How One SEO Company Found Its Place By Bidding Its Office Goodbye
by Open Work
After ditching its physical offices three years ago, this SEO optimization firm is thriving. Read on to see how SEO National made the leap to all-remote without missing a step.
Seven years after Damon Burton founded Utah-based SEO National, he looked around his office and had a startling realization: there was nobody there. About half his employees were working all or part of the time at home, and clients came into the building extremely rarely — no more than once a quarter. SEO National was spending money and energy to maintain a physical presence for the business, and it was nearly all going to waste. “Having a physical location wasn’t a necessity,” says Burton, “but it’s a social norm, or a tradition.”
It’s a tradition Burton decided to break. After years of experimenting with workplace flexibility and letting his employees work all or part of the time remotely, he decided to go all the way, removing SEO National from its physical offices and shifting to doing all of their work remotely. Three years later, the business is thriving, and the company hasn’t looked back.
An entirely virtual workplace is a radical concept, but SEO National decided it would work because of the nature of the industry. Their clients are scattered all over the country and so are many of their employees. Taking a business that was already decentralized and making it fully virtual was a natural next phase. But first, Burton had to get buy-in from his employees. “We had experimented here and there with letting people break up the week, spending half of it at home and half at the office, or taking Wednesdays off to work at home,” says Burton, “so it’s not like we were going cold turkey. Everyone had been dabbling with working at home anyway.”
His employees’ only concern was that letting go of the physical office space was a first step in dissolving the company. Once he assured them that SEO National was doing well, and that their jobs were secure, people got on board fast. The next step was putting the infrastructure in place to ensure that saying goodbye to the office didn’t mean reducing productivity or sacrificing the quality of their work. Burton stays in touch with his staff through daily meetings on Skype. He communicates with them directly about individual projects using Insightly, a CRM application that makes it easy to assign employees’ different tasks. And for the sake of employee morale, Burton makes sure the staff gets together whenever possible, whether it’s a company day trip to Las Vegas or a weeklong excursion to the Philippines. “I’m aware of the benefits of company bonding and face-to-face time,” he says, “so I try to get some in.”
Managing a workforce that’s entirely remote presents a unique challenge for management, and it’s one that Burton has attacked using transparency, honesty and exhaustive documentation. Every step in an SEO National project is outlined in detail during the planning stage, making it easier for the employees to do their part remotely, and the company’s No. 1 rule is that it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you’re honest about them. “The managers have to set expectations,” says Burton. “They have to tell their staff, ‘I understand that this is going to be a new process, and there are going to be screw-ups, and that’s OK, so long as you communicate with me.'”
Burton is a morning person, getting most of his work done between 5 and 8 a.m. When he first began the virtual workplace experiment, he noticed that one of his employees was never online as late as 11:30 in the morning, and he began to worry that the employee was taking advantage of working at home to shirk work. But he spoke to the employee, who told him that he works best if he starts late in the day and works late, and now Burton is never surprised to wake up and find a message from the employee sent in the wee hours the night before. “You need to work based on your energy, not on your hours,” says Burton. “That works for him.”
That was an important lesson for Burton, who has realized that the key to managing a remote workforce is taking a step back and letting employees do what’s right for them. If an employee prefers working at a local coffee shop to working from home, Burton is all for it, even if driving to and from the coffee shop eats into the workday. “What we’ve realized is that it’s a necessity,” he says. “That hour you lose driving is worth it because you’re more productive for the seven hours you’re at the coffee shop.”
After three years without an office to call home, SEO National’s employees relish the increased opportunity to see their families, focus on hobbies, or even go back to school to pursue an advanced degree, and Burton could never see the company going back to a traditional workplace. “It’s just the norm for me now,” he says. “It’s rewarding if people can execute it properly. It wouldn’t work for every company. It takes a balance of the logistics, and it takes the right management team to not only consider it but to execute it. You may have all those ducks in a row, but if you don’t have the right management — people who know not to micromanage — it won’t work.”