The Modern Digital Agency: Fountainhead as a Permanent, Fully Distributed Company

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Jun
Posted by Denise Powers
Denise Powers

How Fountainhead arrived at the decision to go fully remote, along with some benefits and challenges that other services businesses should consider when contemplating a similar move. 

About a year ago I was working with Dev Basu who was in the process of taking his 8-figure agency from a beautiful brownstone office space in downtown Toronto to 100% remote.  Ahe was telling me about this, I was struck by a few things:  a) how in the hell was that going to work?; b) why was he leaving such a beautiful space?; and c) why was he so calm about it like it wasn’t even a big logistical deal? 

I asked him these questions and his answers were simple.  First, of course, it was going to work because he had built a strong company culture around team trust and they had a plan for ensuring that culture endured Second, when it came to leaving the beautiful space, he recalled his CFO saying to him: “Do you realise that we could buy a new car every month with what we are paying in rent?”  That is certainly a sobering comparison.  And third, why was he so calm? Again, it came back to trust in his team and the success plan they had put together. 

To be honest, I was a little in awe.  At the time, I couldn’t comprehend converting my operation into a fully distributed teamalthough we already had team members working remotely from around the world.  I couldn’t get my head around being fully remote because a bricks and mortar office space felt like the ground beneath my feet.  It was how business was done.  Right? 

I was (and still am) completely in love with our office space (which is the coolest space in all the Cayman Islands!).  But I didn’t forget that conversation Dev and I had and the learning behind it.  Sub-consciously, it seemed, I started to look at things a little differently:  hiring talented people who lived in other countries; moving meetings with our local clients to Zoom to eliminate wasted travel time; being more aware of the natural interaction within the office and how that translated into our culture with an increasing number of people working remotely. 

Image by Austin Chan

Fast forward about 12 months to March 2020 and COVID-19 made a very sincere test case for Fountainhead following in Dev’s footsteps.   

When we got the news that we were under immediate ‘shelter in place’ regulations, the four of us who were in the office packed up the things we thought we needed for a few days:  a comfy office chair; big monitors and cables to connect them to our laptops; blank notebooks and a fistful of pens.  And then we watered the plants, took the garbage out and said our goodbyes, thinking we would all be back in a couple of weeks to get back to the way things were. 

But within those first two weeks, it started to become obvious that nothing was ever going back to the way it wasand instead, it was time to move forward.  By that time, the Cayman-based team had settled into our new routines and as a whole group, we immediately found our new stride.  Now everyone was on the same wavelength and experiencing the same thing.  There was some kind of magic in it. 

I spoke with all the Cayman-based team members and asked them what they thought:  How would you feel if we went permanently to a remote operation?  How would it positively impact your life?  What do you think the challenges will be?   

The positive response I got was far more than I was expecting.  I thought that there would be some misgivings, or hesitation as people processed something completely new.  But that isn't what happened.  They talked about enjoying the experience:  that it had given them more time for exercise when they normally would have been driving, and how easy it was to commute from the kitchen after breakfast to their workspaces.  And we also talked about the importance of setting boundaries to appropriately maintain a good work-life balance. 

Our clients, as they learn that we are not ‘going back’, have been fully supportive as well.  This again is a testament to the team and how well they have adapted to extenuating circumstances, continuing to deliver a high-quality service.     

But despite things going well in those initial learning curve days, I also recognised that being a fully distributed company was going to require some deep thinking on what it meant to run a business with that model permanently.  Undoubtedly there were going to be challenges along with the benefits. 

So, what are they? 

Benefits of Distributed Teams 

Comic by Kasper on BI
Personal health 

I can certainly see this from my own experience as my routine changed dramatically for the better.  No longer do I need to be jumping in the car before 7:00 am to beat the traffic or waiting until after 6:30 pm to venture home (or worse, sitting in traffic for an hour each way).  Now I can get up at about the same time and easily get in my morning workouts before the day’s meetings start.  I feel a sense of freedom to be able to do this that I didn’t have when planning my day around traffic jams. 

Supporting and encouraging personal health amongst the team is an ongoing project and one that, in my opinion, is important.   

There is more opportunity for work-life balance, now that commuting is taken out of the picture.  Although remote employees work more days, take longer breaks and work 10 minutes longer than office-based employees, it often works out that, provided the employee can set appropriate boundaries with their employers, colleagues, family and friends, they have more balance in their work time versus personal time.  

There is also something to be said for having the flexibility to work from anywhere at any time, from any country or any kitchen table, if that is what you want to do.  I am not suggesting people don’t take proper holidays, far from it, but it does allow more freedom to travel (when that is allowed again!) and work if someone wishes.  It also frees me, as the CEO, to be able to hire the very best talent, including those who do not want to move their families to a new country to do work that can just as easily be done from wherever they already are.  This allows for people to get their ‘big city jobs and small-town lifestyle’ if that is what they want.  It means having an executive-level career does not require being an urbanite, or relocating to a new country. 

Increased productivity 

A study done by Airtasker showed that remote workers are more productive than their office-based colleagues.  It is obvious when you think about it:  as fun as those random coffee pot/water cooler conversations may have been, they are often not much more than disruptive.  We had an open-concept space and there were lots of times when it was super hard to lock down and get into something brainy without being interrupted or distracted. 

Employees who work remotely are often higher paid than regular office workers, have at least bachelor’s degrees and have more grey hair, meaning, they are doing jobs that require them to think.  Frequent interruptions in a normal office environment disrupt their flow' and inhibit their ability to do their best work. 

Image by Alexander Popov
Healthier for the planet 

The reduction in travel to and from offices is notably reducing smog and greenhouse gas emissions.  The worldwide COVID-19 test case is proving that there are environmental gains to be made by reducing the commute, so we can consider this as doing our part in reducing our carbon footprint.  

Healthier for our bottom line 

Indeed, those in the commercial real estate market might not be as thrilled about remote teams as rent-payers are, but when I took the emotion out of the decision and looked at the numbers, it is pretty tough to argue the expense versus the ocean view.  As an entrepreneur, I need always to be looking at ways to improve the bottom line, while balancing the needs of our clients and our team.  While our rent was not equal to buying a new car every month, as far as this issue was concerned, the decision was a no-brainer.  I had not even considered the other factors that I mentioned previously that contribute to the balance sheet: lower absenteeism, fewer sick dayshigher productivity and no relocation expenses for new team members. 

 

Challenges

As a leader of a team, however, there are other things to think about.  How does one effectively lead a group of people you can’t see and interact face-to-face with every day?  How are people going to feel about not seeing their co-workers daily? 

Internal communications

The first thing to consider is what kind of tools and platforms are available to facilitate internal communications.  You need to provide enough structure to make it easy for people to communicate and share so that people do not feel like they are alone in a silo.  Whether introvert or extrovert, we are all human and therefore are social creatures.  Happiness comes from social connection.  Loneliness is a bigger health threat than smoking a pack a day or obesity, so anything we can do to keep people together, connected and engaged, the healthier we all are. 

At Fountainhead, walready had the basic tools in place to be able to communicate internally, like Zoom, Teams and email, and we have been working on how to spark more engagement on those platforms with team discussionsget-to-know-you questions, announcements and news. 

We have always held a weekly ‘WIP’ (work in progress) meeting first thing on Monday morning and continue to do that by Zoom.  We have also been religiously holding weekly 1:1’s between me and each team member to talk about important things (not their to-do lists!).  I first got the message about weekly 1:1’s from Deloitte, which abandoned traditional performance reviews in favour of regular 1:1’s more than five years ago.  We are experimenting with other touchpoints, such as 10-minute huddles at the start of each day to review top priorities to get through each day.  We are doing this through Teams (chat) instead of video and we are still feeling it out to see how it works for everyone. 

Going through this process, we also realised the extent to which organisations all over are struggling with their own internal communications and keeping employees well-informed, engaged and up to speed.  It is difficult, during our busy days, to remember that what we know and understand is not what everyone knows and understands.  We need to feed a constant flow of two-way communications to make sure that knowledge and information are not being hoarded.  We saw such a gap in the market here that we are launching a whole new service section around delivering internal communications for clients. 

Healthy boundaries 

Even before ‘shelter in place’ restrictions locked us all up in our homes, it was apparent that healthy boundaries between ‘at work’ and ‘not at work’ were already blurring.  There are horror stories galore of employers and clients both, sending emails/messages to team members at all hours of the day and night and on weekends, not just because that is when they are working (because it works for their own schedules) but because they were expecting immediate responses.  I have fallen into the trap before myself and understand all too well the surge of anxiety that can come from an ‘urgent’ request from a client at midnight.  I remember my Dad always used to say to me: ‘nothing good happens after midnight’.  That includes anxiety-led, ill-thought-out responses to late-night requests. 

Culture 

There are good and bad corporate cultures in in-office teams and remote teams.  Geographic distance has little to do with it, I believe.  Good culture comes from how well the leader communicates her vision and everyone’s part in bringing that vision to reality.  Always lots of work to be done here.  That is the same whether people get together on Zoom or around a conference table.  I have learned that good corporate culture is not always about a group happy hour on a Friday afternoon. 

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One of the big pieces I am still learning as a leader is about recognition.  I am seeing that it is almost more important to deliver recognition more frequently with remote teams because it lifts people who might feel disconnected from their peers and think that their work is not making a difference.  It does make a difference and it is my job to let them know that. 

We use a tool called OfficeVibe to track team member sentiment and level of work satisfaction.  It asks people (anonymously) what they think, how they are faring, what they like and what can be done better.  It is very instructive to me as a leader in terms of what to work on next.  I share the collective results with the team so we all know where we stand. 

group brain 

In our field of PR and communications, we thrive on collaboration and getting our heads together to solve complex problems.  We are a team.  Our work is all headspace:  thinking, strategising, planning, researching, writing, creating and analysing, and previously our model would have been to work together, brainstorming ideas and tactics.  Now, we’ve found that we work more cohesively as a team where each person has an area of expertise and he/she works on a particular part of the project.  Using workflows, the team member hands the project to the next person in line when their part is complete, and feedback is gathered from individual team members informally as well as formally during intensive internal reviews.  This follows some of Ray Dalio’s Principles, where he explains his concept of exposing junior people to new work and getting input from them, he is also clear that their opinions can’t possibly rate as high as someone with a decade or more of experience under his belt.  Following this logic, having a large group in a brainstorming session can be more cumbersome and time-consuming than it is value-creating.  

Other things to think about 

This list grows for me, as it would if we were sitting in a real office space rather than a virtual one.  Cybersecurity, connectivity, disaster preparedness, retreats  all things that will require more time to fully flesh out with a remote team in mind.  There will be some logistics to consider here, such as not allowing team members to access our database from a coffee shop wifi to ensure Fountainhead’s and our clients' assets are protected. 

The decision to take Fountainhead fully remote permanently was not an easy one, and I have shed a few tears thinking about our beautiful space and the happy years we spent there.  As I thought about that, I realised that it was an emotional decision I was making.  Sigh.  I will miss it.  But taking all the other factors into consideration, nostalgia and emotion were not the most relevant.  Instead, it is time to take the step to be a modern digital agency, where the relationships and the work are most important – not the view. 

What are your plans post-COVID-19 lockdown?  Are you heading back to the office or going remote?  Comment below – I would love to hear what you are doing. 

 

Credit to Austin Chan and Alexander Popov for the images used in this post and to Kasper on BI for the comic.