This article was originally published on November 20, 2020 and is regularly updated for accuracy, comprehensiveness and timeliness, most recently on January 8, 2021. Underlined words indicate that the term is defined in our remote glossary, a handy and free dictionary of remote work terms.
The remote work revolution is only just beginning. And yet, major companies such as Aetna, Bank of America, Best Buy, Honeywell, IBM and Yahoo! have all reversed their work-from-home initiatives not too long ago.
With no commute, improved productivity and, at least in theory, no need to get out of your pyjamas in the morning, what is not to like about working remotely?
As much as the ability to work where, when and how we want might sound like a dream come true to many, getting telework right is no walk in the park. There are trade-offs to be made when comparing a remote organizational structure to a traditional office model, especially in a digital marketing agency environment.
In order to truly reap the fruits of working remotely and maintain a workforce across the world, proactive investments as well as careful planning and preparation are crucial.
Before you quit your office job just yet to go all-in with your own remote-friendly, remote-first or fully remote design agency, read on as we share the biggest challenges our REMOTE AGENCY has faced in managing distributed teams across the globe.
We will also walk you through time-tested steps to overcome those various obstacles and help you establish a successful, productive and committed remote team—one that might just provide the edge over your competition!
In this article, we are going to have a look at how to
· tackle the challenges faced by remote employees,
· fight the negative stigma around remote work and
· successfully manage a remote digital agency team.
A two-year Stanford study on working from home, run in a NASDAQ-listed, 16,000-employee firm, found a significant 13% increase in employee performance. The WFH group also reported substantially higher work satisfaction, took less sick time and was 50% less likely to leave their job than the workers who stayed in the office.
Surprisingly, however, more than half of the telecommuters switched preferences after the experiment and decided to return to work in the office—despite considerable time and financial savings from not having to commute.
These findings expose the diverse and multifaceted challenges faced by employees in an off-site or work-from-home setting.
Our REMOTE AGENCY has made it a top priority from day one to develop and implement strategies that address those problems and that accommodate the needs of our e-ployees as much as humanly possible.
Despite the various benefits of telecommuting, there is nothing quite like being face-to-face with co-workers. Grabbing an early morning coffee or lunch together is not (yet) the same as a virtual hangout or having a couple of digital touchpoints throughout the work day.
Human beings are social creatures and were not meant to be or to work in isolation. It is only natural that staying without human interaction for an extended period of time is problematic and can often result in unique mental health challenges and feelings of loneliness.
Self-doubt and questions as to whether the management actually cares and/or appreciates the individual efforts might sooner or later come to mind and create additional mental stress. In times of lockdown and social distancing, the issue of social isolation in a remote business becomes even more severe.
What is even worse is that due to the inability to see our team members in person every day, it is all too easy to assume that everyone is okay—when they are actually not!
To combat the issue of isolation, our REMOTE AGENCY first and foremost fosters a virtual open-door policy. This means that all our remote teams can reach out to everyone including our managers at all times and no matter the situation.
Our experience is that such a policy creates a support network and constantly reminds our remote workers of the fact that they are not alone, but part of a global team.
We strongly encourage social interaction in various ways. Not only do we schedule regular video calls and one-on-one meetings, but we also offer frequent virtual team-building opportunities as well as hangouts for informal but meaningful communication.
This casual exchange is particularly important and best when it happens naturally—like at the beginning of a video conference or chat, while some of the participants wait for the rest to drop in.
In general, we aim to provide as many opportunities as possible for our e-ployees to see all their co-workers in order to emphasize the team’s collective identity. By facilitating constant engagement and communication, our experience is that remote work can indeed be a highly collaborative experience.
As mentioned earlier, nothing beats face-to-face time, which is why real-life gatherings, meet-ups and a regular agency retreat also play a crucial role in creating a sense of community. Meeting and getting to know each other in person will help build relationships among all team members and solidify a feeling of teamwork in the long run.
Flexible leave schedules, a co-working space stipend and mental health (sick) days are additional options we are currently taking into consideration in order to allow for true work-life balance. After all,
Whilst none of those measures is the ultimate cure for isolation and loneliness, we believe that by openly acknowledging and honestly speaking about the mental health issues related to remote work and creating a supportive environment, a lot can be done to diagnose issues early and prevent complications down the road.
In an ideal world, the autonomy and freedom of any flexible work schedule would support a healthy and sustainable work-life balance. In some instances, however, it might just do the exact opposite.
When your home is your office, unplugging or switching off is not always easy. This issue is further exacerbated when teams are distributed across multiple continents and time zones.
In a remote marketing agency like ours, updates and changes are literally happening around the clock. A fully distributed team has the added benefit of ensuring rapid responsiveness at all times.
When working from home, however, a computer or notebook is constantly accessible and it is all too easy to start working and lose track of the time. Being always-on may result in a progressive blurring of work and non-work boundaries, high levels of stress and long workdays and workweeks.
Not surprisingly, telecommuting can often lead to longer hours than working from a traditional office. As illustrated by this recent study, remote employees, on average, worked 1.4 more days every month, which equals almost 17 more days every year.
In its most extreme and unhealthy way, remote working could look like going from bed to the notebook early in the morning and from the notebook back to bed at midnight—with short breaks for food and the occasional visit to the toilet.
Unfortunately, such a scenario is as real as it gets and something we have experienced first-hand. When there is nobody to tell us to stop working, a lot of self-awareness is required to recognize (and break) any unhealthy cycles. Otherwise, permanent fatigue and overwork will inevitably lead to burnout.
Our REMOTE AGENCY strongly discourages an always-on mentality and we usually only apply synchronous communication when and where necessary, such as with urgent and critical issues as well as for socializing.
Apart from that, we have defaulted to async communication. This model is also known as async-first and creates fewer distractions, thereby allowing our remote teams considerably longer blocks of uninterrupted working time, increasing productivity and reducing stress levels.
Not only do we have a mutual agreement that messages do not need to be reacted upon instantly, but we also never expect an immediate response from a colleague.
Considering that real-time chat is highly addictive and contributing to a fast company culture, we have banned chat tools altogether with very few exceptions and focus on asynchronous communication tools and methods in this regard as well. We will look at our balance between synchronous and asynchronous communication in more detail later in this blog post.
Apart from constantly assessing our team members’ workload, we also have a very generous vacation policy and make sure that our e-ployees use all their holiday allowance and take time off, including periodic breaks. Some of our partners have even seen great results with an unlimited vacation policy model.
Another major issue that is very likely to affect remote teams is uncertainty. Something as simple as a drop in communication between the management and the employee(s) may already result in increased feelings of anxiety.
Concerns as to whether an employee is still up to standard can quickly arise and even result in lowered employee morale.
Even if there is no truth behind the assumptions made by the remote worker, FOMO is something that is present at all times, especially in a fast-paced digital marketing and media agency environment.
On top of that, deadlines and responsibilities can also get lost during video meetings and emails, and sometimes we may get caught up in our own priorities and forget to ask certain questions about who is doing what and by when.
Keeping everyone informed and in-sync at all times is a serious challenge with geographically distributed teams—even more so when those teams are spread across continents and time zones.
With conventional face-to-face communication being a rarity among the majority of remote digital agency teams, transparency is of the utmost importance. Our REMOTE AGENCY therefore strives to
Team meetings, video conferences, brainstormings as well as work-in-progress conversations are recorded or captured appropriately and shared digitally with the relevant teams.
Design documents, white papers and results are made accessible within the respective departments so that all relevant e-ployees can understand what decisions were made and why.
Keeping shareability in mind when communicating is crucial. As an example, we use video conferencing where possible so that we are always able to make meetings inclusive and accessible to everyone on our remote team—something that would hardly be possible with one-on-one phone calls.
Another advantage of recording meetings is that it allows team members who were not able to join, be it due to their time zones or for other reasons, to watch them at a later time.
Including all relevant teams in our decision-making processes and providing as much context as possible has not only created a better collective understanding of project specifics and client concerns, but it has also been crucial in fighting FOMO.
We generally document relevant internal processes, workflows, guidelines and tools in what we call remote wiki—a company wiki which is accessible by all e-ployees via the cloud and which serves as a central and transparent source of truth, similar to an online agency handbook.
Whilst it does take time to build up such a repository of knowledge, those valuable resources, coupled with comprehensive instructional videos, can answer most of the questions that are frequently asked. And, even more importantly, they allow our new team members to hit the ground running.
What is critical in this regard is to avoid having all the beautifully documented information scattered across different platforms, such as emails, to-do lists, calendars, chat messages, etc.
To use that valuable information to our advantage, our REMOTE AGENCY has chosen one central collaborative workspace app so that our whole remote team can quickly locate files, keep track of each and everyone’s progress, collaborate and give feedback.
Building a culture of transparency and having regular team check-ins to identify problems before they become unmanageable has helped us address uncertainty among our e-ployees and establish a happy and dedicated remote team.
The importance of nonverbal cues and body language in our daily communication is pivotal and unquestionable. However, in a remote advertising agency environment, communication is mostly digital.
With no possibility to read posture, gestures, facial expressions and voice tones, miscommunication can naturally occur more often.
Reading somebody’s emotions over email, text message or chat as compared to sitting opposite to them at a table seems impossible. Without visible body language, it is extremely difficult to interpret true meaning.
Especially when navigating sensitive territory, misunderstandings about intentions and motivations are common and even a very well-intentioned email may sometimes be misinterpreted as being too direct or impolite.
While even the best video communication technologies and apps cannot perfectly replace in-person interactions (yet), we usually use video conferencing by default whenever resolving any sort of conflict or when reading between the lines is required.
It might not allow us to take notice of every single non-verbal cue, but it is far superior compared to a phone call, chat or text message and email—especially when talking things out or putting a confusing topic to rest.
To avoid potential misunderstandings in written communication, we also encourage our team members to make use of emojis and GIFs. The latter can often soften messages that might otherwise seem overly direct or harsh.
Many misunderstandings can also be prevented by having clear and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) KPIs, setting deliberate expectations and establishing transparent ground rules in the form of a remote work policy in the first place.
The global pandemic has forced millions of employees worldwide to transition from a formal workplace to a home office. One of the hottest topics we are receiving inquiries about is the perceived lack of focus when working from home.
Whether it is crying children, overly social neighbors, persistent door-to-door solicitors, unwanted calls from unscrupulous telemarketers or the barking dog or meowing cat, it is easy to succumb to the myriad of distractions at home.
Staying focused and doing deep work in such an environment may sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge. Not infrequently, we receive similar feedback from telecommuters who are working out of coworking (or shared office) spaces.
And yet, we often forget the many distractions of traditional offices. A typical crowded office environment makes it highly difficult to get work done, not to mention the added stress of a daily commute and rigid work schedule.
Not surprisingly, more and more studies are finding that the output of remote workers is far surpassing the productivity of their in-office counterparts. So going for a quick walk with the dog or taking a few minutes to do a laundry at home may not negatively impact overall productivity, after all.
P.S. Are you looking for a remote job? Head to our jobs page now!
Clients expect much more from a digital marketing agency than just getting a job done. Most importantly, they are looking for a long-term relationship with their agency, for a partner they can trust. It is only understandable that they wish to work with a tight-knit team.
This may present obstacles for a remote design agency, especially if the team is distributed across the world or multiple time zones. It may even make some clients worry or, in the worst case, think twice.
Not too long ago, terms related to any sort of virtual team or virtual company often used to trigger rather negative connotations such as outsourcing and underpaid overseas workers.
Only with the recent proliferation of remote working, the rise of the gig economy and the adoption of telework by tech companies all over the globe, this stigma has finally begun to subside.
Whilst some clients certainly still wonder if and how a completely distributed team might impact the overall collaboration and results, our experience is that there is now a certain awareness that the advantages of a digital marketing agency without physical offices far outweigh the disadvantages.
As mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that keeping everyone in the loop is a much bigger challenge when the whole team is remote. And yet, we are specifically hiring across time zones.
By applying the very latest technologies and time-tested, highly efficient workflows, we are able to guarantee rapid responsiveness, outstanding agility, maximum efficiency as well as premium quality with oftentimes award-winning results.
The only way to give such a guarantee is by being fully remote and by hiring the best of the best in their respective fields from all across the globe.
Ultimately, remote agencies are not only trustworthy and reliable long-term partners, but also very likely more future-proof than most traditional marketing agencies!
Besides the many challenges from the perspective of the employees and the potential reservations clients might have when working with an agency without offices, managing a distributed team is in itself a major challenge.
Being remote by default can quickly reveal an agency’s weak points and it requires commitment, constant management, a lot of structure and efficient processes to make remote work actually work.
Many of us have experienced how difficult building a company culture can be in a normal office setting. With a team scattered across the whole world, instilling and nurturing a solid workplace culture presents an even bigger challenge.
The lack of a traditional office space usually means less in-person interaction, no bonding during off-work hours, very little to no direct contact with the management team and no proverbial watercooler conversations.
One of the consequences of having a completely remote team across multiple time zones is that some of our e-ployees may simply never work the same hours as their counterparts across the world. This certainly impacts the development of a close-knit team and a healthy agency culture.
In a completely digital and virtual environment, there is also a serious risk of focussing too much on tasks, deadlines and processes and too little on relationships and the team. As a result, employees may often feel less of a sense of community, camaraderie and connectedness to the company, its mission and goals.
Fortunately and despite the physical distance between the members of a remote team, there are ways to emphasize culture even within a remote marketing agency environment.
Being social creatures, there is simply no substitute for getting together as a team. Regular retreats and intentional get-togethers offer a chance to not only meet each other in person, but also to reinforce connections, relationships, empathy and ultimately community.
In addition to face-to-face meet-ups, we encourage social interaction between teams and have implemented innovative remote team-building activities as well as online spaces where casual and non-work-related conversations happen constantly and organically.
Our REMOTE AGENCY offers funding for participation in periodic international conferences and seeks to acknowledge the successes and achievements of our remote workers publicly.
Even though it is much harder to see the daily contributions by our remote teams, we believe it is crucial that each of them receives at the very least the same recognition that traditional employees would enjoy. All of us crave appreciation and such acknowledgement can help maintain a sense of value, purpose, morale and belonging.
There is nothing as powerful as a motivated team of exceptional people with a shared sense of mission and vision, working towards the same goal. Uniting our e-ployees behind such a common goal has been pivotal in creating a strong and healthy remote culture.
What is crucial here is that, unlike in a traditional digital marketing agency, setting clear values and communicating and reinforcing them must happen on a constant basis.
Shared values and a strong culture are both integral to the success of any team and organization. With the aforementioned methods in place, achievement and a strong sense of community need not be defined by location!
There seems to be a lot of concern as to how managers are able to monitor their employees when working remotely. Many still believe that leading a team can only work when everyone is physically in the same office and managers are able to monitor their employees.
Over the past years, we have seen an increasing amount of leadership teams worrying about remote employees potentially working less or mixing personal and work-related responsibilities.
Everybody who has worked in an office setting can attest to the fact that being physically present in an office does not necessarily guarantee quality work or productivity. And neither does managing people by sight.
Whilst there are certainly workers who might use a work-from-home policy to procrastinate at home, we believe that it would be very unfair to treat highly motivated and honest remote workers with suspicion and make them worry about the judgement of their output.
The magic word in this context is trust. We are convinced that
and that granting our teams autonomy and trust is key in making remote work a success. After all, if we could not trust our team, we would have to question our hiring and recruitment processes in the first place.
The time spent on a task (or in an office) hardly ever equals quality of work and is therefore a poor metric to measure performance.
To reap the benefits of remote work, we must avoid micromanaging teams and focus on the results (output), rather than on the amount of hours logged (input)! In other words, we must adopt a results-based performance evaluation.
As long as deadlines are being met, it should not matter how many hours employees put into their work or when they do their work.
Rather than tracking every movement of our staff, we foster a high-trust culture that values openness, accountability, respect and transparency. There is no bureaucracy or clock-watching.
We reward every team member and remote freelancer for the actual work they complete and only track progress against goals. Outcomes seem to be the most sensible way to measure that progress in a distributed team.
The beauty about this model is that it not only creates better places to work, but it also results in fairer, more credible promotions—and in a much more diverse and inclusive remote workforce!
Earlier parts of this article have already emphasized the importance of communication in a remote digital agency environment. Without proper team communication processes in place, communicating can oftentimes be a logistical nightmare.
Take something as simple as a video conference: In any traditional on-site digital marketing agency, getting everyone together for the meeting is usually only a matter of a few minutes, depending on the actual size of the team.
With a team that is spread across time zones, a video conference needs to be announced well in advance, an agenda needs to be shared with all team members (along with the link to the conference room), notes need to be taken and shared, the meeting needs to be recorded, made available to the teams and the resulting actions for every team member eventually followed up.
Time zone differences are another barrier that can easily get in the way of communication, keeping the team in sync and in turn working together effectively. Remote work simply does not allow for a team member to turn around and ask their colleague a question.
These examples illustrate just how much more structure, organization and communication procedures are required when dealing with a completely distributed workforce.
Our REMOTE AGENCY team strives to be intentional, efficient and transparent in its communication. We tend to over-communicate to make up for the physical distance between our team members and to minimize the risk of misunderstandings.
Moreover, we encourage our teams to ask questions when anything is not clear and to be concise in making requests—communicating what is required by when and why.
Wherever possible, we default to asynchronous communication, especially when discussing non-critical project specifics and sharing announcements or design feedback. Only for one-on-one meetings, urgent matters, socializing and for personal feedback or resolving conflict, we prioritize synchronous communication.
As a general rule of thumb, whenever a topic requires more than two emails or messages to be communicated in a clear fashion, we choose real-time communication tools. If not, then async-first it is.
When it comes to tools, there are dozens of powerful solutions available. What has been highly beneficial to our team is the fact that we centralize all our communication into as few channels as possible.
This helps keep operations organized by reducing fragmentation and allows team members to quickly catch up and stay in alignment on tasks and objectives—whilst avoiding confusion and potential delays.
Another important aspect is being conscious about which remote worker(s) actually benefit(s) from receiving certain project updates. Responsibilities can quickly change and ensuring that only relevant information is available to employees can avoid unnecessary stress.
With a remote team scattered across time zones, finding a time that works for everyone can be very challenging. As mentioned earlier, we therefore record all video meetings and make them available for the relevant teams. This way, colleagues who were not able to join can simply watch them at a later time.
Meetings in general are one of the biggest disruptors of productivity, which is why we aim to have fewer, but more effective meetings. All our meetings and video conferences always need to be planned in advance—with agendas agreed and adhered to.
With those processes set up, successful communication can also be achieved in any remote-based agency setup. Unless, of course, the next point is ignored:
The whole concept of a remote creative agency relies heavily on the internet to operate. When all employees are working remotely, a fast and reliable internet connection is as paramount as protecting potentially sensitive business data and providing all team members with proper hardware and software.
Apart from investing in the best collaboration and communication tools for our e-ployees, our REMOTE AGENCY ensures that all staff are well-equipped to work remotely.
We believe that it is pivotal to set up a dedicated and professional workspace at home where our remote workers are able to do deep work and great work. After all, it will become their new office—in fact, it will be much better than that!
We support our remote teams financially in acquiring a notebook or desktop computer along with an additional monitor, accessories like a headset and webcam as well as some comfortable furniture such as an ergonomic office chair and a good desk.
In order to mitigate cybersecurity risks, we have implemented various security measures. As an example, our telecommuters are required to use a secure and private wireless or VPN connection at all times and must never share their notebook with members in the same household.
To prevent malware and viruses from causing harm, third-party applications must not be downloaded and installed without our permission. Logging off and closing the notebook when not in use is as much of a routine as using strong passwords, 2FA, firewalls, anti-virus software and an up-to-date operating system.
Whether co-located or location-independent, cybersecurity as well as solid hardware and software should never be an afterthought!
For the sake of completeness, we will mention one more challenge for any remote design agency that we have already touched upon earlier: The importance of hiring well and having strong recruitment, interviewing and onboarding processes in place.
Any agency is only as good as its people, so hiring the right type of candidates in the first place is one of the most important and crucial steps in ensuring long-term success.
At the same time, it is very likely the most difficult task for any officeless and remote marketing agency. Having access to a global talent pool does not make things easier. In order to give this topic the attention and detail it deserves, we will be covering the obstacles in remote hiring and onboarding in a future post.
Good news: Our blog post alert can notify you when it goes live!
The number of completely remote marketing agencies is still very limited at this point and that is probably what ultimately results in the biggest challenge of all: There are no (or at least not a lot) best practices to draw upon yet.
Consequently, creativity and patience are required to invent new and innovative processes, workflows and methodologies to make remote work work.
Despite this exhaustive list of pitfalls in managing remote agency teams, we strongly feel that remote work must not be seen as a challenge to overcome—but a significant competitive advantage to achieve! In fact, we are firmly convinced that
Having been remote by default from day one, we can attest to the fact that the positives of telecommuting far outweigh the negatives.
For our REMOTE AGENCY, leveraging the benefits of a remote team has been a game-changer and allowed us to be truly boundless. If it wasn’t for our world-class remote team, we would have never been able to deliver the same award-winning results and attain the same growth!
Embracing remote work today and learning how to be successful as a distributed team will be a key success factor for many companies in the coming years.
The future of work is here. What we have seen over the past weeks and months is only the beginning—the beginning of a new normal!
Have you experienced loneliness, isolation or FOMO yourself? How do you separate private and work life in your home office? Are you ready to establish a remote-first or fully remote digital marketing agency? What obstacles are holding you back and what concerns do you have that have not been covered in this post?
Share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below and let us find solutions together—and improve the lives of as many people as we can!