The rise of the distributed agency

No Divide’s Ryan Taylor explains how remote agencies combine the perks of being an employee with the freedom of freelancing

Let’s for a moment divide everyone who works in the web industry into two groups. People who work for someone else (such as an agency), and people who work for themselves (freelancers). Each group has its pros and cons, and what’s interesting is that often a pro for one group is a con for the other.

For example, as a freelancer you can pick and choose the projects you want to work on (pro) but as an agency employee you often just have to work on what is given to you (con). As an agency employee you don’t have to be on the constant lookout for new clients and worry about where your next pay cheque is coming from (pro), whereas as a freelancer you do (con).

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a third group that was able to take many of the aforementioned benefits but as few of the disadvantages as possible? Like Blade the Daywalker — all of a vampire’s strengths, none of its weaknesses! I think the answer is a combination of evolved company culture
and remote working.

The fact of the matter is that a number of our clients are based overseas. We’ve never met them in person. So why do we need to work in the same space?

The remote agency

Two years ago Dan Edwards and I founded No Divide. We were two freelancers who’d been collaborating pretty much exclusively for a couple of years. When we decided to officially join forces, we knew from the very start that we would be a remote agency.

This was both through choice and necessity. I’m based near Leeds and Dan is in Chichester, placing us roughly 250 miles apart. The fact that geographically we are so divided is one of the things that contributed to our company name. We also recently hired two developers, Matt West in Northampton and Sam Beckham in Newcastle. The fact of the matter is that a number of our clients are based overseas. We’ve never met them in person. So why do we need to work in the same space?

Being a remote agency has a huge number of benefits. For example:

  • We can hire the best talent, regardless of where they are based
  • We don’t have the overheads of renting office space
  • Nobody has to commute (not having to commute to Leeds saves me seven and a half hours a week!)
  • We’re not tied to the traditional 9am-5pm office hours

Change of culture

Culture is a difficult thing to define. What works for us may not work for you, because culture grows from the ideas and behaviour of the people in a group, and every group has different people in it, right? All you can do is set the stage for the type of culture you’d like to nurture, place people on that stage and see how things unfold.

There are a number of things that work well for us. Firstly, we don’t care when you work or where you work as long as the work gets done. We’re not tapping you on the shoulder every 10 minutes to see how you’re getting on. A lot of traditional employers freak out about this for some reason, but the beauty of tools like GitHub, Dropbox and Slack is they’re constantly and passively updating everyone on what’s going on. We all know that on Tuesday, Matt fixed four bugs and built three templates on project A — without any of us having to speak to him. Crack on, lad.

Which leads to my second point: everyone has access to everything. Every project, every document, every file, every GitHub repository, every client. There’s a hum, a rhythm, to the company that everyone’s tuned into. We all roughly know what’s going on with any given project, even if we’re not working on it. The interesting by-product of this is spontaneous contributions. One of us can chip in with an idea or a viewpoint that hasn’t previously been considered, and it strengthens the project as a whole.

Thirdly, everyone’s opinion is valid. Technically Dan and I are the directors of the company and Matt and Sam are our minions (joke). But we don’t act like there’s a hierarchy — we encourage people to speak up.

Finally, when we Skype we always turn on video. Because we are all remote it’s good to have that human connection, even if it can lead to Dan joining a conversation halfway through brushing his teeth. Sometimes we even leave the video on while we work.

Our aim is to give everyone at No Divide the pros of being freelance and the pros of being an agency employee. Is it time to think differently about the way you work?

Ryan is the technical director and co-founder of No Divide, the author of Version Control with Git and co-creator of oozled

This article originally appeared in issue 270 (summer 2015) of net magazine