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These Digital Marketing Agencies are Winning with Remote Employees. Here is How You Can Do It.

If you own or manage a digital marketing agency, you would agree that hiring the right talent is critical for your success. But hiring right people isn’t easy as demand often exceeds supply of talent in many cities.

Many agencies have started hiring remote employees to overcome the shortage. These agencies are getting ahead of competition by ensuring they have the right talent to help their clients.

While it solves the problem of talent, it also brings its own set of challenges. Last month, we surveyed over 40 digital marketing agencies to better understand why and how they use remote employees.

Here is what we found:

  • Digital marketing agencies are unable to find talent in many local markets, forcing them to hire employees in another city or even country
  • 20% (or 1 in 5) of agencies in our survey are 100% virtual, meaning all of their employees work remotely
  • Over 80% of them agree that using remote employees improves productivity
  • Every digital agency we surveyed experienced significant savings on office related costs when using remote employees
Why Digital Marketing Agencies hire remote employees

Why remote employees are a good fit for digital marketing agencies?

Since online marketing involves a lot of activities that require independent work, remote employees are well suited for the job. Employees can write new blogs or edit videos without needing to be in the same office. Many daily activities like link building, social media updates and email outreach can also be done effectively by employees without anyone looking over their shoulders.

While all digital marketing companies in the survey had great success with remote employees, they also needed to put in place a mechanism to enable and monitor them. More successful ones have elaborate process in place, supported by tools that ease communication, collaboration, monitoring and tracking for the remote workers.

Our findings are broadly in line with what others have found across different industries.

A Gallup survey found that people who work remotely are more likely to be in a white collar jobs and have a college degree, a description that perfectly fits the online marketing industry.

The same Gallup polls also found that 37% of all US workers have had some experience with working remotely, up from 30% in the last decade ( a 25% increase).

But the story is not just about more people working remotely. Telecommuters seem to be happier and more productive than other workers.

A survey by TINYpulse.com found that remote workers are happier compared to regular office workers (8.1 compared to 7.44 on a scale of 10).

Both Gallup and TINYpulse surveys indicate that remote workers are perceived as more productive. According to Gallup, three quarter of Americans believe that telecommuters are as productive as regular office workers. In the TINYpulse survey, 91% of respondents said they are more productive when working away from office.

Some other research found that 37% of millennials would take a pay cut in exchange for a more flexible work schedule. This is extremely significant considering that millennials now form the largest chunk of US workforce.

All of these findings support the claims by companies we surveyed about worker productivity, quality of output and cost savings.

37% of millennials would take a pay cut in exchange for a more flexible work schedule.

So should you hire remote employees for your online agency?

If you are facing talent crunch in your local market, it may be time to look elsewhere and hire remote employees.

The biggest benefit of using a remote employee or contractor is not the cost saving or productivity gain; it is the ability to hire the best person for the job. Every respondent in our survey points to this as the most important reason for hiring remote employees. As Ross Tavendale of Ideas Made Digital says, “You get the best people in the world, not the best people according to your geography”.

Gwendolyn Kestrel of Hotel Marketing Works concurs- “The overwhelming benefit is that you can hire the best, no matter where they live”.

But there are other compelling reasons why you may want to hire remote workers. For example, hiring people from different geographies brings in diversity of thoughts and ideas. When you hire someone from a different city, region or country, those employees come in with a very different set of thoughts and beliefs.

When people work together in an office, they start thinking and looking at things the same way. A remote worker typically interacts with the team for a limited time and therefore is more likely to have a different thought process.

Gerald D. Vinci, owner of Vinci Digital Marketing hires remote employees because they bring in different ideas and viewpoints. According to Vinci, “Having a team that is culturally and geographically diverse allows us to better understand the needs of a larger customer base outside of our immediate area”.

Most online marketing agencies also seem to agree that remote workers are more productive. There are many factors that influence productivity from saving time on commute to being in a more comfortable surrounding (home) and not being disturbed every few minutes by colleagues.

According to Peter Kim of Ready Artwork, remote employees are able to be more productive since they don’t need to worry about commuting time, translating into more free time after work hours and ultimately a better work/life balance. Gerald Vinci adds that remote employees tend to take more ownership over their tasks and understand that their output and quality of work will be critical to maintaining their
job security.

Nathan Barber of dititaladvertisingWorks feels that the freedom to set the ambiance and environment of office to your liking allows workers to be comfortable with their surroundings, increasing productivity.

Another advantage of having a geographically distributed team is the ability to keep the work going across different time zones and provide support for customers who may are not in the same time zone as the head office. Jitesh Keswani of E-Intelligence believes that remote workers from different time zones help in maximizing the company’s ability to ensure that productive work is occurring all hours of the day.

If you are still not convinced, here is something you will really love. Agencies save on office and employee costs when they hire remote workers. When you have fewer people coming to office, you need a smaller place to hire. You also save on administration and utilities. Al these savings can add up.

Many agencies in our survey reported hiring workers in lower cost locations, not necessarily overseas but in smaller cities. An agency in New York can save 10-15% on employee costs by hiring an equally qualified worker in North Carolina.

You get the best people in the world, not the best people according to your geography.

You will face these challenges:

While there are many advantages of using remote workers, you also need to put in place process and tools to manage the associated challenges.

One of the biggest challenge is hiring the right person for the job. When you hire someone locally, you can meet them in person for interview. With remote workers, you are relying on a communication tool like Skype. You cannot observe the person as well as you can in a face to face meeting. Also, remote working is not for everyone. You need people who are motivated, do not require a lot of hand holding and are good at managing their work.

Digital marketing is possibly one of the best industries to have a remote workforce. Digital marketers are so accustomed to using online tools, they have a great advantage utilizing online communications and collaboration tools which is a necessity for remote workers.

Bryan Phelps of Big Leap, LLC believes that digital marketing is possibly one of the best industries to have a remote workforce because digital marketers are accustomed to using online tools. But he also says that remote working isn’t for everyone so you need to make sure you are hiring the right people.

Some of the common challenges reported by survey participants revolve around communicating effectively with workers, monitoring their time, getting to know them personally and ensuring that they have the same motivation as local staff.

According to Peter Kim of Ready Artwork, it takes a Google Hangout, messenger chat or a quick phone call to achieve something that could have been done by simply turning to the person at their desk and asking them a quick question.

Gerald Vinci of Vinci Digital Marketing says that making quick changes or edits on a project, which in person could take minutes, can take hours over email to finalize.

Another challenge, according to Becky Robinson of Weaving Influence, is helping each team member feel valued and appreciated despite the distance and encouraging team members to build collaborative and supportive relationships.

If you hire employees in different time zones, it can lead to coordination issues. Elena Lockett of FM Outsource finds it a problem if remote workers submit work out of hours, at the weekend. It could be a long time before the in-office team picks it up and provides feedback.

If you need to train remote workers, different time zones and the need to use a tool like Google Hangout make it complicated.

Also, if the remote employees are from a different country, it can create cultural and language issues. People from a different culture may interpret things differently leading to confusion. Organizing meetings can be difficult if people are working different time zones.

Ross Tavendale of Ideas Made Digital says that coordinating work on a large project can be a challenge as you need to prepare detailed written briefs to avoid any confusion.

Having a team that is culturally and geographically diverse allows us to better understand the needs of a larger customer base outside of our immediate area.

You should do what these agencies have done successfully:

You can manage the challenges in managing remote workers by setting clear expectations, creating well defined processes and using right tools & software.

When people work from home, they can get distracted easily. Some people may find it difficult to focus and stay productive when working alone. A well-defined process keeps things moving and can identify issues before they become show stoppers. A robust communication plan can ensure that everyone is on the same page and motivated to meet the goals.

All online marketing agencies we talked to have well defined processes and use several tools to make sure their remote workers stay productive and motivated.

One of the most important things when working with remote employees is to ensure transparency in their work. Since managers can’t see what the remote employee is doing, they don’t know if the task will be completed on time and will be acceptable. Many agencies require detailed time sheet to submit to clients. Using a good task management tool that let’s managers see the progress can go a long way in ensuring work gets completed on time. Many companies use time tracking software that tracks how much time workers are spending on the job. Some tools like HiveDesk can even provide automatic screenshots as a proof of work done. HiveDesk, Asana, Trello and Basecamp are amongst the most widely used task and time tracking tools.

Some companies, like Silicon Prairie, Omaha based Vyral Marketing use deliverables based reporting instead of measuring hours spent on the task. Others like Aims Media arrange weekly screen shares will all of remote workers to ensure they are carrying out the work correctly. It gives the managers peace of mind.

Communicating timely and effectively is always important but more so when people can’t walk up to each other or dial a number when they like due to distance or time zone issues. In our survey, agencies reported using multiple tools for communication, in addition to emails. Skype and Google Hangout are the most preferred tools for organizing team meetings.

When you have people working in different time zones, organizing a meeting can be difficult as what is office time for one can be bed time for other. Ready Artwork has set aside blocks of time for the remotely working employees during which they are essentially ‘on-call’. This makes sure that the employees can be reached if needed even outside normal working hours. Some others like Vinci Digital Marketing of Tampa, FL, require their remote employees to work the same timings as their regular office. Some others shift the meeting timings to ensure the same person is not always sacrificing his or her personal time for team meetings.

Apart from weekly meetings, most agencies also use tools like Slack to keep the communication going between team members. It helps build rapport as well as acts as a quick reporting mechanism to identify issues. Real time communication also ensures timely help in case someone is stuck with a problem.

Overall, remote employees add more value to a digital marketing agency through cost savings and higher productivity. For many agencies, they are the only way to grow as they are unable to find or afford local talent. For companies that are willing to put in the effort to hire the right staff and put in place right processes and tools, remote employees can be a source of big competitive advantage.

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