Remote work at agencies: 15 predictions on longer-term impacts

Written by: Karl Sakas

How might COVID-19 impact remote work on a long-term basis? Eventually, your agency can work without [most of] today’s interruptions. People will travel again; fingers crossed on a vaccine. But then what?

What about staffing a year from now, and five years from now? Beyond first-order impacts, let’s explore second- and third-order impacts on your agency’s team.

Will most agencies go 100% remote on a permanent basis? No, and certainly not immediately. But as leases expire, agency leaders will question whether to renew… or to downshift or close offices altogether.

No one knows the future—but these predictions may help you make better decisions for you and your agency.

More-remote agencies: 15 predictions of potential staffing impacts

If agencies indeed become “more remote” based on their experience during COVID-19, we can explore longer-term trends during and after the recovery. That is, what happens next… and “next next”?

Here’s a summary of my 15 longer-term predictions as agencies become increasingly-remote post-pandemic. These are based on focusing 100% of my career on agencies since 2010.

  1. Growth in remote agency team retreats
  2. Growth in products to optimize remote-team performance
  3. Fewer “impress the clients” agency offices in marquee cities
  4. Higher expenses for shipping and travel
  5. More national and global “mercenary” hires
  6. More “I’m going remote” ultimatums from your top employees
  7. Stronger need to better “vet” remote job candidates
  8. Growth in “try before you buy” hiring
  9. Shift from agency internships toward case competitions for entry-level hires
  10. Shift from local to national recruiting firms
  11. Growth in co-employment (PEOs) to simplify remote staffing
  12. Higher use of non-employees to deliver non-core services
  13. Expansion of intra-agency cliques
  14. Higher need for better managers who prioritize results over “facetime”
  15. Longer hours, especially for agency owners and managers

Let’s dig deeper on each of these, including the potential impacts on your agency.

Prediction #1: Growth in remote agency team retreats

Remote agencies tend to gather their employees annually (or twice a year, or sometimes more often), for morale-boosting and team bonding. If more agencies are increasingly remote, I’d expect this to continue—which means something like a 2X to 10X growth in the number of team retreats.

As someone who’s facilitated and participated in retreats, a “virtual retreat” seems like an oxymoron. That is, people won’t be fully “away” from their regular distractions. But if people can’t—or won’t—gather in person, and agencies need their remote team to work cohesively… something’s gotta give.

Potential impact on your agency: I’d expect “remote agency retreat in a box” products and services. I also see retreat facilitators pivoting to deliver the experience virtually. And I see agencies who schedule in-person retreats needing to build contingency plans if they have to cancel the in-person component.

Prediction #2: Growth in products to optimize remote-team performance

You’re already using SaaS tools like Zoom, Slack, and G Suite to work remotely—but I expect to see even more products in the future. For instance, a consumer-oriented Facebook Portal might be an easier way to spin-up video conferencing if you don’t need to share a computer screen. Employee engagement tools like 15Five and Know Your Team make it easier to track morale and progress.

This might extend to how you interact with clients, too—including your agency’s PM software and beyond. I expect that your clients will become more remote, too—but probably less remote than your agency. Consider how you might optimize that relationship, too, to provide both Warmth & Competence. I’ll share more about client-oriented impacts in a future article; subscribe to my newsletter so you don’t miss the updates.

Potential impact on your agency: Keep an eye on what’s coming out… and consider whether an in-house product might be worth developing and marketing for external sale.

Prediction #3: Fewer “impress the clients” offices in marquee cities

In my experience, agency leaders tend to focus a little too much on impressive offices. They spend a lot of money on rent (or buying the building), and then spend even more on fancy upfits. If everyone’s in the office all the time—and your clients visit—I can see some benefits to this spending. But if the team’s remote—and your clients never or rarely visit—it’s not the best ROI.

Not every employee will want to switch to working remotely, given the option. Even as an introvert, I enjoy working in-person with my team. Your extroverted employees—who recharge by being around others—aren’t as likely to request working alone from home.

Yet social distancing means you can’t load-up the office with as many employees as before. If people are working in mixed “shifts,” you lose many of the benefits of co-located teams anyway. At the least, you’ll consider downshifting to a smaller space if most people aren’t there all the time.

Assuming an agency’s teams meet in-person at least weekly, I’d expect agencies to initially continue their focus on hiring from certain geographic clusters—including a commuting radius from their current office(s) or near key clients—for convenience in gathering talent. But if your big-city office rent is $50,000 a month, you can apply that $600,000 a year in a lot of other ways.

Indeed, agencies can succeed outside major cities. For example:

It’s even easier—and easier to be remote—if you choose to specialize by industry. For instance, Venveo started as a generalist, and pivoted to specialize in building materials marketing.

Potential impact on your agency: Even larger agencies will shift toward using suites in coworking spaces. This lets them add nicely-appointed physical addresses in select cities—while meeting the needs of extroverted employees—without the larger commitment of a dedicated office.

Prediction #4: Higher expenses for shipping and travel

Your rent might go down, but other expenses will go up—including shipping, postage, and travel. When you gather your team in-person, business travel expenses add up fast—including flights or mileage, lodging, meals, and incidentals. (To say nothing of the Opportunity Cost during travel time.)

Why would shipping and postage go up? Smart agencies will communicate with their remote teams… including sending physical things. The specifics will vary by agency, but there’s something special about receiving something physical in the mail. That’s part of why I spend more than $1,000 a year on postage for my small company—to stay in touch with my team, my clients, and my prospective clients. Depending on the size of your team, shipping will add up.

If you close your office entirely, you’ll have mail-forwarding expenses, too—although you’ll likely eventually switch from receiving payments by check to accepting ACH payments and/or credit cards.

Potential impact on your agency: Decide how often you’ll gather your remote team in-person. It’s probably going to be more often than “once a year” and less often than “once a week.” This may also lead to focusing your remote hiring on a certain radius from your city, if you continue to maintain a headquarters office.

Prediction #5: More national and global “mercenary” hires

Your agency has probably dealt with a client-side “mercenary”—a recent hire with no corporate loyalty, who goes from company to company to shake things up. Brand-side mercenaries tend to be non-enjoyable clients, because they don’t value long-term relationships. After all, why wouldn’t they focus on short-term results; their LinkedIn profile suggests they’ll be gone in 12-24 months anyway.

When your agency’s best job candidates can live anywhere, they can write their own ticket. This will be especially true for hard-to-hire agency roles like sales, internal marketing, and senior Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

Potential impact on your agency: Don’t expect expect “low cost of living” discounts for top remote candidates in cheaper markets. This is their arbitrage opportunity, not yours—they’re competing on a national market, not their (or your) local market. If your agency is structured to provide at- or below-market compensation, it will be even harder to find high-quality people at your [low] budget; time to raise your prices.

Prediction #6: More “I’m going remote” ultimatums from your top employees

If your top employees don’t need to be in commuting distance, some are going to consider moving—whether moving back home, moving to their dream location, or moving to a place with a lower cost of living.

A former colleague moved from North Carolina back to Ohio, to be near his parents and in-laws. He’s continued working remotely for the agency, because he does good work.

I’ve worked with agencies in large metropolitan areas. But most of my clients are in relatively small markets, where a 1BR apartment doesn’t cost $1 million. When I downsized from a 3BR house in New Jersey to a 2BR townhouse in North Carolina in 2009, my total rent in Raleigh wasn’t much more than the property taxes alone in NJ.

Child care may be a factor, too. One agency reports that their star performer resigned because she can’t get someone to watch her three kids, and her priorities have changed. If the agency were more flexible, they might have been able to retain her.

Potential impact on your agency: Be ready for some tough conversations. To prepare, make a list of employees and decide which you’d fight to keep (if they wanted to go 100% remote) and which you wouldn’t. But even if they move to a cheaper market, you probably won’t get a “discount” on compensation—after all, they were “worth it” before.

Prediction #7: Stronger need to better “vet” remote job candidates

My then-employer hired a senior developer to work remotely on a major project. He looked good on paper, but he turned out to be a toxic employee. The most-memorable moment occurred during an internal conference call. He said, “Working with you is like trying to teach algebra to kindergarteners“—and hung up on us.

This, among other reasons, is why you never let the recruiting firm do the reference checks—since they don’t get paid unless you hire the candidate, they don’t ask too many probing questions.

What’s the alternative, in terms of screening remote candidates? Venture capitalist Josh Hannah describes the process of “extreme vetting.” Imagine reference-checks on steroids, when you’re hiring for roles that are hard to evaluate and easy for candidates to “game.”

Even lighter research can pay off—like when a client in New England was about to fly-in a sales candidate for an in-person interview. In less than an hour of work, I noticed a pattern of inconsistencies, where things just didn’t add up. I shared the results with the agency owner… and the candidate’s whole story unraveled.

Potential impact on your agency: Be skeptical when you vet candidates, because some people will say anything to get hired. And be aware of the “sunk cost fallacy” when hiring remotely—paying for their travel isn’t a reason you should ignore red flags to get this over with.

Prediction #8: Growth in “try before you buy” hiring

Remote hiring still is somewhat risky, even with tools like extreme referencing. You can mitigate the risk by expanding probationary periods or part-time contracts (as available via local HR requirements).

But why would a great employee take the risk of giving up a full-time job to do a probationary part-time job? Many won’t. But some would—and I suspect they might engineer competitive situations, where they’re doing paid part-time trials for two agencies at once… and getting the agencies to “bid” on keeping them full-time.

Be careful: If companies directly hire full-time people on a contract basis, they’re likely to get in trouble with tax authorities—because it’s nearly impossible to argue that a full-time contractor isn’t really an employee in disguise. And the tax authorities will claw-back back taxes… and penalties.

A lighter alternative? Paid “tests” during the hiring process. In practice, these are mini-consulting contracts, where you pay candidates to complete small projects that replicate the work they’d do as an employee. You and they can decide if you want to proceed; it’s like the employment version of Paid Discovery.

Potential impact on your agency: Consider how to apply paid tests at your agency. Not sure what would make a good test? Look at the role’s new-hire ramp-up plan for ideas of what you need to confirm. Ideally, you’d find a test that’s the same for each candidate, to help you make an applies-to-apples comparison. Talk to your lawyer and HR advisor to ensure your plans don’t get you into trouble.

Prediction #9: Shift away from agency internships toward case competitions

Some agencies use internship programs to fill their funnel of future entry-level hires. As agencies go remote, I see a decline in agency internship programs—due to negative impacts on both interns and agencies.

  • For agencies, it’s hard enough to manage and train interns in-person… and oversight and training are even worse if everyone’s remote.
  • For interns, part of the internship experience is the hallway and kitchen conversations, the quick debrief chats after meetings, and being able to ask a “quick question” of a colleague.

Some colleges might add “remote work” training to their curriculum—and enterprising students will leverage their remote classroom and group project experience as a reason to give them a chance.

More broadly, I expect a trend toward case competitions as the new “try before you buy” for agencies and college students.

What’s a case competition? Students compete in teams to solve a particular business problem (the “case”), typically with a final report and presentation to a panel of judges. For instance, they might create a marketing strategy or solve a client-side problem as if they worked at the agency, based on a set of limited information. I did several of these as a business student, where prizes ranged from college credit to cash prizes.

Potential impact on your agency: If you decide this is for you, prepare for a lot of work the first year… and then an easier process in future years. You’ll want to build relationships with universities, since you’ll get more participants if schools see this as a valuable opportunity for their students. Consider assigning agency employees as mentors for teams, to get a better view into each team’s performance—this will help you decide which student(s) might get job offers later.

Prediction #10: Shift from local to national recruiting firms

Not every agency uses recruiters. And those who do tend to focus on local firms, aside from certain specialty hires.

Local recruiters can promise that they know the best candidates in the market. On the whole, that’s true—if you focus on networking locally, you have a good idea of which candidates are strongest within your commuting radius.

But if agencies no longer need local candidates, that local advantage disappears (or at least shrinks). A local candidate has an advantage—no airfare or hotel costs when they need to join a meeting—but now they’re competing with the best in the country.

Potential impact on your agency: If you use a recruiter, decide which relationships are most helpful to your agency in the future. If you’ve focused locally before, start building relationships further afield. And separate from recruiting firms, review your list of past job candidates—if a great match was New Rope but didn’t want to relocate, now might be your chance to hire them after all.

Prediction #11: Growth in co-employment (PEOs) to simplify remote staffing

I hired an out-of-state employee earlier this year, taking a team member from part-time contractor to full-time employee. I considered hiring her through a “co-employment” PEO (professional employment organization), but it didn’t make sense for Sakas & Company’s particulars.

I knew it would be a hassle, and it is. Even with my accounting and HR firm handling the paperwork, I now have at least three new accounts on a state level that require quarterly or annual reports and payments. I would be reluctant to add an employee in a third state—especially if I hadn’t already seen nearly a year of strong results as a part-time contractor.

PEOs offer the promise of a smoother multi-state hiring experience—along with big-company health insurance and other benefits—but there’s a narrow sweet spot.

  • When you’re small, PEOs are expensive without significant benefits (e.g., the health insurance quotes I received weren’t significantly better than my individual premiums).
  • When you’re bigger, it may make sense to have an in-house employee handle the state-level compliance work (or perhaps coordinate a limited-service HR outsourcing company).

Potential impact on your agency: More agencies will explore PEOs and co-employment over direct-employment hires, especially if they relax their expectations that their team live within commuting distance of a physical office.

Prediction #12: Higher use of non-employees to deliver non-core services

If something is a core service, you should probably have employees do the work. And you should hire employees to do account management and project management.

But when something is a non-core service, it’s less straightforward. Your options generally include:

  1. Hire an employee, if the workload merits a full-time person.
  2. Hire a freelancer or other contractor, if the workload is less than 15-20 hours each week.
  3. Outsource to a whitelabel agency or other firm.

If your agency has built various systems and processes to do work remotely… options #2 and #3 (contractor or another firm) are easier than ever before. And you don’t have to limit your search to firms near you.

Potential impact on your agency: Weigh staffing options outside your current city or cities. But think hard about having non-employees do core services, account management, or project management; that rarely goes smoothly.

Prediction #13: Expansion of intra-agency cliques

Agencies with one or two remote workers tend to marginalize the remote team members. For instance, the team in the conference room needs to pause to integrate the remote joiners. When a majority of the team is remote, there’s a positive for inclusion—you’re remote-first, rather than remote-last.

More negatively, I’d expect a growth in intra-agency cliques. That is, people will cluster with those they like and exclude those they don’t… and much of it will be invisible, versus your noticing certain employees having unnecessarily private chats throughout the day.

Left unchecked, this will hurt productivity and employee retention. And there’s only so much you can do to prevent it. But consider that employees look to you as a role model… so if you regularly trash-talk colleagues, they’ll see that as a green light to do it themselves.

Potential impact on your agency: This problem is likely unavoidable, given human nature. Consider finding ways for people to communicate through official channels; if they’re unhappy or feel unheard, they’re more likely to turn to backchannel options.

Prediction #14: Higher need for better managers who prioritize results over facetime

Managing a remote team is hard, especially as you grow. When your team is in-person, you can “yell” across the room. If you’re managing an increasingly remote team, you need to step up your game.

As I wrote in 2016, “Decide if you’re the kind of manager who rewards ‘facetime’… or results.” And: “If you’re a ‘facetime’ boss, embrace it—and accept that you’re going to attract and retain lower-quality employees.”

This requires precise communication—for instance, what time zone is your “10am meeting” or your “4pm call”… and what’s the technology URL to use? It also requires clearer definitions of success, so that there’s no question of whether something is “done” or not.

I’ve managed my team almost entirely remotely since 2013—including freelancers and employees. This forces me to communicate clearly… and lets me recruit the best people, no matter their location. I worked with a remote copywriter for 2+ years; we did a video call once, and an audio call twice. Part of this was the 12-hour time difference, which made calls challenging. But more importantly, she was a good communicator—using the PM system worked fine.

Be careful about fairness—both perception and reality. You’ll like some employees more than others; be sure the rest don’t feel marginalized, as that hurts morale and retention.

Potential impact on your agency: Expect to invest in leadership training and development—including Executive Coaching—to help your leadership team and next-level managers do their job remotely. I see peer-support networks helping, too, although it’s unclear how much of that will focus on solutions versus “group therapy” complaints. Some professional organizations might expand “remote manager” certifications, although I’m unclear if those would catch on at independent agencies. I’d expect more new-hire ramp-up plans… and similar clarity on expectations from existing employees, too. You’ll also need to decide how far to expand your hiring pool. For instance, is it people within a 2-hour driving radius (so they could come to the office occasionally), or people within your time zone, or people within a certain time zone range?

Prediction #15: Longer hours, especially for agency owners and managers

It’s easy to be a bad manager, and hard to be a great manager. In practice, being a great manager tends to be more time-consuming, due to the extra work involved. For instance, you have weekly One-on-One (O3) meetings, not “monthly, maybe.” Of course, great management now tends to reduce the time-consuming problems later.

When employees aren’t working in the same office(s), it’s hard to gather groups for ad hoc meetings. But it goes beyond meetings, if you don’t have a process to balance getting answers with minimizing interruptions. This translates to longer windows for meetings, more time on coordination, and extra work for owners and managers as they make the pieces fit together.

Every agency will have a unique experience around time as they go remote. It will be harder if team members are spread across different time zones. For instance, team members in London and San Francisco have a narrow 2-3 hour window for a synchronous meeting before someone is working early or late.

Potential impact on your agency: Choose core working hours, and set and maintain boundaries for how you and your team work outside of those times. If you haven’t already, adopt “heads down” time where the team doesn’t interrupt you. Consider adopting your Out of Office autoresponder as a strategical tool, too. And weigh whether to restrict the time zone range for hiring.

Applying these 15 remote work predictions to your agency

None of the 15 trends will happen overnight… or they may not directly impact your agency. But they’re likely to impact the industry as a whole, which means they’ll eventually impact your agency.

What next? Review this list with your leadership team to identify which trends would impact your agency the most. Then work together to prepare—on a short- and medium-term basis—for what to do if the predictions come to be.

In a future article, I’ll explore longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on other areas of your agency—including second- and third-order effects on business development, account management, project management, and the services you offer. Subscribe to my newsletter to ensure you don’t miss the updates.

Question: Which of my 15 predictions are most likely to impact your agency?

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