Experimenting with a Remote First team at our Digital Agency

I run a digital consultancy. We are a small but scrappy team of doers. Our clients are e-commerce brands, B2B sales teams and startups building products. We help our clients with all aspects of digital including UX/Design, Development, Audience Growth, Systems Integration, and Ad Campaign Optimization. I’ve tried for 5 years to follow the advice of all of the gurus and condense that down to a 5 word elevator pitch, choose a niche like (we do conversion optimization for e-commerce brands) or (we do marketing for lawyers) and scale this consultancy into a rocket ship ride of growth. I’m coming to realize some things:

  1. This consultancy is a lifestyle business. Not a startup. It exists to serve our clients, our team members (employees & contractors), and my own personal lifestyle needs as the owner.
  2. What we do and how we do it is more important than niching down our service offering so we can build a scalable repeatable sales process so the agency can double revenue every year.
  3. Growth doesn’t have to happen fast. Slow steady growth is ok.
  4. At the end of the day, we help our clients identify business and technology problems. Then we staff on demand teams to work WITH them to help implement solutions.

All of that said, one of our core values as a team is experimentation. We have invested a lot energy in developing a process for experimentation and optimization. Specifically as it relates to ad campaign optimization, marketing automation, and conversion rate optimization. Recently we’ve been having an internal discussion about how we work, and we have decided to run some tests on our process. We’ve spent the last 3 years working out of co-working spaces. And we will likely continue to do so in some capacity. But we’ve made the decision to make Remote a core part of our culture. It sounds funny to even say that because it already was. Now we’re simply being explicit about it.

We’re in between offices right now. We are exploring a couple of opportunities for office space long term but none of them are readily available today. So the timing worked out pretty well to do this. Here is a summary:

We are going to spend the next 90 days experimenting with what we’re calling a ‘REMOTE FIRST’ organization. The key here is the word ‘FIRST’. We’re going to optimize our process & team culture so that they exist independent of any one physical location. This will leave us the option if and when we do decide to get another ‘Office,’ that our culture and our processes will exist independently.

Where we’ve been:

Our core team consists of around 11 people. 3 of which are full time. The balance is a core group of freelancers/contractors. 3 of us are in one office in downtown Kansas City. That office is around a 30 minute commute for the three of us who work there every day.

The rest of our team is made up of remote contractors from around the globe.

1 in the KC suburbs

1 in Alabama

1 in Florida

1 in Georgia

2 in Pakistan

1 in India

1 in California

1 in the Philippines

As you can see, Remote is already a big part of who we are.

Challenges we’ve faced with this setup.

  • There is a virtual wall between the three of us in the office and the rest of the group. The 3 of us in the office developed our own culture where the rest of our team wasn’t able to participate. Lunch, happy hours, sports betting, morning coffee, the usual. Over time those small things drive a wedge between the ‘locals’ and the ‘remotes.’
  • Having this office was expensive. For the amount of physical space we had we were paying way to much in rent. (It wasn’t a complete waste of money, there were some really positive intangibles that came with having this office that maybe I’ll cover another time.)
  • In a given week, our 3 person team kills 15 hours a week commuting. That is purely drive time. This doesn’t account for the disturbance of shifting from one mental space to another after the drive. 15 hours a week of waste is conservative.

What has been great about having a downtown KC office?

  • It gives our clients a sense of who they’re working with and makes them feel like they’re working with a real company. In fairness, I’ve never heard one of our clients say that. This is purely my own head trash.
  • We had a killer set up for inviting clients in for meetings. (Conference rooms, rooftop deck, etc).
  • I love being in downtown KC. It’s the best kept secret in the country. There is an energy to being in a downtown office that I think we’ll miss.

What we’re doing now:

We’re going to run the whole team remotely for the next 90 days. I will maintain a small office space where I live in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. I can’t work from home so I need a place to go. Likely what we’ll do in the long term is find a way to provide co-working opportunities for remote employees who wish to participate.

What tools we’re going to use:

  • Slack is now the office.
  • We’ll continue to use Asana for project execution
  • Zoom will be our go to for group video calls and collaboration.

What do we hope to learn? What do we think will happen as a result of this experiment?

  • I hope this forces us to focus on all of our key processes. (How we do project delivery, how we manage clients, how we market ourselves.)
  • I hope it forces us to be deliberate about how we collaborate as a group.
  • I hope it forces us to slow down and refine how we use Slack (chat).
  • I hope that documenting our learnings forces us to write and produce content about our process, the awesome client work that we’re doing, and how we get things done.
  • I hope that our team members use the time they gain back to enjoy their families more
  • I hope the time saved from commuting allows for team members to focus on their health, both mental and physical. (writing, running, cycling, whatever floats your boat)

What concerns me about this move?

  • I’m concerned that our clients will see it as a negative. Like anything, this is something we’re going to have to manage and make sure they see the value.
  • I’m concerned that it will be difficult to engage with the Business/Tech community without a presence in the city.
  • I’m concerned that we’ll lose some of the impromptu whiteboard brainstorm sessions ( we’ll be focusing specifically on how to make up for this in a remote environment )

Follow up posts:

  • Integrating freelancers/contractors into your remote team
  • How we use slack/chat
  • How we manage impromptu whiteboard collaboration sessions remotely

Bio: Still Writing

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