That day in March 2020 when the Cayman Islands went under strict ‘shelter-in-place’ restrictions, the Fountainhead team watered the plants, took out the garbage, grabbed our laptops, a notebook and a fistful of pens and said “see you in a couple of weeks”, not realising we would never work in that space again.
While I had heard of other big agencies going fully remote before COVID-19, I hadn’t been able to get my head around the practicalities of it. A ‘bricks and mortar’ office space filled with people felt like the ground beneath my feet. It was how business was done. Right?
In retrospect, what I had been hearing from my agency owner friends across the US and Canada who had already made the move to distributed, had been sinking in, because I was more prepared for COVID than I recognised. We already had talented team members who lived in other countries, we were meeting our local clients on Zoom to eliminate wasted travel time and I had become increasingly aware of our shifting corporate culture with a team that was half in the office and half elsewhere in the world.
Within the first two weeks of lockdown, it became obvious that nothing was ever going back to the way it was. It was time to move forward. Within that short time, the Cayman-based team had settled into our new routines and as a whole group, we instantly found our new stride. There was some kind of magic in it.
I asked all the Cayman-based team members what they thought about how they would feel if we went permanently to a remote operation, how it would impact their lives and what they thought the challenges would be.
The positive response I got was far more than I was expecting. I thought there would be some misgivings, or hesitation as people processed something completely new. But that isn’t what happened. They talked about enjoying the experience and the benefits it offered.
Our clients, as they learn that we are not ‘going back’, have been fully supportive as well. This again is a testament to the team and how well they have adapted and continued to deliver a high-quality service.
But despite things going so well in those early days, I recognised that this move was going to require some deep thinking on what it meant to run a business under this model permanently. Undoubtedly there were going to be challenges along with the benefits.
This was my thought process.
Benefits of Distributed Teams
This was one of the first benefits the local team talked about. Some were already using the time previously spent in the traffic saddle for exercise and preparing better food.
Work-life balance improved when commuting was taken out of the picture. Although statistically remote employees work more days, take longer breaks and work 10 minutes longer than office-based employees, it often works out that, provided the employee can set appropriate boundaries with their employers, colleagues, family and friends, they have more balance in their work time versus personal time.
There is something to be said for having the flexibility to work from and hire from anywhere in the world and allow people the freedom to live the lives they want to live.
A study done by Airtasker showed that remote workers are more productive than their office-based colleagues. It is obvious when you think about it: as fun as those water cooler conversations may have been, they often interrupt brainy work and the ‘flow‘ required to do it well.
Healthier for the planet
The reduction in travel to and from offices globally from COVID-19 is notably reducing smog and greenhouse gas emissions. Going remote reduces our carbon footprint.
Healthier for our bottom line
Indeed, those in the commercial real estate market might not be as thrilled about remote teams as rent-payers are, but it is pretty tough to argue the lease expense versus the beautiful ocean view. And then there are the other benefits of remote teams that positively impact the balance sheet: lower absenteeism, fewer sick days, higher productivity and no relocation expenses for new team members.
As a leader of a team, however, I knew there were other things to think about. How does one effectively lead a group of people you can’t see and talk to face-to-face every day? How are people going to feel about not seeing their co-workers daily?
We had to consider how to effectively communicate within our team and determine what tools we needed to be able to do that effectively so no one feels alone or siloed. We are human and therefore need connection to be happy. Loneliness is a bigger health threat than smoking a pack a day or obesity, so anything we can do to keep people together, connected and engaged, the healthier we all are.
We have established a new cadence of meetings and discussions and are more proactively using the tools we have to keep people together.
Going through this process, we also realised the extent to which organisations all over are struggling with their internal communications. We saw such a gap in the market that we are launching a whole new service section around delivering internal communications for clients.
Long before COVID normalised working from home, it was apparent that healthy boundaries between ‘at work’ and ‘not at work’ were more than blurred: employers and clients sending emails to team members at all hours of the day and night and on weekends, expecting immediate responses. My Dad always used to say: ‘nothing good happens after midnight’. That includes anxiety-led, ill-thought-out responses to late-night requests. The best fix is to keep clients and team members well-informed during the workweek and to encourage healthy (and polite) boundary setting.
There are good and bad corporate cultures in in-office teams and remote teams. Proximity has little to do with it. Good culture comes from how well the leader communicates her vision and everyone’s part in bringing that vision to reality. Always lots of work to be done here. That is the same whether people get together on Zoom or around a conference table. I have learned that good corporate culture is not about a group happy hour on a Friday afternoon.
A group brain
In our field of PR and communications, our work is all headspace: thinking, strategising, planning, researching, writing, creating and analysing, and previously our model would have been to work together, brainstorming ideas and tactics. Now, we’ve figured out how to create new workflows, that brings the team together but also support the individual’s contributions.
Other things to think about
The ‘other’ list grows for me, the same as it would if we were sitting in Bayshore Mall or our virtual office. Cybersecurity, connectivity, disaster preparedness, corporate retreats, are all things that will require more time to fully flesh out.
The decision to take Fountainhead fully remote permanently was not an easy one. I shed a few tears thinking about our beautiful office space and the happy years we spent there. I always said wild horses couldn’t drag me out of there. I will miss it. But taking all the other factors into consideration, nostalgia, emotion and ego were not relevant. Instead, it is time to take the giant step to be a modern digital agency, where the relationships and the work are most important – not the view.