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Hello Zest 2.020

In this post, I want to share with you a major change that we’ve put into place as part of our 10th year, and fitting for the new decade ahead.

Planned in October 2019, announced to the team in January 2020, and already in action from the time you read this.

What is the big news?!

As of today, Monday 2nd March 2020, we (Zest) are a fully remote business.

“WTF” I hear you say…

So let me explain the reasons behind this. There are a few, so bear with me.

Growth is about making new mistakes, not repeating old ones

Over the past 4 years, I have passively monitored recruitment issues with a close eye. I have made the same mistake twice over, and I won’t make it a third time. This was the main catalyst for change.

Oxfordshire as a county has a population of approx. 687,524 over 1,006 square miles, equating to just 683 people per square mile. Even zooming in on just the city of Oxford, we fall well short with 3,361 people per square mile, compared to 14,662 (London), 10,776 (Bristol), and 9,074 (Brighton) – all digital and creative hubs.

For too long now, I have battled with recruitment. And all too often I have rewarded those who really didn’t deserve it, in favour of not having to bear the gruelling 6-9 month battle to replace said person.

I have therefore decided to look further afield to find the very best talent that matches the standards that we expect of ourselves – to remove the kennel and the leash that goes with it.

And they’re high standards.

Some of you will recall that last July we were a proud finalist for ‘SEO Campaign of the Year’ at the national UKDGA awards for delivering a staggering 772% ROI in six-months for our client, Hanson (UK).

There’s a purpose to this humble brag.

We delivered that work with a hybrid-remote team, operating from both Oxford and London.

The landscape is changing rapidly

The evidence is building.

80% of women and 52% of men want flexibility in their next role, and 70% of UK employees feel that flexible working makes a job more attractive to them – 30% would prefer flexible working to a pay rise.

Despite this, fewer than 10% of UK advertised jobs currently offer flexibility; the gap between supply and demand is huge.

I have experienced it first-hand too. When speaking with two candidates (on separate occasions) in 2019 who had all the skills, I was met with a very reasonable request for just two-days in the office. At the time, we weren’t prepared for the internal issues that might have caused, and so ended up losing both.

Our industry is an outlier in some ways. We’re lucky enough to not need an office at all to be able to do our jobs effectively. Marketing is second only to IT when it comes to remote working popularity.

And this has become massively apparent when hiring more experienced people. The expectation is not nine-to-five in an office. Like many other industries, skilled technicians in the world of digital need extended periods of deep concentration and focus to operate most effectively.

And that isn’t an easy thing to achieve with an office, because guess what…

Open plan offices can suck the life out of productivity

When I first opened our first office in 2012, I was super proud. Our very own space. We. Had. Made. It.

I look back on the decision and it was absolutely the right thing to do. We reached a point where at 3-4 people, we would be way more productive sitting at a table with each other.

And we were. I’ll come to the reason why later.

As we evolved, we went from bigger space to bigger space. Until we arrived at our last office, a 2,500 square foot open-plan, and an office breakout space of the year finalist in 2019.

Cool office aside, the reason why office space worked in the past is because we needed an environment to build the right systems and processes to deliver our work.

Whilst my team of old were skilled enough to get the job done, we weren’t mature enough as a business to do it in a systemised and consistent way. We relied on rallying together to get to the end result.

As time has passed, I feel the opposite is true.

Our systems are well structured, and our processes are well defined.

In an open office, productivity is often limited to very short bursts. Even when you’re in ‘headphones on’ mode, the lure of what’s happening around you is all too often too tempting.

I have come to realise a few things;

  • Team members don’t really care about beer fridges and picnic benches, nor the fancy photo frames or faux plants. The reality is that these things are simply things that accumulate without any measurable impact on the most important thing of all – the work you deliver. They become expectations, yes. But truly valued they are not.
  • Offices can breed toxicity, and fast. When someone isn’t happy, they can spread it like an unwanted virus and it can bring others down with it. Even when people have woken up on the wrong side of the bed, the change in mood is often palpable.
  • Distraction is everywhere. I quietly recorded how distracted people in the office were at key moments throughout the day. How many people turned their heads when the phone went off. How many people got involved in conversations between others. How many people ‘shoulder-tapped’ a colleague for help. I was as guilty as anyone else, and the result was scary.
  • And then there is the illogical financial aspect. I was always taught to invest in my own house as soon as I could afford to. Until then, I had to rent. Strange then, how the same rules don’t necessarily apply to office space.

I’ve been looking at the scarce commercial property market in Oxfordshire for over two years now without success. Too small, too rickety, too rural, or just absolutely humongous.

No wonder, when you realise that commercial landlords have it so sweet. And fair play, I wouldn’t sell up either, and if I did, I’d be taking full advantage of the short supply to drive my price up too.

So I have decided to remove it from the equation altogether.

This isn’t new

I have had experience of remote working since I was a teenager. It’s how I began in digital, and way-back-when I was an affiliate marketer with a portfolio of websites.

I had travelled South-East Asia funded almost entirely by my projects, as well as three years of University.

Before I started Zest, I was none the wiser as to the differences between working ‘remotely’ and in an office.

And frankly, it didn’t matter.

What I do know is that I was comparably successful to other teens/20-year olds, because I had space to work productively for long periods of time, and collaboratively with others.

So now it feels like I’ve come full circle somewhat. I have learned so much in the past 10 years that I am so excited to take all those experiences into the new decade.

I am excited to re-join the movement of businesses who are ditching the traditional office.

How did your team take it?

At first, there was a little shock and some expected concerns, peppered with excitement. We had asked the team to work from home in the morning and then to meet offsite in the afternoon where we announced the plan.

“I got so much done, I wish I could work from home more often” was the cry. Little did they expect their wish to come true!

The most important thing we did was to plan for concerns. My leadership team and I had gone through as many conceivable concerns as possible and had prepared to give our best answers to ease the natural reaction to such a big change.

We structured a plan for everyone to work two days remotely per week, raising to three days, and then four days per week before we finally handed the keys back to our landlords.

In addition, we also made sure that we listened to all feedback, no matter how small. Our team had to keep a compulsory WFH (Work From Home) diary when working remotely. They were asked to to record their feelings and any bottlenecks faced. We promoted complete honesty without judgement, and this was absolutely key.

The feedback was fantastic, but what was interesting is that positive entries came out at 26, versus negatives at 22.

Close.

But when diving deeper into the negative feedback, it was apparent that the majority was made up of easily fixable issues.

Here are a few of the negatives:

“I need to get a 2-3m extension lead to charge my laptop when at the desk.”

“10:12am – struggling to do sales prep at a decent speed without a second screen.”

“My computer is pretty old and slow to take the amount of hammering I’m doing to it. Laptop screen is too small 🙁 Ate McDonalds for lunch.”

Versus the positives:

“I have found working at home today very productive. To have no distractions at all has made me able to fly through my tasks, and this has been motivating.”

“Amazingly positive day. Was able to crack through all of my tasks in isolation while [my family] were out for the morning. Furthermore, I stayed on over lunch to crack through some more tasks prior to my 2:30pm team call and do some testing of our phone system. By doing this I took a late lunch and was able to take my daughter to the park for 30 minutes which is something I’ve never done before 🙂 Pure positive vibes!”

“Agency comms – I thought it would be more difficult collaborating on projects when we don’t see eachother day to day, but I think the way we’re working together has actually improved :)”

The main encouragement that I gained from this exercise was 1) we have a very honest and open-minded team, and 2) we already have 90% of systems in place required to excel at remote working.

Here are some other benefits that our team will experience too, including:

  • A ‘coffee’ allowance to allow people to work from anywhere with refreshments. No more instant coffee!
  • Everybody in our team will save between £130-£320 per month on fuel costs, and will reclaim approximately 26.6 hours back in time per month that we can spend however we wish, just from removing the commute.
  • Car wear and tear will be reduced by hundreds of miles per month. Insurance and payment plans will reduce as a result too. And apparently, we will save almost £2,000 per year in hidden office expenses. I think this survey is way overestimated, but even quarter of that amount is a bonus.
  • As a team, we’ll be saving 3.95 tonnes of CO2 emissions from being released into the atmosphere from commutable time, and we have a goal to be at least carbon neutral by 2021. We’ll do this by eliminating unnecessary car journeys and planting trees to offset our utilities usage.
  • No more weak lunches hunched over a desk. We want everybody to eat better (except for the occasional guilty McDonalds of course…) and to have the time and space not only to prepare food, but to enjoy it with family if that option arises.
  • Our team is no longer limited to people living 40 minutes from our office. We will hire the right skills first. The best people delivering the best work and this will promote accelerated learning and more positive pressure to perform to a high standard.
  • The very real option of eating a proper breakfast, meditating, stretching, doing home workouts, taking time to go to the gym, taking a nap, extending a lunch break, working in the very early morning, or evening, and countless more opportunities to reach flow state.
  • We have set key events to ensure that our culture is kept strong. Bi-annual two-day getaway retreats, six-weekly goal planning sessions, monthly meetups to work together, end of month socials, and weekly co-working to begin with. The maximum that anybody in our team should be without the option for physical social interaction with colleagues is four days. Video calls have now become our default method of communication, to maintain face time.
  • It’s not all sunshine and roses. We’ve reduced our paid sick days from 5 to 2 per year since home-based workers take less sick days. Instead, we’ve introduced ‘Zest For Life’ days. Three bonus holiday days that can be unlocked by challenging yourself and keeping healthy. We’ve taken a very generous sick day allowance and have instead made it a positive incentive to keep healthy and to challenge oneself.

Are you completely office-less?

Not exactly! We have three virtual offices spread across Oxford, Birmingham, and London each with co-working and meeting facilities, and to give us a footprint in our key territories.

We’re remote, not invisible. We’re still a registered company, we still file our accounts, and we still pay our taxes.

How have your clients taken it?

Like putting your prices up or revealing that a key person has moved on, we can often over-think the consequences of revealing some big news to a client.

Experience told me that this was one of those moments where the nerves were all mine.

All clients have been incredibly supportive, mostly revealing that they were immensely jealous and wished that they could do the same.

In fact we’ve already had discussions about using client office space when in their area to immerse ourselves in their environment and to learn from new perspectives.

And that my friends, can only be a good thing.

So there it is – the big reveal – and much longer than I thought it would be!

I’m not naive enough to think that this move comes without challenges ahead, and I’m excited to face them.

Farewell office – we’ve had a blast. Hello Zest 2.020…

I’ll close on three tips for those who decide to manage teams remotely during this period and beyond:

1. Relax

What makes this period particularly unique is that your team might have to work from home (WFH), but they probably can’t get out of their home much either.

And being boxed-in at home for days on end sucks.

With this in mind, enable your team to design their own working day in balance with being at home.

Of course, deadlines and scheduled calls need to be prioritised but, aside from that, who cares if work is done at 8am or 8pm if there are no dependants?

I’ll tell you who cares; those who measure outputs rather than outcomes, because they haven’t clearly defined what the outcome is in the first place.

Don’t be that guy.

Start the day by clarifying:

  1. What fixed calendar items are scheduled for the day/week across your team
  2. What the goal(s) of the day/week are, ensuring that every stakeholder understands what the DoD (Definition of Done) is, the outcomes that need to be achieved, and by when
  3. What you can do specifically to help

Then, get out of the way.

Last Tuesday, three of us co-worked in the morning in time for a sales meeting from midday-3pm over lunch.

Then, at 3.15pm-ish, I went for a swim. No way on Earth would I have done that just a few weeks ago.

“Slacker!” I hear you shout…

I should also probably tell you that I started work at around 7.15am (no commute, you see) – polished off an hour and a half of uninterrupted work, and also caught up on about 30 minutes of admin in the evening before dinner.

I’m rarely productive between 3-5pm (especially after a pint), so managing my energy in this way meant that I was far more productive overall.

So if your team wants to enjoy breakfast with the family – let them. If they want to take an afternoon nap – let it be. If they want to go for a walk in the woods – mmm sure, just wear a mask and avoid people frothing at the mouth.

Relax, and avoid trying to monitor whether or not team members are ‘active’, unless you’re prepared also to record the time they’re active when you’re not.

2. Silence is golden

I have mental images of super-suspicious managers wondering what their team is doing every 15-minutes. Constant messaging. Randomly placed phone calls (and counting the rings). Checking for activity on the CRM.

It’s OK, I know that’s not you. Of course it isn’t.

  • You understand that at the same time you’re monitoring others, you’re not getting anything done (and if you are, it’s certainly not to your highest standard).
  • You understand that unless it’s pre-scheduled, it doesn’t really matter if someone isn’t omnipresent across all channels.
  • You understand that by giving your team enough time to concentrate and to achieve deep focus, better work will happen as a result.

Great, I knew we were on the same page 😊

You are your own reflection of what you’re trying to achieve. Disappear for 3 hours to get work done and, guess what, your team will probably be doing the same.

3. Roll with downtime

So whilst we’ve had almost three-months to prepare ourselves for remote work and to iron out any technical hitches, it’s fair to assume that you have not.

Firstly, expect things to go wrong. Downtime is very likely to happen. We had issues ranging from a lack of desk space, to not having a long enough extension cable. To expect full unified communications and military-like operations from day one is wishful-thinking.

If you do experience issues like these, I’m sure you’ll be able to fix them quickly.

But pause for a moment to think about the power of deep thought. The kind that you (nor your team) probably never get to experience in your day-to-day at the office.

When was the last time you (or your team) really thought about a problem, a challenge, and came up with a list of 10 ideas?

I learned this from James Altucher a couple of years ago and, whilst I definitely haven’t kept to it daily, it’s my go to when I need to crack through a problem or challenge.

After you or your colleague has ordered a new plug extension from Amazon, why not take advantage of the downtime?

Grab a notepad and pen, and actually think deeply about something. Here are some ideas:

  • 10 ideas on how to improve your customer onboarding process
  • 10 ways to reduce your debtor days
  • 10 improvements to morning meetings
  • 10 things we can do to improve our relationship with [customer name]
  • 10 tasks I’m doing that I shouldn’t be
  • 10 channels to reach new customers
  • 10 methods to achieve X

And so on…

I warn you now, the first 4-6 are relatively easy, but the last few will be harder than you think. This is where you’ll become most inspired. It’s where your best ideas will come from.

You’ll be amazed at how creative you (or your team) can be when they put their mind to something.

See downtime as a positive to enable deep thought. Really, what’s the worst that can happen in that time?

You, or your team, might just uncover the thing you’ve been missing all along.

Summary

Working remotely (with clear outcomes) will shine a bright light on your most and least valuable team members (managers included). You’ll find out who goes into hyperdrive, and you’ll find out who needs more support. You’ll find out who delivers on outcomes, and who doesn’t.

So relax, get out of the way, and prepare to be surprised at how much people can get done when given a chance to to focus.

www.zestdigital.com