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Stay-at-home orders as a result of COVID-19 have forced a lot of businesses to go virtual pretty much overnight.
That means some people are in totally uncharted territory with employees working from home and having to manage a remote team.
For episode 190 of The Search Engine Journal Show, we’ve got a great panel assembled to talk openly and honestly about how to adapt your existing business to go virtual.
We will outline some best practices learned over 11 years of trial and error for running a 100% remote company, and that company is Alpha Brand Media, the parent company of Search Engine Journal.
My guests today will be Jenise Henrikson, the CEO of Alpha Brand Media, Loren Baker, founder of Search Engine Journal and Co-founder of Foundation Digital, and Brent Csutoras, Managing Partner at Search Engine Journal.
What are the biggest advantages of creating a 100% virtual business?
Jenise Henrikson (JH): I think the first thing that comes to mind is a flexible schedule.
So I can do things in the middle of the day when maybe other people are mostly at work or at school.
I can make that 2:00 p.m. doctor’s appointment. I can go run that errand at 11:30.
I don’t need to hit the bank with everybody else at noon or be stuck in rush hour at 5:00 trying to fill up the gas tank type of thing.
It does mean that I might knock some tasks out for work on a Sunday afternoon because I have the time, or maybe I’ll be answering some emails before I go to bed – and that’s the trade-off.
But I love the trade-off because it gives me, again, the freedom to do things when I need to do them, and also when other people aren’t…
I don’t have to worry about trying to get an appointment at a time when everybody else is also trying to get that appointment time because they’re tied to a nine-to-five sort of schedule.
So that’s kind of what the first thing that comes to mind for me as far as what do I like best about this lifestyle, and it is a lifestyle.
Brent Csutoras (BC): I think that in general, it’s really cost-effective for companies to be remote and to work from home.
I think the biggest challenge is why do we not do that already?
So there are concepts of when we want to be able to communicate with coworkers. You want to be able to walk in a room and talk to somebody elaborately.
You want to be able to share creative concepts to show them something and have them look over your shoulder and see a design you’re working on or a product that you’re working on – and that was very limited in the past.
So you needed to have people in an office, you needed to have people come together in order to have this kind of accountability, for one.
Also that kind of creative workspace, but we have so many screen-sharing tools.
We have Skype, we have Zoom, we have GoToMeeting, we have a bunch of collaborative devices like Google Docs or Dropbox and all these other solutions that allow us to have that same level of creativity.
I think we’ve kind of been pushing towards this kind of remote working, work-for-home world for many years, but the thing that holds us back from that is more historic beliefs than it is the ability to do that.
So I think from a standpoint of looking at Search Engine Journal, the ability for our people to be remote has allowed for them to really have a quality of life.
As Jenise mentioned, the ability to go and hit a doctor’s appointment without necessarily having to worry about whether you’re taking off work and commuting and dealing with traffic – all of these things reduce people’s stress.
Most of the studies that really look at what motivates people to work hard for a company, it really comes from feeling happy at the company you’re with, feeling in control of your life.
These are some of the top reasons that people stay with a company and why they become productive: happiness and control of their work schedule and their work in general.
I think that remote allows you to provide that to your employees in a really great way.
Loren Baker (LB): Just to add to that, I also think that one of the biggest benefits of remote or having virtual companies is the lack of geographic restrictions, and that works in a multitude of ways.
First of all, at SEJ, we have people from all over the world – whether it’s Europe, Canada, all over the U.S., the Philippines.
I’m probably missing a couple of places as well, but we’ve been able to really recruit outside of the lines that are usually drawn when you are dedicated to a specific working space.
When I had worked in office spaces previously, you kind of place those restrictions upon yourself to justify things like leasing agreements, overhead, internet costs, electricity, and things like that.
The ability to take that away really opens up the world of talent that you’re able to attract and grow.
And then on the flip side too, with SEJ, I started it when I lived in Brazil, and then after that I lived in Japan, and then after that I lived in Maryland, and then Florida, and then California.
So having one virtual company or many virtual companies also from a management perspective and a work perspective gives you the ability to not geographically restrict yourself…
It’s just a question of at the end of the day, how you restrict yourself and then also holding yourself accountable to things like:
- Managing multiple time zones.
- Making sure that the other people that live in your house know when you’re working and know when you’re not.
Are there any disadvantages to having a remote company that you have seen over the years?
BC: I think that one of the biggest challenges is that not everybody is made to work from home.
In order to work from home and be effective working from home, you have to be honest and accountable to yourself.
And, let’s be honest, a lot of people aren’t.
So I’ve pretty much had to hire 5-10 people to find one that can really work from home and be on their own.
You can’t micromanage too much when you’re dealing with remote teams.
You have to have the people that can really effectively fill that position while working from home and have the skill sets and have that place.
There are ways you can set that up… but there’s really no way to tell whether somebody is going to be good in that environment until you test it out or unless you know they have at least a year’s experience working from home.
LB: I agree with Brent that a lot of folks aren’t necessarily good at working from home.
But I’d also like to add that a lot of people don’t know what it’s like to work without someone looking over their shoulder.
They don’t know what it’s like to work where they’re making their own time.
They don’t know what it’s like to work when maybe they finish something early and they have to do something next.
They don’t know what it’s like to do when they’re sitting around and they see that there’s a soccer game on and a beer in the fridge and it’s 11 o’clock and they’re like, “Well, no one’s going to tell me no.”
I think people have been programmed to work in environments where a lot of typical things are shut off.
Maybe we’ll see a big change from what we’re going through now where those that weren’t comfortable working from home previously do grow comfortable and they look for alternatives and working for different virtual companies in the future.
JH: I think I would build on what Loren and Brent were saying and I think it all ties back to isolation. And now with COVID-19, we’re all literally being isolated in place.
And if you’re not used to working from home, you don’t have those built-in ways to reach out to people to get your social interaction in…
In terms of your culture or how you worked in an office when you needed to collaborate, when you needed to help solve a problem, or when you just wanted a little bit of a nudge, you don’t have those channels available to you anymore because you’re no longer in that cube or in the open workspace or in an office next to your coworker.
I think we’re talking about loneliness and that comes out of isolation.
And so I think as a team, as a company leader or even as someone who’s an independent contractor, it’s up to us to find ways to either facilitate for your team or for yourself ways out of feeling isolated and so encouraging and find.
Well, from a top-down perspective, how were employees communicating before?
Don’t just impose everybody’s going to use Slack from now on and think that the problem is solved.
That is a great tool that many companies have been using and are adopting today because they’re needing to replicate this workplace interaction remotely.
But don’t think that you just have to buy an account and your employees are going to figure it out or that your clients or whoever you’re using to work with together are going to figure it out.
And I think that involves collaboration to figure out what’s the new way forward and how we solve problems, come up with solutions and implement the solutions going forward.
It could be a big change for people who have been in an office and highly collaborative or lots of interactions but are used to doing a face to face format.
Maybe it’s something like adopting Google Hangouts or using Zoom. Your virtual door is always open. They can always reach out to you.
You may think that you have that policy in place or that you told people enough times that they should feel comfortable with reaching out to you.
But that’s requiring them to be proactive and also having to weigh, well people say that, “You can and reach out to me anytime,” but they don’t really mean it.
If you were to reach out to somebody too many times, they get sick of you. So they really have to think about, “Well who is it that I’m going to reach out to and quote bother?”
So setting up those channels is important. So they have the conduits to reach each other.
But also being proactive and setting up weekly or regular touchpoints.
We have team calls once a week, which I think are really helpful for everybody to literally get synced stay on the same page.
- What are the mandates?
- What are the goals?
- What are the things that we’re working on and worried about this week as a group?
And then to have one on ones on a regular basis with your manager and have those set up as standing meetings.
Not only do they know that they could reach out to you anytime, but they know that they have a standing call in which they can bring up things they’re worried about…
I think is also really important to help combat isolation, loneliness and keep up that team connection, which I think is one of the things that becomes at risk when you move from being able to see each other every day and go to lunch together and get in a meeting room or jump into somebody’s office or poke your head up over a cube wall.
BC: I think one of the things to really take away from this is that working from home is bigger than just working from home.
And so you really want to read some articles, look at some of the practices, evaluate how people have been doing things and think about your conversations, your platforms, your workflows and workspaces in the home.
And don’t just look at this as something minor.
This is probably going to be a cultural shift with being locked down for an indefinite period of time is that people are going to learn how to work from home and they’re going to get good at it.
They’re going to get productive, they’re going to have their space, and this very well could become a stronger norm.
Once businesses learn that they can operate without that $15,000 a month rent on that little office, they’re not going to go pay that rent anymore.
There are tons of people that have talked and done podcasts like this one over the years before this was even an issue.
So definitely take the time to really think through this entire process and make it something strong for your business or for yourself for the future.
Takeaways for people on going virtual…
BC: I mean I would just take this opportunity to realize this is the future. It was the future before this virus, but it’s the future for sure now.
And take the time to really learn and structure your program, test it, get it together because you’ve got a good couple months before this is going to be really normal.
And then from that point forward, if you have your process and your workflow and you’re productive, then that’s those steps that we always talk about getting ahead.
Just like getting ahead in SEO or getting ahead in PPC or getting ahead in social.
Get ahead in this new workflow and you’re going to be more valuable, you’re going to have better opportunities for jobs, you’re going to have more success in the work that you’re trying to accomplish.
You’re going to have, know how to structure things better. So just take this as an opportunity to jump forward and be really in a great position in a couple of months to be successful.
LB: Get on top of things. Put together a routine.
Eliminate distractions while you’re working and make the most of distractions and during that time that you’re not working to get all into your life as well.
And if you can take an eight-hour day and squeeze it down in the two hours and get rid of commuting, that gives you a lot more time to do things that are work-related and not.
It’s really a huge opportunity to grab right now.
JH: I would say to all the managers out there (whether you lead a team or whether you own a company and have some folks working for you), reach out to your people.
Find out how they’re doing and go deeper than, “How are you doing?”
Dig into their workflow, their communications.
What kind of new struggles or challenges do they have now that they are at home?
It might be around communicating deadlines or brainstorming, but helping them find solutions, putting those platforms in place.
And again, not just buying an account and hoping they figure it out, but actually doing your job as a manager and facilitating the adoption of new workflows, or new platforms, or a new way of communicating – being the example of how to use those platforms and communications.
Think about how you can be of service to your people and not how they can be of service to you.
Beause they’ll figure that out once you put the tools in place and they are in a culture and a team and a company where they feel supported and that you’re looking out for them.
You’re not going to find all the answers. You’re going to have problems that are going to continue to come up.
No solution is going to be perfect.
Make your best effort to support your people – whether it’s buying a new tool, or serving as an example, or helping folks work out a conflict that they now have to figure out to do virtually because they can’t come together in a meeting room the way they used to in the office.
That work that you’re putting in now is going to pay dividends later for you and your team.
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