Moving to a fully remote workforce for good: The positives, the strategy and the considerations

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When lockdown struck in March 2020, most companies had to shift to a remote model overnight. One year on, the world has changed, and most organisations are taking this time to evaluate their working practices. With the hybrid working model seemingly the most popular option being debated, it’s also worth considering whether moving to a fully remote operation could work for your business. Businesses can use this as an opportunity to look at how they can maintain or improve efficiency and what positive aspects of lockdown, if any, they can incorporate into the norm going forward.

Eton Bridge Partners Associate Partner within the Human Resources Practice, Selena Farooqi, specialising in Reward search and interim management, spoke to Nick Bartlett, Chief People Officer at 1E, on his experience of transitioning an office-based operation to a fully remote one, on a global scale – and keeping it that way for the long term.

Nick has been Chief People Officer at 1E, a tech and software business for the last 8 years and set up their HR function from scratch. He is responsible for the company’s global HR strategy and has more than 15 years’ experience in operations and Human Resource Management across a number of sectors. 1E has over 300 employees based primarily in the US, UK, and India, with smaller groups in Ireland and Australia.

Selena: When Covid hit, 1E went fully remote. What things did you have to consider?

Nick: When Covid hit, before the official lockdown was announced, we asked our colleagues to work from home for their own safety. We quickly deployed technology to enable remote working and made sure that our colleagues had all the tools and resources needed to work effectively, including couriering desks, chairs and spare screens directly to our colleagues’ homes.

1E took the decision as a business, early on, not to furlough or make any redundancies and we instead worked on a business continuity plan. I appreciate we were in a privileged place to make such a decision. The next problem to address was one which working families faced: how to cope with the schools shutting and the effects of home schooling.

Our workforce really needed flexibility. At 1E we had a wellbeing first approach, for our colleagues and for our customers.

We decided to take a very practical approach, allowing colleagues to balance their time as they saw fit, with most home-schooling their children in the mornings and taking the evenings or weekends to complete any work necessary. We accepted this flexible approach whilst keeping an eye on output and wellbeing.

Once remote working had been fully set up, we used regular surveys to keep a close eye on the wellbeing of our colleagues. We quickly learnt that they were enjoying not having to commute and were spending the time either with their families, or on their own leisure activities. In fact, in one of our early surveys 92% said that they didn’t want to work in an office again.

We started seeing that our productivity was up, people with families or caring responsibilities were enjoying the flexibility, and we started to think that remote working could be the future of work.

Once we started seeing such decisive data from our colleagues we discussed at Board level whether we could consider transitioning into a remote business for the long term.

Selena: What were the challenges of making such a long-term decision in the middle of a pandemic?

Nick: For us, it was a question of culture. If we were going to move from an office culture to a remote working operation, we wanted to be able to invest in the culture of the organisation. Our Board decided that any cost savings from disinvesting from our offices would be reinvested into wellbeing at home.

Being decisive at the beginning also opened up other opportunities for us. We were able to recruit new employees regardless of location, which opened up a wider net of prospective candidates, internationally.

We also saw our levels of engagement increase, alongside productivity. Our colleagues were grateful that we make a decision and communicated it early on. It meant they could plan and make decisions that suited their personal circumstances.

Selena: How did 1E adapt the way they supported their colleagues?

Nick: The wellbeing of our colleagues is our main priority and we knew we had to help them maintain a work-life balance. We started sending out daily emails with wellbeing tips as well as TED talks, and other inspiration to help them take some time out over their lunch hours. We also suggested tips on how to manage Zoom fatigue as we are all aware that this can be strenuous at times. A key part of our activity was to ramp up our internal comms and staff engagement.

What we’ve managed to create in terms of employee happiness and company performance has exceeded our expectations. Our colleagues have a great sense of community. We have an office in India and our colleagues around the world have been working hard to provide help to our team based there during their dreadful second wave. It is this kindness within our global community which has certainly strengthened, and has been lovely to nurture within our company.

The vast majority of our colleagues were very keen on working remotely and they were worried that the remote working may be a temporary measure. What we hadn’t assumed appreciated is that we would have to over-communicate that this was a permanent change. They needed a lot of reassurance that we wouldn’t be asking them back into the office on a regular basis. We think this is because our colleagues wanted to make life choices based on remote working, for example buying a house not in a city. For the majority of our colleagues shifting to remote working has been a huge win-win .

Selena: How have you handled recruitment and internal communications now that you are all working 100% remotely?

Nick: It’s been liberating! Nearly a third of our employees have never set foot in any of our offices. We now can recruit the best talent without having to take into account their location. Our challenge is to create the same culture remotely as we did in our offices. We’ve had to think really carefully about onboarding. We’ve also revisited our flexible working policies so we can ensure that we have the right working pattern from the start.

We wanted to empower our colleagues to tell us what working pattern worked for them.

We’ve introduced several new initiatives one of which has been really successful; our ‘coffee roulette’ sessions where colleagues are randomly paired together from our offices all over the globe. The aim of this is to spend time getting to know different colleagues personally rather than professionally. Something, arguably, we could have been doing more of pre pandemic. We also have daily stand-ups/team meetings, which have helped colleagues feel more connected.

Another initiative we started in the pandemic for new starters was for them to share a selfie with the plant we sent them on their first day. It was such a simple idea, which gained lots of traction! It’s been a great icebreaker for new recruits, and it’s definitely something that we’ll continue in the long term.

I don’t think we can profess that we’ve kept exactly the same culture while working remotely, but we have definitely evolved our culture though this time, and we continue to uphold our core values.

Selena: Will you provide any office space in the future?

Nick: Although we’ve committed to working remotely for the long term, we’ll still invest in some small-scale offices for collaboration sites. Initially we thought it might be prudent to hire desks within hot desk workspaces, but after listening to our colleagues we will rent smaller workspaces and brand them. These will be collaboration centres, and as the vaccine programme continues, we envisage flying our colleagues out to these offices on a quarterly basis for company town halls. Long term, offices will become more social spaces. We’ve committed to constantly talking to our people to understand their needs. Over time, if people want to go into a collaboration space for creativity and productivity, we’ll facilitate that.

My advice is, if you are thinking of transitioning your business to a fully remote model for cost savings, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. The reality is that any money we’ve saved from releasing real estate, we’ve reinvested into employee wellbeing.

Selena: Of course I have to ask about Reward, have you looked at changing contracts and pay scales now employees aren’t travelling into the office?

Nick: As soon as we decided to move to remote working we made the appropriate changes to our employee contracts, while also explaining that they would still be expected, and encouraged, to attend team building and strategy days. In terms of remuneration, we haven’t changed this at all. We want to hire the best employees and to do that we have to offer a competitive remuneration package.

Selena: Finally, what advice can you impart to a business considering a remote model?

Nick: There are many questions to consider and a fully remote working model won’t necessarily be for every business.

  • What’s your objective? If it is cost savings, consider carefully how much money you’ll have to invest to re-create your infrastructure, technology and culture within employee’s homes?
  • How will your team stay connected? Do your employees have a space to meet face-to-face on a monthly/quarterly basis to maintain a connection with the company’s culture and strategy?
  • Employee wellbeing is paramount, make sure you invest in adequate health and safety equipment and you encourage your workforce time away from screens to boost creativity and productivity.
  • Ensure your KPIs are relevant and check-in with your employees regularly via questionnaires to ensure that the Board’s thinking and your workforce’s thoughts on remote working tally.
  • Communicate regularly to understand how your clients and employees are feeling. Their expectations may develop over time as the pandemic evolves.

For us, success is company performance and colleague happiness. Over the last year we’ve invested a lot in wellbeing and 1E has recently been awarded three awards through the Sunday Times best companies to work for which directly reflects our employees’ views and is something we’re very proud of.

  • Top 50 tech companies to work for
  • Top 50 companies in London
  • Top 100 companies in the UK

Nick, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights with us.