What is Virtual Agency and how to become one?

Across the world, but particularly within the web design industry, the distributed agency model has gained widespread popularity. Centered on the idea of working remotely, more businesses are adopting the distributed agency model as a practical and beneficial alternative to keeping an in-house staff.

The distributed agency model, or “virtual agency,” as it’s sometimes called, is simply an agency that hires and collaborates with workers remotely. The team might be made up of full or part-time employees, freelancers, contractors, partners, etc. These employees might be spread across a particular city or over the entire world. In short, a distributed team is location-agnostic.

nGen Works recently closed its main office when it became apparent that the majority of its team lived and worked miles away. Founder Carl Smith wrote in the company’s blog:

“When we first started nGen Works we knew we ‘had’ to have an office for people to take us seriously … Because of our flexible nature and the requirement for nGeneers to live their lives on their terms, that old red beauty is only home to two of the 14 people currently working with nGen. We’ve held on to it for sentimental reasons, but now it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”

Then there’s Shane and Peter, an agency team of independent freelancers. Its website explains:

“Our team is comprised of freelancers all over North America (with a couple Europeans and Australians thrown in for good measure). They’re all independent business owners, and they’re all brilliant at what they do. They decide when and how they work. Our teams come together to tackle projects that are far larger than they could tackle on their own.”

Motivations Behind Going Distributed

Both large firms and small shops are embracing agency distribution for different reasons.

Large firms see hiring remote workers as a way to save on overhead costs and maintain a healthy bottom line. Also, the distributed model helps them stay competitive by recruiting specialized talent that is not necessarily local.

On the other hand, small shops and freelancers see the distributed agency model as a viable path to scale up and grow their business without investing too much or incurring debt. For a solo studio owner looking to grow, it’s more practical to partner with or hire remote workers than to invest in an in-house staff.

Benefits of Being Distributed

While every shop operates differently, there are a few key benefits shared by distributed agencies.

  • Low Overhead: Your business will save loads of overhead costs when it doesn’t need to pay for a large office stocked with equipment, utilities, commuting costs and more.
  • Unlimited Talent Pool: When you’re able to look for talent beyond your local area, you have access to virtually unlimited resources.
  • Happier, More Productive Team: When workers, particularly independent freelancers, are able to work their own hours, using their own equipment, without having to conform to an office environment and schedule, it can lead to a more productive operation.

Based on my own experience running a small distributed agency, I believe one very important benefit of this model is the people.

A distributed agency will have success with a certain type of worker — one who thrives in a remote collaboration setting. Remote workers are inherently self-motivated by their passion for creating outstanding work. Plus, they’re incredibly effective at communication and collaboration over long distances. Of course, not everyone is cut out for this, but you can certainly find enough remote work rockstars when you can choose from a worldwide talent pool.

How To Make it Work

The first step is to re-think meetings.

As many of us know, meetings are a common complaint of working in a large office environment. Often, they can be more of a sap on time than a benefit. The conversations had in these meetings can actually (and more effectively) be handled over a series of emails or chats. Jason Fried describes this concept as “Slow Time:”

“Slow time is ‘Maybe it takes two or three days to have this conversation. And we do it over periods of 15 minutes here, two minutes there, four minutes there.’ And that’s fine. It doesn’t need to happen all at once.“

Focus on team relationship management.

When your team is distributed across several time zones and, therefore, is not in direct contact at all times, it’s important to develop systems that tie everything together. Everything from networking with new talent across the globe, to developing working and friendly relationships all require extra effort in the distributed agency setting.

It might mean you plan in-person team get-togethers once or twice a year to build friendships and experiences that strengthen camaraderie.

Think about staying tuned into and engaged with the social media activity of your teammates, both in and outside of work.

Remain accountable at all times.

This goes for both managers and workers within a distributed agency. Everyone must go the extra mile to ensure that he’s staying available, providing updates and meeting deadlines. That means checking in with teammates to ensure they have everything they need from you. It means providing periodic updates on your progress — even if you haven’t completed a task.

Organization, accountability and personal interaction provide the pillars of a successfully run distributed agency model. Does your business qualify?

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