Four years ago 99u founder Scott Belsky said made the following prediction:
And now, transitioning from an office-based agency to a virtual one isn’t really a radical move. After all, if you choose to make the switch, you’ll be joining successful companies like Help Scout, Zapier, Groove, Automattic, Buffer, Balsamiq, GitHub, and many more.
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The ROI of a Remote Agency Team
Virtualizing your workforce has a clear impact on your bottom line. As Buffer discovered, having a completely distributed team is usually much cheaper:
The monetary benefits
- Office space is one of the biggest line items in most teams’ budgets, and you’ll get to cross it out.
- Same goes for buying or renting furniture, paying for utilities, and bringing in snacks, catering, and drinks.
- You can use software like Hubstaff to stop paying employees for non-productive time.
- Remote workers are less likely to call in sick (which can save you up to $1,800 per employee per year!)
- You can hire people as-needed or on a per-project basis.
Furthermore, if you’re currently based in a city with a higher-than-average cost of living, going remote will allow you to find equally talented employees with lower market salaries. To give you an idea, a Boston agency might pay a junior developer $50,000. However, if that company went remote, it could hire a junior developer from Brookings, South Dakota, and pay them $30,000.
Alternatively, you can use the money you’re saving on overhead and other expenses to pay your employees and freelancers more. Paying higher-than-standard rates allows you to hire the best of the best.
And don’t forget how much money working remotely saves workers, too. Simply cutting out commuting costs is huge: not only do they not have to pay for gas or public transport, they save hours each week.
While in general, going remote saves agencies a huge chunk of change, it’s good to be aware of the unique costs as well.
Many remote teams get together once or twice per year for retreats. For example, Buffer’s latest retreat took place in Hawaii and included not only team members but their partners and kids (90-plus people in total). The trip cost approximately $400,000.
While your retreats don’t have to be so extravagant, having a bonding experience every six to 12 months is essential for a healthy distributed team. (However, if the majority of your workforce is freelancers, taking a small group on vacation won’t be too expensive.)
Most remote companies also provide their employees with gear, as in a traditional office. Buying your technical staff the most up-to-date, comprehensive toolkit is especially important—they need it to do their job well.
Since too much isolation can make telecommuters miserable, some companies offer coworking budgets to their team members. According to this iDoneThis blog post, others sweeten the deal with subsidized gym memberships, paid sabbaticals, and even maid service.
The Challenges of Remote Communication
Unsurprisingly, the way employees collaborate will change pretty dramatically once you’ve become a remote agency. If you don’t put a lot of thought and energy into setting up proper team communication processes, your team members will probably struggle to stay in-sync.
Challenge #1: Different time zones
Being able to hire people from around the world is fantastic, but it means you’ll likely end up with people in a variety of time zones.
The Zapier marketing team, for example, has people in Bangkok, Portland (Maine), Omaha, Nashville, and San Francisco.
Scheduling meetings can be challenging. Plus, employees in opposite time zones rarely get the chance to bond like they would in a traditional office.
The fix: Use apps like Google Calendar and Every Time Zone to make sure you’ve got the right local time. To facilitate socializing between far-apart coworkers, set up a weekly bonding call like Help Scout does.
Challenge #2: Nonverbal communication
Since most remote communication happens in chat platforms and via email, miscommunications can crop up more frequently. It’s much harder to read someone’s emotions over IM than when you’re sitting next to them in a meeting.
The fix: Like Todoist, encourage your team to use emojis and GIFs; these can soften potentially harsh-sounding messages and let people show some personality:
For face-to-face communication, use apps like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Uber Conference.
Challenge #3: Isolated work
Since everyone’s spread out, it’s easy for people to lose track of the common goals and get caught up in their own priorities. For example, one of your engineers might think updating the homepage is the most pressing task, while another is convinced fixing the site’s accessibility issues should be handled before anything else.
The fix: Ask everyone to check in with their teammates at the beginning and end of their work day—if not more often. An app like Hubstaff is also incredibly helpful for staying on the same page; managers can see what their reports are working on at all times (down to the URLs and apps they’ve got open!).
But remote communication doesn’t just come with challenges: it also has many pros. First, having employees in multiple time zones means there’s always at least one team member who can respond to a crisis. Many companies hire globally for their customer service and support teams, in fact, so they never have to stop helping customers.
In addition, having conversations occur online (rather than in the office) means you’ve got a record of every decision made, question answered, and idea proposed. Let’s say a new employee has a question about a specific feature of your product. Instead of having to ask her manager, she can search the team’s chat room to see what you’ve already discussed.
What Your Clients Will Think
Of course, your clients are probably top-of-mind when you’re considering going remote. First, let’s lay out some of the reasons why your present clients could be worried by the switch—and why it might make future clients think twice.
When some people hear “remote team,” they immediately think of overseas workers. And unfortunately, as this Toptal blog post explains, there’s a negative stigma around outsourcing your engineering and design work.
There shouldn’t be—because as chief executive of Posse Rebekah Campbell discovered, there’s absolutely no difference in the quality of work you receive, as long as you pay fairly and treat all of your employees like members of the team.
Other clients may be worried that your work is somehow inferior because it’s not produced in one office. Address this by pointing out how common remote work has become.
And according to Bonnie Morris, founder of virtual PR and social media agency, being remote actually improves work quality.
Finally, quell your clients’ fears over quality by describing how remote work lets you hire the best of the best. Today’s most talented employees view the ability to work from anywhere as a massive perk, so you can hire competitively.
Your clients might be worried a distributed agency will be less responsive. But on the contrary, your team will be even quicker to respond to emails, address concerns, and solve problems.
The Balsamiq team specifically hires across time zones so that its sales and tech support units are always available.
As we previously discussed, keeping everyone informed and in-sync is a bigger challenge when your team is remote—so it’s fair for clients to wonder if this will impact your work.
Once you’ve built up a solid track record, these reservations will likely dissipate. But what about when you’re just starting out?
Consider including your communication strategy in your announcement to clients. For example, you might say, “We’ve put a lot of thought into planning our remote set-up. Our team will be using a daily and weekly goal-tracking tool so there’s always total clarity on everyone’s position. And to make sure we’re giving you the most accurate rates possible, we’re using Hubstaff to track our freelancers’ productivity.”
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Some clients just care about getting the job done. Others, who are looking for a long-term relationship with their agency or provider, want to work with a tight-knit team.
Fortunately, creating a strong culture within a remote agency is completely doable. (And not only will culture attract the best clients, it’ll also boost your hiring and retention efforts.) First, find ways to encourage non-work communication among your employees. Random Slack or Basecamp channels work well; however, you can take things one step further by hosting weekly “lunch and learns” (give everyone a gift card for a food delivery service and have a speaker or team member give a presentation), running a mentorship program, or sponsoring a couple employees to go to the same conference.
Are you ready to become a remote agency?
Many companies begin as virtual teams—remote work is in their DNA. Others, such as Toggl, Sticker Mule, and Inspired HR, started with physical offices and then transitioned to a virtual model when they realized the benefits.
In either case, the leadership team has to think long and hard about how they’ll deal with the various challenges and unique situations that come with a dispersed staff. But (and we admit we’re biased), once you’ve figured out those challenges and started reaping the many benefits, you’ll probably find being remote is one of the best things you could ever do for your company.
What is your experience with running a remote agency? What’s stopping you from building/joining one? Share your thoughts in the comments.