International hiring and working remotely
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a radical shift towards hybrid and remote working. In some industries, this was already a trend that’s merely been accelerated. Elsewhere, it’s a new development that businesses are learning to adapt to – and fast. The prevalence of remote working also has a considerable effect on hiring practices, especially when hiring internationally. Suddenly, remote hiring is a meaningful alternative to relocating new employees. Which effects is this having on hiring practices? What are the considerations when recruiting international employees? And how do you keep a company culture alive when everyone is working remotely? We spoke to a number of insiders from Amsterdam’s startup scene to hear their perspective.
Marieke van Iperen is a co-founder of Amsterdam-based Settly, a company that supports businesses with relocating international hires. She says that in the tech industry, things had already begun to change. “Even before the pandemic, we saw a trend of younger, more digital and on-demand talent moving abroad,” says Van Iperen. “Compared to the ‘old-school’ relocators, who came here on assignment for one to five years and had everything paid for by the company, this new generation was much more independent and experience-driven.” This new mobility, flexibility and international outlook works both ways. In addition to encouraging talent to move abroad for a job, it can also mean that people move away from their job, as remote working becomes a real option. In many cases, what was started by necessity is becoming more permanent, and the opportunities opened up by remote working are driving a longer-term shift to new working models and different ways of living.
“More than a year has passed since we went remote and none of our colleagues would want to move back to the office”
Cancelling the office lease
Sjors Mahler is commercial director of pr.co, a startup that builds newsrooms and software for PR teams. In 2020, his company took the step of becoming fully remote. “Working remotely is something that we talked about quite a bit as a team – it would come up during Friday drinks. More as a joke, or fantasy, but I think all of us were genuinely intrigued by the idea,” he says. “Then COVID made that decision very easy.” The move to cancel the lease on the company’s Amsterdam office was widely supported by pr.co’s employees, and the initial transition to remote working was not difficult, as some employees had already been working remotely for a part of their time. “We already had a lot of processes, tools and guidelines in place,” says Mahler. The move has been a success in the longer term, too. “More than a year has passed since that decision and none of our colleagues would want to move back to the office. Many of us have moved to live closer to family – for one colleague that’s Eindhoven, for another it’s Ecuador. Others moved abroad to chase a dream, in my case that’s Portugal.”
Hiring remotely to close the global talent gap
Someone who’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to remote working is Seun Owolabi, the Amsterdam-based co-founder of Propel. He and his co-founders started their business with the aim of closing the global talent gap by bringing African tech talent to the rest of the world – mainly by facilitating remote hires. “One of the running jokes at Propel is that we’ve been peddling remote work before remote work was sexy,” he says. “But to be honest, the logic was fairly simple. Back in Lagos (where we co-founders grew up), young people were becoming increasingly interested in tech – software development, product design, UI/UX, etc. Our first companies were digital agencies, with all our employees under 25 – and 99% of the work they did was on laptops. But as it is with most megacities, traffic in Lagos was a nightmare. So instead of letting people hop on a bus and spend two hours in traffic, just to come to the office, open up their laptop and then spend another three hours getting back home, we started making office trips optional, focusing on work delivery above physical presence.” He says that they were then able to take this further, without experiencing any negative impact on the work that was being delivered. Remote working “was crucial when we started travelling more, as we essentially ran our companies from different countries across the world without any significant loss in output. In hindsight, this was a natural progression for us, but I guess for others, it was necessitated by the pandemic. Different journeys, same destination.”
“Employee experience and wellbeing are becoming more important than ever”
A focus on employee happiness
For Propel, the destination was a favourable one. “The pandemic has accelerated our proposition in more ways than one, as companies have warmed up to remote work – firstly as a sustainable way of doing business, but more importantly, as an opportunity to tap into new markets like Africa,” says Owolabi. “When we kicked off Propel, we had to do a bit of convincing to present our value proposition. Now, our conversion rate after first calls stands at 95%. It’s a massive opportunity and we’re fortunate to be at the forefront.”
Propel are one of many businesses for which the situation has represented a step forward – “the pandemic has propelled the digital and tech industries to impressive heights,” says Van Iperen – and the ensuing demand for talent has resulted in a focus on employee satisfaction. “One of the things we’re seeing now is that employee experience and wellbeing are becoming more important than ever,” says Van Iperen. “Whether it’s because of the competitive job market, the changing HR landscape, the profile of international talent or because the companies that are growing simply have employee experience in their DNA… either way, my HR heart starts beating a little faster when we sit down with clients who see company culture and their employees’ experience as their key focus.”
Marcus Pask, manager of business recruiting at Miro, which provides an online whiteboard platform, also thinks remote working is more than a passing trend, saying “I think it’s here to stay.” Miro hires talent from all around the world and Pask notes that “usually, about one out of every ten candidates I speak to asks about remote work, which is a significant increase from previous years – where it used to be about one in a hundred.”
“Remote working gives us access to the most talented people”
Access to talent
In addition to often increasing employee satisfaction due to the flexibility it can provide, remote working offers a number of advantages to businesses. Mahler says: “We’ve had some unexpected perks! For example, we’ve just hired an account manager, and we received over 240 applications for that role, from all over Europe. For us, that’s unheard of – we’d usually receive 40 applications max.” For him, the fact that pr.co “were able to attract some incredible talent” in addition to having a “happy team that can live and work from anywhere they please, with a fantastic work-life balance” are the two main pros that come with remote working. And Owolabi says: “Across Africa, there are thousands of organisations doing incredible work in upskilling talent, building community and driving diversity in the tech scene. [Remote working] gives us access to the continent’s most talented people.”
What about productivity?
Those companies needing to adapt to the concept of remote working are usually concerned about two main factors: a loss of company culture and a drop in output. “One issue that every employer worries about is productivity,” says Mahler. “Going remote requires trust – you need to trust that your colleagues will continue to be focused and work as hard as before. Many employers are afraid going remote will negatively affect productivity. We’re a small team of eight employees and we work with more than 300 customers – we really couldn’t afford a drop in productivity.” However, in the case of pr.co, these concerns were unfounded. “I’m super proud of how our team has continued to get so much done. If anything, we probably work more efficiently than we did before.”
“It’s been amazing seeing companies’ ability to adapt to the pandemic”
Keeping up spirits
Watering down company culture and difficulties engaging employees is the other major concern. “Building a culture while your team is spread across the globe in different time zones can be a challenge,” says Van Iperen. “Having a strong leadership team will be key in making remote working a success.” Owolabi says many African companies had to adjust their mindset and circumstances significantly to accommodate remote working. “Africans have always been big on community, so in-person work had to be the norm, and other options were almost unheard of. Even contract staff needed to come into the office every day. There was also the infrastructure aspect, as your office was probably the best place you could get stable electricity and an uncapped internet connection. So there were more benefits to in-person work than working from home.” But this has changed. “It’s been amazing seeing most companies’ ability to adapt to the pandemic – especially corporates with their characteristic bureaucracy,” he says. “But with the massive demand for tech talent, companies have had no choice but to switch up their hiring processes to keep up with the times.”
“We had no idea how we were going to keep that culture alive as a remote business”
Mahler also says that keeping pr.co’s company culture alive was a main concern. “We are a very tightly knit team – some of us have been working together for more than seven years. We would see each other all the time (also after work), and we’d do lots of activities as a company. We are also a very opinionated bunch – with strong ideas about building a business, the world we live in, and PR and communications. We had no idea how we were going to keep that culture alive as a remote business.” He concludes that it takes effort, but is not impossible. “We’ve realised building culture requires a lot more attention when you work remotely. But we work hard to continue building on the culture that we’ve developed over the years; we go on an annual retreat with the entire team, we have monthly ‘winning’ meetings to celebrate the progress and wins we’re all making, and we have bi-weekly one-on-one meetings to make sure everyone’s happy and motivated.” You also have to be prepared to shake things up: “Something else we learned is that some rituals you have as a team have an expiration date. Meetings that used to make a lot of sense when we were still in the office turned out to be total energy drainers as a remote company. If this happens, we change or even cancel the ritual.” And, he says, it helps that pr.co still have a spiritual, if not physical, headquarters. “Our roots are still in Amsterdam. Many of our colleagues still live in the Netherlands. Every time I visit, we try to get together with the team at TNW City in Amsterdam, our old office, to work together for a morning and do something fun in the afternoon and evening.” Crucially, Mahler says that investing in team culture doesn’t just keep the team together, but will also help with attracting new talent.
At Miro, company culture is very important. “Meeting your teammates in the office and collaborating in person is part of what builds culture,” says Pask.
“You are building a culture of different thinking, different ways of working, different styles, different approaches”
Bringing diverse talent together
In this model, the advantages of hiring internationally actively feed into the company culture. “You are building a culture of different thinking, different ways of working, different styles, different approaches. It makes us more international, which I think is really great,” says Pask. “We have about 450 employees in Amsterdam now, and about 65, 70 nationalities. I would say that we’ve relocated at least 20% of them.” Having come from Perm, a Russian town near the Ural Mountains that is not particularly known as an international tech hub, founder Andrey Khusid is “a big advocate of knowing that there are amazing people all over the globe that could be suitable for our business,” says Pask. “And instead of just fixating on one or two locations, we should really be opening up our reach globally.” Especially in tech, this can be a necessity rather than a luxury. “We have brand-new roles being created constantly, we’ve grown by 1,000 people in the last year and we’re going to be adding another 1,000 next year,” says Pask. “To do that, you need to look at talent from all over the world. And since we’re a SaaS company, SaaS experience is key” – and not necessarily available in Europe at the scale that’s needed.
The complications of relocations
The disadvantage of relocating international employees is, of course, that “it takes a long time,” says Pask. “If you are speaking to a candidate, the recruiting process is usually extended by three, maybe four weeks, because there’s a lot more pitching and a lot more questions that you have to cover.” The actual relocation process, including arranging visas and addressing the plethora of other official matters and living arrangements that come with an international move, means that “it’s four to five months before you can move someone across.”
Van Iperen thinks that it’s crucial to focus on the emotional aspects of relocation, too. “Besides making sure all the functional boxes are checked, like arranging visas, booking flights, finding a home and, if necessary, a school for their kids, the key to a successful move is making sure they stay excited about their new adventure and feel like they land in a country where they can easily feel at home.” Pask adds: “Make sure that you have a process set in place with either an external company that can manage the relocation process for you, or, if you are bringing it in-house, realise that you need a big team to manage it, because this is everything from visas, the costs, transport of goods... it’s a big, big process. I would recommend finding a specialist vendor that you can partner with – someone that manages everything.”
Of course, remote working, if done across borders, also brings some bureaucracy with it. “Some unexpected issues popped up over the last year,” says Mahler. “The EU isn’t as unified as you might think – for colleagues that move abroad, you can’t simply stick with the existing Dutch contracts from before the company went remote. You’ll need to work out contract technicalities, which differ for each country.” Van Iperen adds: “One thing to be mindful of is the potential implications of remote work on local employment tax laws. Whether it’s regarding compensation, compliance, social security, insurances or where your people are liable to pay their income tax, doing due diligence is important to make a remote set-up a success.”
“You might find that not all colleagues love working remotely and start missing the office”
Strategy and preference
However, for many smaller companies, the significant cost of relocating international talent means that it is simply not an option. “What we’re seeing more often now are ‘hybrid’ arrangements,” says Owolabi, “where companies work with talent for three to six months remotely, then relocate them. This is more popular with startups and scale-ups. Corporates with more traditional structures (and strict data protection policies) still prefer to wait until the talent is physically present to begin the engagement.” When deciding whether to hire international talent remotely or whether to get staff on location or relocate them, strategic factors also come into play: “What is the company looking to achieve in terms of their product roadmap, and how do employees fit into this? This fundamentally informs the team dynamic.”
This is not to forget that not everyone actually strives for working remotely. “Motivations can differ per person, depending on cultural and economic background: for example, employees from emerging markets could value relocating to and working from a company HQ more than people that are already based in cost-of-living countries,” says Van Iperen. Simple personal preference is another factor. As Mahler puts it, “you might find that not all colleagues love working remotely and start missing the office.”
The future is hybrid?
There are different ways to define ‘hybrid’ working, but most broadly it’s been used for a combination of remote working and coming to the office. And for many companies, this is what may just offer the best of both worlds. “The last two years have definitely made the remote trend more popular, and for some employees it can be an interesting benefit,” says Van Iperen. “I do believe that for a company it should be part of a broader strategy. Consider what kind of company you want to build and what kind of people you would need to attract, and build your employer value proposition around this.”
“Companies will offer hybrid models tailored to individual needs”
For many businesses, an entirely remote model might be a step too far for the time being. Owolabi thinks finding a balance is the ideal option. “To be completely honest, running an entire business remotely is probably not the best approach for most companies. And this is not from a productivity or compliance standpoint. It’s purely from a human standpoint. Firstly, processes that lend themselves to depth (brainstorming, back-and-forth reviews, mentorship etc) are still inherently physical, and seem strange when coordinated solely over Zoom meetings. Secondly, people are wired for community. I recently met two members of our team for the first time, after over a year of working together, and the few days we spent together were incredible, and really helped increase our bond. So I see the reason why companies still want some sort of physical presence.” But he adds: “Luckily, there are new tools that are making these processes seem more natural in a virtual space, effectively infusing some semblance of humanity into the digital world.” Van Iperen says that while “the infrastructure and awareness around remote working has definitely improved in the last 20 months, making remote working a more viable addition to the EVP for many companies,” remote models won’t become standard “until we’ve tackled the challenge of actually staying connected with one another in a way that transcends the Zoom experience. That, however, is a much more difficult and long-term challenge, though I do believe it’s inevitable.” In the meantime, she suggests that “instead of offering just a fully remote or a 100% local set-up, companies will offer hybrid models tailored to individual needs, and create hubs in different countries where their people can move to for extended periods of time.”
In the end, as so often, it’s about supply and demand. “In the current job market, talent is leading in a lot of decisions, so finding ways to attract and retain the right talent will be a big factor in the decision whether to hire remotely, offer relocation or decide on a hybrid model,” says Van Iperen. And Owolabi adds: “With companies grappling with ‘the great resignation’ and with the move towards an open talent economy, companies are looking to get the best talent, no matter what it takes. Whatever needs to be done to make this happen will be done.”