One year ago today was the last time things felt somewhat normal at NgageContent HQ.
That Friday we had a client meeting in the office over lunch. After, I went to Great Lakes Brewing Company to tour their event space for a Start in CLE gathering we were planning to sponsor in August.
By day’s end, JD and I told the team our office would shut down for “two weeks” to help flatten the curve.
In the following weeks, the pandemic spread far and wide and had our leadership team throwing darts at a calendar about when life would be back to normal. We adjusted our return date from two weeks to May 1. Then June 1. Then Q1 2021. We missed the mark each time. Along the way we let our lease expire in Tyler Village and went from often remote to fully remote.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, running an inbound marketing firm through a global pandemic doesn’t hold a candle to the losses so many have suffered from COVID-19. But in our small sliver of the universe, staying safe and keeping our focus on task while helping our clients was the best way to stay (mostly) sane.
So, 365 days later, what’s changed and where do we go from here?
The Challenges and Productivity Boost of Going Remote
When athletes talk about the difference between playing in the amateurs versus the pros, they often cite the speed of the game. I’ve found the same to be true about working in a pandemic. With the world shut down, emails and Slack messages came in 24/7. So did calls. With some of our best clients pulling out of in-person events and shifting to a heavier digital strategy, everything had an increased sense of urgency. Many felt they had their back against a wall, and we appreciated that they called us to help them change course.
We quickly noticed two trends:
- We were knocking out more work than we ever had and;
- We were all feeling more fried than we ever had.
Shortly after we went fully remote a team member left to deal with the impact of suddenly homeschooling two kids under 10. As the year raged on, we tried remote team lunches from local restaurants, and found new ways to use our random channel in Slack to keep the once-infamous in-office dad jokes flowing.
But we also realized that the way we worked before was no longer working. Done correctly, working fully remote offered us a way for our production people to really focus on deep work. This meant shifting our calendars to not have everyone on six hours of Zoom meetings every day, draining their creative life force.
We’re not perfect at this — even a year in — but we’ve cut back on the availability of meeting times for our core production team to instead focus on finding them long blocks of uninterrupted work. Our focus is, and will remain, on deep work. Wherever possible, we want to create entire days where our team is in their creative space without being pulled away.
This has changed how we think about how we help our clients. We don’t do as much in-person strategy, sadly, but with more time for deep work, we can knock out bigger research projects and much larger websites than in the past. Despite everything, we did some of our largest projects in 2020 and, with full bias on the table, I know we did some of the most impactful work we’ve done in our seven-year history.
Additionally, going fully remote has allowed us to bring in great new team members who otherwise may not have joined us in an office-first world. In our last few hires we’ve interviewed people from all over the country, and added superstars Hayley and Anthony. While they are both still in Ohio, they are far from downtown Cleveland. This month, we added another team member, Jason, who is nearly 4 hours from our old HQ.
Remote hiring is tricky (in a weird quirk, Anthony has been with us six months and I’ve never met him in person!), but it lets us focus on hiring superstars without being limited by commute times.
We’ve also learned to embrace the personal benefits of having everyone at home more often than not. More breakfasts at home and less time sitting in traffic headed downtown. More time to see family and, importantly for our team, pets throughout the day. The votes are in on sweatpants every day, and they have an overwhelming approval rating with our team.
Where Inbound Marketing is Going
For us, 2021 is about doubling down on our core inbound marketing work and excelling at it. We have the opportunity to do more deep work than ever, so we want all of our vectors pointed in the same direction.
So while I get asked about trends all the time — Is TikTok coming to B2B? How big will video be this year? etc. — the main thing I’m discussing with people is that standing out in the digital world by making a personal connection with you and your company has never been more important.
Will trade shows, travel, networking events, etc. come back? Likely so. But even as they come back, many people are now remote forever. The buyer’s journey will often be 90 percent completed online before you get a chance to talk with anyone in person. Finding a way to connect through the digital world will be what separates those who grow from those who die post pandemic.
Will we ever go back to the office?
Kind of? I’m 99.9 percent sure we will (see above for my low rate of predictions). But it will be different. We were heavily remote before and I think we’ll always be remote-first going forward. We know some folks will likely only come to the office occasionally as we expand our team’s footprint geographically.
We’ll also have an office built for remote-first work. We’ll plan to have some people in office for meetings while others are on Zoom. We’ll have a smaller office footprint centered on meeting areas instead of individual workspaces. We’ll continue to spend more of our office budget on home office resources than headquarters.
But we’d like to have some place that we can call home. We need a place to huddle up with the team. And, given that I have two kids under seven at home, I’d also like a place to hide some days. Most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing all of our clients again in a normal setting. Lunch is on me whenever we have our new space!