, every kickoff event also needs an afterparty, so there was a Surprise Online Social on the first night.
“I must admit that at first, I wasn’t quite sure if I should stay till the very end because I was so tired that day,” Stephanie confesses. “But our colleagues Alex and Sarah did such a great job at organizing the social event. It was really amazing, and I enjoyed it so much that I actually stayed up past my planned bedtime.”
The party started with a musical journey from Bob Marley to Lady Gaga in the form of a fun guess-the-song challenge, which was followed by a round of speed networking and an adapted version of the popular social deduction game Werewolf.
Knowing Where We Stand — The Bottom Line
Happily, our trial balloon for future remote-first team events didn’t crash and burn — quite the opposite actually, though there’s always room for improvement. In a team survey conducted after the InterNations Kickoff 2021, the respondents gave it an overall score of 4.24 points out of 5.
Their comments offered constructive criticism and valuable feedback for future virtual events, from fine-tuning the schedule and avoiding “information overload” to expanding the interactive elements and improving the social opportunities. But the general response was overwhelmingly positive. “I felt really connected to the team and the work we do, even though it was all remote, which I found surprising and impressive,” a respondent commented. “I also liked that the CEOs were optimistic in their outlook, while being as transparent and honest as possible.”
Most team members described their mood after the InterNations Kickoff 2021 as tired but well informed and, above all, motivated. “It’s good to know where we stand as a company and where we are going,” as one colleague sums it up. Let’s keep up this team spirit and get to work — wherever we are!
Image credit: InterNations / iStockphoto / Pexels