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What a remote-first world looks like for small businesses

Oct. 12, 2020
8 min read
What a remote-first world looks like for small businesses
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This year’s pandemic saw businesses around the country scramble to introduce remote working for their employees. Crowded city offices closed and employees were encouraged to work from home or wherever they could work from safely, for the foreseeable future. Stanford Economist Nicholas Bloom estimates 42% — almost half of the U.S. labor force — was working from home full time during the pandemic in June 2020.

Large companies have the resources and equipment to shift large amounts of staff to remote work quickly. Both Google and Facebook, for example, have told their employees they won’t be returning to offices until at least July 2021. And Twitter has told its employees they can work from home permanently

Related: The new WFH: TPG staffers on how to master the art of working from anywhere (WFA)

But what about small businesses? What about a single boss with a handful of staff who had to completely change the way they do business virtually overnight? If their business never worked remotely before, how do they find the answers to these challenges?

Business Class from American Express has some great tips to help small businesses adapt to changing times, especially with the shift towards remote working. They provide modern business education through insights, tips and inspiration.

Today we are sharing some of these insights from Business Class with case studies from real small businesses, as well as some tips from how TPG itself has moved remote.

Related: How to find a special restaurant or small business near you

Companies with multiple office locations are accustomed to video meetings between colleagues, which helped consultancy firm Sylvain Labs as all employees were forced to work remotely. With clients canceling projects on mass, the firm explained to Business Class they were faced with dwindling revenue and had to make some difficult decisions.

They slashed costs wherever they could, including renegotiating leases on their now-unused office spaces.

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Like other small businesses, Sylvain Labs had their clients to think of, though founder Alain Sylvain suggests placing your staff as the first priority and keeping them engaged through what he calls “shared involvement.” This involves increasing your employee’s involvement in your decision making during this “no-rulebook” pandemic.

Small business owners can start this process by having a frank and open video call with each of their team members individually about the challenges the pandemic is causing them, what they are currently planning to do about it, and invite their team to be involved in solutions that can be agreed and actioned by their entire team.

A “no-wrong -answers” shared document with ideas the team can build on is a helpful next step in this shared involvement method.

While the outlook may be bleak and the decisions difficult, this increased sense of engagement gives staff who may be worried about the future a clear path towards success, both as an employee, and for the greater business. They can focus their time on achieving these goals, knowing their position — and their company — are aligned for the future.

Related: Your guide to applying for small-business credit cards

Photo by Walton_dana121 via Twenty20
Photo by Walton_dana121 via Twenty20

Remote working isn’t as simple as just taking a laptop home or going live on social media from your living room. Although home essentials brand Parachute was very much an online business, their working environment was not. Their team had always worked together, in person, to run the business. Like other small businesses, the quick switch to remote-first created lots of little problems they had to solve very quickly.

Problems staff can experience working remotely for the first time can include:

  • Unreliable Wi-Fi;
  • Lack of a proper workspace, which can lead to posture and other health issues;
  • Privacy, which can raise confidentiality concerns;
  • Difficulty accessing servers and other systems from remote locations;
  • Family obligations, including caring for children while at home; and
  • A feeling of isolation without having regular in-person access to colleagues.

Some of these problems have simple solutions. A staff member may, for example use a great desk chair in the office that supports their back properly. If it’s revealed they are working on a barstool from home, for lack of a better option, could they collect their office chair to use from home until they return to the office? Could their computer monitor be taken home to increase productivity instead of just crouching over a laptop?

If they have children to look after at home, can they be offered more flexible working hours to allow them to take time during office hours to care for their children?

Ariel Kaye, the founder of Parachute, explains to Business Class that you cannot overcommunicate enough with the people you do business with if you have switched to remote working. To avoid disruptions to the manufacturing of her home essentials, she recommends speaking with suppliers more than ever before.

Business Class also recommends being very clear about expectations with staff working remotely. Being at home gives staff great flexibility to work how and when they want to, but work hours, output and communication methods should be agreed upon with all staff so they understand what is expected of them.

Like other small business owners mentioned above, communication and visibility are key. Don’t assume everything is great just because you don’t hear from an employee regularly – it’s worth your time to check in on them.

Additionally, if local rules allow it, meeting up with colleagues in person for a socially-distant coffee can help kickstart the camaraderie that may have evaporated during quarantine. Colleagues may be more comfortable sharing what is on their mind in person rather than over video or an instant messaging service.

Finally, show your appreciation! If a colleague is struggling, offer your support – everyone coping with this pandemic in different ways. A small gift or kind note can go a long way.

Related: Enrollment period extended: Amex giving cardmembers $50 each to spend with small businesses

Photo by Liek52 via Twenty20
Photo by Liek52 via Twenty20

As for TPG? Size-wise, we are a small business of just under 100 staff, mostly based in our two offices in New York and London (though we are owned by a larger parent, Charlotte, N.C.-based Red Ventures). Working remotely is something some of the team are relatively used to, as we usually travel constantly. Given our points and miles expertise, some of our talent even prefers working on the road.

Still, it has been a big period of adjustment for TPG this year. Working in what is usually a highly creative and collaborative environment, we’ve had twice the challenges – creating unique travel content during a period where most people are not travelling, and doing it mostly alone, and remotely.

TPG’s approach to remote-first working has been to regularly catch up with our colleagues via video for non-work purposes. While we have regular team meetings to strategize and plan our content, we also have introduced optional “just for fun” video calls each week to try and maintain the camaraderie that has helps our creativity and energy.

We’ve had team Happy Hours, aviation quizzes and baking challenges from home. These initially seemed a little silly, but don’t take up much of our day but have been a great replacement to the water-cooler chats and after-work drinks we would normally do in person around the office.

Related: Tips and advice for small business owners on Talking Points with TPG’s Richard Kerr

Photo by 10'000 Hours/Getty Images
Photo by 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Bottom line

There’s no rulebook for remote-first working whether you are a sole trader or have 10,000 employees. If you are struggling to completely upheave the way you do business and go remote you’re not alone. There will be plenty of challenges - from something as small as unreliable WiFi through to bigger issues like long-term staff engagement levels.

Small business owners agree that you need to take care of your staff both physically and mentally, check in on them and make them feel engaged and included. Keep your channels of communication open and honest, and take the time to talk about things other than work, whether it’s the weather or where you would love to be vacationing. It’s difficult to overcommunicate right now!

For more small business stories, trends, tips and inspiration, visit Business Class from American Express.

Featured image by patong_ens via Twenty20