‘The office just needs to have a different purpose’: What one agency leader has learned from 10 years of remote-first work

‘The office just needs to have a different purpose’: What one agency leader has learned from 10 years of remote-first work

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As employers continue to beckon staff back to in-person work, many are reconsidering the role office space plays in workflow and company culture. 

Covid-19 challenged the traditional, in-person 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work model with a number of agencies moving to embrace fully remote or hybrid work environments. In that, the office has gone from being company headquarters with required attendance to being a company resource for occasional meetings and collaboration, agency executives have said.

Hands Down Agency, a U.K.-based brand design agency, has abandoned the idea of an office altogether, having been remote-first since its founding in 2013. With a core team of six and a community of 150 freelancers, Hands Down Agency has foregone office space and instead meets once a month for team bonding.

Digiday caught up with founder and CEO Emma Sexton to talk about company culture in a fully remote work environment, how trust in employees factors into flexible work and what the future of the office looks like.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Hands Down has been remote since it started 10 years ago. What have you learned from that experience?

People want to be met adult to adult, [treated like adults]. That’s what I’m trying to do. I meet my team as an equal. They get 100% trust. They have to erode that trust. I don’t assume they’re shirking [responsibility]. I assume they’ve got the best intent. I don’t need to see them all the time. I look at their output. So the more they pull people back into the office, the more they’re in their comfort zone, and they don’t have to do the work to actually evolve their leadership style.

What does flexible work look like at your agency?

We have some very simple rules. Our clients expect us to be responsive between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. So you have to respond to clients at those times or make the clients feel like their project is under control. You don’t actually have to do the work. The work can be done at any time. When you do remote working, you’ve got to have really good boundaries. But it’s important as a leader that I help my team put in good boundaries. So if they want to do their yoga class at 11:30 a.m. every Tuesday, that has to go in the [agenda] and it has to be non-negotiable, and the rest of the team has to respect that. I don’t want them to ask my permission, because I trust you to do the work and I trust that you’re leaving at 3:30 p.m. But everything’s under control. 

How do you manage team building in a totally remote environment?

The office just needs to have a different purpose. Coming together face-to-face is nice. I don’t think it’s critical for building relationships. We’ve now introduced a monthly meeting with purpose. We meet, we talk about the business, we do a bit of reflection on the past month, we set some goals that we want to achieve as a team for the next month. And then we go out and have a bit of a sociable evening. It’s thinking differently about spaces and how we use them and how we use existing spaces that are out there, like private dining rooms, or hiring different venues or hiring cool Airbnb locations. It doesn’t have to be an office. 

Where does the idea of flexible work intersect with womanhood and the so-called “Shecession”?

[Flexible work] makes a huge difference to people who are parents. Trying to get into an office for 9 a.m.? Kids are unpredictable. You take your kids to playgroup in the morning. Maybe they want to go in, maybe they don’t, maybe they’re having an emotional day. Imagine being a parent and being stressed and then you come into the office half an hour late. You do that three days in a row and then someone’s on your case. It just adds an extra layer of stress that you don’t really need.

Why do you think the industry, and working world as a whole, was hesitant to adopt flexible work pre-pandemic?

We’re brought up to think that people are lazy and don’t want to do work. It’s just not true. People like all different types of work. It’s not that people like work because they’re doing something great. People like to be part of a team. They like to have some purpose. They like to have some autonomy. What I’m seeing is, as a collective in the West,  we are evolving emotionally. The next generation coming through is much more emotionally aware. We understand psychology in a different way. The workplace needs to evolve in line with that. We’ve got old school working rules, which are a hangover from factory days, where we force people to go to work. People are more conscious and more aware of what they want to do. And we haven’t got a leadership style or a working culture as the mainstream that works. And people are opting out. 

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