How Etch Group became a remote-first organisation

26 March 2021 3 min. read
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When Etch Group was faced with the restrictions of the coronavirus lockdown, the firm decided to go above and beyond temporary adaptation. Having closed its offices, the firm shifted to a remote-first model in just a few months.

Founded in 2012, Etch Group is a consultancy which works to create ideal conditions for clients to move past traditional management practice and learn by doing. Through strategy, user experience design and digital marketing, the firm help businesses to grow, with a client list including The Royal Yachting Association, Old Mutual Wealth and The Pig Hotels, as well as a number of the world's largest brands, such as British Airways, Selfridges, GSK, Tesco and Clinique.

Etch’s commitment to innovation meant that when the coronavirus hit in 2020, it saw an opportunity as well as a challenge. With many companies suddenly scrambling to enable digital homeworking amid the lockdown months, Etch decided to go one step further, and commence the closure of the majority of its physical locales.

Ross Chapman

Following Etch’s milestone decision to shutter its offices, Ross Chapman, the Head of Design Thinking in Etch Horizon, recently took to the firm’s website to reveal the process the company went through to become a remote-first organisation.

“We recognise that change is a constant and instead of running away from it, we embrace it,” explained Chapman. “When the Prime Minister 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.”

Operating in the travel-intensive consulting sector, Etch’s business centred on sharing expertise with clients and partners – something which often meant collaborating in person. Fortunately, Etch already used Slack as a communication tool, so virtual communication was addressed rapidly. At the same time, the firm replaced meeting whiteboards with virtual boards, while applying its own workshop skills to Etch’s own practice, making gathering more meaningful and leading to more consistent and inclusive workshops.

According to Chapman, “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.”

However, it was still important for Etch to tailor its new mode of working to recognise individual needs. With many reports flagging up the impact lockdown has had on the mental health of workers, Etch recognised its employees’ needs as they worked from home – either in a shared space, with children and partners, or on their own.

Asking each employee to complete a Lockdown Preparation Plan, the firm was able to map out the support staff needed, and how they were managing both work and home life – something which helped identify problems early on and act proactively, rather than reacting to issues after the fact.

Key lessons

With offices phased out, Etch gradually learned a number of key lessons. After a few weeks of adjustment, the firm noticed meetings had become 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 it was solving for clients. As a result, the firm since made a policy to see Tuesdays and Thursdays become completely meeting-free.

At the same time, remote opportunities around recruitment also presented themselves. While Etch would normally hire local – and in the firm’s particular niche, Chapman asserted it could take years to find the suitable skills on that basis – the move online has enabled it to search for talent on a nationwide basis – dramatically increasing the recruitment process’ speed. 

Chapman concluded, “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… 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.”