Rethinking a Distributed Workforce for the Creative Field

I've been doing extensive research and saving up observations about how to implement a remote workforce (i.e., work-from-home) for several years, now, and I'm ready to dive in with some public thoughts about how you might benefit from the well as how you might protect yourself from some of the downsides of having a remote workforce (hereafter referred to as WFH, or work-from-home). This will be a longer article than normal, so just bookmark it if you aren't ready to wade into it quite yet. These principles should last for at least five years.

Let's start with a few observations about how prevalent WFH is.

  • Based on an extensive survey I did two months ago, 47% of you who allow WFH to some degree are having significant second thoughts about it. Combine that with 18% of you who are dead-set against it, that leaves 35% of you are are "generally thrilled" with the experience you're having. I surveyed 612 principals with a 4% margin of error. That's more negative than I imagined: two-thirds of you don't think highly of the practice.
  • The Agency Management Institute people did a survey, too, which was even more revealing. Only 8% of firms are "all remote, all the time"; 19% don't allow it at all; and the remaining 73% allow it occasionally, to varying degrees.
  • It's also a highly divisive topic among principals/leadership, in and outside the creative field. Some large, notable firms are banning it entirely (IBM, Yahoo) while others are embracing it completely (Automattic). There are too many smaller creative firms who ban WFH completely to begin listing them, but some have gone on record publicly to discuss it, like redpepper or Connelly Partners.

What do employees think of WFH? Well, they talk among themselves, obviously, and about 90% want the option though all of them wouldn't necessarily do it extensively. The two reasons most often cited for wanting you to extend what some of them believe to be a "right" are these: they can skirt the burdensome commute and they can work uninterrupted, citing both reasons as enabling greater productivity. Which may or may not be true—I think it depends on the person.

While we have to pay attention to what employees think and want, it can't control your policy. You are the leader, and (presumably) you are making a decision that's in the best interest of the group and not in the best interest of any single person. If you did everything that employees wanted, you'd have a very different firm. If you did nothing that employees wanted, you wouldn't have a firm. That argues for balance: listen carefully but do what's best for the firm.

Let me draw a careful distinction. A WFH policy usually refers to an employee who stays home from time to time but lives close enough to work in the office. A remote worker (RW) always works from home or somewhere else, but they do so at great geographic difference. I'll mix both into my observations.

Your own biases might come into play here, too. Recognize that you are typically older than your employee base. And as a hard-charging principal, you are also a tad more paranoid than most. Both of these work against you, because WFH policies are newer in the workplace...and they also require a higher degree of trust than you might easily muster.

Here are some principles that might enable a higher degree of success for both policies.

Creating An Effective WFH/RW Policy

I've been gathering these and testing them for quite some time. I'm pretty comfortable that they will help with some useful guardrails for crafting your own policy:

  • When a new employee is hired to any role where they will be gone from the HQ most of the time, try to have them at the office for 2-3 weeks at the outset, staying in an apartment or long-term hotel at your expenses. Their family obligations might make this difficult, but do what you can. They need to look in the eyes of the other people, slowly weave a fabric of trust underneath the personal exchanges, develop some inside jokes, etc. Then have them come back to the HQ on a fixed, regular basis. Not some hopeful policy that is seldom implemented, but a fairly strict one. Something like one week every two or three months.
  • I would be hesitant to be the first firm that someone works for remotely. Neither of you has any idea how it'll work out.
  • When an on-site employee wants to switch to a remote status (to follow a spouse or care for a family member or just a lifestyle change), and that employee wants to continue working for you, it has about an even chance of working out for at least a couple of years. At the risky end of the spectrum, they simply keep collecting a paycheck until they realize how lonely they are and start looking for work in their new city and the next thing you know they are gone. And you're probably relieved. At the other end, you have a key employee who is an integral part of the firm and continues to be indefinitely.
  • Some positions lend themselves to a remote status more than others. A more natural fit includes new business, copywriting, coding, and research. There are three areas that are problematic, though: managing people, managing projects, and managing clients.
  • Your bylaws should automatically trigger a buyout clause if a partner moves away from HQ—unless it's to start another office in another city with a bunch of employees, by mutual agreement. Otherwise you will always end up with misaligned workloads and resentment. And even then that's seldom a good plan.
  • Start every remote arrangement on a trial basis, after which you reserve the right to continue it semi-permanently or reverse it. You might lose the employee in that instance, but so be it.
  • If everybody is remote and you all come together at regular intervals, get together on a Monday or Friday and not in the middle of the week or your team will slowly begin to have a lot of undeclared long weekends.
  • We know about the upsides of remote working arrangements for employees. The downsides are primarily three, and it's smart to be upfront about these. First, that team member's career path is going to stall. Whether that's right or wrong is kind of beside the point—it will stall. Second, the pace of innovation will probably slow. There's just less water cooler conversations and all the good things that emerge from those. Third, there will be some small or even significant degree of isolation, which in turn can lead to misunderstandings. Great culture overcome this, mostly, but it's still a factor.

There are some huge advantages to a remote workforce, as long as it's managed well. Here are some significant ones:

  • You'll have a wider pool of potential employees to choose from since you can now hire people who wouldn't need to move.
  • Employees, in general, will be happy and grateful for the opportunity you trust them with.
  • There can be fewer distractions (or more, depending on the home situation).
  • Less stress because of commutes.

And the best advantage? It forces you to manage by objective or results instead of by presence or spending a fixed amount of time on things. You're essentially treating people more like grown ups and trusting them. Your standards are actually higher, while your flexibility is greater.

I don't think there's a one size fits all policy for the firms I serve. It's just something to consider. And if you do it, hopefully I've given you some ideas about how to manage it well.

Here's a long article about how 18F thinks about this, and here are some interesting templates to set this up right.

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