“Hey, would it be crazy if we virtualized the office?” That was the question thrown at me one day by the CEO at Maark.
It was 2013, we were at the end of our lease for a beautiful (and expensive) office on State Street in downtown Boston—lots of open space and glass (too much glass—I still bear the scar on my nose from the time I walked right into the door to the conference room because I thought it was open). Also, it was only steps away from Faneuil Hall and enough Dunkin Donuts to ding us on our company health plan. But our staff was becoming more geographically de-centralized. Our clients were becoming more nationally and internationally spread.
Basically, fewer employees could make use of that great office space, and hosting a client on-site was becoming a rare event. Meanwhile, productivity and communications technologies were advancing.
We never established in that conversation whether it was crazy or not, but we still went ahead and virtualized. I think it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made: operationally, personally, and corporately.
Operationally, things got tighter. We were suddenly only a tap or click away from anybody in the company. For some reason, it was easier to jump in a Google Hangout or a Slack video call than pull everyone into a conference room. Even one-on-one, it felt less invasive than walking into somebody’s office.
Those employees who were in other states and countries didn’t feel like outsiders anymore, like they were missing the important moments in the office or felt unable to access who they needed to access. Those with frustrating commutes suddenly found themselves not having to deal with that stress and gaining hours of extra time every day. It was like the company flattened a bit, with everybody on closer terms.
But what really changed is that everybody seemed more engaged, more vested in projects. And that’s because, I think, people liked the new lifestyle. And to protect that, we had to kick ass at work.
Personally, virtualizing the office was life-changing. It doesn’t happen often, but just the fact that I can work a twelve-hour day and still be on the couch at 6 pm watching TV with my family removes a lot of stress. I gained three or four hours back per day once commuting was excised. Work fits more organically into my life. If I need to pick up kids after school, it’s a blip in my day as opposed to the tactical exercise it once was.
Corporately, virtualizing helped us define ourselves. Maark has always been a strange company. A small agency boxing above its weight and taking on projects for major companies that would daunt any-sized agency. Because of that, we were often worried about appearances to our clients. We worked hard to come off like the bigger agencies do. But once we lost the trappings of a conventional workplace, we embraced that we weren’t a conventional agency. We have 30-some full-time employees and a network of 20 more trusted freelancers. Our average employee tenure for those 30 is an astonishing eight years (in an agency, mind you), and many of those freelancers have been around just as long.
That all adds up to a time-tested, flexible team that can execute at speeds and costs most agencies can’t. It also means that we have no B-Team. Our clients get exactly who they meet on Day 1. We excel at highly technical, strategic, complicated projects and at driving execution. We are a SWAT team. Our new perspective helped us really see what our strengths are and what our highest value to clients is. We are different, for when clients need something different.
The proof is in the bottom line. Since we virtualized, we’ve increased revenue 250%.
There are issues. Recruitment is difficult. It’s hard to find the type of people who thrive in an environment so predicated upon personal initiative and responsibility. But that’s always been an issue for us. Figuring out the right productivity and communication tools took time, too, and is probably a never-ending exercise. Brainstorming doesn’t quite seem to work virtually (although it has its issues fundamentally.
But we eventually mitigated some of that. Turns out, one of the most important parts of virtualizing was…leasing an office.
We knew immediately that we needed physical face time regularly, so we decided to meet one day a week. We tried co-working spaces. We rented conference rooms. For a time, we even met in a rock climbing gym. Finally, we leased a small, two-story building in Cambridge. Now we had a permanent, always-open space to meet for brainstorms. A place to meet clients. A space employees can come any time they wanted to, if only to get out of their house. It gave Maark a tangibility without creating an artificial construct.
The idea of a positive corporate culture is usually just a few paragraphs in an employee guide. Maybe some motivational posters stuck on a wall in the cafeteria. A bullet point in a thought piece. A quote in an article. But a culture—any kind of culture, corporate or not—really only forms, really only works, when every individual is vested in it. When they feel fortunate to be part of that culture. When it makes their lives holistically better. When they value it as much as the paycheck that comes with it.
As the company continues to grow, the culture and the operations are more of a challenge for us. But the good kind of challenging. In fact, recently, when somebody floated the idea that maybe we should revert to a more conventional work scheme to adjust to our growth, it was that suggestion that was deemed the crazy one.