While some businesses have embraced the possibilities of remote working during lockdown, and others have merely tolerated it, it’s hard to imagine a near-to-mid-term future in which white-collar employees feel happy to put on their restrictive work clothes again, return to their tidy desks and accept the inflexible routine of office working full time.
While there have been downsides to the work-from-home situation, from dealing with childcare to poor internet connections, there are plenty of upsides too, especially for creative workforces, including flexibility and a sense of autonomy—a feeling that is associated with a happy, productive workforce.
Claire Eldridge, CEO of healthcare communications agency Aurora, is one of those employers who is embracing the change to remote working as an opportunity to completely rethink how her business works.
“Six months ago I couldn’t have i
magined an effective agency team working remotely but while there are pros and cons, it has been overwhelmingly successful,” says Eldridge. “I can’t imagine all working in the office 9-5 Monday to Friday ever again. People have benefited from better work-life balance, more exercise, sharper focus, fewer meetings and less travel. We are looking at how we can keep the good and improve what has been missed. Because when we really need to come together, it is to spark off one another, and for that we don’t need rows of desks.”
Yet there is still an inevitable reluctance—or indeed suspicion—among old-school employers, for whom hours spent toiling at a desk were the best measurement of their people’s productivity.
So it’s worth talking to CEOs that were already trailblazing the work-from-home approach before COVID-19 hit, to discover the learnings and work processes that have made remote working an essential part of their businesses.
Take data science comms agency Crowdcat, which when considering its office space last October quickly came to the realization that ‘normal’ wasn’t going to cut it.
“We recognized that our talent base was spread out,” says CEO Richard Summers. “However, having people simply work from home breaks a lot of the connections between a team and can leave people quite isolated. So we thought out how people needed to connect. That meant allowing teams to hire spaces as and when they needed to.”
Nevertheless Summers did identify one difficult issue that many teams will be currently experiencing: the lack of team bonding that comes when people aren’t sitting next to one another talking, joking and sharing personal stories.
“It is vital to value, be aware of and engineer the intangibles of team bonding,” he says.
“The office canteen used to be a vital hub and now is mainly a dated idea—both people and businesses have moved on. But it didn’t mean it wasn’t hugely valuable. So we developed two elements: first, an unwritten rule that the first 5-10 mins of a 60 min call would involve allowing [personal] conversations. Secondly, and more importantly, we worked out that by putting people together on a residential offsite for a week, we would generate months’ worth of this bonding in a short period of time.”
The agency started sending its people o
n trips somewhere interesting and new, such as Los Angeles and Barcelona, to do a normal week’s work, using early mornings, evenings and weekends to really enjoy the escape.
“Commercially the business has seen modest improvements in productivity and the feeling our investment in renting spaces or organizing trips has been effective. On the other side, employees have felt like this is another fantastic feature of the business – flexibility to work from home, generous and comfortable spaces to collaborate in and a chance to see interesting places.”
“Seeing interesting places” chimes with social media agency SocialBuff’s decision to go down the remote route, too: the desire of its co-founders, William Ferreira and Aran Spencer-Higgins, to mould their work to their digital-nomad lifestyles. And the results have been similarly successful.
Ferreira had an international upbringing (South African father, Anglo-Greek mother, lived in Singapore, Taiwan and the Philippines before moving to England), and was simply not willing to be tied down. Spencer-Higgins, meanwhile, originates from Lebanon and Ireland. The two had a similar approach to life and work—as well as an existing network of freelance talent across Europe.
And with that have come some interesting side-benefits—not least the opportunity to work with world-class talent that they could not previously have accessed from their London headquarters.
“When we launched Social Buff, those freelancers quickly became employees, and instead of looking at forcing them to adopt to our model, we provided them a platform that allowed them to keep the freelance experience and lifestyle that they wanted. So, at the moment, we have teams across Rome, Amsterdam and London.”
Yet most companies would struggle to pull together with intellectual unity when they’re scattered across the world, and anyone who’s worked in a company with a global network will know that one of the great points of contention is different working practices and approaches across the countries.
Ferreira acknowledges that in a small team, that’s less of a challenge than it might have been. Nevertheless he and Spencer-Higgins have made culture a priority.
“I think that the core thing that I always want to build for the team is the sense of ownership in the company. It’s a sense of building a platform for those individuals to have ownership and feel like the business that they're growing is theirs as much as it is mine and my cofounder’s. The team weighs in on every aspect of how the business is run.”
Still, it might be easy to preserve a sense of democratisation in a business of 10 people. But what about 50 people, or 100? How exactly could you futureproof this approach to business?
“The biggest frustration for us has been ensuring there are systems and processes to manage that growth, especially in recent months,” Ferreira says. “We’ve onboarded new clients too quickly and then implemented that workload into the current workflow for the team. And that's where the team has come back and gone, 'Okay, we need to review how we manage this process’.”
In other words, the agency democratically chose to bring in some strong guidelines, employing a head of operations to focus on the organisation and communication, allowing the founders to get back to doing business.
And handing over that power really is at the crux of how an organisation can effectively manage remote workers: trust. Summers agrees, putting his trust in his employees to create a team that outperforms the competition.
“Ultimately when you have good people—talented, motivated and effective—your job is to support them, not push them,” he explains. “Creating a place where people feel part of something, where you feel like a family in many ways, where people own their successes and feel that you are there to help them be their best… that’s the goal.”
That family feeling extends to clients too. “What has been a real positive recently is everyone being a little more human and personal,” he says. “We all are at home and so no one tries to hide it. The natural interruptions like kids are m
ore accepted and people are more relaxed about showing a little of their personal life which in turn just builds better relationships.”
Ultimately, then, perhaps the most effective new ways of working will come down to a recognition that there are no rules. One size does not fit all. Employees are people, not assets and, as Summers concludes, “People are complicated and diverse.”
Cited from Forbes
Contributor: Phil Lewis