The Challenges of Remote Productivity

I want to start by apologizing to all of you for all the questions I asked about working remotely.  I was looking for some kind of secret, but it turns out, based on the most informed responses I received back—well, there is no actual secret.  Setting yourself up so that everyone can work remotely can be done pretty simply—at least on the technology side.  And if you have the right technology in place, you also have created a terrific disaster recovery plan.

Brian McLaughlin, founder and CEO of Redtail in Seattle (a pandemic hotspot), long ago equipped all of his 130 staff members with Lenovo or MacBook Air laptops, and as a matter of corporate routine he swaps out old ones for new ones on a rotating basis roughly every two years.  Pretty much all new laptops come with a built-in camera, so having remote meetings where everybody can talk face-to-screen is a matter of having an Internet connection at the office and at home, and downloading Zoom. 

The result?  When the pandemic hit and everybody had to move out of the office to maintain social distancing, they just picked up their laptops and monitors and drove home with everything they needed right there in the passenger seat. 

The programs that technicians, engineers and advisors use are all on the cloud, so you can do the same work at home that you would be doing at the office.  “I think we’ve actually had as much or more productivity than we had when everybody was in the office,” says McLaughlin.  “There has been no dropoff,” says McLaughlin.  “I think [the programmers] have probably been more productive in this environment than anybody.”

When people call to the empty Redtail office, the firm’s Vonage answering system automatically sends the call out to the phones of whichever customer support people are not already talking with customers, and the system runs on an app, so there’s no physical hardware to install.  McLaughlin is looking at switching to Twilio Flex, but so far the phone system has been working smoothly.

I also talked with Anders Jones and Brent Weiss, CEO and Chief Evangelist, respectively, of Facet Wealth.  Facet is headquartered in Baltimore, but 80 of the staff members—the planners and onboarding staff—normally work remotely from home office locations all over the country.  The firm hires advisors wherever they happen to live, typically in groups of ten to 15, brings them in to the Baltimore headquarters, equips them with the newest Dell laptops, and some of them want high-definition webcams so they will look nicer when they connect remotely with clients who also might be anywhere in the country. 

Facet’s advisors use the firm’s own proprietary planning software that is hosted on Amazon servers in the cloud, and the rest of the software suite is plain vanilla. “We use Zoom for conferencing, and Google Suite for all our internal communications,” says Jones, “and Slack.”  The marketing team uses Salesforce.  “It’s generally about a 90 minute process from when they open their new computer to when they’re fully up and running on all the systems they will ever need to use at Facet,” Jones continues.

“For what it’s worth,” he adds, “we’re adding 70-100 new clients a week in this environment.  I think,” he says, “that being a virtual firm has been a big selling point.”

The real challenge is not hardware or software.  It is maintaining internal communication and facilitating the random social contacts that are key to the company culture.  McLaughlin and his team do daily stand-up planning meetings, which used to be in proximity, now take place through Zoom.  Every Wednesday, the entire staff receives an announcement about how the company is doing, any changes to procedures, and encouragement.  “In my last message, I said that we should prepare to be working remotely until May, and then we’ll take it week by week,” says McLaughlin.

For users of the CRM program, the team is running free online Redtail University courses starting in May and running through August, with an estimated 100-200 participants.  The training process actually got more efficient and convenient during the crisis.

Facet is re-inventing its interpersonal office dynamic by scheduling virtual happy hours over Zoom, in groups of six, with the names randomly generated.  “Next week,” says Jones, “we’re going to kick off a random lunch generator, where we’ll have six team members plus an executive do lunch together, over Zoom, twice a week, and once again it will be totally random.” 

Redtail recently hosted a virtual trivia contest with 60 staff members participating.  McLaughlin used the Kahoot app, which the firm uses for online testing at Redtail University.  You create questions and provide four possible answers, and in the trivia contest, Kahoot was set to track who was the first to click on the correct answer, add up the points and give a full rundown of who scored what.

Jones says that the challenge his firm has yet to solve is better adapting to the lack of structure.  When you leave the 9 to 5 routine, you open up a lot of decisions. When are you working?  When are you not working?  When you go to the office, you have a time to shower, a time to dress, a time to have breakfast, you know what clothes you’re going to wear, and when you get home you’re not working.  All of that, he says, becomes fluid when your home is also the office environment.

“But,” he adds, “if you’re intentional about this and do it right, you can actually create some interesting interactions that wouldn’t normally happen in the normal course of doing things in person.”

McLoughlin agrees.  In fact, he says that working remotely has helped his team learn about each other on a more personal basis.  “We usually don’t know what’s going on with their personal lives,” he says.  “Do they have friends or family that are getting laid off?  Are they taking care of older parents?  In the last few weeks,” he adds, “I’ve heard a million stories from my staff that I had no idea about.  Like the 24-year-old whose parents are 70+ with pre-existing conditions that make them high risk.  I told him, just keep working from home.  You have a job, and you can take care of them.  That is huge for him, and we had no idea.”

I suspect that this current pandemic crisis is going to change the profession permanently, in interesting ways.  It’s definitely forcing firms to create the kind of flexibility that allows staff to be productive from home, and to think through how to productively interact with each other and clients without being in physical proximity.  Not only will this facilitate disaster recovery plans; it will also expand the client base from a 50 mile radius to anywhere an interested client might be located.  And it is forcing firms to experiment with one of the most important “perks” that staff members covet in the firm they work for: the flexibility to occasionally do what they do from home, so they can take care of a sick child or a family emergency.

These trends were underway already; the firms that master them now will be one step further along in the evolution of the profession—and also sail through this current crisis that is crippling some of their competition.