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Our journey to becoming a remote-first company

by maria
Editorial & Advertiser disclosure

How Cactus Communications has embraced remote first employment  

Over the past 12 years, rates of remote working have grown by 159 per cent. This has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has given many businesses the tools and experiences they need to make the transition to remote working. Cactus Communications, a technology company accelerating scientific development has recently announced its plans to become a remote-first company. Here Abhishek Goel, CEO at Cactus Communications, explains why the company has taken this decision now and its implications.

Based in Mumbai, CACTUS currently employs around 1,200 full-time members of staff and around 4,000 freelancers and casual workers that are based in over 90 different countries. In 2020, CACTUS had an incredibly high number of remote work opportunities and ranked 12th among approximately 57,000 companies in the Top 100 Companies to Watch for Remote Jobs in 2021. In November 2021, CACTUS made the decision to become a remote-first company. This means that, while CACTUS will continue to have physical offices, working remotely is the primary option for all employees.

The idea of going remote-first was expressed elegantly in a conversation I recently had with Yashmi Pujara, Cactus’ chief human resource officer. She explained, “Becoming remote-first opens up the global talent pool. We can provide opportunities to the best talent, regardless of their geographic location.”

Remote work options also offer employees and freelancers the much-needed flexibility to reconcile with the new normal. It has meant that Cactizens, the unique term we call those that work for CACTUS, have been able to move back to their hometowns while pushing towards their career goals. This desire to move home can also be seen in the UK through research carried out by Rightmove, which showed enquiries from London residents about purchasing or renting homes in villages rose by 144 per cent in the summer of 2020 compared to the previous year.

Working remotely can also have a big impact on employee wellbeing. It can encourage independence and build problem-solving skills. Employees are able to take control of their own schedule, making time to exercise or drop children off to school. It also means that employees can drastically reduce their commuting time, decreasing their carbon footprint and the amount they spend on transport. Overall, this allows for greater control of work-life integration and increases productivity and employee satisfaction.

As a business, we have been thinking about becoming remote-first for a long time. When developing our remote-first model, we surveyed employees in 2020 to understand their work preferences and challenges. We found that 86 per cent of employees wanted flexibility in how and where they worked, with 38 per cent wanting to work remotely full-time.

A core team within CACTUS then benchmarked other remote-first companies and spoke with industry thought leaders to educate themselves further on best practices. Learning these new work practices were vital in gaining insight on what would work best for CACTUS. One of the actions taken was to build up a robust HR team of 60 to 70 people to establish a good HR to employee ratio, so any concerns could be handled quickly and effectively. They have also used an AI software to check in with employees, the data of which can be captured for leaders to learn from.

The concept of remote working isn’t new for CACTUS, which has been promoting remote work opportunities for the past ten years. In 2020, they offered 2,559 new remote positions despite the onset of the pandemic. These positions included freelance, contract, and full-time openings across a wide variety of subject areas for their editorial, translation, and publication support services.

Many businesses may not have considered remote work in the past because of logistical implications, such as lack of equipment and IT infrastructure. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic changed this, making it a more viable option for employers. However, some employers are uncertain on remote-first because of challenges they have faced during the pandemic.

The lockdowns governments implemented meant many people were thrown into remote working by surprise with both employees and employers feeling unprepared. Stress was amplified as people faced a lack of job security, sickness, isolation and bereavement.

Having become remote-first, one of the first actions we took was to appoint a head of remote-first. In July 2021, Jason Morwick took up this post at CACTUS. Speaking at a recent company meeting he explained, “We have to remind ourselves that being remote during the pandemic is much different to how it will be after the pandemic. There will be more options and flexibility in the future. However, it will require a change of mindset.”

Employees seem to agree. According to the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey, 54 per cent of employees surveyed from across 16 countries would consider leaving their job after the COVID-19 pandemic if they were not afforded flexibility in where and when they could work.  However, there has been push back from many managers who believe working in the office builds a stronger workforce.

A poll by the Chartered Management Institute found that half of UK managers expected staff to be in the office at least two to three days a week. This has not deterred companies like CACTUS that see remote-first as the future.

Over the next year, CACTUS will spend its time adapting policies, processes and training to better suit a remote context at a team and department level. Honing the skill of online collaboration will have its difficulties but they believe that risk is necessary to develop a stronger, happier workforce.

Businesses need to stop equating remote working to doing the same old things from a distance. This will be difficult as, for many countries, working in an office has been central to business culture for decades. We need to rethink and reinvent how to work together if we want to embrace this new working environment. In the end, this remote-first approach gives us greater freedom and flexibility, improving our overall livelihoods.


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