How to build an international digital-first team

Lessons from expanding from London to New York and onwards

First some caveats (applicable to all advice):

  • This worked for us, like all business advice it suffers from survivorship bias

  • Our business is a self-funded agency

  • We operate in the UK, US and Canada

  • We are a digital-first company

Digital-first

Digital-first means we are optimized as a company to work on a laptop. It means doing meetings virtually. Sending and receiving money electronically. It means you don’t print things. It means you don’t have physical operations that require machinery. There are many, many efficiencies that come with this and if a company can do this it should.

We don’t use the word ‘remote’, which makes employees sound… remote. If anything, on average, we’re closer now.

We maintain offices in ‘hub’ cities that we hire around. This gives the team the option of using a space that isn’t their home, and in-person collaboration if their team is local. We tend to hire around these cities, not just for this reason, but because cities are great filters of talent i.e. if you can survive in a global city, in general you must be doing something right in your career.

Social cohesion

Not having everyone in one or two physical spaces does need thought.

We spent a lot of time getting the various touchpoints right for a new team member, making sure they get a warm welcome on their first day, equipment ahead of time, access to everything they need, a programme of training and regular check ins with their manager.

We do have the problem that a lot of people haven’t met IRL… as soon as international borders allow, we will be getting the team together as we did before COVID. In ‘normal’ times, a one or twice a year company-wide get-together replaced a lot of what we gained in the office. This creates social cohesion, trust, affability.

Long gone are the days where we could take the whole company to the pub, but these days were ending anyway - we were too big.

Zoom

First of all - I disagree with the notion that Zoom meetings are more effort than real ones. This is a ludicrous misremembering of the past. Going to a meeting in a city, entering a building, going into a big glass room and sitting there for at least an hour in conversation whilst you dehydrate was way more draining than a Zoom. Don’t forget the pointless commute each way too.

The problem is that Zooms can be back to back, feasibly you could have 12 or more 30-minute meetings on a day. If you are, you’re doing something wrong. If your team are, then help them out of it. Make sure to create a healthy environment for meetings i.e. don’t go too long back to back, only keep necessary meetings in, check your diary in advance for meetings that can be removed, always have a clear agenda, keep a company-wide Zoom-free time in the diary (we do one in each major timezone we work in).

If you can balance it, Zoom meetings are way more effective, easier to have in smaller increments and have no travel overhead, therefore you can get more done with less time.

For an international digital-first team it is vital that Zoom is always used unless ALL the participants are in the same room, which these days is unlikely.

This puts everyone on the same plane, which allows for…

Geographical diversity

Due to our provenance, the majority of our management was in London. When we were all in offices, and I was based in New York, a lot of the management meetings included my voice bellowing out of a conference room phone in central London.

Having all meetings on Zoom made conversations easier, more fruitful, neater and fairer. It also made it easier to have an international management team.

Digital-first also opens up hiring opportunities further afield without any perceived or real overhead of those people “not being in the office”, a phrase that is now irrelevant to our company.

Employee Benefits

We kept our main offices in London and New York for a long time but eventually downsized. We took the opportunity to add some new benefits for this new climate, including:

  • Unlimited home-office spend

  • Unlimited training budget

  • Access to a local office or co-working space (wherever you are)

  • Flexible working hours, including daytime appointments (for health, wellness, life admin etc)

  • No-questions-asked personal days (sick, personal, time off)

  • 3 Paid days for volunteering and charity work

  • Ubereats/Deliveroo monthly lunch allowance

On top of this we are committed to international travel to keep the team gelled, which was always really fun and rewarding, and will be so again.

Understanding different regions

One of the oddest challenges of creating an international company is the different expectations and attitudes towards work and employment e.g. amount of holiday, notice periods, expected healthcare benefits, . In a bigger company, a HR professional would deal with this but as we were effectively a startup, we did a lot of it including working out what was competitive when it came to healthcare, vacation and so on. Usually I did this by asking other founders I knew, one of which kindly gave me access to his HR team, then for the final decision often I just asked the team what they thought was best.

The dividends

The headline is that we have a healthy company and team across the UK, US and Canada, and to get there we took a million small decisions. For us strategically it was important to be a big player in the US market and we achieved that in 3 years. Being digital-first let us handle the operational side of a locked down world with relative ease (though there were of course other problems, outside the scope of this article, for example clients pausing work).

What’s deeper is that it was an enormously invogorating experience for the company and for me, to meet wonderful human capable of so much, and for us together to be more than the sum of our parts, is a very special feeling and one of the most rewarding parts of being an entrepreneur.

p.s. entrepreneur… this is a dirty word in the UK. It suggests that you’re up to something shifty. And worse still, it’s French. Once on a camping trip I introduced myself as an entrepreneur around a campfire and my English and Kiwi friends fell about laughing for five minutes. Living in the USA I have been able to embrace this word with new vigour, like warming to a shirt you felt was ‘too much’, and this is just one of the many quirks and joys of the journey I went on.

p.p.s vigour, spelling… I keep the the extra Us as keepsakes.