Looking for advice on closing your offices and going fully remote? Read the Etch story of how we ditched our office in 3 months and went remote-first.
Ross Chapman
Ross ChapmanRoss Chapman is the Head of Design Thinking in Etch Horizon

Etch hit a new milestone recently: We closed down our offices.  To celebrate this landmark decision, we will be revealing the process we went through to become a remote-first organisation.  

We now operate with a distributed team, committed to building an incredible remote work culture and solving our partner's problems through digital means, which as a future-focused consulting group aligns perfectly, as well as being the only real way to solve problems in a COVID-19 world. 

In this first article of the series, we tell the story of how we came to that decision. 

Etch notebook

COVID Was The Catalyst

Etch Group is all about change. We recognise that change is a constant and instead of running away from it, we embrace it. More than that, we're a people-first business.

On 16 March 2020, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised everyone in the UK against "non-essential" travel and contact with others, as well as suggesting people should work from home if possible, we took the obvious step to close our offices. 

As a consulting group, our business is all about sharing our expertise with selected partners and that often means working together in collaboration.

Pre-pandemic, our travel bill was much higher than it is now, as we met with partners to set ambitious goals, solve critical business problems and execute value creation opportunities. That didn't stop with the pandemic, but the method of meeting did change. 

Luckily, we were already part-way there. We used Slack extensively as a communication tool, and so we were able to solve the virtual communication problem quickly, disseminating information as quickly as it became available. 

We also replaced our meeting whiteboards with virtual boards. Part of the Mural Consultant Network, we applied our workshop skills to our own practice, making gathering more meaningful and leading to more consistent and inclusive workshops. Going virtual didn't just replace our existing collaborative sessions: It made them better.

Group-wide engagement of Zoom was also a key communication tool used by most of the team. We just scaled that to the whole company.

Zoom screen photo

Recognising Individual Needs

This journey was completely different for each of our fellow Etchers. Our founders specifically excelled with in-person communication, who worked well in front of people and wrote notes on paper. This is how they worked and changing that took time, courage and practice.

We also recognised our employee's individual needs at home, either in a shared space, with children and partners, or on their own. We asked each employee to complete a Lockdown Preparation Plan that helped both employee and employer understand what support they needed and how they were managing both work and home life. This decision helped us identify problems early on and proactively, rather than reacting to issues after the fact.

The Opportunities to Grow

We weren't using the office because we couldn't. We took our time for transition as we discovered what would work for us during the pandemic. This wasn't simply a cost-cutting exercise, because we plan to sign-up to a co-working space for flexible collaboration when we can. It was simply around recognising how we work and how we could work better, providing a better service to our partners.

After a few weeks of adjustment, we noticed a number of things. Meetings became less vital to the operation of the business and social time together became more important. The tools were starting to do more of the work as they were intended, enabling us to think deeper about the challenges we were solving for partners. We made a policy to have 'no meeting' Tuesdays and Thursdays, to make more time available for focus or collaboration. What felt like "work" before was superseded by better alternatives that aided collaboration and delivering outcomes in our teams.

The remote opportunity around recruitment is also too exciting to turn down. We would normally hire local and it would take years to find suitable skills in our niche. Growing this to a more nationwide search dramatically increased our speed to search and recruit talent. 

After six months, we were surprised how new habits had developed. We afforded ourselves a long enough time to trial, find out what works, what doesn't work and experimented with new ideas to try out new methods and processes.

Going Remote photo

The Challenges of Going Remote

Ditching the office and embracing a more remote culture isn't easy, and it's not for everyone. If you are considering or currently undertaking this change, you need to include the whole business, create a plan and change that plan where needed. Change of this magnitude can't be done within a silo.

Key Learnings

  • Use video and audio communication methods to communicate big pieces of information - longer than a couple of sentences
  • Use Slack or Teams to share information, leaving email for more important matters
  • In the first few weeks, more regular communication is absolutely necessary, so find a way that works for your culture
  • Look at your current benefits or ceremonies - could you transition them to a more online situation?
  • IT - be prepared for a deluge of requests and questions and also think how you can solve problems without being in front of a colleague 
  • Start-up regular activities around work and social - think about running all-hands sessions every two weeks and a Happy Hour on a Friday

This series of articles explores our decision making, process, and journey to become a remote-first organisation. For more information about going remote or to discuss any of the issues covered in this article, please get in touch 

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