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Linda Nguyen had never worked remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and her employer, the financial tech company Affirm, sent everyone to work from home. At first, it was a challenge.

“I had to figure out how to establish some routines to better separate work and life, and clearly define the beginning and end of the work day,” says Nguyen, a director of software engineering at Affirm. Today, she loves the flexibility of working remotely—and even moved to Hawaii for a few months.

Affirm—which is headquartered in San Francisco and has offices in Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and Toronto—is ensuring that this flexibility continues for the entire company. In fact, a few months into the pandemic, they made the decision to permanently become a remote-first company.

“Remote-first is the assumption that everyone is remote as a default, as opposed to the assumption that everyone’s in the office and some people are remote,” says Aleah Warren, a diversity, equity and inclusion manager at Affirm. (The company plans to keep its offices so employees can work in person some or all of the time if they choose.)

Throughout the transition to remote-first, Affirm has cultivated an environment that stresses the importance of employee well-being. They’ve created new perks, reimagined company events, and are offering a transparent compensation structure for those who want to move to a different city. Here’s a closer look at all the ways Affirm is redefining remote-first culture.

Employees Have a Voice

Soon after the pandemic forced everyone inside their homes, Affirm surveyed its employees about remote work to see “how they were coping and what their pain points were,” Warren says. The results revealed that parents with children at home and underrepresented groups, including women and people of color, were struggling the most.

In response, the company began allowing more flexible work hours and stopped holding meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Affirm also added 24 Away Days when the offices are closed and employees are not required to log on for work (on top of the generous paid time off already offered)

“We wanted to meet people where they were and give them more flexibility in terms of how they could do their job,” Warren says.

Since going remote-first, Affirm has continued to survey employees to keep tabs on how everyone is feeling about remote work.

Money to Spend on Tech, Food, Wellness, and More

With three catered meals a day, gym memberships, and educational stipends, the list of employee perks has always been a big draw at Affirm. But a big question arose around how to adjust these benefits to adapt to a remote-first approach, says Brooks Hosfield, the Chief of Staff.

The solution: digital flexible spending “wallets” that would cover expenses in four broad categories. Every U.S. employee gets stipends each month, including $200 to spend on home office purchases like a monitor or standing desk, $220 to buy food, and $250 to support wellness. (There’s also a one-time S.A.F.E. Journey wallet of $20,000 to pay for family planning, including surrogacy, adoption, fertility treatments, and egg freezing.)

“If you're going to be working from home, you know best what’s missing from your set-up to make you more comfortable and productive,” says Hosfield, who purchased noise-canceling headphones.

The wallets can cover anything from pet insurance to student loan payments or fitness classes, says Warren, who’s used her funds to get massages and facials. It’s all about supporting employees and giving them more flexibility.

A Transparent Compensation Structure

Affirm overhauled its compensation structure, designing it to help employees make informed decisions if they want to move anywhere outside the company’s hubs.

Now, there’s a four-tier geographic differential structure in the U.S. that’s applied to base salary levels for every pay grade, Warren says. Compensation is adjusted based on location, cost of labor, and the demand for work in that area. 

“We wanted to make it really clear what people are getting paid, why they’re getting that amount, and what the potential impact is to them if they move around,” Warren says. To promote transparency, the structure is available online for anyone to review at any time.

Virtual Events That Keep Employees Connected

Events have always been a key part of Affirm’s culture, and the company didn’t want to lose out on that just because they couldn’t work in person. Therefore, Affirm transitioned to virtual platforms to host everything from cooking and fitness classes to a speaker series to trivia games.

Ensuring connectedness while working remotely increases employee well-being and performance, Warren says, especially for people from underrepresented groups.

“We want to make sure their networks within the company are alive and well so they can be in the mix and make sure their voice is heard and that they're getting the development opportunities they need, and that doesn't always just happen in a meeting setting,” she says.

Before the pandemic, Nguyen’s teams had board game sessions on Fridays, which they’ve continued virtually—even adding a virtual escape room as a team-building experience.

A Positive Impact on D&I

Going remote-first has not only helped with the retention of current employees, but has also opened up the possibilities when it comes to recruiting new ones—with the end result of building a more inclusive company.

“It has suddenly changed who can work at Affirm, driving a much larger pool of folks,” Hosfield says. “We’re able to meet them where they are not just physically, but also how they work, and provide that flexibility. This can appeal to a whole other set of people with different circumstances that maybe we weren’t reaching before.”

Nguyen agrees that being able to hire from anywhere increases the diversity of prospective employees. In fact, she’s recently added members to her teams from Texas, Arkansas, and Canada. “Getting the best person for the role is really important to us,” she says.

Flexibility Equals Productivity

While some employees might decide to return to the office in some form, a remote-first culture relies on giving everyone the flexibility to choose what works best for them and supporting their individual needs, Warren says.

This, in turn, can help employees maintain productivity without feeling overwhelmed—the way Nyugen felt when she first began working from home.

“Affirm’s leaders want to make sure people aren't burnt out, that they have work-life balance, and that they're meeting their wellness needs,” she says. “That means we can all actually perform better when we are working.”

Updated 10/18/2021