How Creative Agencies are Putting Remote Teams to Work

I recently had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion regarding the merit of remote teamwork in a creative environment. On the panel were four owners of creative agencies in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. In fact, the panelists were:

  • Carl Smith of nGen Works, which “uses strategy, technology and creativity to help people kick ass.”
  • Marc Garrett of Intridea, which “designs and develops simple, intuitive web and mobile applications to help companies realize the power of social business collaboration, cloud computing, and next-generation tools for the enterprise.”
  • Nathan Curtis of EightShapes, which “designs interactive experiences that balance custom needs with business objectives.”
  • Brian Williams of Viget, which is “a full-service interactive agency that helps plan, design, build, and measure successful websites and digital products.

That’s quite a line-up—and the main reason I wanted to attend this panel. These guys are heavy hitters on the local DC scene, so it was fascinating to hear their take on remote team management, especially as a follow-up to Yahoo’s recent declaration of war against employees working from home.

Most notable among the panelists is that three out of the four heavily rely on remote teams. EightShapes is completely remote, employing design and interactive specialists across the United States. nGen Works staffs an office of two and keeps everyone else remote, and Intridea follows suit, even tapping into other countries such as China to maintain constant development cycles. Viget was the only panel outlier, maintaining a more traditional structure, with three real offices and no full-time remote employees, and Brian was adamant about his desire to keep with this setup.

Key takeaways from the panel

  • No specific structure is right or wrong. It all depends on the culture and environment of the organization. While Viget maintains offices, it is just as successful as EightShapes, which maintains no offices. Brian has created a culture where the “traditional” office setup is the accepted form of doing business, and the employees of Viget have adapted and thrived within this environment. On the other hand, EightShapes would fail, according to Nathan, if it had to suddenly establish physical offices that employees would likely reject. Whether remote teams will work is entirely dependent on the culture that has been grown from within the organization.
  • Culture was a recurring theme of the night. Carl made several good points on the topic, and he also gave an inspiring speech before the panel discussion about his journey to create nGen Works. When it comes to culture, it just cannot be forced. Plain and simple. You can’t require your employees to go to a baseball game and expect camaraderie to follow. Founders should not treat culture as their own little Petri dish. The founder, the CEO, the head honcho—they all must step back and let the employees naturally establish culture.
  • Communication is obviously essential for the success of distributed teams. GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts received the biggest shout-outs as exceptional collaboration tools.
  • Don’t be tempted to track too closely what remote team members are doing. Instead, let them do their thing. Focus on the big picture—mainly project results.
  • Nathan said EightShapes gets together as a company twice a year to clock in that face-to-face exposure, which is important for distributed teams.
  • Brian hit it home hard how important it is to Viget to have everyone in an office during set times. He even passed on a talented designer because they required a remote relationship.
  • Marc expounded the benefits of worldwide distributed teams, using his Ruby team in China as a prime example of 24/7 product development. He even makes sure the Chinese team gets physical face-time with the rest of the company.
  • Nathan made a solid point that you should ensure job candidates are a good fit with the company’s structure. He gave an example about having a stellar candidate who passed all the interviews only to end up not being a fit with the remote team structure. Don’t waste time with candidates who can’t work in the environment.
  • Brian noted that he evenly distributes multi-office projects across teams so there isn’t a lone employee in a separate office. When that happens, that employee is often excluded from the majority in the other office.

A great discussion by a knowledgeable group of people. I only scratched the surface of the input they had on the subject of remote teams. Needless to say, remote and distributed teams are here to stay and will continue to play a significant role in many creative agencies.

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