How Remote Working Works: Lessons from a Wholly Virtual Organisation

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As a business which is focussed on digital workplace internal communications, naturally we have been keeping a very close ear on how the global crisis is affecting those who work within communications and the role technology has played. Having been spending a lot of (virtual) time with many of our simplycommunity members, listening to how they’re managing, two things have become outstandingly clear.

Firstly, the acceleration of digital workplace tools has not only been essential, but welcome and secondly, the level of culture shift many large organisations have experienced in the past month alone is the level of culture change many have wanted to see for a number of years. Perhaps then it’s no surprise how a recent YouGov poll found how just 9% of the UK want life to return to ‘normal’ once the lockdown is over.

Although the world of work has changed, we know many of you are also looking at how you adapt your businesses and communications to meet this shift so we got in touch with Lizzie Penny, co-founder of The Hoxby Collective to hear how they do it.

Founded in 2015, Hoxby is a social enterprise with a vision to create a happier, more fulfilled society through a world of work without bias. The name Hoxby is an acronym for the term “Happiness of others multiplied by the best of you.”

Lisa Pantelli, head of content and community here at simplycommunicate caught up with Lizzie Penny. Here’s what she had to say.

Lisa: Tell us a bit about Hoxby. Who are you and what do you do?

Lizzie: Hoxby is a virtual global agency made up of self-employed professionals who work in Futureproofing (consulting on remote working, virtual leadership and freelance working models) as well as Marketing, PR, HR, Innovation, Creative and Admin.

We have never had any offices, instead for the last 5 years, Hoxby has used technology to connect our community of more than 1,000 freelancers across 43 different countries. Our clients include Unilever, Merck, AIA, General Mills, Amazon and Warner Bros.

We are built on the belief that everyone choosing their own ‘workstyle’ is the future of the global workforce: a much-needed refresh of an outdated 9-5 system, where inclusion comes as standard and diversity is central to us producing refreshing work. Because of our unusual model, we can answer problems differently which can drive competitive advantage for our clients.

Lisa: Hoxby set up a Futureproofing workforce when the virus broke out under the campaign #remoteagainstcoronavirus. Tell us more

Lizzie: As soon as we heard about governments starting to ask workforces to work remotely, we wanted to quickly put our expertise to good use to help facilitate this, initially to stop the spread, and now to help organisations who are doing this for the first time.

We want to use our expertise in the remote working space to help other organisations and individuals, and are making everything about the way we work public in the hope others will find it useful during the Coronavirus crisis when many businesses are moving to remote working models for the very first time.

Implementing remote working brilliantly can maintain productivity for businesses and also support good mental health. We felt compelled to support as many people as possible in quickly moving to this way of working. We decided that the best way to do that was to unite the broader remote working community behind sharing advice, strategies, tools and experiences to aid the swift adoption of remote working by everyone, as well as sharing publicly everything we can about the way that we work. There’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding about what remote working means. This campaign forms an emergency plan for businesses to better understand how to lead remote teams and to help them quickly put strategies and processes into place that help ensure ‘business as usual’ during this crisis.

Lisa: You’re a wholly virtual organisation, tell us a bit about how this works? How do you share information and collaborate on projects?

Lizzie: We are fortunate to have always worked this way, and to have tried and improved various methods over the last 5 years in order to get to the optimal ‘Hoxby Model of Work’ we now both use ourselves day-to-day, and also help others set up for themselves. Setting up remote working properly should not be taken lightly – there is a big difference between simply rolling out an existing ‘working from home’ policy and setting up productive and healthy ways for people to deliver work remotely. We lay out the ingredients as we see them for remote working here.

In this way of working it is also critical to support the mental health and wellbeing of those within the community, and this something we made public for everyone with the launch of remoteworkmates.com as part of the #remoteagainstcoronavirus campaign in April this year. We hope this can help support as many employees working remotely during the crisis, through wellbeing sessions, a collective exercise challenge, and buddying up experienced remote workers with those who are newer to working this way.

There are many tools and strategies available to help streamline and project manage the delivery of work, but we have shared the most important elements as we see them in our suggested 4-Step Approach for Moving to Remote Working.

In terms of the technology we use to collaborate, at Hoxby, Slack is our virtual office. We work in project teams on dedicated channels and meetings take place on Google Meet or via Zoom. We collaborate on work via Google Suite, Trello and Basecamp, amongst others. We’re a jargon-free business, so Typeforms are often used for anything process-driven. We also have our own bespoke platform called MyHoxby, which our technology team designed and built specifically to meet the community’s needs.

Lisa: What’s the impact on communications between teams when you have a wholly virtual environment?

Lizzie: In order to work effectively remotely, everyone has to adjust to a different mindset. There are many many ways to be just a communicative virtually as in person. Slack is the central communication hub at Hoxby along with other tools such as Hubspot, Basecamp and Workable, but we also tag-team in google documents, have video calls, even occasionally pick up the phone.

Each Hoxby has their own ‘workstyle (i.e. can work where and when choosen – although of course at the moment the ‘where’ is a little more restricted!) so collaborating in teams who may not be working at the same time is really important to us.

Lisa: Keeping people engaged with the business and feeling they are part of something bigger is a common fear of remote working we hear about. How do you keep people engaged with Hoxby?

Lizzie: Hoxby is more than just a virtual workspace for our community, we recognise the need to connect as humans in a virtual world.

Socially within Slack we have ‘interest’ channels where people get together where they have a common interest (parenting, renovation, pets, and we also have a book club!), as well as a ‘watercooler’ where people can share whatever they like and have fun. We think these elements are really important for wellbeing and mental health, but also for collaborating and feeling like a team.

We also operate a ‘video on’ culture for virtual meetings, as we find this makes people more engaged, focussed and importantly builds better relationships.

In addition, as the Founders we create a 2-minute ‘Workstyle Freestyle’ video each week in order to talk about something important to Hoxby, as well as a longer quarterly update for the community, and monthly Q&A sessions. Last year we also introduced our all-community profit-share, whereby every member of the community gets an equal share of 25% of the profits every quarter.

Lisa: What about the geographical spread of your team? You have a community of 1,000 people, how do you ensure everyone at Hoxby feels engaged?

Lizzie: Everyone Hoxby is a freelancer, so we need to ensure the community remains engaged. More than 20,000 people have applied to join Hoxby in the last 5 years and the 1,000 who have been selected to join the community have been based on their talents and their connection to the movement we are creating. Because of this, our shared vision unites and engages Hoxby at the most fundamental level.

In addition, the all-community 25% profit share ensures every Hoxby earns something every quarter (whether they are working on paid projects or not), and we also support Hoxbies in setting and uphold their workstyles, as well as having lots of activities year-round to support their wellbeing.

Technology makes anything possible. We regularly have teams working across many different time-zones, and the collaborate brilliantly, deliver great work, and also have fun!

Lisa: You’ve told us a bit about the technology platforms you use, how do you help members make the most of them too?

Lizzie: We try to use tech platforms that are intuitive, and which are regularly being updated with improvements (e.g. Xero, Workable, Slack, Google Suite, Typeform). One important factor is to make sure the team is well on-boarded and so know how to confidently use them. And in times like this, where swift adoption is absolutely necessary, we’re sharing as many tips on training as possible such as this beginners guide to using Slack.

Lisa: As more organisations adopt remote working as part of their operations, one question I suspect we’ll see being asked a lot more is that around accountability. How do you measure output and is measurement important to you?

Lizzie: Hoxby is a meritocracy, we reward on output, not hours spent. Many of our project budgets take this ‘delivery-focused’ approach. People sometimes question the commitment of a fully-freelance workforce, but we find that with freelancers they are firstly much more passionate about what they do, and secondly much more conscious that they need to deliver exceptional work every time in order to maintain their reputation and keep on securing work.

Lisa: How do your clients and partners view your approach to work? I assume they’re supportive otherwise they wouldn’t be working with you but have you had to alleviate concerns with them?

Lizzie: We are passionate about working with clients who share our values and see opportunity in us being different from their other suppliers so that we can bring refreshing solutions where others can’t solve their problems in original ways.

The way we’re set up means clients often have very senior teams working on their projects – far more so than in a traditional agency set up.

Wherever possible we bring clients into our world – setting up shared Slack environments collaborating on video calls and operating as an extension of their teams. We aren’t right for every brief, and we’ll be honest when we feel we aren’t the best people to deliver something, but for the clients and projects who are looking for what we offer and particularly to work with us in new and different ways, the community delivers incredible work and has a great time working with the client to do so!

Lisa: Given how this crisis has accelerated the pace of change and remote working for so many organisations, what’s your advice to business leaders who are going to need to adapt to perhaps a different way of working once we return to our offices? What learnings should they be taking away?

Lizzie: Hopefully businesses might re-consider whether they need that office and the steep rental bill at all! I think the main thing is to consider people and productivity – how will remote working have benefitted your workforce? What changes might they like to see more permanently? Are those weekly zoom yoga classes too good a company wellbeing perk to do away with?

What worked well remotely, and perhaps even surprised you? And what didn’t? The main thing we are strongly advising business leaders is not to automatically revert to the same old ways of working. We are hopeful, that after the crisis is over, business leaders will have seen some benefits of this way of working, and also recognise that we’re in a digital age where people can work where and when they choose and be judged on their output, rather than an industrial one where everyone needs to congregate in the same place to work an 8-hour day. And it might well be, after all this is over, that some of the positives from this new normal are here to stay.

Planning now for the long-term will also be beneficial and seeing the silver lining of the pandemic as a chance to get into good practices for when we come out of it will lead to competitive advantage for some businesses. Our #remoteagainstcoronavirus campaign will continue to provide regular advice, but please do get in touch with us directly if we can offer bespoke solutions for your business.

If you’re looking at introducing a new intranet or platforms into your organisation, talk to us about how we can help. simplycommunicate is an independent network for internal communications and digital workplace specialists. Join our network to have access to exclusive content and events or get in touch to see if we can help with your training needs.