Nine years ago, 99u founder Scott Belsky made the following prediction:
“The advertising agency of the future will consist of account managers, administrative staff, and a tiny leadership team that provides creative direction […] The creative production itself will be distributed to individuals and small teams around the globe who are at the top of their game. The same applies to corporate marketing departments and other creative firms.”
And now, transitioning from an office-based agency to a virtual one isn’t really such a radical move. After all, if you choose to make the switch, you’ll be joining successful companies like Help Scout, Zapier, Buffer, and many more.
If you’re wondering whether your agency should go remote, here’s what you need to consider.
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The ROI of a remote agency team
Virtualizing your workforce has a clear impact on your bottom line. As Buffer discovered, having a completely distributed team is usually much cheaper:
“Large firms see hiring remote workers as a way to save on overhead costs and maintain a healthy bottom line,” says Mashable writer Brian Casel. “On the other hand, small shops and freelancers see the distributed agency model as a viable path to scale up and grow their business without investing too much or incurring debt. For a solo studio owner looking to grow, it’s more practical to partner with or hire remote workers than to invest in an in-house staff.”
The monetary benefits
- Office space, furniture, and equipment are often the biggest line items in most teams’ budgets, and you’ll get to cross it out.
- You only have to pay for the hours spent by employees on work-related tasks.
- Remote workers are less likely to call in sick. This can save you up to $1,800 per employee annually.
- You can hire people as-needed or on a per-project basis.
Furthermore, if you’re currently based in a city with a higher-than-average cost of living, going remote will allow you to find equally talented employees with lower market salaries.
For example, a Boston agency might pay a junior developer $50,000. However, if that company went remote, it could hire a junior developer from South Dakota, and pay them $30,000.
Alternatively, you can use the money you’re saving on overhead and other expenses to pay your employees and freelancers more. Paying higher-than-standard rates gives you better chances to hire the best of the best.
“[In the traditional agency] twenty percent of the shop are rock stars and then there’s a tired middle and of course the dead weight. Those are the employees that wish they were somewhere else,” notes Greg Henderson, founder of Red Rocket Connect. “In our virtual firm, everyone self-selected OUT of the cubicle. We have no dead weight, no slackers or coasters—it’s an A-team across the board.”
And don’t forget how much money working remotely saves workers, too. Simply cutting out commuting costs is huge: not only do they not have to pay for gas or public transport, they also save hours each week.
“No one likes commuting, and we value work/life balance quite a bit,” explains Giacomo ‘Peldi’ Guilizzoni, founder and CEO of Balsamiq.
While going remote generally saves agencies a huge chunk of change, it’s good to be aware of the unique costs as well.
Retreats don’t necessarily have to be extravagant, but having a bonding experience once or twice a year is essential for a healthy distributed team.
Most remote companies also provide their employees with gear, as in a traditional office. Buying your team up-to-date equipment is especially important — they need it to do their job well, and they will greatly appreciate the gesture.
Since too much isolation can make telecommuters miserable, some companies offer coworking budgets to their team members. According to this iDoneThis blog post, others sweeten the deal with subsidized gym memberships, paid sabbaticals, and even maid service.
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The challenges of remote communication
The way your team collaborates with each other will change dramatically after going remote. If you don’t put a lot of thought and energy into setting up proper team communication processes, your team will struggle to stay in-sync.
Challenge #1: Different time zones
Being able to hire people from around the world is fantastic, but you’ll have to adjust to working with people spread across multiple time zones.
The Zapier marketing team, for example, has people in Bangkok, Maine, Omaha, Nashville, and San Francisco.
Scheduling meetings can be challenging. Plus, employees in opposite time zones rarely get the chance to bond like they would in a traditional office.
The fix: Use apps like Google Calendar and Every Time Zone to make sure you’ve got the right local time. To facilitate socializing between far-apart coworkers, you can set up a weekly bonding call like Help Scout does.
Challenge #2: Nonverbal communication
Since most remote communication happens in chat platforms and via email, miscommunications can crop up more frequently. It’s much harder to read someone’s emotions over IM than when you’re sitting next to them in a meeting.
The fix: Like Todoist, encourage your team to use emojis and GIFs; these can soften potentially harsh-sounding messages and let people show some personality.
For face-to-face communication, you can check out this list of video conferencing solutions.
Challenge #3: Isolated work
Since everyone’s spread out, it’s easy for people to lose track of the common goals and get caught up in their own priorities. For example, one of your engineers might think updating the homepage is the most pressing task, while another is convinced fixing the site’s accessibility issues should be handled before anything else.
The fix: Ask everyone to check in with their teammates at the beginning and end of their work day—if not more often. A project management tool like Hubstaff Tasks is incredibly helpful for collaboration and task organization. managers can see what their reports are working on at all times (down to the URLs and apps they’ve got open!).
But remote communication doesn’t just come with challenges: it also has many pros. First, having employees in multiple time zones means there’s always at least one team member who can respond to a crisis. Many remote marketing agencies, for example, hire globally for their customer service and support teams so they can attend to customer concerns 24/7.
In addition, having conversations occur online (rather than in the office) means you’ve got a record of every decision made, question answered, and idea proposed. Let’s say a new employee has a question about a specific feature of your product. Instead of having to ask their manager, they can search the team’s chat room to see what you’ve already discussed.
What your clients will think
Your clients are probably — and understandably — your top priority when you’re considering going remote. First, let’s lay out some of the reasons why your present clients could be worried by the switch—and why it might make future clients think twice.
When some people hear “remote team,” they immediately think of overseas workers. And unfortunately, as this Toptal blog post explains, there’s a negative stigma around outsourcing your engineering and design work.
There shouldn’t be — because as chief executive of Posse Rebekah Campbell discovered, there’s absolutely no difference in the quality of work you receive, as long as you pay fairly and treat all of your employees like members of the team.
Other clients may be worried that your work is somehow inferior because it’s not produced in one office. Address this by pointing out how mainstream remote work has become.
And according to Bonnie Morris, founder of virtual PR and social media agency, being remote actually improves work quality.
“Virtual brainstorms tend to flourish because everyone has to have some skin in the game,” she says. “We generally send out briefs a few days in advance, and typically use the web during brainstorms to research on the go and use Skype to share assets and such.”
Finally, quell your clients’ fears over quality by describing how remote work lets you hire the best of the best. Today’s most talented employees view the ability to work from anywhere as a massive perk, so you can hire competitively.
And as remote agency leader Kate Swanberg explains, “Remote work helps modern web agencies access unlimited talents beyond the 50 miles radius of their location.”
A lot of clients might worry that a remote digital agency will be less responsive. But on the contrary, distributed teams will be even quicker to respond to emails, address concerns, and solve problems.
The Balsamiq team specifically hires across time zones so that its sales and tech support units are always available.
“Being geographically dispersed also gives us the advantage of moving faster, “ the company explains. “The software gets tested while the developers sleep, for instance.”
As previously discussed, keeping everyone informed and in-sync is a bigger challenge when your team is remote — so it’s fair for clients to wonder if this will impact your work.
Once you’ve built up a solid track record, these reservations will likely dissipate. But what about when you’re just starting out?
Consider including your communication strategy in your announcement to clients. For example, you might say, “We’ve put a lot of thought into planning our remote set-up. Our team will be using a daily and weekly goal-tracking tool so there’s always total clarity on everyone’s position. And to make sure we’re giving you the most accurate rates possible, we’re using Hubstaff to track our freelancers’ productivity.”
Here’s how Henderson handles idea generation at Red Rocket Connect: “A creative lead will brainstorm out some directions and then float them to their creative partner. They narrow it to one or two ideas that they share with me. I provide focusing guidance, and then we socialize it across the client team and solicit feedback.”
Some clients just care about getting the job done. Others, who are looking for a long-term relationship with their agency or provider, want to work with a tight-knit team.
Fortunately, creating a strong culture within a remote agency is completely doable. First, find ways to encourage non-work communication among your employees.
Random Slack or Basecamp channels work well; however, you can take things one step further by hosting weekly “lunch and learns” (give everyone a gift card for a food delivery service and have a speaker or team member give a presentation), running a mentorship program, or sponsoring a couple employees to go to the same conference.
Web agency tools you should check out
Transitioning to a remote team is a big move for any company, but the great thing about it is that there are several tools that can help smooth the process out.
Hubstaff is a time tracking solution that’s designed to help remote teams make the most out of their time. In fact, the app itself is built by a fully remote team.
Hubstaff lets remote teams track every second they spend working on every task. All the recorded time goes straight to their online timesheets, along with timely screenshots that you can view to get a quick idea of what they have accomplished over a span of time. With Hubstaff, you can monitor your team closely without having to ask them for updates, and they can focus on their work much better.
What’s more, Hubstaff has a powerful invoicing feature that takes the hassle away from billing clients. Based on the hours worked by your team, Hubstaff will automatically generate accurate invoices that you can send straight to your clients. No manual computations needed.
Keeping track of all your projects is one of the most challenging parts of working as a remote agency. Hubstaff Tasks helps make sure that nobody misses out on anything and that collaboration is as seamless as possible.
Hubstaff Tasks uses a Kanban interface. Tasks and project stages are represented by cards and columns. Moving tasks to different stages is done by dragging cards and dropping them to the respective column. This will send a notification to everyone involved in the task so they can easily stay updated.
Hubstaff Tasks’ Agile Sprints feature is designed to help teams finish projects efficiently. Teams can focus their efforts on the right tasks, so no time is wasted and project delays are avoided. You can also create custom workflows that let you move projects forward and assign tasks to the right people with just one click.
How do you make sure that everyone in your team — some of which could be thousands of miles away — is happy? Simple: use Officevibe. Officevibe, an app designed to improve employee engagement, uses quick forms to help you understand your employees better.
Officevibe regularly sends out pulse surveys to your team. These surveys are tailored to determine how your team feels about work and gather opinions that could be helpful to your agency’s growth. They also have the option to answer anonymously, making it easier for them to be completely honest.
Slack is a popular communication platform with several features that are useful for distributed teams. The app lets you send messages to people in your team, create channels for various purposes, and share files across the company.
With Slack, you can make calls directly to teammates, or start a video conference inside channels. It also integrates with popular apps like Dropbox, Gmail, and Zendesk.
Xero is an accounting software that aims to provide small businesses a trouble-free financing experience. Setting up Xero is quick and easy, making it a great addition to any remote agency’s arsenal.
Xero’s dashboard provides a quick snapshot of your business’ financial performance.You can make purchases on the platform, set up employee payroll, handle taxes, and more.
Are you ready to become a remote agency?
Many companies begin as virtual teams — remote work is in their DNA. Others, such as Toggl, Sticker Mule, and Inspired HR, started with physical offices and then transitioned to a virtual model when they realized the benefits.
In either case, the leadership team has to think long and hard about how they’ll deal with the various challenges and unique situations that come with a dispersed staff. But once you’ve figured out those challenges and started reaping the many benefits, you’ll probably find being remote is one of the best things you could ever do for your company.
What is your experience with running a remote agency? What’s stopping you from building/joining one? Share your thoughts in the comments.