A few years ago I was recruiting a member of the Pooch & Mutt sales team and had a chat with one of our advisors. I told him that we were being asked by some candidates if they could work remotely and asked if he thought it would be a good idea to let people do this. He told me that I was asking the wrong question and the right question was “would I accept a lower quality employee, just because they were within a certain radius of the office?”. This re-framing was a very very good point and a great way of looking at the situation. I had lots of worries about people working remotely, from control to reporting, to information flow, to structure and obviously culture, but none of them trump this point. These worries can all be worked around and it should be worth it if it opens up and improves the quality of the team and allows the team to be happier and healthier.
When lockdown 1 hit us, our team transitioned to remote working brilliantly. We have doubled turnover in the last 2 years…. And not just because so many people bought lockdown puppies!
This article is to examine and explain the 9 key factors that have driven our success (in no particular order):
1. Cloud/ google.
We have never had any IT infrastructure. The company runs on google drive, google calendar, gmail, Shopify etc. In the past people have always questioned me on the security risk of this, but I think google is just as secure as anyone else’s server. I always thought that there was more chance of our office getting broken into or having a fire than there was of us being hacked. I appreciate that by writing this that people may think I am tempting fate, but even if someone did get into our files, I don’t know what they would gain. We don’t hold any sensitive information like customer payment details, which are all secure through Shopify, far more secure than if they were on our server.
We outsource most of our manufacturing, storage, logistics, accounts and a few other processes. This is not without its problems and issues. Not having people to drive trucks still becomes a problem for us, even if it is not ‘our problem’. Outsourcing and cloud computing were essential to how I set the business up from the start, inspired by Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Work Week. I never imagined that I was setting the company up to be pandemic-proof, but I am thankful I took that approach. The team has always been used to dealing with everything remotely from an office, we never physically saw or handled our stock. The transition between doing this from an office and doing this from home was relatively simple.
3. Management structure reporting
We had an amazing mentor start helping us out about 4 years ago. Someone with an immense amount of experience in FMCG. He helped me to set up a great management team and reporting structure. In the future, I will write a post that goes into more detail about how this works. Long before the pandemic pushed us to remote working we were used to managing the company as a team, with weekly meetings where we let the data do the talking. I think that this is one of the keys to getting remote-first working right. I don’t care about people being sat at their desks, I don’t care about the number of hours people work. I don’t care about the input. I care about the output and we have a very good system for measuring this. We have a very detailed budget that we report against rigorously. If we miss budget we look into the detail of why… and the answer has never been because someone wasn’t at their desk for a set period of time!!
4. Values and culture
I will be the first to admit that I thought that this was the one area linked to being in the office together. I have always prioritised the team’s (and my own) well-being. We never had people working late into the night – some people see this as a badge of honour, I see it that the person is either over-worked or not right for the job. We had flexible hours. We paid for gym membership (now switched to Vitality for remote working) and encouraged people to use it at lunch and have a proper break. People went to the gym together, went running together, had lunch together. We had team yoga and celebrations, like team Nando’s for meeting targets. All of this is hard to re-create remotely, but the challenge isn’t to re-create it, but to bring the thinking behind it to a new way of working. If our culture prioritises people’s well-being and happiness, the idea of forcing (or even asking) people to travel on crowded public transport to sit spaced out in an office, facing a wall, wearing masks doesn’t seem right. People are happier and less stressed without an office, so why force people to come in? And most now have dogs at home that need looking after…. And that has to be a priority for Pooch & Mutt! Values and Culture in remote working is something I want to look at in a lot more detail. I don’t think we have it 100% right, but I think we have it a lot more right than companies forcing people to do something that they don’t want to do.
5. Information sharing
This is something that I was particularly worried about. I thought that one of our superpowers, as a small company, was that everyone know what everyone else was doing. All the departments sat in the same room and there was always conversation about what was going on. I think that I overestimated how much people really did listen to and remember what everyone else was doing. Working remotely forces this to become more of an active, deliberate process, than a passive (and most likely ineffective) process. Simple things like a weekly email from each department to everyone in the company, about both work and personal things (such as what everyone has planned for the weekend), means that everyone is more likely, not less likely to know what is going on.
6. We accept the ways of working have changed
People are tied to what they know and are often hesitant to move to ‘the new’, but the ways of working have changed. Companies that don’t accept this are trying to force a square peg into a round hole, or more closely harnessing a horse to the front of a car. Get rid of the horse and use the engine… move with the times!! The remote working genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. We work with so many people remotely now and via video calls that I don’t see how our office could work. Having a video call in an open-plan office is both horrible for the person having the call and for all those around them. Small companies don’t have a huge number of meeting rooms for people to use for video calls, and even when they do the management of this would be a full-time headache… and what for? What’s the point of people traveling into an office to sit in a meeting room on their own on a video call?
Then you have the hybrid approach. This creates far more problems than it solves. How do you schedule when people come in? Are you full on some days and empty on some days? Do you want to pay to have an office at 50% capacity? Then there are the meetings… do you do these with some people in the room and some remote? How can that work when there are so many different ways for people to communicate in the room (ie body language) and then discuss the meeting when it finishes. You can end up putting the remote workers at a disadvantage, which isn’t good for anyone.
Back to the opening of this article. We have done a lot of recruitment in the last 2 years. We are a fast-growing company, doubling turnover over 2 years. Not only does this mean that we need more and better-qualified people, it also means that other companies want to take our team. I think that we offer very good development opportunities for the right people, which makes me proud when people leave and go on to bigger and better things. Opening up our recruitment to people all over the country, not just those within an hour’s commute of Clapham has allowed us to dramatically improve the quality of the team, which will enable us to achieve our plans for the future. There also seem to be a lot of great people out there who want to move because their employers told them they could work remotely permanently, and they built their lives around that, and now the employers are trying to force them to come back into the office. These companies will struggle, but it’s great news for us!
8. Getting people together
We are no longer in the harsh lockdowns (at the time of writing… things may change!!) of the start of the pandemic. People can and should get together, but that doesn’t mean that they need to go to an office and sit next to each other in silence, working on different things. We’ve just had our Christmas party where everyone can come together in real life and meet the people that they work with. We have had multiple management strategy days where we rent a meeting room and work on strategy together for a day. There are members of the team who live close to each other and we need to encourage them to meet up – even if they are not on in the same department and working on the same things. With recent recruitment we now have a group quite close to each other in ‘The Northern Powerhouse’ and one challenge is how do we get them together to get to know each other. Connetion is important, but you don’t need an office to have connection.
9. Freedom, not set hours
Remote-first working should be about freedom and happiness. The freedom to meet up when you need and to get work done on your own when you need. The freedom not to lose unnecessary hours commuting. Most importantly, the freedom to get the most out of your day. If people want to go for a run, or a hike, or a paddle-board! or just get their shopping done, or be there for the person fixing the boiler during the day, what does it matter if they use day-time hours to do that? There are 24 hours in the day. Yes, people have to achieve their results and yes, people have to be available to do all the video calls that do tend to be during the day, but why can’t you flip some of your days on their head and do your work at night and have leisure time during the day. That has to keep people happier, healthier and more engaged, and that has to be better for the company.
We have a post on Linkedin so that all the team and future team can understand what this means for them
I do not think that remote-first working is right for everyone and every company. There are certain roles from surgery to manufacturing where it obviously doesn’t work. There are companies that cannot move to Remote-First working, who are enabling us to do so. There are definitely people who it is not right for. I don’t think that we have it 100% right at Pooch & Mutt either. Humans have a need for face-to-face interactions with people (not necessarily colleagues) that there is a risk of missing. However, I am very confident that the ways that people work and the role of the office have changed forever, and I think this is a good thing. There are bound to be huge developments in this area in the next few years and my main goal for Pooch & Mutt is that we embrace the best of them to provide the best opportunities for the company and everyone involved with it.