Insights | October 21, 2020

What We've Learned Working Remotely

When working remotely became the ‘new norm’ for many of us back in March, the prospect seemed exciting at first; perhaps even refreshing for some. We had less time spent commuting, a break from the old office routine, a chance to wear sweatpants on a Tuesday…

Now, seven months in, our perspective on remote work has definitely grown.

By Sujina Unger

At CREW, learning to work remotely and keep our business growing through the pandemic has been a challenge, like it has been for many businesses. But, with hindsight and reflection, we can say with confidence that we’ve seen more growth and company wins than any other year. Full transparency – this is not what we anticipated at the outset!

As a good number of us pivot and move towards working remotely on a long-term basis – or adopt a hybrid approach as we integrate to a new routine – we thought we’d take a look back at what we’ve learnt since first writing about how to work from home successfully:  What is it that we’re still struggling with months in, where we’ve seen wins, and how we can set ourselves up for a bright “new” future as a company.

What We Got Wrong

First things first, let’s be clear: We’re not perfect (yet). And we didn’t get everything right, right off the bat. But by identifying our shortcomings, we are able to learn from our mistakes and make sure we do better by our team moving forward. So, a few things we could’ve done better at:

Not prioritizing internal responsiveness. 

A few months in, we surveyed our staff to see how they were doing and how we could properly set them up working from home. Due to getting stuck in the red tape of developing new WFH policies and crossing our regulatory T’s, it was a couple of months before we responded to their feedback. The lack of response left them feeling unheard and in limbo with how to move forward. 

Neglecting to ensure everyone was properly set up.

Our team was amazing at adapting despite the new pressures and challenges, but we could have made a lot more effort…

We were so focused on driving our teams and executing client work in a spiralling economy that we forgot to ensure everyone had the office set-up, resources, or IT coordination they needed to be fully effective. Our team was amazing at adapting despite the new pressures and challenges, but we could have made a lot more effort to set them up well once we knew this would be a new normal. 

Keeping team engagement appealing.

To start our days as a team, we instituted an 8:45 AM huddle to build morale and stay connected. After a few months, attendance began to drop, and engagement was minimal or sporadic at best. We realized that with one person leading the huddle, the incentive to show up and speak up waned. 

Five months in, we finally tried something new. We started a nomination process where a staff member would lead the huddle and then nominate someone else to jump in the next day. Engagement, creativity, and morale quickly went up whether it’s a video on sustainable strategy or a game pitting sushi against tacos, our team signs on excited to start the day together. 

What We’ve Learned

Some meetings really are better off as emails.

It turns out; there is such a thing as over-communicating. At the beginning of our work from home period, we were in a lot of meetings. We wanted to ensure we stayed connected and on track with our projects, and in lieu of being able to just ‘pop-over’ to a co-workers desk or have a quick huddle with the team, we kept a full Zoom schedule.

Come in with an agenda, and end with a list of actionable items for everyone to walk away with.

But we quickly learned the importance of keeping a meeting brief and of knowing how to tell when another Zoom call is actually necessary.

Come in with an agenda, and end with a list of actionable items or deliverables for everyone to walk away with. Trust your team and project managers to keep things moving till the next check-point. And, make sure you are someone the team can trust.

Building a strong remote culture is hard, and it takes intentional effort. 

Full transparency, this is something we are still learning. With the busyness of deadlines and the virtual fatigue many are feeling after months of video calls, webinars, and check-ins, it doesn’t come naturally.

To make keeping connected outside of our projects a priority, we’ve put together a committee to focus on finding innovative ways to grow our culture and make sure we stay invested in the human side of our business.

Keep your video on!

For many of us, this is our new business as usual, at least for a good while. So, while we are speaking of staying connected, seeing people – actually seeing people – is integral. Be as present virtually as you would be in a boardroom, and remember that there is another person on the other side of your workload.

Snail-mail is an unlikely morale booster.

Dealing with remote work in a digital era has brought home the reality that we crave tangible connections. Sending good, old-fashioned snail mail (remember that stuff?) to our staff has been a great morale booster for our team and an intimate touch-point for our clients and prospects.

We’ve tried to make a habit of sending small care packages as a ‘thank-you’…the response is always very positive.

We’ve tried to make a habit of sending small care packages as a ‘thank-you’ to staff who have recently gone above and beyond, as well as to external contacts and partners, and the response is always very positive.

 Take time for external growth still.

Continuous learning and improvement can tend to take a backseat in any given circumstance, let alone while working remotely. Make joining external webinars or courses a priority as a team. Search for events you can attend together, set up a side chat with one another, and hold a quick debrief after for sharing your thoughts and experience.

This can build the excitement of continuous learning (a value most of us share) and takes the responsibility off of an internal member to present that learning alone.

What Surprised Us

Our work didn’t actually suffer.

Another quick realization was that our team was no less motivated or productive working remotely than they were in-office. We saw collaboration and execution rise to entirely new heights, which is in-line with some of the stats starting to surface about this new work situation for many companies. Our initial over-communication had good pay-off when it came to our feedback loops. We asked our staff and our clients for feedback more than we typically would have, as we adjusted to our remote status, and the benefits were awesome.

…collaboration and execution [rose] to entirely new heights…

Back in May, Forbes reported a 47% increase in worker productivity (survey data compiled from 100 million data points across 30,000 users).

There’s no way we can be alone in our surprise, which is an encouraging thought that opens the door for endless possibilities in the digital age.

We developed greater empathy for one another.

We pride ourselves on valuing our internal relationships here at CREW, but with working remotely and finding ourselves in new life-work balance dynamics, we have found over the past 7 months an increased empathy for our teammates. We understand our peers in a new way, which has a direct benefit to our working relationships with one another.

Having that peek into the other’s home lives actually improved collaboration and overall expectations, and further reinforced the need for an agile and flexible workforce when it comes to growing employee confidence and loyalty.

What Actually Got Better as a Result

Fewer excuses, more engagement: We were all forced to drop the excuses we may have held on to for not understanding a platform, missing a memo, or not following up on those pesky emails. As a result, we are engaging with one another more regularly, and learning to work more efficiently every day.

Creative collaboration: We have learned new ways to create and collaborate together. We have had to brainstorm, experiment, and give in to trial-and-error at times, but we are coming out the other side with our creative juices flowing – an incredible bonus for a marketing agency! This is something we can bring and foster with clients, as well as one another.

Project management: Our time-management and communication skills all got a refresh, and we are better for it. Digital stand-ups, shared content calendars, and virtual project management tools like Asana have made it possible to manage projects with teams in other time zones and locales so seamlessly that at times we might forget we live in different provinces.

Client connections: Working remotely has given us a chance to assess the ways we connect with clients, get creative, and be more intentional. As a result, our communications and presentations have benefited.

Staff appreciation: We have been wowed by our team over the past 7 months, as they exceeded expectations, managed personal and professional stresses, and met every new challenge with grace and determination. We would not be here today if it were not for our people, and while we have always loved the people we work with, it’s just so much more apparent now.

Team unity: In a similar vein, our team pivoted together, worried together, and celebrated every small win together. Now, as we have begun to reintegrate slowly into hybrid work schedules and small socially-distanced gatherings, the sense of unity among the team is even great and our enjoyment of time spent deeper.

Regional barriers: Working remote pushed us to finally remove any regional barriers we’d previously leaned on and moved speedily toward viewing our national team as one unit instead of three. We changed our reporting, work teams, financial targets, etc. to focus entirely on competencies instead of regions, and the benefit was enormous.

All in all, it’s been a rollercoaster of a year and though we can’t yet say we are “on the other side” we are taking a step back to see where we’ve netted out. The outcome is encouraging. Though we know more growth and learning will come, we feel that the adoptions, struggles, and wins have without a doubt made our company better. With a renewed sense of purpose and hope, we dive into the fall and walk alongside our clients towards a better future. 2021 couldn’t hold more promise.