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Going Remote-First at Cimpress and Vista

One organisation that has adopted a very proactive approach to the opportunities from remote working is Cimpress. Cimpress is the parent company of a dozen international companies, the best known of which is probably Vista (formerly known as Vistaprint).

Paul McKinlay is VP of Communications, and since mid-2020 Head of Remote First for Cimpress and Vista. At the December 2021 meeting of the European Smart Work Network, Paul set out why Cimpress has gone down this route and the difference it is making, in conversation with Andy Lake.

You can watch the full video here.

From Remote-Averse to Remote First

Before the pandemic struck, Cimpress and Vistaprint were, according to Paul McKinlay, very traditional and premises-focused in how work was organised. Homeworking was a rare exception. As was the case with many companies, however, a speedy reaction was needed to the lockdowns in March 2020, with a wholesale shift of office-based staff to working from home.

Unlike many organisations, however, Cimpress made an early decision to make the new arrangements permanent, and become a Remote First organisation.

As Paul puts it, “We went from remote-averse, to remote-forced, to Remote First. When we announced that, it was a gift to our team members of certainty at a time when there was zero certainty in the world.”

So at the outset, this helped people to organise and plan their work and childcare, and where they wanted to live. It’s notable that many other companies are still feeling their way to how they are approaching future ways of working, and nearly two years on are still to some extent mired in uncertainty.

What exactly is “Remote First”?

Remote First is not the same as being a completely virtual organisation. Cimpress and its component companies manufacture products, and though their offices have shrunk and changed in nature, in-person collaboration remains important. There’s also a recognition that at times people will need to hunker down at a desk for focus work while they are on site.

“I want Remote First to be a towering strength of our culture and a competitive advantage”

The culture shift was spearheaded by founder and CEO Robert Keane, who announced that he wanted “Remote First to be a towering strength of our culture and a competitive advantage”. So rather than ensure that people working remotely were not disadvantaged in any way, the idea was to change everyone’s mindset to revise every policy, process and procedure and way of working to work first for people working at home, and ensure that it also worked for people working in an office or based in a plant. So it signalled a complete reversal of thinking about how work is organised throughout the business.

“We don’t require any of our remote first team members to be anywhere at any point in time on a regular basis, “explained Paul. “When you do that, you lose 95% of the benefits of remote working. If I have to be somewhere one day a week then I can’t live a thousand miles away. We want team members to have absolute freedom to work where they want to, within certain guardrails.”

This is very much in line with a true smart working model, in contrast to the “hybrid” approaches we often her about that specify a minimum number of days on site or maximum remote working.

A revolution in recruitment

One area of policy and process that has been revised is recruitment. Removing the requirement to attend a specific workplace greatly expands the talent pool that can be drawn from. And Cimpress’ experience is that this kind of flexibility is a major attractor factor, with a 300% increase in applications for posts compared to before the pandemic.

70% of new hires during the pandemic said they applied because of the flexibility on offer. The majority of recruits do not live near a Cimpress office. As examples of the expansion of the recruitment geography, Paul cites the facts that employees now come from 30 US states, compared to 9 previously, and 14 regions within Spain compared to 1.

Engagement scores are up and improvements in work-life harmony are reported. Cimpress has set up dashboards to continue to monitor progress in these areas.

However, Paul is cautious about saying they have got everything right. It’s a continuing learning process, and he says there is still some way to go to get the onboarding process right.

What’s the impact on Cimpress’ offices?

The changing location of work has had an impact on both the requirement for offices and how they are designed.

Traditional offices with assigned seating have given way to hubs primarily designed for high quality collaboration when people do come on site.

In Paul’s part of the US, real estate has shrunk from around 300,000 sq ft to 75,000. And that may still be more than they need, given current levels of usage and people’s satisfaction with working remotely. There are areas of shared desking, but when people come in it is primarily for project work, teambuilding, socialising and other forms of in-person collaboration, and the space is designed for that.

Reduced costs are welcome, but haven’t been a driver. It’s all about creating the best work experience for employees, wherever they are working.

Seeking work-life harmony

Implementing Remote First has involved a strong focus on wellbeing and “work-life harmony”. Employees are encouraged to focus on their other priorities in life, not only work, as way to create the harmony needed when work is naturally more integrated into the home environment. They prefer “harmony” to “work-life balance”, which to Paul sounds precarious, like walking a tightrope and risking falling off either side.

“This transition has done more for our business than any other change in the eleven years I’ve been here”

To exercise control over their working day, employees are encouraged to have non-linear work days – that is, to avoid sitting at a desk all day, or have back-to-back video meetings. As with the leading virtual-only organisations, the use of asynchronous communications are promoted so that people need to have fewer meetings, and own more of their time to organise days in ways that are beneficial to them. And this includes spending more time with friends and family, rather than only (virtually) with work colleagues.

This approach to empowerment pays dividends. According to Paul McKinlay, “This ongoing transition has done more for our business than any other change in the eleven years I’ve been here”.


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