Overhauling business for the remote era

/ by Karen Amundson

Everything has changed. The way our kids get their education. The way we eat at restaurants. The way we travel. The way we work. Here’s the thing though—it’s not all bad. At the risk of coming off a bit too glass-half-full, companies are turning to remote work, which opens up new opportunities for all—opportunities that Apiary Digital® has been honing for the past 5 years.

During this time, we’ve uncovered major gaps in how companies utilize talent and technology. Not to mention, underlying assumptions shaping the culture of work that do a disservice to many teams.  It’s not about how to do what you did before, but remote. Nor is it a stack of tools and tips to help you work remotely. It’s a completely new opportunity to rethink how you do business, and how you can better-align talent with business and human needs.

Throughout this series, we’ll be sharing the ingredients for our secret sauce—for aligning fully remote teams chock-full of top talent to drive extraordinary business performance.

As much as we sometimes wish otherwise, business growth does not happen in a linear fashion. It’s erratic and full of ups and downs. We classify this volatility into neat monikers of “business cycles” and “seasonality.”

Let’s look at the normal seasonality of a B2C ecommerce company, in which a big chunk of revenue happens in Q4:

Nothing revolutionary to see here, but how do companies typically capture this revenue opportunity? Answer: With a fairly fixed staff of full-time, in-office employees. 

Immediately, you can see a problem with the traditional work model. Businesses almost always have the wrong volume of labor relative to revenue opportunities—they’re inherently misaligned. Employees are expected to work around the clock during peak season without additional compensation.

This is a CFO’s nightmare. During slow times, fixed costs are way too high. During peak season, you’re understaffed, thus missing out on revenue opportunities and failing to protect your significant Q4 investment with enough eyes and keyboards to manage it properly. Not to mention, the long-term costs of overtaxing your team, leading to burnout, turnover, and increased expenses with recruiting, managing, incentivization, and lost institutional knowledge associated with higher turnover. 

It’s not just that the overall labor supply doesn’t make sense. Traditional work doesn’t align skills to business needs, either. To maximize revenue, you need different skills at different periods. 

Early in the business cycle, you need strategy, planning, and analysis. Then, during the slow times, you might want to invest in infrastructure, so you’ll need IT, product, and development. Then, leading up to a big push, your creative team will be on-deck to prepare anything that can be done ahead of time. And finally, during the peak season, you need a huge spike in people who can execute, optimize, and report on success.

With traditional staffing, there’s a degree of flexibility to train people to acquire new skills, which is an excellent way to serve your business and keep your team engaged. We applaud cross-training. But by and large, you have a fairly constant skillset with a traditional work model, which only gradually increases over time as your team gains experience and training. This doesn’t give you the flexibility needed to rapidly take advantage of market opportunities or keep up with changing technology. Ideally, businesses need the right skills at the right time—and fast. Then, not pay for those skillsets when they’re not needed.

This logic applies not only to highly seasonal businesses, but to all businesses. Think about the different types of skills needed throughout a product release or major launch. Or, the chicken-egg growth problem of needing additional people to scale, but not having the revenue to justify hiring full-time staff. Sure, you can blow through venture capital money, but it’s a risky bet to increase your burn rate unnecessarily.

Work doesn’t work great for top talent

Here’s what high performers typically want out of work: Professional growth, enough income and time to do things that are important to them outside of work, and working with a great team. Let’s break that down.

Professional growth. The typical setup for professional career-growing positions requires living in an expensive city and/or having a long commute to work.

Enough income and time to do things that are important outside of work. Because of the previous point, companies have to pay very high salaries to attract and retain people. To justify the high compensation, companies have to demand a lot. This leads to little flexibility or time to do what’s important outside of work. And finally…

Working with a great team. Especially when it comes to long hours to fill the gaps in seasonality when teams are understaffed, demands on employees are high. This burns people out, leading to high turnover. Teams never get to really gel into what they could be, even if you have great people to begin with. 

The traditional work model is great—in moderation

In case there was any doubt, to make any business or team work, you absolutely need some full-time in-house staff. You must have that continuity of people with deep ties and relationships across the organization who know the brand and the business—those who can lead the strategy and manage the people who are not entrenched year-round. The more effective the fixed staff is at leading and coordinating, the more value you can get from utilizing a structurally flexible team. 

At the same time, it’s not fair to expect your in-house staff to do all that and be your buffer to handle the volatility of a typical workload. Your full-time fixed staff is valuable, and you should protect them from burnout and overwork.

Standard alternatives don’t cut it

Some alternatives already exist. The obvious one is to hire an agency. The ad industry is typically compensated on a percentage of spend model, which lowers costs during slow times. But the fees will seriously eat into profits during peak season, and with a traditional high turnover agency model, which often relies on a lot of junior talent, brands pay an untenable premium on work done by inexperienced people with inconsistent service. Plus, within the agency world, the misalignment between people and work is even more pronounced. Agencies expect people to work for a fixed salary and meet the demands of peak season clients by working long, unpaid hours of overtime (while charging clients a hefty premium). So, even if agencies could solve the business problem, they certainly don’t solve the people problem.

Another common option is to hire contractors during peak season. But finding, vetting, hiring, and onboarding good people is really difficult, as is integrating external folks into your team. Especially if you need multiple people who are working disparately. It’s hard to rely on finding trustworthy people quickly for such a critical time for the business. Additionally, you take a lot of time away from your core business to manage the whole process. 

Structurally flexible teams

If traditional work doesn’t serve businesses or top talent all that well, what can be done differently? Answering that question is exactly the point of this blog series. It’s what we do at Apiary, and we’re here to share what we’ve learned.

On the surface, what we provide at Apiary Digital® is digital marketing consulting services. And we do that very well. But the real business problem we solve—and the reason we exist—is to fix this underlying problem of misalignment between business needs and people needs. We exist to create wildly successful business outcomes by providing a framework that allows and encourages people to do what is meaningful and important outside of work. Our vision statement:

Drive extraordinary business results by enabling exceptional performers to live their stories.

We have more than proved the concept at Apiary. As a small boutique shop, we drive performance marketing success for Fortune 1000 companies and high-growth startups alike. We have white-labeled under some of the largest digital agencies in the world, and been part of the success of brand launches like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line. 

Because of the results we drive for clients, by our third year in business, we bootstrapped our revenue to 18X what it had been in the first year. We are most proud of how we’ve achieved these results and with whom. We do what we do by having exceptional talent with backgrounds leading performance media at global Fortune 500 brands, from nearly every top digital agency you can think of, and from places like Google and Facebook. 

Why do we have such amazing talent? How did we attract them without a venture-backed budget? Why do they stick around? How exactly did we build a business that helps clients to better-align talent and revenue opportunity to make things look more like this? Answer: Because at Apiary, we have figured out how to design structurally flexible teams that align individual talent needs to business needs.

As companies test out permanent remote working options, it’s more possible than ever before for many companies to do what we’ve done. Stay tuned for insight throughout this series on how to successfully overhaul the way you do business, too.