Virtual teams mean virtual profits, right? You can’t have your entire team working from home because they will take the dog for a walk or play Grand Theft Auto V all day. Anyway, you need an office so that clients can come in for meetings, coffee and biscuits.
Wrong. Early adopters across marketing services are thriving with the home-working virtual agency model. Robust and sustainable profits are being delivered by senior practitioners and clients are loving the results.
The virtual agency model may also be the answer to one of the biggest issues the PR agency sector faces: the loss of highly experienced and talented females in their late twenties and early thirties. We have been slow to find ways of bringing these valuable fee earners back into the workplace and have lost out as a result.
Tamara Littleton, founder and chief executive of eModeration, a multilingual social media management agency, has built her £8m business over the past 11 years on the virtual team model. With 350 people working in 50 languages for clients as diverse as HSBC and MTV, it has been a hugely successful model.
Working closely with agencies and directly with clients, Littleton’s business demands senior community moderators who are able to understand the nuances of both their clients’ brands and local cultural references. These experienced practitioners are attracted by the opportunity to use their skills on big brand campaigns while working from their home office.
Human nature being what it is, most of us do not wish to work exclusively at home. So small eModeration hub offices allow team members to meet for ad hoc briefings, creative sessions and to get a social fix when needed. Another nice touch is a coffee and drinks allowance for staff travelling internationally to encourage them to get to know locally based colleagues.
One of the main criticisms of the virtual agency model is it does not allow for the provision of senior consultancy. But this doesn’t fit with the experience of Littleton or Paul Moran, founder of marketing comms agency Switch. His employees each have, on average, more than ten years’ experience and are seeking flexible, but not necessarily part-time, hours. Many work flexibly, allowing them to handle parenting commitments and balance other interests.
It is not just start-ups that are developing the networked agency model. Grayling UK has started to implement a hybrid model – a mix of office and home-working – at its Bristol office. Designed to meet demands for a more flexible working week, it was implemented following an analysis of time spent in the office by account teams. The result is a new office with lockers for all team members and clear desks to be used by any of the team as required. The benefit is motivated staff and margin improvement.
From the client perspective, the model appears to have been accepted, with Littleton and Moran initially shy of pushing how they operated. They now find it is seen as a benefit by clients as it allows for the rapid up and down scaling of resources, as work demands. This is particularly attractive as the amount of project work increases.
Technology should not be a barrier to running a networked agency. EModeration relies on off-the-shelf software services to provide the necessary secure log-in, databases, internal and client comms and video conferencing. Int-erestingly, eModeration’s management can track not only when teams log in, but also where they log in, ensuring that confidential work is done at the home office and not the coffee shop. IT support is run on the same model, allowing for round-the-clock support.
There is no doubt it requires a different management approach to run a virtual agency than one that is based in physical offices. The learnings seem to be consistent. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the technology. Building a strong motivating culture with trust at its heart is the starting point. Due to the disparate locations of the team, management needs to almost over-communicate to make sure that the message gets through.
While it is highly unlikely we will move en masse to a networked model, there will be a shift to a hybrid model as Generation Y moves up the ranks and pressure on margins grows. More start-ups will adopt it to provide that much-vaunted life/work balance, while meeting client demands for senior advice and support on tap. Maybe we will stop losing experienced female consultants who quite rightly want to be able to balance work and family life.
Richard Houghton is associate partner at Agency People.