How to OpenWork: Three Things Litmus Does to Support Remote-First Culture

Started by three high school pals attending three different universities, email optimization firm Litmus has been remote first since day one. Here’s how they do it.


Every day, dozens of emails land in your inbox from colleagues, friends and favorite brands. And while you may spend too much time thinking about the comings and goings of those messages, the tech geeks at Litmus sure do. Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Litmus provides testing and analytics for over 50 email apps and programs so that digital marketers and designers alike can breathe a sigh of relief knowing their campaigns look great and perform well before hitting send.

At Litmus, employees enjoy what they call “Remote-First Culture.” A far cry from the standard churn-and-burn startup model, this guiding principle means that no matter how much office space Litmus holds, employees are encouraged to work where and when they work best. While some employees work in one of three Litmus offices located in Cambridge, London and San Francisco, nearly half work remotely from locales as far flung as Pakistan, Hawaii, Ecuador and Toronto.

What Is Remote-First?

Litmus Founders
Litmus Founders (left to right) David Smalley, Paul Farnell and Matthew Brindley (Image: Litmus)

Litmus began as a remote-first company almost by accident. Founders Paul Farnell, Matt Brindley and David Smalley each attended different universities, so remote-first was built into the culture from the beginning. “At the time, there was no need, or any money, for an actual office, so we worked from wherever we could,” says Paul. “The bulk of our work was done in solitude, so we learned how to communicate and work independently at the outset.”

As the company grew, Litmus built on what CEO Farnell dubbed remote-first culture — whether or not employees head into a Litmus office or their local coffee shop, even if that coffee shop is in Central America, everyone is treated equally. Says Farnell, “One misconception about remote work is that it hinders collaboration. In my experience, the inverse is more likely: offices hinder independent work.” As a result, Litmus employees view remote as a mindset, not a place. Remote work isn’t just about traveling the world (although that’s pretty great), but about creating an environment that empowers every employee to get their best work done and enjoy their lives and families, too.

Litmus’ Three Core Tenets of Remote-First Culture

1. Commitment

Litmus has found that it’s essential to commit 100 percent to being remote in all endeavors, whether someone is in the office or not. “Unless every person is in the same room, all meetings are held over videoconference,” notes Farnell as an example. That means Litmus employees don’t need to come into an office, even if they’re close by. And, even though Litmus has over 15,000 square feet of office space, the majority of the company works remotely at least some of the time. By staying committed to the concept of remote-first, no employee feels left out or held to a different standard, regardless of their work location and style.

2. Communication

“Make sure everyone knows where and how to communicate,” advises Farnell. Because remote-first is a mindset, Litmus employees communicate purposefully in specific tools — Google docs for copy, Basecamp for status updates, file sharing in Dropbox, and day-to-day chats in Slack. The primary challenge with remote work is the inherent disconnection from the face-to-face environment. Slack, in particular, lets employees feel engaged and connected through greetings and updates throughout the day.

Litmus employees
 Team bonding over lunch and video games. (Image: Litmus)

3. Camaraderie

Perhaps most important to their remote-first approach is Litmus’ dedication to socialization and team bonding whenever possible. Every call uses BlueJeans, a video conferencing tool that allows employees to chat nearly face-to-face. Whether it’s Coworkers with Coffee, a weekly random match for a no-business-allowed coffee meeting, their yearly company retreat, reuniting at The Email Design Conference, or playing online video games together, building a culture of camaraderie means more than just working together. It builds the empathy and team spirit that’s crucial to making remote-first work.

Remote-First Is Intrinsic to Litmus Culture

Today, Litmus employees find it hard to imagine the company without remote work as its cornerstone. It’s not only what attracts employees to the company, but it’s also what makes them stay. Allowing employees to work the hours that make sense to them anywhere in the world opens up the company to new talent, but also gives everyone the flexibility to how they prefer and perform best.

“I firmly believe that just because an office exists, doesn’t mean employees are required to work in it,” says Paul. “Offices matter, but not as much as happy, productive employees.”


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