Remote working can divide opinion. Advocates shout about work-life balance and greater productivity; detractors voice suspicion about duvet days or TV watching on employer time. But what’s it really like to work for a fully remote employer?
We became a virtual agency in August 2018. Since then, all team members have worked remotely. Despite being a relatively small business, this move marked a major change in how we work, both individually and collaboratively. We’re often asked how hard it was to make the transition, so here are a few key learning points from our first few months…
Remote working: potential benefits
With building work planned around our former Leicestershire home, neighbouring construction was the initial driver for us to work remotely.
We discussed several options to work differently. This included looking at new premises, and exploring a switch to a virtual office. We felt the major benefits of working remotely were:
- A good fit with the nature of our work, current personnel and our organisational culture
- Team members with freelance and/or account director experience already knew the pros and cons of remote working
- Reduced commute times for colleagues in different regions – cutting unproductive travel, improving wellbeing and reducing our carbon footprint
- An opportunity to reduce overheads and non-productive activity – so we could invest savings in new technology and be more cost-efficient
- Improved work-life balance, giving colleagues more time and energy to contribute to their families, communities or personal objectives.
A recent HR Director article says almost three-quarters of British workers believe it’s important that employers allow them to work remotely. Also, the number of UK employees working from home has increased by 250,000 in the past 10 years. Over time, we hope that the move will be a strong factor in continuing to attract creative talent to our agency.
Virtual creative agency: non-negotiable factors
Once we’d decided that home working for employees was feasible, we researched industry practice and guidance – such as the ACAS homeworking guide for employers and employees. While key non-negotiables vary from business to business, the following factors were most important for our agency.
Home office set-up
We initially consulted employees about the prospect of homeworking and whether they had access to appropriate work space. This involved discussions around:
- Colleagues having access to a safe, quiet and contained space, suited to business use during specified hours
- Making sure that local broadband/cable connections were fit for purpose – for example, uploading and transmitting large files, or using video conferencing
- Arrangements to securely print and store key documentation
- Working days – were we completely flexible about when work got done, or should there be some core hours?
We didn’t expect everyone to have the luxury of a designated home office or study. But they did need a space where they could speak confidentially and openly without interruption, invasive background noise or risk of compromising professional information.
IT and business infrastructure
Moving from a real-world to virtual office is not a quick and simple fix. In practice, it was like moving to multiple locations at the same time. This process involved:
- Working out best distribution of office equipment to suit job needs – from MacBooks and PCs to large printers, tablets and stationery
- Conducting risk assessments
- Securely digitising historical records, such as personnel data, for cloud storage
- Switching to a new phone system
- Introducing voice and video conferencing and updated office software
- Switching to cloud-based studio management and CRM systems
- Upgrading to a cloud-based server.
We developed a suite of new remote working policies alongside the practicalities. This covered things such as expenses, health and safety, insurances, business processes and more.
Things have worked very well so far. A few questions have come up as people adapted to the new way of working; but nothing so far that we can’t handle. We’ve also had a couple of ‘minor’ interruptions in weekly Skype team meetings (children wanting to say hello to their parents). No Robert Kelly style media interviews to report yet, though…
Some articles describe remote working as an endless round of duvet days, laundry and Netflix specials. We prefer the view that if you can’t trust your employees to work flexibly, why hire them? Recruit responsible adults and treat people considerately, and they will get the job done.
We haven’t created a whole new checking system since going virtual – as existing systems were already up to the job. You can get clear indicators of company performance from factors such as quotes accepted, billings, prospect meetings, jobs completed and client feedback.
If anything, a bigger challenge is making sure people don’t overdo it. Conversations tend to be purposeful rather than ‘chit chat’; so there’s relatively little time spent on distractions, such as what was on TV last night. That extra focus might help the argument for remote workers outperforming office workers – as team members can get on without any interruptions.
We’ve found remote working is great for productivity, so far. Equally it’s easy to lose track of time. So we keep a lookout for potential stressors of remote working, such as overcompensating and blurring of work-family boundaries.
We don’t have all the answers yet. But regular dialogue around projects and workloads means colleagues can flag potential challenges or receive support.
Five hours of extra time
A big plus is that reduced commute times have helped our team members to regain five hours each week, on average. (That figure includes factoring in regular, face-to-face client and team meetings.) Team members have also reported a range of benefits, such as:
- Extra family time
- School drop-offs, instead of relying on breakfast clubs
- Improved health
- More regular exercise
- Increased study time
- New hobbies and interests – digital drawing, music creation and so on.