Tamara Littleton, Founder of The Social Element
Tamara founded Emoderation in 2002, before the explosion in social media. She started it in her garage with just £10,000 investment from her parents and a credit card, and now turns over £10 million a year. Tamara rebranded the company to The Social Element in January 2017 and delivers social media strategy, content, engagement and insights to some of the world’s biggest brands, including Oreo, Nissan, Toyota and Primark. Four years ago, she also co-founded a new company, Polpeo, which simulates a crisis breaking online. This helps brands successfully navigate a crisis by practicing their response to safeguard their reputations online.
Why did you decide to start a business with remote workers?
I built the business around a remote worker model out of necessity because, like many starting out, I couldn’t afford an office at the time. But I also wanted to do things differently. I had been using online collaboration tools with my team at the BBC and knew the tools were available to build a business this way. The Social Element now thrives because of how we use these tools like Trello and Google Hangouts. They support both collaboration and culture.
It’s also helped me to build a more internationally diverse workforce who are empowered to work when and how they want to. We maintain a family feel with a friendly style of communication. The model has also supported our growth as we can offer global social media campaigns in any part of the world, across multiple time zones and in more than 45 languages.
Can you highlight an unintended benefit of the remote worker model?
A few years ago we won a big global project and needed to upscale quickly. This involved bringing on board about 200 people in a six-month period. The model meant we could do this without having to do things like find a bigger office. It also meant we could hire the right people for the roles, no matter where they were. Not being constrained by proximity to a city office widens the talent pool considerably. It also meant that we could bring them on board without too much disruption to the existing team.
It’s also enabled us to drive more diversity, something which is vital today. A 2015 study by McKinsey found that gender diverse companies outperformed financially by 15% and racially diverse companies by 35% compared to others. It is not just those who don’t want to live near or in a city, but also parents, carers and those with a disability that we are able to attract with our model. Having people across the world means we’re able to provide a 24/7/365 service to our clients. There is also the benefit of better work life balance because there is no commute for those who find it a challenge.
As a result, our attrition rate is lower than industry average. People can create their own physical work environments and, on the whole, work at times to suit them. We work hard to make sure people feel part of the team and not isolated. We also have ‘hub’ offices in London, New York and Los Angeles so people can come into an office environment if they want to, whether they live nearby or are travelling.
How has your remote worker model supported international expansion?
As many of our clients are global brands they need a social media agency that can deliver across multiple countries and culture. This doesn’t just mean having a team member that can translate content into another language. With our team located across the world in many countries, it means they also understand the local culture and can create and adapt campaigns that work specifically in those markets. Knowledge of cultural differences is just as important as knowledge of social media tools. It is this knowledge that has enabled us to grow and deliver to some of the world’s largest brands.
Which tools have helped you manage the growth of your business and maintain its culture?
We use Basecamp, Google, Mindmeister, Toggl, Trello and Slack and many more. Mostly these are for communication and how we manage our projects, but Mindmeister is particularly good at replicating a brainstorming session online. We also have an incredible smart screen that allows a team to collaborate with each other both in the London office and at their own office where they can see the whiteboard changing on their laptops or tablets. They can also edit the whiteboard from wherever they are working. It’s not dissimilar to the technology used in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report, which as a self-confessed geek makes me very happy. I am always looking for new ways to incorporate technology innovations into the business in a way that enables the teams to work better.
What aspects of technology or the remote working model have created challenges for your business?
People working remotely can show signs of isolation, so the team originally started an area on Yammer called ‘view from my office window’ which is a great way to connect everyone to each other. It was an initiative driven by team members that meant they were sharing the view from where they were - whether it was of the local wildlife, the sea, rolling hills and or city shots of London, New York, Hong Kong, and Sydney, among others. They also connect on Facebook.
We undertook a rebrand a year ago and this is an example of where it would be so much easier to gather everyone in a room in a physical office. We held webinars with the Executive team to discuss all the plans for the rebrand. Similarly, we held regular sessions with the entire company to keep people informed and the comms very transparent. We even had a mass online brainstorm to come up with ideas for the company name.
I’m a firm believer in the power of in-person meetings too so we do spend budget on bringing people together. It helps spark creativity and human connection. I believe the hybrid model of getting people together in person, combined with flexible working and the option to work remotely, is definitely the future for smart companies and is perfect for attracting millennial talent too.
This interview is one of several with members of The Supper Club featured in Talent Tactics: Entrepreneurial approaches to a 21st century workforce. The download the full report, click here.