We’re doubling down on an office-first model

By Tom Etherington • 25 May 2023 • 7 minutes reading time

tl;dr: We’re committing to an office-first hybrid working model and setting the same expectations of being in the office for all staff (present and future). This has meant a handful of the team living outside of the North East have decided to move on to new roles.


The last few months have brought a few changes behind the scenes at Evolved, some relating to remote working and our office.

If you have seen the news cycle about working from home in recent months, you’re probably expecting this to be about another business forcing its staff to come back into the office or agreeing with what the Chancellor said last week.

It’s not. This is about our culture at Evolved and our experience with remote working following the pandemic. We want to share our thinking for the next few years and hopefully offer some insight to those of you reading, whether you’re leading an agency or working at one.

I’ve taken a leaf out of Paddy Moogan’s book after he posted about the difficult decisions that have been made at Aira recently, as one extract in particular really resonated:

“A big part of me didn’t want to write this post. Agencies (and companies generally) make these types of changes all the time but don’t necessarily write about them. But taking ownership of decisions is really, really important to me.”

Like Paddy, I debated writing this post. But taking ownership of the decisions that we’ve made previously and now is far more important.

What’s changed?

Like many businesses, we were in the office five days a week before the pandemic but made the most of the opportunity to attract and hire staff from around the UK whilst working remotely – a first for us.

There was a period when everything was great and we had plans to continue this, even as recently as six months ago. We weren’t “all in” on remote working though and anyone that joined the business was still expected to visit the office as and when required.

Since we’ve had more and more people working in the office, we’ve gradually seen and realised the challenges that we’ll have with the majority of staff regularly in one place and others elsewhere.

Evolved’s focus now will be growing in the North East and doubling down on an office-first model, which meant those based outside of the region would be needed in the office the same amount of time as everyone else – currently at least twice per week.

The most important aspect to address is the people that this impacted as although it was a handful of the team and didn’t involve any contractual changes, it certainly didn’t make things any easier.

We appreciated how tricky it might be for those outside of the North East and gave them all the support we could if they decided this wasn’t going to work for them. This included financial support as we wanted to do things our own way and it was a decision based on culture, rather than the financial performance of the business.

As a result, you may have seen some of our talented team moving on to a new role elsewhere, taking this as an opportunity to explore freelancing, or simply taking an extended break.

I’m hoping by posting this publicly, it will help them to avoid any awkward interview questions about why they decided to leave their last role and encourage more people to reach out to them with opportunities. I also want to offer a public thank you for all their hard work and contributions to Evolved – please drop me an email if you would like to reach them.

Now that we’ve spoken about it at length internally and the dust has settled, everyone is in agreement that despite how difficult it was, this was the right thing to do – in particular those impacted directly.

But why, you might be wondering.

What is hybrid working, anyway?

Hybrid working wasn’t created during or as a result of the pandemic. It is simply a model that enables employees to blend working from different locations: home, on the go, or in the office, and has been happening since the early 2000s when people started to have reliable internet at home.

The trend has been drastically accelerated in the last few years though, and for me, what ‘hybrid’ actually means has changed significantly as a result.

Businesses (and recruiters) have used the term interchangeably with remote working and I suspect more people now associate “hybrid” with working from home and having to be in an office sometimes, whether that’s daily, weekly, monthly, or even annually.

What’s important to consider is the very different types of hybrid working:

  • In a remote-first hybrid model, people work from home, may live in different locations (or different countries), and hardly come into an office. Digital communications are the default and the company may hold annual, in-person events to promote team building.
  • Companies that want to work on-site but provide people with flexibility may opt for the split-week hybrid model. Companies require people to work on-site at least part of the week and from home the rest of the time.
  • The office-first hybrid model offers flexibility but requires people to work from the office most of the time.

Source

Remote-ish

I had been using the term “remote-ish” to describe how we work and found out that this is an actual term, coined to describe the challenges we faced.

There are plenty of people far more knowledgeable on the topic and some of their views really hit home:

“Remote-ish, or remote-friendly, teams confront even more communication and collaboration challenges than fully remote ones.”

“When one person is remote, everyone is remote.”

“Companies that have both remote and location-based employees should adopt a remote-first mentality.”

“It’s not enough to simply allow remote work, it’s essential that companies truly enable it and support that type of culture.”

Below are some of the key differences in being remote-ish/remote-friendly compared to remote-first:

Source

Challenges

When we reviewed how things were working now and would potentially be in the future, there were three main challenges:

Communication & Processes:

As the majority of our processes revolve around the office and communication is synchronous, those elsewhere were often updated later or looped in on Zoom, which made things difficult for everyone involved.

For example, you’d often see 4 or 5 people having a brainstorm in the office with a laptop on the table so those working remotely could listen in and try to contribute. We noticed that none of the collaboration spaces in the office were being used as everyone needed meeting rooms with Zoom, and over time more and more of the team based in the North East were choosing to work from home if they had meetings or brainstorms as it was going to be partly a video call anyway and the alternative was more difficult.

Line Management:

Managing a team remotely is hard, managing a team when you’re remote and your team members aren’t as well is even harder.

Again, because of our “remote-ish” approach, it was challenging for both managers and their teams to get valuable time together for feedback, coaching, and meetings. One of our department leads would come to the office a couple of times each month and her days were spent in back-to-back meetings to try and get as much face time with her team as she could, allowing for very little time to do anything else. This wasn’t going to be a sustainable approach for managers or their teams, especially if there are newer and more junior staff requiring a fair bit of support.

Benefits & Perks:

We’ve always offered the best possible benefits and perks, and we try to improve this package every year with input and feedback from the whole team.

We have a close-knit and sociable team that wants to be in the office regularly, so we’ve gone all out on facilities, location, free and subsidised parking, and the rest. This naturally didn’t benefit those outside of the North East as much and there was always a risk of them missing out on something happening in the office, whether it was a special occasion or an impromptu plan. Despite our best efforts to maintain fairness, there’s only so far you can take this before you’re trying to offer everything to everyone and it becomes counterproductive.

Conclusion

As well as the above challenges, we had already made plenty of changes to try and adapt to both in-office and remote working, including some significant investments. These decisions also came at a time when we could have saved significantly on costs by getting rid of our office, so it was heavily debated from both perspectives.

However, once we had realised that our entire culture, operation, and growth plan needed to reflect the hybrid model we wanted, it was only ever going to be office-first for us.

You’ll notice that I haven’t gone into the pros and cons of being office-first versus remote. This is intentional and unlike the Chancellor, I don’t think that being in the office should be the default for every business.

We know that some of our competitors are fully remote, some have offices, some are doing both – and potentially some wondering why they are struggling to get people back in the office.

Either way, we’ve learned that we need to embrace hybrid working in a way that puts everyone on an even playing field and best reflects the culture we want.

We still have bucket loads of flexibility at Evolved in case you are wondering; working a 4-day week (with a 3-day weekend) split between the office and home, with flexible start/finish times around core hours.

This decision also doesn’t mean that we won’t ever hire outside of the North East or open offices elsewhere in the UK. However, we’ll be able to rely on the last 18 months of experience if we do make those decisions – and hopefully, there won’t be a global pandemic to contend with!

For now though, our plans are firmly in Newcastle and doubling down on what we think is best for our team, business, and anyone that might join Evolved in the future.

Ready to connect?

Please submit your details and as much information as you can about what you would like to discuss:

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

required information