When the pandemic hit in 2020, it was a big opportunity for us to look at how we work. First and foremost through a mandated aspect. I mean, we had to, we were required to work completely remotely for a number of months. But as the months wore on and there were opportunities to start to return to the office environment, we were then also looking at, OK, well, what does business look like for us on an on-going basis?
We’ve had a really fortunate head start in that we have half of our business, half of our team based in the United Kingdom and Brazil, and they all work remotely full time from their home offices. So half our team already or have are already working / were already working remotely and have been working remotely for some time and a number of years. But it was very new for the Australian team.
We started, you know, very quickly – shut the office and went home as soon as the government mandate rolled out. But pretty quickly, we started to develop a bit of a plan on really conducting some robust, proper research and development, if you will, to identify what is working for us as a business and what’s not.
We didn’t want covid to be something that changed the way we work because, it did. We wanted to talk to change the way that we work because it was right for talk.
So what we did was we set up a bit of a framework where we spent firstly a couple of months in mandated work from home conditions full time, the entire business. Then we moved to a hybrid model where we spent one day a week in the office together and then the rest of the week working from home, ran that for a bit over a month. And then we spent a month working fully in the office again just to get a feel for what we did and didn’t like about the office, just to remind ourselves about that office operating environment and what it was sort of uncovered with a couple of things.
The first is the importance of legitimate and lived work life balance. As a business owner, I struggle a little bit on a personal level to identify clear work life balance, boundaries and what the components of that look like to me generally are quite different to what it looks like to one of our designers or one of our analysts or one of our account managers. And that is true in every business. That’s completely unrealistic to expect that there is a complete uniformity in work life balance, expectations, desires, wants, needs and even cultural desires, wants, needs and expectations.
So the first sort of learning we got out of the process was that there is no one size fits all solution. And what it’s about is finding something that fits for most people or works for most people in an appropriate way. But importantly, that doesn’t jeopardise what it is that makes the business unique or successful. And that leads me on to the second point. So if our first point is that culture and and work life balance and not ‘one size fits all’, the next point is that it’s really important to be deliberate about developing culture.
So in a completely office based environment where everyone is in the office together, you have a situation where the company you’re working for, the company you own or the company you’re running is facilitating that they are renting or buying office space or factory space or shop space. They are putting computers in and desks in, they’re getting Internet connections, insurance, cleaning, utilities, there’s a relatively exhausting list there, as any business owner could attest to. And if it’s done right and if it’s done with care, what that should do is provide a baseline or base foundation for businesses to build culture within teams.
A good space, a good workspace should encourage collaboration and sharing and spontaneous ideas and all of those buzzwords that that culture kings like to talk about. Now, on the flip side, we have the blessing of knowing that you can build a really, really strong culture when you work completely remotely. And we see that with our teams in UK and Brazil. Those team members are so dedicated to Talk, they work so hard. They love Talk, they buy into the culture.
I’ve got so many stories of little things they’ve done together over the years and little sort of ‘Talk flags’ that have flown in those other parts of the world. But what you have, is you have a team that are recruited into that from day one and spend all of their working time in that environment so they’re very used to doing it. Whereas us Australian guys in the in the Australian office, what we were finding is we were used to building culture in a more spontaneous way just by being in the office together and spending time together.
So it’s really important to keep in mind that if you have an office based environment, you should work hard to build a culture in that. And then the money you invest in building and maintaining that office environment should support you in your mission to build culture in your business. If it’s not, all you’re getting is a space. You’re not getting enough out of that space. You’re not getting a big enough return on investment.
On the flip side to that – remote teams, it’s important to know that anyone that’s transitioning team members or businesses from office based work to remote based work, it’s important that everyone tests that experience and then really understands that when migrating to remote work, the onus is still on the company to stitch that culture together and to develop that culture. But there is a bigger or stronger emphasis on individuals within teams to reach out to other team members, reach into teams, come up with ideas, run virtual game sessions. You know, there’s an exhaustive list and ultimately you need to be deliberate about doing those things when you’re sitting at home working from a home office. If you’re not. What happens is a week goes by and nothing changes. The work gets done, a month goes by and nothing changes. The work gets done. But at some point, a few months in or six months in the unique elements of your business that you sell, whether it be that you are really creative or you’re really technologically savvy or you’re a really fun organisation, or you sell some kind of sizzle or secret sauce, or there is a way that you recruit people and retain people above market average, all of those things slowly start to dissolve and you basically lose your competitive edge.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can set up systems, processes and hire, train and and attract, train and retain the right team members to build culture remotely. But it is very, very different to doing it in person. So it’s important to note that if you’re transitioning fully remote, there is a very steep learning curve around that. If you were previously working in an office, likewise, if you’re… I don’t think there’d be anyone in the world doing this but if you’re going from fully remote to working in an office, there’s going to be a pretty big transition there as well. That’s the second thing.
So where did we land for our business? We’re currently working in an operating model where obviously our remote team members in the UK and Brazil are continuing to work remotely and then our Australian team spend two days a week together in the office and then they have the choice to work in the office or to work remotely at an alternative location the other three days of the week.
We see most staff, our most team members take up that remote work option pretty regularly. Most people will be working from home Wednesday through Friday and working from the office Monday and Tuesday. We’ve been running that for a couple of months now and so far it’s been quite good. We see a lot of collaboration. We try to bank a lot of meetings, a lot of brainstorming, a lot of creative session type work gets banked into that time that we spend together in the office. And then we see a lot of deep work happening in the home environment where there are a lot of, I guess, deadline driven projects or independent work projects that work streams that need to be completed.
There are a lot of systems and processes and tools that we use to facilitate this environment, I.T., software, the tech stack, there’s a lot in it and we would encourage any business that’s going into into a hybrid model or remote model to really think through the technology stack and make sure you have all of the tools you need to – not monitor the team, because if you’re monitoring a remote team, it means that you probably don’t have the right kind of team to work remotely in the first place, but instead to foster that culture of collaboration and creativity that we talked about earlier. That’s what these tools are really, really good for. So we use Discord to keep our team sort of chatting throughout the day right across the world. We use Slack for messaging and then we have a sort of a workflow stack underneath it all, sort of alongside that.
In terms of next steps, we don’t know what the long term future holds for our operating model. We know that we’re very, very passionate about our remote team and we’re very thankful for what the team in the UK and in Brazil input into our business. At the same time, obviously, the wheels do not turn without everything that the team does in Australia as well. So we’re continuing to explore what the long term future holds. But at this stage, the hybrid model blended with the full time remote team is working quite well.
So I would really encourage anyone that’s just trying to think through what they should do or anyone that’s struggling with the decisions around working from home, not working from home, working in an office, going to a bigger office, going to a smaller office, etc, to make no decisions until you conduct a pretty rigorous and detailed test, a multiple month test. Test some different formats, survey your team, get feedback from your team, look at your technology, make sure if you’re looking at more remote options, make sure you’ve got the right technologies in place to support that.
And then, without a doubt, most importantly, really consider how you’re going to build and maintain culture with both your current team members and new team members that you’re going to on-board in the future.