Ever since COVID-19 came around and countries went into lockdown, companies have been forced to work remotely – many for the first time ever.
The benefits of working from home have been proven countless times in countless studies. One of the most famous was a 9-month long study that researcher and professor Nicholas Bloom started back in 2013. The study showed that the employees of a China-based company experienced a 13% overall increase in productivity since they began working remotely. The study resulted in the company – Ctrip – rolling out a work from home option for all employees indefinitely.
While it’s easy to grasp hard-won and tangible data, a lot of workers – as many as 11% – are still finding the transition to remote work difficult. Other companies, on the other hand, including Google, Siemens and Facebook, have announced work from home plans for at least another year.
We spoke to Marwan Abdelaziz, CEO of Ureed.com, the largest freelance marketplace in the GCC and one of many companies that have rolled out an indefinite work from home option for all of its employees, for more on his experience managing a team remotely amid a pandemic and the expansion of his business.
The entire world is still struggling with COVID-19. How has it impacted Ureed.com as a business?
No one was expecting something like this. I remember back in December, we spent a lot of time planning what we were going to do every single month until the end of 2020. The issue was that our entire plan was built on a really particular way of working, and when COVID-19 hit, we found ourselves with a completely different reality. We couldn’t still at the beginning grasp or understand how this is going to impact our operating model, the way we work with clients and also our team.
When we gave this freedom to people to basically be free agents, operate and work from anywhere they want, we saw a huge bump and increase in productivity.
In fact, when we told everyone at our team to stay at home and work remotely, we had this huge fear that people would be disconnected, or detached from the company somehow, and we had another big fear which is loss of productivity. But to our surprise, it was the complete opposite. When we gave this freedom to people to basically be free agents, operate and work from anywhere they want, we saw a huge bump and increase in productivity.
We also found that we were no longer tied to any geographic limitations when it comes to finding and hiring talent, which was a great performance boost across all the functions that we have.
Not to mention that clients are more accepting of working remotely, which was amazing since a lot of our more traditional clients required a lot of physical presence. To our surprise, clients changed perspective overnight. They started to work much faster with us. They started requiring more access to freelancers because at that point they realized that working with remote talents is the answer to all their current problems.
So, just to sum it up, for us at Ureed.com, COVID-19 has had to some extent a positive impact on productivity, on the talent we find who join us full-time, and last but not least, client retention and increase in overall scope with those clients. Definitely, COVID-19 is not a positive thing, but I think for a freelancing marketplace, it’s basically the perfect moment to validate what we’re doing. So we were so lucky to have this opportunity in a way to basically showcase to our clients that we’re able to help in those difficult times.
So now, the entire company is operating remotely?
Absolutely. We started out actually having one office in Cairo and one office in Dubai, and the majority of our team was based in Cairo, but after COVID, we actually started getting a lot of talent from places like Bangalore in India; we started getting people based out of the GCC but working remotely. We started getting a lot of people based in Europe, even. This was great because I couldn’t feel that those people are far away in any way, shape or form. They readjusted their lifestyle and their way of working to remote, so they’re more connected; they’re more attached to what we’re doing. And the shift we did in cadence as well and the rituals we do as a company improved this experience a lot.
Definitely having more and more advanced tools and technologies like Zoom and Slack removes any kind of lack of connection between people. So basically COVID-19 gave us this huge access to all sorts of talents.
What are some of the rituals you have in place to keep your team connected?
We are having more regular hands-on meetings. A majority of our managers hold daily stand-up meetings and regular touchpoints with all of their team members. In a way, you need to overcompensate because you have this lack of natural connection with people who are around you in the office. You do that by having more regular touchpoints, and sometimes there is a loss of productivity, but it’s actually a pain that you have to endure while working remotely.
What were the most important lessons you’ve learned from your company’s experience working remotely for the past months?
The first thing that I learned is that you actually need to place a lot of trust in your team, rather than having to manage them really closely, because when it comes to remote work, you need to understand that we’re all adults here. We’re not trying to tell you what to do; this will basically be counterproductive. So giving more direction than input on people’s work has proven to be far more effective at driving people to do more.
The second thing would be that operating a company generally does not require any of the traditional rituals that we learn in textbooks, like planning or having to make sure you have a strict schedule on what you deliver. That kind of advice was proven to be ineffective during these times. COVID-19 was the biggest uncertainty I’ve had to deal with so far in my career, and it taught me that yes, planning is important and absolutely effective in some cases, but you need to be extremely agile in a way to be able to readjust course.
If I had set a plan back in December, and then said to myself there is no way we are going out of the boundaries of this plan, and I’m not going to listen to anyone who tells me that this is not working or that there’s a better way to do it, we would have failed by now to a very great extent.
But because of all of the great people I work with at Ureed.com, I keep getting a lot of advice from everyone in the company whether they’re very senior or very junior, on how to adjust course.