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Get An Office: Why Remote Agencies Are Doomed

If you’re growing your freelance business or starting an agency, the question of whether or not to get an office will eventually rear its ugly head on your mile-long list of decisions-that-must-be-made.

6 min. read

I’ve been on both sides of the coin. When I started my agency in late 2008, my partner and I decided we would work remotely. After hiring our first couple of employees, business was good and steady so we quickly decided we needed to find an office.

A couple of years later when our lease expired and cash was tight, we decided to work from home again - by this time we were a five person team. After about ten months remote working started getting stale and business was steady, so we decided to look for another office. We found a sweet deal on a beautiful studio space in a trendy historic neighborhood, this time growing to 11 people. Now in our post-agency world we run Proposify and we’re back to working remotely. Suffice to say, I’ve been on both sides of the fence. A few times.

I actually love working remotely now that I’m running a product startup and not an agency. It lets everyone on the team focus on our tasks for the day while staying in touch over Hipchat. When we need to meet up and discuss a new feature or product issue, we get together either at my apartment, Just Us (our favourite coffee place) or The Wooden Monkey (our favourite food/beer place).

Living the startup life.

One of our freelance guest bloggers wrote a piece about how she loves working from home.

But this post isn’t about product startups or freelancers, it’s about agencies, and I feel confident saying that remote agencies don’t work.

I already hear you grumbling, your latte quivering with scorn, “I’m happy not paying the high cost of rent, lights, heat, furniture, parking and all the other expenses that come with having an office.”

I’ve felt that way. And I’m sure someone who runs a printery or a flower shop or a deli has also. Paying for shit sucks. But office space is part of the cost of doing business, and even though you may technically be able to do the work remotely, it doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for your clients, your team, or your business.

For Clients: Perception is reality

The biggest reason to have an office is that it makes you look more professional to clients. I know that’s not a terribly compelling reason, but it should be. They are the people paying your light bill after all.

There may be clients out there who don’t care whether or not you have an office, but they’re rare. When our team was remote, I could hear the disappointment in the voice of client prospects.

“So where’s your office located?”

“Um, we don’t have one. We’re a remote agency.”

“Oh… um. Well that’s… nice. So we’ll meet at Starbucks then.”

Whether your client is local or on the other side of the country, they feel better knowing there’s an office to come to when they need to meet about their project. They like it even more when there’s beer in the fridge. An office adds legitimacy and seeing pics on your website of your hardwood floor, Mac computers, and nerdy action figures makes your clients feel like they picked a winner. When clients feel better, you make more money.

Think about the top five clients in your city, the ones any agency would gladly hand over their Webby Award to have on their client list. Do any of those five clients employ remote agencies to work on their big projects?

For the team: Collaboration becomes a chore

On the most basic level, the value an agency offers over a freelancer is the size and diversity of the team, and the shared vision of the senior partners. Good clients hire an agency because they want a ready-made team of specialists they can rely on to solve problems quickly and with a high degree of professionalism.

Clients love having a dedicated account manager who will hold their hand and whisper sweet nothings in their ear while in the background a team of designers, videographers, programmers, copywriters, and strategists spin straw into gold. They sleep better knowing there’s a production manager at center stage conducting the orchestra and ensuring work comes out on time and on budget.

When agencies work remotely, this orchestra suddenly becomes just a bunch of talented musicians working on laptops, contributing their individual pieces of the composition but without the energy that comes from performing and practising together as a band.

Agencies thrive when teams come together to collaborate, share, and discuss ideas, but when individuals work from home or from a coffee shop, they tend to stay in their silos, busily working away on their daily tasks without seeing the forest for the trees.

I’m not asserting that offices aren’t also a source of distraction. There are often too many tempting treats and toys and beer, and managers bursting in a room of busy designers to declare a state of emergency when the client suddenly decides he wants his background to be “less green”. Those kinds of distractions should be minimized.

I’m also not suggesting that certain people (programmers and writers mainly) shouldn’t be allowed some time, perhaps one day a week to work from home where they can plow through the difficult tasks that require solitude and dedicated focus.

But once you open it up to allow people to work from home, it can be a slippery slope. Without some well defined structure, remote work becomes just a bunch of people working on their own. Basecamp, Skype and other software acts as a crutch that allows the agency to limp on sufficiently under the guise of being organized, but in reality the dynamics of the team, the real juice that powers an agency, is lost.

Having an office encourages collaboration. You’ll notice it if you switch to having one. Suddenly people walk by each others’ desks and notice what they’re working on. Someone else adds their two cents, sketches something on a whiteboard, and three of them brainstorm over lunch, share new techniques and spitball new ideas. You can’t plan for this type of interaction by sending an iCal invite for a Google Hangout. It just happens, and you need to be ready for it when it does. Remote agencies can never have this, even with all the shared calendars and video chat software in the world.

Conclusion

Working remotely is OK for some companies and there are ways to make it more enjoyable. But I have yet to learn of any highly successful agency (however you define “successful” - prestigious clients and awards, international reputation, limos full of blow, etc.) that did it all while snuggling their cats in the comfort of home.

Am I off my rocker? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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