A Remote Workforce Keeps Your Business Agile
In early September, a creative agency contacted me about a resource-intense, high-profile project that needed to be turned around in just three weeks.
This agency came to me because they knew I could get it done. Years ago, my company, Cimaglia Productions, actually used to be a large-scale creative agency itself, employing dozens of people in a downtown Chicago office until a few years ago, when I dismantled everything I'd built and refocused on agility. Now I work with a team of industry pros I've handpicked from nearly two decades in the business. Some I've worked with for almost that long; some are new faces. The difference between my company then and now is striking.
Rather than occupying pricey downtown real estate and maintaining a huge stack of servers, our data is stored in the cloud and my team is spread around the continent. I have a head writer in Toronto, a storyboard artist in Chicago and a cutting-edge animation team in New York City -- just to name a few. The benefits of a remote workforce are easy to list, but my team doesn't simply comprise digital nomads whose primary goal is working from Balinese beaches. They're the best workers I know, unrestricted by physical geography.
Many entrepreneurs are opting for this kind of contemporary remote-work model, and even established companies are switching to it. Employees are almost invariably happier with flexible hours, devoting more time to their loved ones and cultivating healthier lifestyles, while the executives can save on overhead costs. Online tools and cloud-based storage simplify communication and content management.
As long as the work keeps getting done efficiently and everyone is on the same page, why do you really need an office?
What to look for in remote employees
Not settling for employees within commuting distance of an office has enabled me to find freelancers and contractors who share more than just my passion for the industry. They also share my vision.
One of my icons in this respect is Jony Ive, Apple's famously minimalistic designer. Like Steve Jobs, Ive has nurtured a creative atmosphere, encouraging his employees to speak up and generate new ideas. This boldness is a quality I believe is necessary for remote workers. (It also occurs naturally, I think -- it's easier to criticize someone's idea when you never meet them face-to-face.)
Even in a company as big as Apple, Ive realizes the value of working with a small, devoted team. He opens this great Apple commercial with simple insight into that world: they're a small team of 20-odd people. That combination of size, loyalty and unity has benefited the company's groundbreaking creative endeavors: "The hallmark of the group has been to be inquisitive and ask an awful lot of questions," he said. "We have really made it a practice to just have our heads down and work, and ignore, in some senses, all the reasons why something shouldn't be possible."
This points to another quality I look for in every remote worker: results-orientation. The process is key, but the result is what matters. Content, as they say, is king, and in our field, creating the most innovative, phenomenal content for our clients is what keeps us in business.
Agility is key -- but what does it mean?
In marketing, calling a business "agile" is de rigueur -- it's almost become a hollow buzzword. Not for me. At my company, it's a credo.
Being agile is what helped my company thrive in the years after the economic crash of 2008, and it's helped define the attributes I look for in my employees. I define agility chiefly as speed, adaptation and fluid communication.
A remote workforce is fundamental to all three of these.
Speed, of course, is necessary; professionals know how to get work done quickly, and remote workers don't always need to wait for other teams to finish their work before starting their own.
By adaptation, I mean two things: adapting to the current technological climate, as well as to the client's needs. The common attribute is flexibility -- not sticking to a fussy job description just because you're doing nothing more than what's expected of you. From a tech perspective, I prefer working with people who, like me, geek out over the latest available software and hardware, who see innovations like augmented reality, VR and holograms as opportunities for telling original, high-quality stories in unprecedented ways. Bigger agencies can rarely pivot so quickly because they can't risk failure: their overhead holds them back. Ditching the overhead allows us to take bigger risks and constantly evolve as a company.
The final thing I need my colleagues to be is communicative, which is a given when you rarely (if ever) actually meet people face-to-face. I work all hours of the day and prefer to fill my team with people who are used to correspondence outside the 9-to-5. But, that doesn't mean we breathlessly work all day long; instead of scrambling to meet a boss's deadline, I'm coordinating various teams in tandem, more like an orchestra conductor than a CEO. Each team has their role to play, and each is working on various projects for other clients as well. That said, I try to limit this so I can continue to make sure we're constantly evolving the client strategy.
Remote workers define agility now ... but maybe not forever.
In the future, technology will continue to redefine what it means to run an agile team.
As office workers give way to a remote workforce, so too will those freelancers soon find their jobs co-opted by artificial intelligence. Already, video editors are seeing template-oriented automated software level the industry, while data is driving informed decisions about ad content and production. The careers of writers, technicians and producers will be at risk.
I expect to rely on AI video editors regularly in the 2020s. It's a double-edged sword, making some employees obsolete while shifting the industry's focus and careers further toward creative thinking and high-end software management.
People will bemoan the tidal shift, but that's always been the trajectory of technology. While working remotely is currently a luxury enjoyed by smart business owners and employees alike, in the future, even this reality will prove untenable. That's inevitable. But, that's also what it means to run an agile team.