Workshop Digital became a remote company overnight in the middle of March 2020. Like many other businesses, our history will reflect what work looked like before and after COVID. This is especially true of our hybrid and remote work policy. While working remotely was a topic of discussion before COVID, our entire team was still in-office five days a week, with only one exception. Now, fully one-third of the team is remote and living across all three time zones in the continental U.S.
Three years into our new hybrid and remote work environment, many business owners and people managers, myself included, are wondering what impact this evolved work environment is having on work product, company culture and team morale. More importantly, how do we create a sustainable and thriving remote work environment for the long term?
A 2022 GALLUP survey shows a trending preference for hybrid work, while 1/3rd of survey respondents prefer fully remote work and only 6% (expectedly) prefer a return to the office full-time.
How will this impact our team? And how can we do more to ensure the best work environment for our remote and hybrid team members?
Time for an exercise in perspective building.
I recently packed up and hit the road for what I’ve dubbed the CEO Roadshow. I flew to Denver, San Diego, and Austin, where some of our team members are working remotely. My goal: connect with our non-Richmond team members in their cities and listen to their perspectives on working remotely at Workshop Digital. Here’s what I learned.
Previous Remote Experience Helps - But Isn’t Required
My first stop was snowy, 20-degree, Denver, where I met two members of our Paid Media team at a coffee shop. We started our convo by discussing their remote experience before COVID. Neither of them had worked remotely before the pandemic. Interesting.
Fast forward 24 hours and I’m in a restaurant on the Pacific Ocean in Del Mar, California, watching the sunset with members of our SEO and Paid Media team. This crew was split 50/50, one team member having worked remotely before COVID while the other had not. Also interesting.
Finally, 24 hours later I’m at a rooftop bar in Austin, Texas, with two members of our business development team. Both had worked remotely prior to COVID. I now had all the possible combinations of remote work experience represented across these three groups.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks with remote experience prior to COVID had no real issues, and all of them still prefer to work remotely. One member of our SEO team with 8 years of remote experience said, “I would never want to work in an office again. I’m much more productive at home. I work best in a remote environment where I can focus without the distractions that come from an office.”
For those without remote experience, the transition was more challenging - at first.
Several team members mentioned feeling a bit alone. “I was one of the last people to leave the office after COVID hit. I enjoyed the social aspect of the office and didn’t really want to work from home. The transition to working remotely initially created some stress and anxiety because I missed the work environment.” But over time, they all agreed that the perks of remote work outweighed the benefits of the office.
But these folks all have quite a bit of digital marketing experience. What about new hires without the background of working in an office?
“For entry-level or more junior team members, starting remote may be more challenging. There is real value in being able to meet in person for training and management meetings with new hires.”
So one consideration for hiring managers - consider tenure when hiring remote employees. If that isn’t an option, consider placing new junior team members in the same city as their manager.
In-Person Face Time is Important
Since our goal is to continue to embrace remote work, I was curious if our folks in California, Colorado, and Texas have plans to stay remote. Even those that weren’t remote say the pros far outweigh the cons and everyone from my small sample size stated they plan to continue working remotely. With that said, one common theme did emerge from everyone I talked with: in-person face time is important.
At Workshop, we fly in our remote team members twice a year for company offsites. While these are opportunities for the leadership team to present their goals and rally the team around where we are headed as a company, I contend that the largest value derived from these events is the social interaction that occurs.
“I really enjoy the face time twice a year,” I heard. “Twice a year is perfect, and I don’t think we’d need to meet more often than that,” another team member said. We have discussed more frequent offsites for the entire team, but between travel and lost productivity, most of the team I’ve talked with so far stated that twice a year is a good cadence. These types of all-company meetings are expensive, so not all businesses may be able to schedule two offsites a year, but getting team members together helps stave off the feelings of isolation and disconnection that can happen in a remote-enabled workplace.
Communication Channels Need Rethinking
While the remote team members I spoke with praised Workshop for the various ways we attempt to build social interactivity into our virtual world, there are some considerations that arose from my conversations.
We use Basecamp, a project management tool, for basically everything at Workshop. This includes team praise, social convos, and in-the-weeds client work. In our new remote and hybrid world, especially as we grow, this probably is not the best solution.
“Basecamp feels more business-y and there is a lot of noise. It can be hard to stay on top of all of the various conversations happening. It might help to move our numerous social conversations [which range from podcasts, movies, music, cooking, pets, gardening, etc] to a different platform to cut down on the notifications.”
This separation of work and social online platforms could allow us to create some clear swim lanes for the various types of communication we have in our remote/hybrid business. Need to focus on client work? Let the client project management tool help guide your workload management for the day without all the extra noise of the various social threads. Need a break from client work? Fire up Slack or something similar to decompress and connect with your teammates. A key takeaway: consider how your communication needs, and the software that facilitates that communication, may have to evolve to best suit a remote/hybrid team.
We currently have team fun budgets, “friend time,” and various other social activities. These programs are great, but any virtual meeting is made more challenging when part of the team is together in-person and one or two other team members are remote. The remote team members feel less connected, and often can’t hear the internal conversations happening with the in-person team. Another insight: consider how in-person teams are communicating during meetings that include remote team members. Minimize side conversations, ensure in-person teams can all be clearly heard (use a good microphone), and avoid using a single camera whenever possible to create a better experience for everyone.
Perks to Remote Work
Increased autonomy, flexibility, and work-life balance? Yep, yep, and yep. While not surprising, in and of itself, it is important to note that each team member lives these perks differently.
“I’m saving money on doggy daycare and get to spend more time with my husband and my pup. My husband helps keep me accountable to unplug at the end of the day.”
“It’s easier for me to hyper-focus and plan out my day with fewer interruptions.”
“Because we are on the west coast (and Workshop Digital is on the east coast), I’m able to knock out some deep work at the end of the day when the east coast folks have logged off.”
“I’m able to workout in the mornings again, and eat a lot healthier now that I’m remote.”
“Not commuting to and from work gives me more time, personal and professional, to get things done during the day.”
“It’s a lot easier to take mental health breaks without disrupting other team members - whether that is taking the dog for a walk or just stepping away from my desk.”
Challenges to Remote Work
While the perks of remote work are fairly universal and well documented, this trip taught me that the challenges (also well documented) are a bit more nuanced. They include feelings of isolation, lack of social interaction, challenges unplugging from work, and challenges working across different time zones.
“I’ve definitely had FOMO during times like the new office announcement.”
“I’m on a really small team so there are some days when I don’t talk to anyone.”
Multiple team members also mentioned having a much harder time turning off work at the end of the day because they’ve got a strong desire to get everything done and less structure than a standard 9-5.
“Because I’m on the west coast, most of my meetings happen in the morning. Sometimes I’m burned out by the afternoon.”
What can business owners and managers do to create a thriving hybrid/remote workplace culture?
A 2021 FlexJobs survey with 2,100 respondents stated, “The majority of respondents (65%) said they want to remain full-time remote workers after the pandemic. Another 33% prefer a hybrid work arrangement, while only 2% say they want to return to the office full-time.” And this Gallup poll shows that employer retention may suffer if they don’t continue to offer remote work options moving forward.
It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of employees in the post-COVID workforce prefer a hybrid or remote-first workplace. So what can we do to grow a thriving culture for the long term?
Promote communication and collaboration through virtual channels: Communication is key in a remote work environment. Encourage your team to use virtual communication tools, such as instant messaging, video conferencing, and collaboration platforms, to stay in touch and collaborate on projects. Establish regular team meetings to discuss progress, share ideas, and provide feedback.
Organize virtual team-building activities: Just because your team is not in the same physical location doesn't mean you can't build a strong sense of community. Organize virtual team-building activities, such as online games, quizzes, and challenges, to foster social connections and improve team morale.
Encourage social interactions among team members: Building relationships and socializing with coworkers is an important part of workplace culture. Encourage your team to connect on a personal level by creating virtual spaces for social interactions, such as chat groups or virtual water cooler sessions.
Establish clear expectations and goals: In a remote work environment, it's important to establish clear expectations and goals to ensure everyone is on the same page. This includes setting deadlines, outlining responsibilities, and providing feedback on performance.
Foster a culture of trust and accountability: Trust is crucial in a remote work environment. Encourage your team to be accountable for their work and to communicate openly and honestly with each other. This can help build a culture of trust and transparency, which can lead to greater collaboration and innovation.
Provide opportunities for professional development: Remote work can be isolating, so it's important to provide opportunities for professional development and career growth. This can include offering virtual training sessions, mentoring programs, and opportunities for employees to take on new responsibilities and challenges.
Celebrate successes and milestones: Celebrating successes and milestones is an important part of building a strong workplace culture. Take time to recognize and celebrate achievements, whether it's a successful project completion or a team member's birthday. This can help foster a sense of community and encourage team members to feel valued and appreciated.
I’m gearing up for round two of the roadshow with more cities and team members to connect with. Meanwhile, we’re already discussing changes we can make based on feedback from the first round of visits. We’ll continue to navigate these changes together on our path to building a better agency.