As people everywhere are forced to work from home, is now the turning point for remote working?
The world has “turned upside down”, claims a recent edition of the New York Post. A tad dramatic, perhaps, but nobody could deny that the way we are working right now is changing, and changing fast, thanks to COVID-19.
The UK is poised to follow other countries in urging companies to allow or compel employees to work from home and many organisations, like Twitter, have already enforced this. Others are testing business continuity measures.
For many, this will prove an operational headache, and little wonder! Since the Industrial Revolution most businesses have followed a pattern of presenteeism, more bothered about workers logging a 9 to 5 day, than the actual quality of the output.
As the European leader of Control v Exposed (CvE), a new breed of marketing services provider connecting media, technology and consultancy, and one that has employed a remote workforce from day one, it seems pertinent right now to share our knowledge about getting the most out of working, and leading, from home.
Our parent company has been ‘virtual’ for more than a decade and won a shelf full of wellbeing and ‘best places to work’ accolades along the way. So, I hope our top tips help others continue to work effectively and efficiently in this upside-down world.
"If there’s one thing that COVID-19 might teach us is that the remote model is not just an emergency measure, but the new, improved business as usual."
Some of what I say, I hope, will inspire and reassure in the short term as emergency and contingency measures are put in place, but dare I suggest that in doing so businesses can build a better way forward in the long term as well? If there is a positive that emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, it will be that the traditional model of ‘work’ and ‘buildings full of people’ is truly challenged and viable alternatives explored. I would argue the remote working model is better for service providers, their employees, the environment and, happily, better for their clients and partners.
Because, let’s face it, presenteeism has never been the best measure of business success, particularly as tech has advanced to the point where we can be virtually everywhere, at any time. There is no need for people to be grouped in one place to collaborate and in fact grouping them together means large fixed and inflexible costs for employers and large expenses, including commutes, and inflexibility for employees.
Our parent company, the Goodway Group, moved to a remote model 12 years ago. Initially, the thinking was to enable us to source the right talent from anywhere, not restricting ourselves to the over-tapped and overpriced markets of San Francisco and New York; think London too. This remains a huge competitive advantage. But we soon also realised it made a huge difference to talent retention: critical in a service-based business. Less than 10% of our people leave.
All too often as business leaders, particularly in a service business, ‘working from home’ is either sneered at or seen as a treat, a reward to give employees a softer Friday or the chance to allow them to service their boiler, care for their kids etc. In the always-on business world we exist in today, work/life balance is in reality more like work/life integration so genuinely progressive employers seek to create an environment where employees' wellness is always front of mind.
Most businesses are still stuck in the working world parameters created for the Industrial Revolution. Then, people needed to be present, in the factory to produce and deliver. There were no systems or technology enabling work to be done remotely. In a service industry today, is that still the case? If we go back a little further in history to the 18th century, most work was actually done in coffee shops or the home until larger enterprises like The East India Company built offices. Interestingly, with early stage businesses in key conurbations, we see this trend returning with the modern-day evolution being the co-working space.
"Advances in technology mean there’s no need to feel isolated and no need to compromise. We just need to shift our thinking, and corporate culture, slightly."
If there’s one thing that COVID-19 might teach us is that the remote model is not just an emergency measure, but the new, improved business as usual. Why make people feel bad if they’re not at their desks? The new future of work should be focused on contribution and output, not on compliance.
Take a recent example cited in Campaign: Starcom’s flexible working policy is said to have backfired with “noticeably” empty offices on a Friday. Staff were warned that the flexible policy would end if attendance did not improve.
In my experience, even where occasional work-from-home policies are implemented, there are challenges. It’s either archaic senior managers who can’t overcome the presentism issue, members in some teams that feel excluded or overly stringent rules. This is why I believe that there can be no halfway measures to virtual, flexible or remote working. This is not a compromise but a different, in my view better, way of working. And it starts with hiring quality people and then trusting them. You trust staff with your clients, why not trust them to manage their workload too?
Companies need to go the whole hog, and both enable and give permission to everyone to work remotely. They should provide infrastructure that not just allows it, but actively supports and encourages it, and lead by example, from the top down.
"I can categorically say that creative businesses can thrive, even without physical proximity."
It really is a better way: certain industries like the ad and financial industries have grown up around clusters such as New York and London but the clients serviced are generally more dispersed, so it is an advantage to be closer to them. The CvE model allows our staff to be closer to those clients, indeed, to work in their offices if desirable. In the US we have people working from more than 40 different states, bringing rich local context to the advice they give clients.
In fact, the model allows our people to spend more time with their clients with less time commuting or travelling for work so client satisfaction and productivity increases. This is also better for the environment with carbon footprints naturally reduced.
When I joined CvE I was attracted to this model as I believed this was what the future of work should look like. But I must admit some trepidation as I had never worked this way before. Many of my peers questioned this way of working, saying it would be impossible to run a creative business if people are not physically together.
Now, having trialled remote working, I am a full convert. I can categorically say that creative businesses can thrive, even without physical proximity. Now, it’s true that we are not remote 100% of the time: teams, leadership and the company as a whole meet off-site regularly when there is a need to do so. The thing is, as we’ve learned, that ‘need’ is not as often as you’d imagine.
And remote working doesn’t mean you have to be at home. As long as you have connectivity and work for a company whose tech stack is set up properly, you can work from anywhere. Last week I worked out of a house in Spain. It does, however, require some changes in behaviour.