Employers will have to facilitate remote working to attract and retain staff

Teamwork spent £1m on a new Belfast office this year, that now only has four people in it. Here’s what we learned from the Great Remote Work Experiment

‘Like every company, we faced numerous challenges across every facet of our business. We had to stop and rethink our entire strategy.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Like every company, we faced numerous challenges across every facet of our business. We had to stop and rethink our entire strategy.’ Photograph: iStock

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We spent £1 million (€1.1 million) on a Belfast office fitout earlier this year only to find ourselves a few months later with a stunning office and just four people in it every day. Ouch.

At the time it all made sense – a beautiful office in a great location that would help us attract and retain great staff.

Then Covid-19 hit, growth slowed, well-conceived plans went out the window and the world was forced into the great remote work experiment. Overnight, we – a self-funded company with not a penny of investment – found ourselves left out of pocket with little to show for it.

Like every company, we faced numerous challenges across every facet of our business. We had to stop and rethink our entire strategy.

We took a long hard look at our business and the market. Given that nobody knew how long Covid-19 was going to last and that we could already feel the impact on sales, we decided that we needed to scale back our spending. We made the unprecedented decision to let 22 people go and it has been the toughest thing I’ve done in my business career.

Like every company, our next challenge was fully adapting to remote working. We’ve found it has significant pros and cons.

The pros are great: zero commuting; more time with family, friends and self (often overlooked); hopefully less stress; sometimes a much nicer working environment. You can work your own hours, and more.

The cons are significant, however: work communication and co-ordination challenges, often a less-than-ideal work environment, lack of interaction and feelings of isolation, text miscommunication challenges when you’re not talking face-to-face, days all blending together, lack of learning by osmosis, and company and team culture challenges.

The first challenge we tackled was just keeping everything humming along and productivity high.

Fortunately, we are able to use our own work management software Teamwork to co-ordinate everybody’s day-to-day and project work. So in some ways, this has been business as usual for us, and we haven’t been hit too badly in terms of productivity.

Our next challenge was around our processes. Where teams used to rely on ad-hoc conversations, we’ve had to get more organised and put better systems, software and processes in place to help. A small example is that we introduced software for running our weekly team meetings remotely.

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We also found that new employees can no longer lean on and learn from others in the office. But this, too, was an opportunity to get organised and build scalable systems with better training programmes, internal certifications, buddy systems and a culture of more regular one-to-ones.

For many people, work is their most significant social interaction, and working from home has been particularly challenging. We’ve tried to continually remind our team leads to check in with their staff and make sure everybody is in a good place.

Biggest challenge

Company culture has perhaps been our biggest challenge. Letting some staff go back in April was a low point, but added to that was the inability to talk face-to-face and interact socially.

Instead, we’ve been deliberate about building our culture through online events, meet-ups, chat channels and virtual hangouts. We’ve been running weekly “all-hands” since May that are a combination of business updates and fun.

Another example is our “grand council”, where every year we all get together for planning, alignment and fun. This year we called it the “almost grand council” and we ran a two-hours per day online event, and made the best of it, including team planning, cross functional alignment, online team challenges, talent shows, competitions and a pink themed virtual cocktail party. Despite being forced apart, in many ways we are closer now than we were before.

Thankfully, things are picking up and our revenues have returned to pre-Covid-19 levels. We are seeing demand for Teamwork to help co-ordinate remote teams, and agencies and professional services firms (our sweet spot) are buying again. My co-founder Dan and I agree that this has been our toughest period in business, but we are optimistic about the future and feel we have emerged as a stronger company.

Looking to the future, I believe the great remote work experiment has opened everybody up to the possibilities of remote work. The world is forever changed by this.

Employers who wouldn’t have even considered remote work in the past are now saying, “That wasn’t so bad. So do we really need all these expensive offices?” And employees who have proved that they can do great work from home will be very resistant to returning to their pointless daily commute.

Looking ahead, we’re switching to a remote-first mindset and we’ll likely use our offices as corporate headquarters, meeting places and training centres while allowing staff to work from anywhere.

We recently surveyed our 250 staff and asked them would you like to:

- return to the office full-time

- work from home full-time, or

- work in the office a few days a week

The results were clear, and consistent with similar surveys I know other companies have done. Most employees want to continue working from home with the option to come to the office two days a week.

Employers will have to facilitate this new reality if they want to attract and retain staff. This will bring its own challenges around co-ordination of rotation systems, hot desking, sanitation and more, but it must be done, because nobody will accept a return to unnecessary commutes and expensive overheads.

Our eyes have all been opened. It’s a brave new world and remote working is here to stay.

P.S. If you want office space in Belfast, let me know.

Peter Coppinger is the CEO and co-founder of work management platform Teamwork

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