10 lessons from a remote-first agency

Empower’s Director and Co-Founder Ben Matthews spoke to Henshall Centre’s Liton Ali on Super Magic Agency Powers, a podcast that explores how to improve your soft skills- the special powers that make you brilliant at your job. 

Work culture is increasingly moving towards a hybrid model, balancing home and the office – an arrangement Empower know all too well, as an agency that have been remote-first since day one. 

In this episode Ben and Liton discuss all things ‘remote’, with the conversation touching on: 

  1. What it’s been like to grow a company with a ‘remote-first’ mindset from day one
  2. The pandemic-related challenges Empower faced for remote working
  3. The key to building relationships with remote clients
  4. How to build a strong team and company culture when remote working
  5. Why you need to get out of your work and messaging apps and make time to be creative
  6. Why being agnostic when it comes to collaboration software helps you work better with clients
  7. How to keep up motivation with a remote team
  8. Why investing in setting people up well for remote working is good for the agency, not just the individuals
  9. How Empower have learned to switch off outside of working hours, while giving the team flexibility to choose their own working patterns

Listen to the podcast, or have a read of the discussion below!

10 lessons from a remote-first agency: podcast transcript

Liton Ali

Welcome to Super Magic Agency Powers, the podcast that explores how to upgrade your soft skills: they’re the things that make you amazing at your job, and essential to making your technical PR and comms skills work. I’m joined today by Ben Matthews who runs Empower: it’s a digital agency that specialises in helping purpose-led organisations such as charities and nonprofits.

He started the company with his partner Jaz Cummins about seven years ago, and they started the company off working from home from flats, and now they’re up to about 11 staff, and I guess everyone is working from home again. But by the time the pandemic hit and we were all sent home to work remotely, Ben and his crew had already been doing it for absolutely years. Thank you for joining me, Ben.

Ben Matthews

Thank you for having me Liton, it’s great to be here.

Growing a company with a ‘remote-first’ mindset from day one

Liton Ali

I’d really like to talk to you about some of the things that a lot of agencies have been scrambling to learn over the last year, which a lot of them had to think a lot more like small companies because they were set up as these big corporate organisations, because it felt like the right thing to do. Suddenly, everybody’s working from home, and they are trying really hard to copy the behaviours of people like Empower.

You started off working from home, and then what you did is you grew organically, you started to hire other people, but they were also working from home as well so what was the journey that you had growing the company when it came to hiring your first people, and feeling comfortable with leaving them at home to work.

Ben Matthews

That’s a great summary of our history. I’ll tell you where it started. Jaz and myself were both freelancers and as part of that we were working from home – we didn’t have offices. Co- working spaces were kind of the thing then but we actually would rather work from home. And we’ve always been working remotely: we’re used to that, our clients are used to working with us remotely. When we first took on our employees, we wanted to keep that lifestyle.

We were growing nicely, we were getting new clients on board – more than Jaz and I could handle. We took on support but we wanted to keep remote-first. This was back in say 2015 when remote-first wasn’t the norm, it might have been for some disciplines like web development, but it wasn’t very much for PR, social media, marketing. 

We set up the company – with the workflows, the processes, the tools, the technology  – with that mindset: with a remote-first mindset. And over the years we’ve learned that, as we’ve taken on employees, they’ve been the same. And, as you said, the closer…well, when the pandemic hit…we were ready to go: we had all our workflows in place, we all had our tools and processes and our team were used to working remotely as well. And our clients – they were used to us being a remote agency.

We had a lot of advantages there, but it didn’t happen overnight: it hasn’t been like we suddenly went from remote-first to being pandemic-ready. We’re up to 11 people now, and every time we’ve taken on a new employee, or grown slightly as an agency, that’s brought on new challenges from a remote work point of view: just how the communication keeps happening. And then during the pandemic, as well, we’ve had issues – it’s been a challenge – even though we’re remote-first it’s not like we were just fine and we carried on.

We actually had a lot of challenges around clients moving to remote-first so they had to understand how to work remote-first as well. Because people couldn’t go out and actually do anything outside of the house, people were working really, really long hours, even though we asked them not to. They didn’t have anything else to do and they just worked, so there were issues around mental health and burnout. And, yeah, generally just making sure clients are looked after because obviously the pandemic had a big hit on some people’s revenue. We just needed to make sure our clients could get through that kind of challenging period so they were still here, as we’re beginning to open up now.

We were remote-first from the beginning, we’ve had a lot of time and experience to learn that but the pandemic was still a challenge for us as well.

Pandemic-related challenges with remote working

Liton Ali

Personally I would have just thought you hit the ground running, so it’s nice to know that you had the same challenges that other people had as well. What kind of lessons have you learned from the last year or so, when it comes to remote working?

Ben Matthews

Definitely about setting boundaries. Before COVID we had natural boundaries when people finished work at, say, six, and then went out or did exercise or, you know, lived their normal lives. When that wasn’t possible during COVID and we were all in lockdown – we couldn’t actually go out – we found people were actually stretching their working hours quite a lot, so they would work into the evening. Now we were very much insistent that they don’t work into the evening, but because they had nothing to do, because clients were at home as well, and always online, lots of people felt that they had to be online, and be responsive.

We had a lot of challenges around just making sure people set really good boundaries: try not to work on weekends, try not to work in the evening; taking lunch breaks, taking breaks during the day. And when you’re a remote agency, you’re basically empowering your team to work when it suits them best, and you trust them to do the work. As long as the works done well as long as the clients are happy we’re generally happy, but during COVID It was a real challenge to make sure people did take those breaks and I think we’ve been working really hard with the team to manage…well, make clear what our expectations are in terms of their working day.

As I mentioned, as long as the clients are happy, and we’re happy, and the team members are happy, that’s all fine. That was one of the main challenges.

Liton Ali

It sounds like one of the problems was that, because your clients were at home with nothing else to do, they were sending emails late at night, and it felt like you guys should respond to them.

Ben Matthews

Yeah, and again we instil the notion that we don’t have to respond to emails outside of normal core working hours, but I think just because the pandemic and clients were working that way now as well, there was definitely a heightening of the amount of communication happening on email.

I guess also some of the meetings that would have taken place face-to-face – you know where you can get through a lot of issues face-to-face – we’re now going back to email or Slack. There was a lot more communication happening, which meant there was a lot of pressure on the team to keep up with that as well. And that’s died down a bit, as I think more people got used to it, but for the first few months it was quite an increased workload, just from those kinds of communication flows.

Liton Ali

Do you think that you can just tell a client that ‘look, we’re not going to respond to you at night’? Is that something you’ve been able to do?

Ben Matthews

Definitely, and again I want to make clear that I don’t think clients have the expectation for us to answer straight away. We try and generally try and answer within 24 hours as requests come in, and I think as the kind of clients we work with are charities and nonprofits, we are lucky that they’re on the nicer end of clients, I guess: they don’t need everything straight away.

Then we’ve got good working relationships with them. We were a remote agency for them before COVID hit, so they’re more used to our way of working – more used to our pace and our response time – they’re definitely not expecting us to be answering, late at night.

The key to building relationships with remote clients

Liton Ali

You’ve actually had this challenge which is from the start of remote clients, you’ve had to build rapport with them, and then build long lasting trusting relationships with them as well. What’s the key – what’s the secret – to building relationships with remote clients?

Ben Matthews

That’s a really good question because, again, it’s easy to compare before COVID and after COVID as an easy comparison. Before COVID, you know, we had our flat in London and we live in London, so meeting clients in London was good and easy, and initially the first meetings were generally face-to-face, so if a client emailed us and said, “I’ve got a brief; we’d love to discuss it”, we generally go and meet them and spend an hour with them because that face-to-face meeting is an instant chance to see what the chemistry is like; develop a rapport: you can talk about exactly who we are and it’s just generally a friendlier way.

Once you’ve got that initial meeting, going back to remote is much easier because they know who you are, they know who you’re working with and the kind of person you are. It’s much,much easier. Now post-COVID I guess that’s all changed to Zoom, where people are having a video call, and that’s our introduction basically where everyone’s in their bedrooms or in their office or whatever.

I guess the expectation from clients is that’s okay, because that’s the way the world is working during the pandemic, but I think when things start to open up again, we’ll still be in London – we haven’t moved out of London – I think we’ll still want to have some kind of personal connection at the beginning, in order to establish that connection and then, you can go back to remote. I still think there is definitely a need for some kind of initial meeting or regular meetings with clients that are face-to-face.

Liton Ali

I’m really old school when it comes to this stuff but I think that when you take on a new client at some point, really early on, you should organise something social, because you need to build that kind of bridge where you find out something about one another, where it comes to just being on a level with someone.

Okay, quite frankly, I think you should go and get pissed together: that’s what I generally have always done. Is that something that people are missing now that we’re gonna go back eventually to this hybrid model, and it’s really easy to take on an agency that aren’t in London, for example, or don’t come to London for meetings. Do you think that social aspect with the clients is important as well? 

Ben Matthews

Definitely, and I think there are different ways that you can do that from a remote-first agency. Looking at you today, I can see in your background, you’ve got a bookcase and I can probably pick out a book or two to talk about. I can see you’ve got a nice plant there – I can ask about your plant – and generally people have stuff going on around them that you can pick out; you might ask about my poster here. I know about my clients’ kids: I know how many kids they’ve got, so I know during COVID If they’ve been having to do homeschooling, I can check in and learn about that. People have generally got dogs and cats sometimes in the background as well, so I can ask about that.

Generally I think trying to find a connection outside of work is a really great way to establish a relationship that normally you’d get face-to-face. And every time we come on to client calls now I can chat to them about how their kids are, how their dog is, that thing they did that weekend;.

There are other ways of establishing that and maybe when pubs open it’s another chance to go and get a drink together. But yeah, there are definitely other ways to do it.

Liton Ali

I think there can be an attitude of awkwardness – maybe it’s a British thing – but the awkward…where you’re trying to pretend that you’re not in somebody’s bedroom, or you’re not in somebody’s living room with their kids running around, and all you’re trying to do is ignore all the stuff around them; what you’re saying is actually embrace it and ask some questions about it.

Ben Matthews

Yeah and I think that’s one benefit of COVID is it’s made people a lot more human, and one of our values at Empower is to be more human and treat people as humans. I think when people are working in offices, you separate out your personal life and your work life and you’re wearing a shirt, say, or smart suit, and you’re dealing with clients in a work environment.

Once COVID hit, lots of people were then forced to homeschool; they were forced to deal with their home life, and home life and work life met, because you’re doing calls from your home, I think people understood a bit more about the pressures of balancing home and work life during COVID, and previously as a remote-first agency, we understood that; we understood that you had to be flexible and people who work remotely naturally will have a blending or a blurring between their work and home lives.

Since COVID I think lots more clients had that understanding, and now it’s much more acceptable, that, say, you’ve got a kid coming in the room, halfway through your Zoom call, or your cat jumps up onto your back as you’re talking. I think it’s brought forward more of a human aspect which I think was missing from remote work before, and will only be good as we carry on, really.

How to build a strong team and company culture when working remotely

Liton Ali

Let me ask you more about the human aspect. From the start of Empower, from your early days, you’ve had these people who are working in their own homes, but have to be part of the bigger team. How the hell have you managed to make them ‘Empower people’ and have a united front when it comes to client service and tricky client conversations, that kind of stuff?

Ben Matthews

I guess when we used to get together, or used to get together once a month. The whole team is is based around the UK. We’ve got some people up in Northern Ireland, some people down in Bristol, a few people in London and around London, we used to meet up in London or Bristol for a monthly co-working meeting.

We hired a co-working space – you know, nice coffee, good meeting room – and then came together to discuss issues outside of client work; so, wider agency issues: how we were developing, how we were working together. And again, I think the difference is that remote agencies or remote companies still need some kind of physical interaction.

You will see like web development or products agencies and companies will fly everyone in together and do these big staff retreats, we were doing that on a monthly basis, and that’s a chance for us to get to know each other, to air any issues; we go for lunch together, we had drinks after work.

Even though we were remote we still needed some physical interaction, and that meant when we went back to our desks – when we went back to our homes and were working remotely – it was much easier to chat together again and do that.

We tried to replicate that using online tools so we set aside time once a month to have a longer agency meeting – generally about half a day – where Jaz and myself are going through agency updates: what’s happening across the business, initiatives we’re working on, training opportunities, that kind of thing. We’ve also had a heavy emphasis on diversity this year, which is having really great results and the team are working on that.

We’ve had a big emphasis on mental health as well, so we always have those standing agenda items; about how we can make sure that we’re keeping on top of those things. Again, we’ve been trying to replicate that monthly, team building, as a part of it, so even though we can’t meet offline at the moment in real life, we’re trying to do that online.

We use Slack as our internal communication tool, and we have a spare time channel in there which is all about whatever people are talking about – what people are doing in their spare time – there’s lots of chat on there about TV shows people are watching; Netflix; podcast recommendations; memes, jokes – there’s lots of opportunities even though we’re working remotely for people to get to know each other and have a laugh, basically, and that builds the team culture, which is great to see.

Liton Ali

It’s not forced, it’s kind of like a voluntary thing to do?

Ben Matthews

Yeah, exactly, we try and create the opportunities for people, so I guess it’s like – such an Americanism, but – the water cooler moment where if you’re in an office, you could bump into someone in a coffee shop or in the corridor and chat to them there and that builds the connection. We’re trying to create opportunities for that but in a remote-first environment.

Why you need to get out of your work and messaging apps and make time to be creative

Liton Ali

Creativity, and those water cooler moments that you mentioned – they suffer when we’re not together. Do you think, is there a way that you’ve managed to capture that?

Ben Matthews

Yeah, that’s a challenge for us, I would say. I mean, again, you can do online Zoom calls with multiple people, and you can get people brainstorming that way. There are online collaboration tools – there’s one called Mural, there’s one called Jamboard – there are ways that people can work on the same document at the same time, and add ideas and sticky notes and things.

There are online tools that have really come to prominence during COVID that have helped facilitate this, but I will say that actually another real challenge is how to bring that creativity out of people when you’re working remotely.

I think it’s something we’re always working on, and I think that reflects us as an agency: we’re very good at service delivery, we’re very good at account management and client handling. So if you work with us, we’re going to say what we’re going to do and we’re going to deliver it, and we’ll look after you as a client and make you feel looked after.

The creativity sometimes suffers there because we generally need to make forced time, or really set aside time in order to bring out those creative ideas. So, that is a real challenge for us and something we’re working on, and some of those ideas that we have around online tools to help facilitate that are what we’re looking into.

Liton Ali

I think your idea of actually enforcing pauses in work is one of the things that is quite important to creativity. If you’re working all the time you can’t actually have ideas.

Ben Matthews

Exactly, and that’s the remote-first challenge; people are just in their inbox – their email inbox – or they’re in their Asana (which is our task manager), or in Slack, so they’re constantly working and delivering, which is great, but when a client wants that kind of spark of creativity, you do need to switch off your email, switch off Slack, and set yourself aside – it might even just be a pen and paper; it might be sitting – doing that, rather than working on your laptop. I think segmenting time out for creativity is important.

Why being tool agnostic helps you work better with clients

Liton Ali

It’s a weird time I think – the COVID-related technology boom that we’re having – as in, I find it easier to get clients onto things like Miro and Mural, where before would have been like ‘oh well it’s another thing to learn’, or ‘it’s another licence to buy’, for example. I find that actually it’s a bit easier to collaborate with clients than it was in the past, in those ways.

Ben Matthews

Yeah and I guess, we take the approach of being platform-agnostic as well, and tool-agnostic.

At Empower we have our own internal tools that we use – so Slack, Asana; we use Gmail for email, for example – but then, we’ve always said, if the client uses a particular tool, if they use Trello, or if they use Basecamp or if they use some other kind of tool, even Microsoft Teams, we’re willing to be part of, and it makes it much easier for the client for us to work with them, and we feel like we’re more an integrated part of their team.

You’re right that teams and Slack has made it really easy for us to communicate with clients, and I think because we’ve been doing this for a long time now, generally we’re used to a lot of the remote tools, and I’ve worked with a lot of them before. It’s much easier for us to learn how the client uses the tool rather than force them to pick up our way of working.

Liton Ali

I think that’s a great idea – to be agnostic – and I think to truly be agnostic, you have to be an agency that has enough tech know-how to link tools together in the background. Tools like Asana and Teams, for example, communicate fully if you connect them together properly, and Microsoft made that completely possible. But I think what happens is actually people are very resistant to the idea of that happening because, “Well, we just use this.” Do you know what I mean? 

Ben Matthews

Exactly. I think old habits still creep in, even with new technology. And I don’t think we’ve perfected it either, and we spent a long time looking at our processes and making sure our workflows through the agency are working well, but I think it’s a constant battle really, just to make sure that you’re keeping on top of the best way of working, and new tools that come along and how you integrate them with your existing workflow. I don’t think that job ever ends, and I think there’ll always be new ways of working, that you need to keep on top of.

How to keep up motivation in a remote team

Liton Ali

What about motivation, because that’s a key one for me: I think it’s really easy when you’re a manager to notice low motivation from people walking into the room early in the morning. Or if they’re late, that’s one of the signs that you know something’s going on. You’ve suddenly lost all those cues, and you’ve also lost the ability to say, “You know what, let’s all get up and take a break”, kind of thing. How do you go about keeping motivation up with a remote team and an agency?

Ben Matthews

Again, brilliant question. I think, because we have a purpose built into our agency. As an agency we have a sense of purpose about the kind of clients we work with – the charities, nonprofits or climate change organisations for example – then I think there’s an inherent motivation for us there to work hard for those causes to make sure that we’re doing a good job for them. We also I guess have a small but steady team – a team of 11 – and we preach that we offer work-life balance.

If you do good work for us, and you deliver high quality work on time for clients and clients are happy, then you’re free to take breaks during the day, you’re free to go to your doctor’s appointment, you’re free to go to your yoga class, we’re not going to check in on you and expect you to be at your desk nine till six: it’s very much up to you to work when you want to.

I think people appreciate that trust. As a remote-first agency we have to trust that our employees are doing the work they say they’re doing, and doing it well. And I think because of that trust, the employees are motivated to respect that.

If there is an issue, or they do need a break, they will tell us on Slack: they’ll say “I’m stepping away”; “I’ve got a thing, I’m out this afternoon”. That trust is really built there. And I think the motivation is they want to keep that; they both want to do good work for the clients but they want to keep this great work-life balance that we have.

They’re motivated to be trustworthy and earn our trust. And I think that’s what’s helped us grow very sustainably and survive COVID – we actually grew during the COVID year – is because we have a highly motivated team, who we trust, who know what they’re doing, their roles and responsibilities, and believe in the charities and the clients that we work with, so are motivated to do good work. And I think that setup has helped with motivation, definitely.

Why investing in people when remote working is good for everyone

Liton Ali

What kind of lessons have you learned about getting people on board and getting people set up to work with you?

Ben Matthews

As we’ve brought on employees – we hire about one person every six months and that’s been the general trend – and every time we’ve done that, we refined the process about how we onboard them. Now we’ve got to the point where we onboarded three people in the last six, seven months, and we’ve got a great process, and one of the employees that we took on in August said it’s been the warmest welcome she’s ever had at any company.

It’s not just her working in an office, but working for a remote-first agency she said she’s had the warmest welcome, and that’s been brilliant. We generally set up one-to-ones with all of the team members, again they can have a chat about them, get to know them. We make sure the tools are in place from day one; we make sure that they have time just to get up to speed with how the tools work, how we work. I think our onboarding process now is pretty smooth.

After probably like two weeks someone is fully up to speed with how we work, and then they can hit the ground running. I guess as a small agency or smaller agency – 11 people – we need those people to be hitting the ground running, and sour onboarding process really helps them do that. Again, it’s not like overnight – it’s not like COVID suddenly made us do this. It’s taken five years to get that spot on.

Liton Ali

A lot of us have just been abandoned by our bosses to go and work at home because, you know, everyone had to work at home – “off you go, go to your bedroom, kitchen table, wherever you are” – but as an employer, you have some kind of responsibility when you have an office to make sure it’s safe and comfortable and stuff. Do you have that kind of responsibility when you’re an employer who is employing people from home? 

Ben Matthews

We have a small fund, when people join us, to help their work environment. It might be buying a new monitor for their setup, it might be buying a nice mouse and a keyboard. We bought some people laptops if they needed a new one. We do make sure the technology is there, and we’re happy to spend that, both because if everyone has their setup right, they’re going to work quicker, and there’s nothing worse than having the laptop you’re working with constantly slowing down, or not having enough monitors so you can’t work productively.

We’re happy to invest in that technology and that set up for people’s home environment because, ultimately, it means they can just get on with the work and they’re not spending time mucking around with technology or their home set up.

I think it’s not just a responsibility to help enable the work-from-home environment, it’s also best for the business, because you’re going to get the best out of people by helping them have a great home environment, home set up.

Giving the team flexibility to choose their own working patterns

Liton Ali

I think one of the aspects of being fully present as a human in the kind of agency that you run is your brain is always doing some element of work: like it might be nine o’clock at night, you might be watching some film, and suddenly you spot something that gives you a great idea for work. It’s that kind of inspiration that your brain is always seeking. And I think that’s partly what leads you to look at social media, a little bit too much outside of work time, that kind of stuff. Is that something you find that you have to try and help people with as well?

Ben Matthews

We’ve also done an exercise where we try to understand when people work their best. And I think that’s a really good exercise to go through for any company. We understand that I’m an early starter so I’ll start work at eight, but I’ll generally finish a bit earlier; other people will work a bit later, and so they might not start until 10 or 11 but they’ll finish a lot later. And that’s just whatever they’re good at working, whenever they want to work. 

Liton Ali

Would you mind telling us more about the actual exercise and what you did?

Ben Matthews

As part of our core monthly team meetings, we discuss people’s working approaches. A new joiner wasn’t quite sure when people were on or off, or how best to reach someone, and there’s an exercise you can do, which we haven’t done yet, but it’s called ‘the manual of me’, and it’s all about, ‘this is what I like or don’t like’; ‘this is how I communicate’; ‘this is when I’m generally online’.

We started that off by doing a simple spreadsheet with – I think it started at eight in the morning and ended at eight at night – about when people were more likely to be online. It was a lighter colour, when you were kind of online, a darker colour when you were definitely online, and then blank when you weren’t online, and basically people filled it in and we could naturally see when people were likely to be online early, and we knew that lots of people had core hours, they were working between 10 and five, every day, but then they might have a yoga class in the middle, or they might always take their lunch at one o’clock, that kind of thing.

We built up a simple spreadsheet on a daily basis, we can see who’s more likely to be online when, and when they’re not. I think people just get that, and it becomes more natural. And, you know, we’re a small enough team and it becomes more natural as you work that I know ‘Ellie works late’ and I know ‘Alice starts earlier’, but it’s good for new joiners to understand that as well. We’ll do that – that’s understanding when people like to work – and the next stage is understanding how they like to work.

Do they prefer to have a phone call, or do they prefer Slack? do they like video calls over emails or phone calls; that kind of thing. We can begin to understand how they like to work as well in a remote environment. That’s the next step for us.

Liton Ali

That sounds like an excellent thing that I would think you could take to your clients as well, as in, ask them to tell you those things about themselves.

Ben Matthews

I’m going to write that down! Maybe we should have done that when COVID first hit, to understand how they like to work, but I guess the challenge was a lot of people still didn’t understand how they’d like to work. But there’s definitely an opportunity there now, that’s a good idea. 

Ben Matthews
Ben Matthews is the co-founder of Empower Agency. He is a digital strategist specialising in technology, media, government and charity. Ben offers senior client consultancy and trusted counsel, sets strategy, and ensures well-executed implementation for campaigns at all levels. View all posts by Ben >

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