Working Together While Being Apart

06-29-22 Ben Goshow

Prioritizing the well-being of remote employees is critical for the health of your business. Here are some lessons we’ve learned to keep everyone connected, productive, and contributing to Sparkbox’s success.

When I first started at Sparkbox, a question that often came up during meetings with my new coworkers was, “So where are you located?”

Although based in Dayton, Ohio, Sparkbox employs people from all over the country—but it wasn’t always that way. During its first several years, Sparkbox was a mostly centralized team, with many employees working together in the same physical office. In 2016, there was a gradual shift towards more hybrid and remote-only employees. Then as the realities of a global pandemic became evident, the company took measures to remain effective while allowing all employees to work from home. We’ve recently passed the two-year mark since that shift took place, and it’s clear that this distributed model—at least for Sparkbox—has become the new normal.

Remote work isn’t going anywhere, and it has allowed our company and many others to grow and flourish in new and exciting ways.

Benefits of a Distributed Mindset

Moving to a distributed model has been a cultural shift for Sparkbox, but there have been some clear wins for us and for our clients.

Accelerating Growth with Broadening Talent

Even before COVID, Sparkbox had several remote employees. Engaging in a remote-first hiring process has allowed Sparkbox to expand the pool of talent upon which to draw and has brought new faces from all over the country.

Over the last two years, Sparkbox has hired project managers, designers, and developers from coast to coast—from Vermont, to me in Indiana, and even Hawaii! This means we can take on larger and more projects and deliver results more quickly. In addition, moving the Sparkbox apprenticeship program to be fully remote has further increased our growth and flexibility.

“When the pandemic hit we were halfway through an in-person apprenticeship and had to shift to remote. That was actually really successful, so for the next apprenticeship we tried to go remote-only and it kept working.” –Kasey Bonifacio, Technical Director

Leveling the Playing Field

Before the distributed model at Sparkbox, there was a cultural separation between “office” employees and “remote” employees—even though it was unintentional. In changing to a distributed mindset, we have noticed an elimination of that separation. Since everyone is remote and using the same tools to communicate, there is no barrier to engagement.

“Being fully distributed allows most daily interactions to be on equal ground. Everyone is communicating with the same tools. Everyone has equal access to one another. Culture has changed, for sure, but it’s a culture born out of a new set of constraints where proximity and location have less impact. New things have emerged that have been good for our overall culture, which is encouraging.” –Drew Clemens, Director of Delivery

Providing Flexibility and Comfort

Working from home can provide many benefits for employees—from eliminating their commute to allowing each individual to craft the perfect workspace to best meet their needs. For some, that means a standing desk and an external monitor. For others, that means prioritizing good lighting, an isolated quiet space, or the freedom to create a unique area that is physically comfortable:

“For me, there are a lot of downsides to being in an office and no downsides at all to working from home. One of the things I love about it is that it is easier for me to care for myself—I have chronic back pain and my home environment allows me a lot of flexibility so I can change how I sit and stretch while I’m working without someone in an office who might walk in and feel weird that I’m on the floor twisted around with one leg stretched out like a cat.” –Monet Fort, Frontend Designer

Building Space Flexibility

Working from home can be pretty great, right? But there is also something to be said for leaving the house once in a while!

Sparkbox has a flexible remote-workplace policy that encourages employees to seek out places to work that energize them. This can be as simple as an afternoon at a coffee shop or as ambitious as a four-month-long trek across Colorado. While all of Sparkbox’s employees reside within the United States, we’ve seen people take temporary stints in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Mexico, and Korea.

To be clear, all of these arrangements require open and honest dialogue to ensure that each member continues to contribute effectively to their workload no matter where they’re working from. To encourage open communication, every employee has a bi-weekly check-in with their director. Setting the early expectation of frequent communication can help foster a culture of trust and flexibility from which creativity and productivity can thrive.

Challenges of a Distributed Mindset

While there are many benefits from embracing a distributed workforce, there are also some challenges that Sparkbox had to overcome.

Staying Healthy, Engaged, and Productive

It is always important that we take care of ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. Likewise, it’s in the best interest of companies to ensure their employees are engaged and productive in these environments—especially if they have not been historically remote. Sparkbox recognizes that mental health plays a major role in our overall health. That’s why we offer all employees and their families 100% employer-paid mental health therapy for up to 52 sessions per year.

Recovering from Screen Time

As project manager Natalie Lestini observed, “being a remote company, body and facial cues are essential” and Sparkbox encourages employees to be on camera during meetings to connect better with each other and with clients. It’s valuable to put faces to names, and it’s especially helpful for hosts as they gauge participation and interest in the meeting.

But screen fatigue is real—especially for those in roles with a lot of meetings. It can be exhausting to string together video call after video call and remain physically and mentally on point throughout.

Sparkbox encourages our team to find ways to recover between meetings by normalizing the option to stay off-camera at times or building breaks into schedules. Recently, projects director Erin Blad started a Slack conversation asking for ways to combat Zoom fatigue. Here are a few tips from our team:

  • If you are in a meeting with folks you already interact with a lot, that is the perfect time to turn your camera off if you need a break since facial cues are not as important with people you are already familiar with
  • Schedule meetings to start five minutes after the hour instead of them being directly back-to-back. It may not seem like a lot of time, but those few minutes allow people to reset, regroup, or just grab a quick snack
  • Intentionally put blocks of “Focus Time” on the calendar to let others know you’re unavailable and concentrating on important tasks
  • Do something physical with your short time between meetings. Consider getting up and walking around, shooting some free throws, or doing some quick yoga

Staying Connected

Employees at Sparkbox used to work together in one big room. An open floor plan made it easy to shout out a problem and let people jump in to help solve it. That kind of free discussion and collaboration fosters innovation and creativity. When everyone in the company works from a different location, it can be more challenging to find ways to connect with each other and the overall team. Many of the social interactions that would have occurred naturally in a typical office are no longer readily available, so it’s important to be intentional in offering digital alternatives.

Sparkbox uses Slack to communicate internally among project teams, which is essential to moving work along and recreating those spontaneous discussions. But there are many other ways to stay connected:

  • Using screen sharing over a video call is a great way to collaborate on a problem or just “talk to the duck
  • Attending cohorts, which are bi-weekly meetings for our design and production teams to share learning amongst people of similar skills and experience
  • Attending bi-weekly “All-Team Demos” which feature a rotating list of presenters who share what they’ve been working on with the rest of the company
  • Joining fun Slack channels featuring curated interests ranging from pop culture to pets to music
  • Participating in a monthly “donut“—an informal chat with 3 or 4 other coworkers just to get to know each other a little better

Successful Remote Work Comes Down to Investing in Your People

Every company is unique and will need to find its own ways to keep employees engaged, productive, and healthy. Sparkbox has a long history of investing in its people and has continued to do so in this new environment. From new hires to new processes, Sparkbox has fully embraced the change to become a distributed agency and has no plans to go back.

“Over time, our understanding of what it means to offer ‘flexibility’ to our team has shifted. It used to be focused on when people worked. Now it has grown to include where we work from. That flexibility is one of the best ways we can support our employees and their loved ones.” –Ben Callahan, President

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