As COVID-19 first began to change all of our lives earlier this year, a longtime friend of mine posted this note in a Facebook group:
“For those who are working now, are you in the office still? We are a small agency and work on desktop computers. Technically, they’ve prepped us by adding remote-desktop software to our personal laptops, but WFH is still not encouraged. Should I say anything to the owner, and if so, what?”
“Yes, you should say something to the owner,” was my DM response. “You are not an emergency room physician. You are not a bus driver or grocery store clerk, for that matter. There is simply no reason for you to still be in the office.”
Three weeks later I got an update. My friend had been laid off.
It wasn’t because he’d confronted the agency’s owner. The agency had come to the realization that it needed to quickly transition to a remote service model. But it wasn’t equipped to do so effectively. Chaos reigned, and the agency began hemorrhaging already-nervous clients. Staff reductions followed.
Before COVID-19, agencies like mine marketed their remote-friendly workplaces as recruitment incentives in a highly competitive, full-employment environment. Now, it’s simply a matter of survival. If you can’t operate your agency with a 100% remote team without missing a beat, your business is in trouble.
Because we work exclusively with B2B tech companies in spaces like unified communications, web conferencing, telemedicine, cybersecurity and e-commerce logistics, we saw the writing on the wall and began transitioning to be “location independent” a few years ago.
I thought it might be helpful to share five challenges we faced in our transition, and the steps we took to overcome them:
We had to bite the bullet and ditch our desktop computers in favor of company-issued laptops. That was challenging because when you’re a small business, buying 25 laptops is a major investment. During the current crisis, I’ve heard stories of agency staff having to drag their desktops home, particularly if they are graphic designers or developers with special programs or computing requirements. This is obviously less than ideal, but don’t hesitate to do it. Also, set up your teams to use their personal laptops at home if necessary; make sure all machines are configured with the same email and productivity tools.
The first question we asked ourselves was how much security we really needed, and for what information. Trying to encrypt every email is more trouble than it’s worth. Be smart and selective. We transitioned to Office 365; you might also consider G Suite, which is a far better alternative than your team using their personal Google accounts. Also, instruct your team to never use public Wi-Fi; it’s easy enough to use your hotspot or home Wi-Fi.
We moved from GoToMeeting, which we had utilized primarily for audio conference calls with clients, to the more user-friendly Zoom. Our use of video conferencing expanded to video meetings with clients and sales calls with prospects.
As the team became more familiar with Zoom, it became easier for managers to feel comfortable with their employees working remotely. We also transitioned from Skype and email to Slack for internal chat and collaboration. Choosing a tool for chat and collaboration should be about making people feel connected and part of the team, even when they are not in the same place.
4. Project Management
The fact is, many agencies are just not very good at project management, and this can be a real productivity killer when teams are dispersed. When project management is inefficient, impromptu in-person meetings often have to serve as a crutch. My agency had these same struggles itself. We transitioned to a project management tool (we use Teamwork) and configured it to our staff’s needs and workflows, and then we committed to everyone using it — and, importantly, using it the same way.
Beyond deploying the necessary tools, we realized that a remote work environment can only be successful when people trust one another. If your culture as an agency is weak, the current crisis will show all the cracks. If it’s strong, it can make your team and work product stronger. It’s always a good time to work on your company’s culture. If it’s not where it needs to be, start improving it today.
For those of you whose organizations are just now making the remote transition, I recognize that the change is more abrupt than you’d like and that inconvenience and disruption to longstanding routines can be jarring. But I encourage you to embrace it as an opportunity to grow and move your business forward.
If there are silver linings to the cloud that we are all currently living under, that is one of them.