Remote Work Myths and Hacks from a Fully Remote Firm's CEO
Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, a global marketing agency that’s been operating 100 percent remotely for more than a decade. Glazer also hosts the Elevate Podcast and is the author of four books. His latest, How To Make Virtual Teams Work, was adapted from a presentation about his company’s culture and unique remote work system. In part, his book (and presentation) reflects his frustration with, as he puts it, “all the theoretical and speculative remote work advice and how-to guides coming from academics and newly virtual companies not based on extensive virtual experience.”
Recently, Vault spoke with Glazer about the misconceptions about remote work, benefits and challenges of operating a fully remote firm, and advice he has for newly remote employees and managers. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.
Vault: Why did Acceleration Partners become a fully virtual firm?
Glazer: When I started AP in 2007, the decision to make our workforce 100 percent remote was initially an attempt to preemptively solve a pain point. We were a specialized agency with small and diffuse pockets of talent in an industry called affiliate marketing, which was more of a niche business at the time but has since grown considerably. We were winning large accounts and needed experienced account managers—talent that was scattered all over the country. When we began hiring from all over the U.S., we realized we could excel by recruiting and hiring people who valued the flexibility of a remote work environment. Flexibility was always the thing we valued most, and remote work was the best way we saw to achieve it. In 2011, with a team of seven employees, we decided to fully commit to our remote strategy.
What were the biggest challenges of AP’s remote strategy?
We had to overcome widely held misconceptions about remote work. Many people imagined remote employees constantly struggling with young children, watching television while working, running personal errands, generally being unaccountable for their time and schedules. Because we were a client service business working with very well-known brands, we had to work hard to disprove those myths and perceptions, and show clients we had a very high standard of service. We found a way to make it work.
Since we decided to go all-in on remote culture in 2011, we’ve grown exponentially—over 1,000 percent in the past eight years—and have been profitable without external funding. We’ve expanded from seven employees to 170 globally across eight countries. We’ve been recognized with over 30 awards for our company culture, including awards from Fortune, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and the Boston Globe. Three years in a row, we were recognized by Inc. as one of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the U.S.
As an experienced manager of remote teams, what's your advice to leaders now overseeing remote teams for the first time?
There’s a misconception that people who work from home let their home-life distractions spill into their work. For many remote workers, however, the opposite is often the case. Some employees find it difficult to set boundaries that separate work from their personal lives—they struggle to unplug, take breaks, recharge, or decompress at the end of the workday. Sometimes they even struggle to end their workdays, checking their email late and leaving their laptops on their bedside tables so they can check email one last time before bed.
To address this challenge, we emphasize and train our employees on the importance of setting boundaries, particularly with respect to managing time and workspaces. We recommend that employees create a set schedule, with designated working hours, break times, and a clear beginning and end to the day, to avoid work spilling over into the personal sphere.
Setting physical boundaries is also important. We encourage employees to have a place in their homes designated for work. This helps to mentally delineate work time and signals to other people in your home when you’re available and when you’re not. This is especially important, because a person’s partner or children might believe that because they’re visible, they’re available. They might be tempted to walk in and ask you a question without realizing you’re actually in the middle of a sales pitch or on a client call. It’s hard for others to realize you’re working before it’s too late, but setting aside a designated space for work helps avoid this confusion.
Some companies are now "spying" on their remote employees, tracking their every move. Is this the future of managing remote workers?
This is going to become a very controversial hotly-debated issue. We don’t use any spy technology to monitor our employees’ activity on a day-to-day basis. While I realize there are some industries where monitoring is necessary or required for compliance (some areas of financial services, for example), we trust our employees until they give us a reason not to. That said, we have important protections in place in case that trust is violated, including the ability to monitor file downloads and to remotely wipe a PC.
As I discuss in my latest book, this is where high-level culture elements such as goals and core values come back into play. We’re transparent about the values we want our employees to uphold. We clearly set goals and metrics we expect our employees to achieve, including client performance and satisfaction goals. We know at the end of the day whether our employees are getting the outcomes that drive our business forward, and we’d much rather evaluate their output, not how they spend their days. Surveilling employees undermines key aspects of our culture which are foundational to our success.
Could you talk more about the difference between evaluating employees' output and tracking how they spend their days?
I believe outcomes matter most, and the performance you get is determined by the metrics you measure. In my career, I never prioritized face time with managers, or working exhausting hours to show their commitment. At AP, we care that employees achieve the outcomes we’ve defined and they’ve committed to accomplishing. This encourages employees to work smarter, not harder or longer.
We intuitively understand this in sales. No one cares how many calls a salesperson makes, meetings they take, or hours they work if there are no sales made at the end of the day. Salespeople are rewarded for their outputs, not their inputs. You'd take a salesperson that sold $50,000 working two hours over one that sold $10,000 working 12 hours every day of the week and double on Sunday.
Organizations that manage people by requiring face time or pushing for hefty time and effort inputs often do this because they either haven’t set the proper outcome expectations, or because they aren’t capable of holding people accountable and therefore only know how to measure employee output by time spent working.
Will remote work be the new normal post-Covid or will companies go back to the way things were pre-pandemic?
There’s every reason to believe this will be the galvanizing event that accelerates the remote work revolution. Even before Covid-19, we’ve come to acknowledge the drawbacks of office life. Last year, the average American worker spent 225 hours, or nine days, commuting. And commute times have risen steadily over the past 40 years. At the office, the great open-concept experiment has continued to be debunked from a productivity standpoint. Employees in open-concept offices lose an average of 86 minutes per day to distractions, are 70 percent more likely to take sick days, and are more likely to leave the office earlier in the day. The net result is that employees spend more time than ever commuting to work and getting less done while they’re there. It’s not a positive or productive trend.
Already, companies as large as Twitter have told their employees they never have to return to the office. And I believe the organizations that can build a thriving culture in a remote workplace will be the leaders of tomorrow. For companies or managers who don’t trust easily, it’s going to be hard for them to have so many employees out of sight. As with many things, I think this difficulty has more to do with poor leadership than remote work itself.
What do you recommend to leaders having a hard time adjusting to all this remote work?
Building employee connections is especially crucial in a remote environment. As an example, one Friday morning in 2015, I wrote an email with the subject line “Friday Inspiration” to our remote team of 40 people. Five years and 250 Fridays later, that simple note has grown into a newsletter read by over 200,000 people in more than 60 countries each week. Writing these messages during the Covid-19 crisis, I noticed an increase in feedback emails from readers. People were stuck at home, and many felt isolated, fearful, or depressed. Though these Friday Forward messages are simple, they demonstrate the ability to connect deeply with people even in a virtual environment—something leaders will need to learn how to do more of in the future.
Of course, not every company can operate 100 percent remotely. For those companies, what do you think the post-Covid workplace will look like?
I think we’ll see a mix of workplace models that offer far more flexibility than traditional office standards. One change I expect to see is most companies not sizing their offices to fit 100 percent of their employees, particularly after the pandemic. For example, if a company has 100 employees and wants an office, I can see them leasing space for 50 people and setting the expectation that not everyone is expected to come in every day, and the office itself will be used for more occasional collaboration, meetings, and other practices.
Companies and leaders need to use this time as an opportunity to rethink the future of their work environment and what it means for both their business and employees. Some will be thoughtful and invest significant time and resources, others will just make a quick fix or use this time as a way to cut costs—they’ll fail to give their employees the tools, support, and structure needed to succeed with remote work. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but I do think “how” it’s done will matter very much.