Lessons from a born-distributed agency: Reflections on leading a remote workforce during difficult times.

It was a lone voice in the middle of the ocean, but it was heard at great depth and great distance.”
― Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

So many leaders and companies have been posting about their experiences during this crisis that it’s hard to find something new to say. And yet, even if what we share doesn’t appear unique, it can still feel personal and relevant. We’re all going through this together, yet apart.

That’s why this post is both a meditation on how to support our remote team members through this shared moment of enforced isolation, and a reflection on a decade of running a distributed agency by choice.

First, the reflection.

When I founded Wordsmithie in June of 2010, I had just left Google after nearly 5 years as an early content strategist. I had also just lost my mother from heart failure. How a heart as enormous as hers could fail, I’ll never know. I didn’t intend to found an agency; I was just hanging out a personal freelance shingle with a catchy name. But soon, there was more work than I could handle solo, and Wordsmithie, the agency, was born.

After years of witnessing brick-and-mortar agencies struggle during economic downturns—and having often worked remotely with wonderful talent all over the world—I wanted to avoid the overhead and geographic limitations of a brick-and-mortar office. So Wordsmithie was born distributed.

We started out with just a few people, but soon assembled a distributed team of experienced writers, editors, designers, and project managers in the US and Europe. From day one, we used G Suite (then known as Google Apps) as our collaborative connective tissue, and over time, layered on a few other relevant tools to support our far-flung crew. Amazingly, to this day, we still work together seamlessly without a common workplace.

Below are some lessons I’ve learned from a decade spent building a distributed agency from the ground up. Though many of these will work well for brick-and-mortar companies too, I hope they’re helpful for anyone leading a WFH team right now.

  • Hire self-managers. Find people who are comfortable working remotely and managing their own time and projects.
  • Set the stage. Establish expectations with new hires and contractors from the start about rates, availability, and budget caps, as well as roles and responsibilities.
  • Meet by video conference. Gather regularly, virtually, both as a team and individually with team leads (as well as with clients).
  • Record and transcribe calls. Get permission from participants first, but having a transcript of your calls is ideal both for sharing meeting content with those who can’t attend in person, and for capturing an accurate record of interviews and client calls.
  • Get together in person when you can. At least once a year, bring the team together face to face for a social event. If people are widespread, have leaders fly in to centralized locations (New York City, San Francisco, London, etc.) for regional gatherings.
  • Templatize for consistency. Create templates to help everyone stay on the same page about communicating, managing projects, and sharing knowledge.
  • Cover the spread. Hire people based in multiple time zones to support your far-flung clients.
  • Don’t overtool. Invest in just the tools your team needs. It’s easy to go overboard, but our main tools are G Suite (for collaboration, communication, and project and budget tracking), Harvest (for time-tracking and invoicing), and Rev.com for transcription. Larger companies may need CRM tools, a CMS, email marketing system, and more robust project management tools (among others). Size your tools according to your needs.
  • Partner instead of doing it all in house. Outsource business services such as accounting, payroll, and benefits management, and partner with trusted providers to expand your team’s skill set. For example, we work with MTM LinguaSoft for localization (L10n) services; we know how to write for L10n, but we’re not linguists. Partnerships strengthen your internal and external capabilities, helping you and your company stay nimble.

Those are just a few of the nuts and bolts of managing a distributed (aka remote) workforce at any time, not just today. But what about the deeper challenges everyone is facing now as they try to get things done while making sense of this fraught moment?

Even if you’re used to working remotely, things have gotten a lot harder. Your kids are at home all day, your clients are (awkwardly) joining video conferences from their living rooms, and every day feels like a rerun of the movie Groundhog Day.

These aren’t normal times, and business as usual doesn’t exist right now. Be realistic about what you expect from each other, your team, and yourself. And be kind when the stresses of family life, illness, grief, or sheer anxiety… Click To Tweet

If you’re not used to working remotely, it’s so much harder: Now, you have to figure out how to manage your time, find a quiet place to work, and somehow keep calm and carry on so that your colleagues—and loved ones—get the support they need. It’s a tall order.

No matter your current situation, here are some ways to help your distributed team meet the challenges of the coming days, weeks, months, and beyond.

  • Give yourself and your colleagues white space. That means, building in time for not working (and not feeling guilty about it). Create swing shifts so everyone can take a bit of time off each week to process what’s happening, be with their family, or take a sustaining walk in the woods. White space is the blank canvas we all need to do our best work, be more creative, and manage our stress. It’s even more important now. So, make it happen for everyone on your team, and for yourself.
  • Reset expectations. This isn’t a time to achieve stretch goals or play beat-the-clock with major deadlines. Instead, recalibrate your priorities so the right things get done (and don’t be afraid to ask your manager to help you). If this means reducing OKRs or other performance goals, so be it. These aren’t normal times, and business as usual doesn’t exist right now. Be realistic about what you expect from each other, your team, and yourself. And be kind when the stresses of family life, illness, grief, or sheer anxiety slow people down.
  • Ensure seamless knowledge transfer. Take this opportunity to ask everyone with unique skills, responsibilities, or ways of working to create a knowledge transfer (KT) document. This will make it easier for someone else to step in as needed for short-term coverage, or to train a permanent replacement for an exiting team-member. Team members should include a list of projects they’re working on (and links to documentation—shared with team leads and others involved), as well as client lists, project timelines, and any other important details. And have your team maintain their KT docs over time. This crisis will pass, but the need for knowledge transfer is perpetual.
  • Celebrate major moments and events, virtually. We all know about Zoom cocktail parties and Hangout team meetings, but take it a step further. If there’s an event in a teammate’s life that you’d normally celebrate in person, put on those Zoom party hats! Because life goes on, and celebrations should, too. Several years ago, we held a virtual baby shower for Alex, our lead studio director. We had a blast creating a custom JibJab video, and made a Google Slides deck with silly baby name ideas, baby “branding guidelines,” and a list of our favorite children’s books (then we mailed her the whole library). When she showed up on the team Hangout, we all yelled “Surprise!” and shared what we’d created. It’s one of my all-time favorite Wordsmithie events, yet we were far apart. So now, more than ever, find unexpected ways to be there for each other.
  • Brush up your skills and spark inspiration. If things are a little slow or lack of focus is hobbling the team, encourage them to try e-learning courses on Coursera, Udemy, or dozens of other sources (many major universities, including Harvard. Stanford, and MIT have free courses online, too). These can be great for honing work skills, but also for exploring wider interests that may lift moods, unveil insights, and boost creativity. We recently gave our employees annual subscriptions to MasterClass, and they’ve been loving it. From studying writing with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman to learning negotiating skills from a former FBI hostage negotiator, it’s given everyone a chance to get schooled by the masters (hence the name).
  • Make time for more 1:1s. If you’re a leader who usually just meets directly with your lieutenants, reach out now and schedule some “we” time with folks elsewhere on your org chart. The everyday whirl of business can make it hard to connect with everyone in your company, but this is the perfect time to light that candle and rediscover the amazing talent all around you, even if they’re in another state.

In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing more posts about how to get from here to there, one day at a time. Next up, some of the parents on our team will be offering their tips on keeping kids of different ages focused on and engaged in learning from home.

In the meantime, stay safe, be well, and remember that we’re all in this together, if apart. And as my father used to say (as have so many other wise people): “This too shall pass.”

Laura Bergheim

The founder and CEO of Wordsmithie, Laura has more than two decades of experience as a journalist, author, content creator, agency owner and creative strategist. She founded Wordsmithie in 2010 after leaving Google, where she was a senior content strategist and senior editor for monetized products such as AdWords.
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