Is it worth putting the people at the heart of the company, taking the office out of the equation and becoming a distributed team? Here’s one startup’s story of becoming remote, the challenges it posed, and the benefits added in the end.
Perhaps it was reading too many new wave business books or taking inspiration from the likes of 37 Signals which led us to take the brave step to abandon the office and allow our team to go ‘fully remote’.
If you’re part of a not-so forward thinking company, the prospect of this new-age work set up may be enough to cause sleepless nights. But for us, Elementary Digital—a digital agency originally based in London—, it was the sensible way to move forward. The journey began over two years ago, when several factors—escalating cost of offices, lack of locally skilled developers and clients dispersed around the country—forced us to re-think our business model.
Our team was more than familiar with the traditional commute and forced congregation around tightly packed desks. We’d endured the constant interruptions from phones and office politics while harboring a general disdain for being inside on a sunny day.
We decided that Elementary wouldn’t just be another digital agency. After all, we live in a modern world where the traditional ties of a physical office from the IT infrastructure to that desire to have everyone together and create a culture can still be achieved in the ‘cloud’. And all the while this saves money that can be re-invested in staff, good will and delivering outstanding service.
With a little bravery and a lot of trepidation, we took the leap and became fully remote in 2014. While it could never be a reality for some who are still plagued by the need to operate from an office, we never looked back. Of course, that’s not to say there wasn’t a few hurdles.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome was the shift in working culture from sitting with colleagues and pushing performance within a shared space to all that responsibility now falling on the individual’s attitude, self-motivation and initiative.
For Elementary, this proved to be quite a small hurdle thanks to the nature of the workforce. Developers are often happiest behind their laptops ‘doing’ rather than commuting. If anything, productivity increased as the obstacles of the daily grind were removed and they had more time to develop.
The second challenge was to create systems in which everyone could work collaboratively and encourage the same levels of interaction you would have in a traditional office. Although it was tempting to invest in our own systems, we instead chose to use communication tools such as Slack and Skype, as well as project management tools like Trello and Basecamp.
As it turns out, these popular tools supported by our own CRM ‘Heaven’ resulted in more dialogue and work related interaction than when we had a traditional office—and without the obligatory politics which plagued our delivery and response times.
However, as we started to settle into the remote way of working with newly found confidence, new challenges confronted us. The ‘work ethic’ of the team became a fundamental part of the success. There was a lot of trust involved, where we’d hope that our people wouldn’t sit around all day and watch television. After all, we couldn’t control their commitment, it had to come from the individual. The majority of our team respected this opportunity, but some abused the freedom and this had a knock-on effect in our ability to deliver for our clients.
Because of this, we changed our recruitment policy and hired people with a level of experience and the correct aptitude for working on their own. Whilst this means we continue to be selective, it also adds value in building a team that is 100% onboard with the concept of remote working.
In some ways, the recruitment became easier as the appeal of remote working is something many in the website and digital marketing community aspire to. As such, our ability to recruit the best people has dramatically increased. What a pleasant surprise it is to see how keen people are to choose a lifestyle way of working over working in the more ‘traditional’ agency structure.
Talent without borders
This form of recruitment was also valuable given the shift in the local digital community as big corporations developed digital centers of excellence, taking all the local talent from the area. This drove us to find a means of employing excellent and talented individuals without the restrictions of a commute.
Today, our team stretches as far as mainland Europe to all corners of the UK. We extended our vision further by embracing true digital nomad thinking, as one of our team members is venturing around the world, all the while working for us. We’re now open to working with people across the world, delivering 24/7 output for our clients.
It’s important to highlight that whilst we don’t have the physical office, we still adopt the traditional concept of ‘meetings’. That means we still spend some time in offices, namely the offices of our clients. We’re actively working on educating our clients to adopt the modern way of meeting using Skype, Slack and Fuze in place of talking in person. That said, whilst we’ve embraced a new way of thinking, it’s going to take sometime to change the business world!
And it’s not all remote, we do still venture outside. We understand the need to bring the team together regularly, so we organize monthly get-togethers and provide fully expensed social and learning events. These provide valuable time to get to know each other on a level that isn’t conflicted by day-to-day business.
Our story to remote working all began with the introduction of a new business partner, and we’ve come a long way since those initial footsteps. By embracing the concept of being ‘location agnostic’ we have saved money that has been actively invested in developing our team, spent on marketing and growing the business. The key things we’ve learnt are no different than the conventional business lessons—recruiting great people, developing outstanding systems and all the while never losing sight of delivering great customer service.
The only major difference is we’ve done all of this in the cloud. For a relatively young company, we’re pretty proud of taking that brave step, and despite some challenges, we’d never go back to the ‘traditional’ way of working. Instead, we continue to spread the work, advising other businesses on how to go fully remote as well as developing our location agnostic model.
Gyles Seward founded Elementary Digital back in 2013. As a lecturer at Leeds University on digital marketing and consultant to businesses throughout the UK and Europe, he helps organisations understand how to make online marketing deliver quantifiable results. An active contributor to Business 2 Community and the Elementary Digital blog, he’s regular posting about running a remote working business. Find out more about Gyles and Elementary Digital at @elementarydigi.