We’ve been a fully remote company since we started in 2012, aside from a short-lived office ‘experiment’ in 2014.
Having grown to a team of 100, the vast majority of whom I’ve never met, we’ve made pretty much every mistake under the sun when it comes to managing a remote workforce at scale.
We’ve had people take advantage of our remote set-up; people try to trick our tracking systems with software; team members disappear; cloud drives deleted; communications issues; and pretty much all of the worst-case scenarios that go through would-be remote managers’ heads.
But we’ve also learnt a lot. In fact, our entire business’s DNA is remote and the processes, systems and training that we use – from recruitment to customer service – have helped us scale to a level that I have no doubt wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the fact that we’re remote.
When most people think about remote working, they head straight for the ‘reduced overheads’ benefit. “It must be great not needing to pay for the office lease,” they say. Undeniably true. Our annual accounts show a pleasing zero in the expenses column attributed to toilet roll, coffee refills and fresh flowers, meaning that we can pass these savings on to clients.
But reduced overheads are only a small reason for our love of remote.
By far the largest benefit is being able to hire from anywhere in the world. While most of our competitors’ hiring pools are restricted to a five-mile radius from their office postcode, we’ve hired people from five continents. We don’t care where you live, as long as you’re really good at digital marketing and work really hard. This makes us extremely scalable.
Thanks to coronavirus, the world is embarking on the largest-ever remote working experiment. Having seen how many companies are approaching it, my concern is that we’ll see two waves of carnage:
Wave 1: Deer in the headlights
As employees get settled into their ‘home offices’ (read sofa and laptop), they’ll realise that most of the company’s processes are reliant on systems poorly suited to remote work. Internal comms via email, storing files on your computer and face-to-face client meetings are all areas that will struggle in a remote environment.
Services such as Slack and Google Suite and meeting software like Skype and Zoom have all seen huge surges in user numbers as organisations scramble for remote-compatible solutions.
Wave 2: The dawning realisation
The next wave of carnage will come a little later, as companies monitor their teams’ productivity – or fail to do so – and wellbeing issues become more prevalent.
We’ve learnt that both productivity and wellbeing require focused attention in a remote environment.
Take working hours, for example. In an office building, staff ‘clock in’ either formally or informally. Each manager makes a mental note of the team members that arrive early and leave late, and of course those that sneak in at 9:30 after a heavy night.
Online, it would be easy for a couple of hours a day to ‘go missing’ to distractions, late starts, long lunches etc. But scaled across a large team and over the course of months or years, this could add up to a serious competitive disadvantage.
The answer of course is tracking software such as Hubstaff and each team member working through task lists that can be checked off, showing progress as they move through their work. Without these sorts of measures, the company is ‘flying blind’. Some companies are still using phrases like “mutual trust”, but what they really mean is that they have no idea what their team members are doing all day and are just hoping that they’re working.
Screen recording and activity monitoring software inevitably brings up comparisons with Big Brother. But this is failing to recognise that nothing is more Big Brother than requiring workers to work from a central physical location every day so that their bosses can prowl around glancing at their computer screens and making a mental note of their arrival and departure times. The truth is that knowing what your employees are doing is simply a prerequisite of running any scalable business, and in the remote setting this requires tracking software.
Another really important consideration in the remote working environment is employee wellbeing. While in an office setting socialisation is the default, in a remote setting isolation is the default. We’ve learned over time that it’s important to make an effort to foster interactions through shared interest groups, extracurricular video meet-ups, a buddy system, online company-wide ‘events’ and sharing resources around emotional and physical wellbeing. We also encourage video to be used for internal calls, where possible, to show people that while they might be working on their own, they are never alone.
We have found that these sorts of initiatives actually need to be built into the company in a ‘top-down’ fashion because otherwise they don’t happen. People need support, connection and friendships to thrive and I feel that in a remote environment, it’s a sensible company that provides the framework for this.
I’m really proud of the amazing team spirit that we’ve built in the company but recognise that this hasn’t just happened accidentally and has taken an immense amount of conscious effort on the part of every manager and ninja. For us, remote work is clearly the future of work.
Tim Cameron-Kitchen, head ninja at Exposure Ninja