I’ve learned a lot over the last 15 years of running a consulting business. As a company, we learned many disciplines in marketing, advertising, data, and scaling, but personally, what I’ve learned the most about is how to work with people.
We’ve been fortunate to work with many great people internally on our team, externally with clients, and at large with our community here in Toronto over the last 10 years. As we think about the next decade, I found myself yearning to increase our scale and impact.
The truth is that the best people are everywhere, and, they’re working differently than they ever have before
So when the topic of remote work came up at one of our strategic planning meetings, at first we became curious, and then rather excited at all the possibilities it could hold for us to live our vision of doing work we love, with people we like, how we want.
There were people like Mike who’d already been with us for over 6 years. In internet years, that’s nearly a lifetime. He wanted to find a way to be closer to family and his partner, while still doing everything needed to grow our business and impact as a core part of our team.
There were people like Angela, spending time between home here in Toronto and her partner who lives in another city. Weekends were fun and weeks were productive and rewarding, but the commute was draining.
Then there were people like Brandon and Adam who’d worked remotely for years on our team, joining us on occasion at the office, despite having to deal with brutal traffic, transit breakdowns, and snow storms (yes, after all, we do live in Canada).
As I observed many of the people in our business who are strong culture-fits and high performers, it became clearer that we needed to make a bold move.
So to celebrate our 10th year in business, we’re proud to share that Powered by Search is officially a remote-first team.
I’m going to share how the transition from a hybrid co-located office to a distributed team was easier than we had imagined and had a bigger payoff than we could have predicted.
Why We Became a Remote First Team
As our team grew over the years, we noticed that work didn’t just happen “at work”. It happened at all times of the day.
As a company, we believe that high-quality work and a high-quality lifestyle aren’t mutually exclusive. This means that our best people become the best by being able to be equally passionate when they’re working, as well as when they spend time away from work with their family and friends.
Through 1:1’s with our team and monitoring their happiness and engagement via Officevibe we gained more clarity. The secret to building a world-class company in four steps:
(as inspired by the work of Joel Spolsky)
We knew that in order to build a team of the best digital marketing consultants in the world, we had to think bigger than building a team exclusively in Toronto.
Sure, that could mean opening up little satellite offices all over the world, but that’s not the way the future of work is headed. So instead of moving the best people in the world to Toronto, we’re pairing up the best in the world with the most worthy work.
Here are just one of the pieces of feedback from our remote survey
“For me, I think that going remote would be something I’d benefit from both a personal and work perspective. I’d be able to cut the 4 hours I currently spend commuting and driving my daughter to daycare allowing me to spend more time where it matters… either with her fulfilling my duties as a mom or maximizing the time spent on work-related items.”
Easing into Remote Work
Our transition to becoming a remote first company wasn’t binary. Instead, we decided to experiment with offering team members the flexibility of working remotely between starting at 20% of their week, ratcheting up the number of days per week based on a continuous feedback cycle.
In late 2018, we ran an in-depth survey to our entire team and the results were unanimous: we’d be a happier, healthier, and more productive company by becoming a remote first team.
In retrospect, we should have decided to go remote a lot sooner.
As a founder, I realized I rarely met most of my team in person, most of the time, and yet we didn’t have any gaps in working together. In fact, it was harder for some of our hires who were 60%-80% remote. We’d forget to bring them into the conversation or to set up meetings properly.
Realizing We Were Working Remotely Already
Two technological advancements have made distributed work easier in the last 3 to 5 years.
First, overall internet bandwidth and access to high-speed internet have considerably improved, coupled with lower mobile data fees.
Second, most digital marketing work has shifted from desktop-based apps to be in the browser, and backed by the cloud.
We’ve boiled this down to a simple technology stack that just works:
Zoom — We’ve replaced phone calls with video-on conferencing calls. For 90% of people 90% of the time, seeing each creates a stronger bond than the typical “who just joined?” question that’s de-rigeur in most client-consultant engagements.
Google Suite — We’ve been based on Gsuite for over a decade, and it’s only been getting better in recent years. Combined with Google Drive File Stream, and workspaces, it just works.
Basecamp3 — We’ve started using Basecamp and couldn’t be happier. Productivity is up, dropped balls are down, and clients are happier. We used Slack for over 4 years and I even wrote a guide to reducing overwhelm with group chat. We noted that the synchronicity of group chat style platforms places subtle demands on teams to respond right now. It also promotes thinking in a ‘stream of consciousness bursts’, rather than fully formed thoughts that are well communicated.
The combination of these three platforms plus a robust set of systems and process that informs “how we work” has been pivotal to being able to do the following:
Work with team members across the United States, Canada, and traveling team members while they’re in the UK, Italy, Austria, and even Thailand.
- Recruiting the best people without uprooting them from a city they love living in or from family and friends they cherish.
- Preventing staff churn because a team member wanted to move away from Toronto to another city.
What We Were Worried About
Would our clients care?
Our clients hire us to grow their businesses through our digital strategy and execution expertise. Of the many dozens of clients we work with, we’ve only ever met a small handful in person on a regular basis (think every month).
In fact, for most clients, we’d need to travel at least an hour by car or plane to meet with them.
We were worried about the change but much to our delight it’s been a non-issue.
Our clients simply want to know that we can meet with them when needed, and that’s never going to change.
In fact, with a fully distributed team, we’ve found that clients are happier because there’s less information fragmentation and more aligned teams. It’s just easier when we collaborate as a group on a zoom call, and follow up with “who does what, and by when” within Basecamp.
Would our culture change?
Remote work naturally favours a culture of execution. We’ve always been firm believers that culture isn’t about beer in the fridge or about pilates classes at the office. We know because we’ve tried those things as experiments and it didn’t change our culture.
The best cultures are ones where there is mutual respect, and teams do what they say they’ll do and have each other’s back. They hold themselves and each other to a high standard and don’t budge on that.
So far, our culture has changed. It’s changed for the better because we aren’t making trade-offs like working when we should be having dinner with our families because of the 2-hour commute many of us have had until recently.
We take time on team video calls to show each other our workspaces and celebrate life’s little things that give us joy. For some, that’s being able to go to the gym during lunch, and for other’s, it’s being able to take their dog for a walk and enjoy 15 minutes in the sun.
As a founder, I don’t worry about whether team members have their head in the game.
I know they do because it shows up in their work. That’s how we build and keep trust. What I do know is this — the smiles are priceless.
We haven’t figured it all out yet. We’re constantly learning and iterating and every day we’re achieving our goals of operating like a high-performance team, no matter where team members are located.
Would things be lost in translation communicating digitally?
When we noticed some of our team members sitting 5 feet away from each other and still using Slack to message each other for anything longer than two to five minutes, it worried us.
If physical proximity didn’t get people to talk to each other face to face, wouldn’t it get worse as a fully distributed team?
Having spoken with multiple other remote companies, one common message rang true: “you need to over-communicate to succeed at remote work”.
That’s why we created a communication system that’s working quite well for us
Chat — Use sparingly to talk about work. Use it as much as you want to bond about how each other’s weekend went or whether you’ve watched the latest Game of Thrones episode. We use the Basecamp pings feature for fun interactions with our team.
Zoom Call — If the conversation might take longer than 2-5 minutes back and forth, getting on a call is easier and more effective. Internally, we always turn on our web cameras so that we can see each other. Our team loves this.
Pod Huddles — Team’s share what they’re working on every week and use automatic check-ins daily to share progress. They also collaborate on huddles where it’s amazing to see a gallery view of everyone in their workspaces.
In Person — Team members see each other more often than I thought they might. This includes pairing up in person for a day’s work, team outings, and in monthly town halls.
How We Celebrate and Bond
We’re cognizant that isolation is the major hurdle in scaling a remote first company. That’s why we’re adding in intentional interactions to establish in-person touch points with our team.
This ranges from members on our executive team spending time for a full day with individual contributors, to us all getting together in person for a monthly town hall.
As we roll this out further, we’ll commit to in-person retreats that bring together the whole company for a few days of fun, bonding, brainstorming, and planning.
We’re laying the seeds for the next decade of progress and innovation in our business. The biggest benefit of going remote is happier and more productive team members.
In all our conversations, we can see each and every single consultant our team seeing how we’re trusting and empowering them to embrace their own personal sense of responsibility and contribution which allows all of us freedom and flexibility to integrate work and life.
We can’t wait to see the next level incredible clients and consultants we’ll collaborate with next on our journey to building the best company in our space while achieving our vision of doing work we love, with people we like, how we want.