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Recorded live online in partnership with the PRCA’s Global COVID 19 Communications Task Force webinar series. This episode discussed how PR agency heads can future proof their business and explore whether more companies should be looking to move to a hybrid model of working.
Guests from outside the PR profession included;
Tom began by explaining that it’s been an evolving conversation through lockdown. He said it started very much with a sense of panic in people, in large organisations wanting to know how long it was going to last and what their approach ought to be. Smaller companies say, just how am I going to survive this? Sheer panic, particularly from really small business owners. As time has gone on, people have found strategies to cope, they have done some interesting things. They’ve shifted to more online business models. He said that we know a lot of people work remotely and now the conversation is really about culture. It’s one about, how do we take the lessons we’ve learned from this period in terms of the feasibility of flexible working, in terms of the way we maintain relationships with our customers or service users, and how do we capture those lessons and translate into something positive that we can take on in a post COVID environment. Tom believes that we’ll get into a hybrid working model, particularly questioning what are the things that have worked? What are the things that haven’t? And what changes we still need to make to really make the most of some of the things we’ve learned over the past three months.
Rebecca explained that Octopus Energy supply gas and electricity to customers throughout England, Scotland, Wales. She said that they were set up four years ago and have had incredible growth since then. Rebecca said she was employee number 34 into the business back when they only had 50,000 customers. They now have 1.5m customers and 700 staff across all sites in the UK, as well as having operations in Germany and Australia. On top of this, they recently had some investments from Australian business, Origin Energy, which took them to unicorn tech status. They are an en-tech pioneer, a tech enabled energy company. She added that they have always been, from the very beginning, setup to work very flexibly as all of their systems are cloud based, with remote working teams, as well as office teams. So, when COVID happened and they went into lockdown, they were easily able to transition. Everybody took their laptops home on Friday night and set up again on Monday morning. She said that they found in the first few weeks of lockdown, their customer service metrics actually went up because they were so well equipped to handle remote working, with both their tech and third-party communications channels like Slack as well. She explained that it has been helpful for them to be tech enabled in the first place in order to be able to make that relatively easy switch. She said that they have relied a lot on slack teams to talk to each other anyway, even when people were in the office, they’d use it to chat to each other quickly rather than getting up to go and talk to each other.
One of the things that Octopus Energy has done since the beginning is on a Friday night, the whole business will come together and just talk about the week, how it went, successes and failures and they still do that as a business now. When they started opening up their offices, they would have a Zoom call on a Friday night and call it ‘Family dinner’, where there’s a few things presented from around the businesses, it’s fun, it’s community based and actually, that’s worked incredibly well since lockdown. She explained that they have had 500 people plus on a Zoom call on Friday night, people look forward to it as a way of coming together and sharing a bit of work updates and a bit of fun as well.
Jeremy said that at the World Bank, they are a large bureaucracy, one of the Bretton Woods institutions, the organisation is about 20,000 strong. He said that their mission is to end extreme poverty and to tackle inequality, they share prosperity, as they call it. He added that their mission and their work has become incredibly important in current times, in the midst of the economic crisis, the health crisis that so many of the countries that they’re working in are facing right now, meaning that the work has been very demanding. By and large, Jeremy said that they transitioned pretty effectively to home-based working. He said they ran a survey a few weeks ago, which showed that 90% of staff feel they’re productive or very productive working from home, although they have started to go back to the office in some parts of the world. He explained that for American businesses, it’s a completely mixed and varied picture. What’s emerging now is that probably SME’s, the small and medium sized enterprises, are having a tougher time. The larger organisations, with deeper resources and more ability to react and respond, are seeing opportunities and managing to mitigate some of the worst effects. But, it’s very early days, and there’s a varied picture geographically across the States as well where the virus has had various peaks and troughs as we go on.
Tom explained that one of the really interesting things a lot of commentators agree with now, is that what the pandemic and our response to it has done is not necessarily create anything new, there are no really obvious new trends appearing or actually other ones stopping for that matter, what it has done is accelerated existing trends. And one of them he started to see beforehand, but really has become much, much greater during this process is this philosophical shift from optimisation to adaptation. For example, if he sat down with a CEO five years ago, most of the conversation about future threats and opportunity would be about how can we do better tomorrow, what we did yesterday? How can we avoid the disruption of our business model? Whereas now the conversation goes along the lines of, look, disruption is going to happen, I can’t imagine I’m going to get through the next five years of my tenure as a CEO without something dramatic happening having watched it happen in so many other industries and what happened to all industries throughout the course of this pandemic. So, they’re now saying, how do we build a business that’s going to be resilient? How do we build the business that’s still going to have a customer base and a track record and success in a decade, two decades? This is a really important philosophical shift; their eyes shift to a further horizon and it drives a lot of other behaviour change as well. It changes the way people think about their organisation, the way people think about the supply chain, the way people think about their people and how they train and teach them, it really drives a lot of behaviour change. It starts with that philosophical shift and it’s really been brought home to a lot of people, just how realistic and how quickly disruption of any industry can come about. That something like COVID-19 can appear, with almost no notice and spread across the world as it has.
Jeremy explained that firms have always tried to plan longer term where he is, most major corporations, major CEOs expect to be prepared for some level of disruption in most industries. He said we’ve seen a technological revolution. We’ve seen huge shifts and changes. This current crisis has exposed a thin veneer that actually most businesses were not really prepared for what was a completely substantial shock, not just to the external environment, but the way they actually operated within their organisations as well. Some businesses may have had great business models that presented opportunities and ways to survive and thrive, but they found that potentially their I.T. infrastructure within their own businesses wasn’t well suited to be able to take advantage of that. Other businesses that may have been well set up and well prepared to weather this sort of storm but actually found that their business models were disrupted so substantially that they were struggling as well. So, again, it’s a very mixed picture. It’s hard to have a generic answer to this, but Jeremy believes that what it’s shown is some core values and core areas of importance for any business right now thinking about its future. The flexibility, the amazing technical infrastructure, a workforce that’s adaptable, nimbleness, the ability to pivot and to shift business models, has been very important. He said the ability to respond in real time, it pretty fundamental ways.
Tom added that the phrase of veneer that Jeremy used is really interesting. He said one of the stats that sticks in his head from previous research is around the relationship between a company’s strategy and a company’s budget. Every year, every company of any scale puts together a strategy and put together a budget. He explained that when he surveyed CFO’s and FD’s around the world, two thirds of them said that their annual strategy is in some cases, either only related to their budgets at the highest level or not at all related. This means that they are setting goals and objectives that their budget can’t necessarily support. Tom said that this is really indicative of that veneer that Jeremy spoke about; people have this veneer of thinking about and planning for the future, but it consumes relatively little time. People put relatively little investment to it. Tom suggests spending one percent of your time to thinking about the future, in a year that is one day every six months, but he said that many companies still say they can’t free up that time to focus on the future when they are dealing with the day-to-day.
Rebecca said that she found that bizarre as she believes that around 99 percent of her time is thinking about the future and how she can grow the business and set everything up. She explained that Octopus Energy was set up to disrupt energy, and so they were built from the beginning to do that. Their tech is incredibly enabling to do that, it also allows them to empower their people as well. She added that they have a culture of autonomy and empowerment people can make their own decisions and they make mistakes and the company will support them, the whole mantra is to grow the business and look after customers as they do that.
Rebecca added that before she moved to Octopus, she worked for another energy company which was always focussed on trying to maintain what they had, but now at Octopus they are the spearhead going into disruption. She said it was fascinating during COVID, to have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and show whether actually their technology and the way they try and work with their team would actually work in very difficult and very stressful situations. She said it’s not just about it working in a start-up with fewer people and customers, but actually how can they take a large business and show that these ways of working work in the most difficult situations as well.
Tom agreed that that was a really important point. How do you sustain that culture once you’ve got it in? Very few companies sustain it for five years, as Octopus Energy has done, that culture disappears very rapidly once you start to gather any sort of scale. And to maintain it that long is really impressive, but very, very rare.
Jeremy added that they have all talked a bit about growth and then getting back to growth, but they hadn’t yet talked about sustainability and the resilience of that growth as well. He believes that it is probably one of the more important questions coming out of this crisis, which is certainly relevant for importers and exporters of these hugely extended global value chains and the shocks to the global trading system. That has to be a really important consideration. He added there is clearly a danger coming out of this crisis that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and we really don’t encourage the best attributes of a powerful global value chains and get back to some system of healthy trading relationships and that we try and build that resilience by looking inwards and shrinking back and that could present a huge cost.
Rebecca agreed that it was interesting, she said that they are currently doing the opposite and looking outwards. She explained that they recently had this investment to take them to Unicorn status, they’re using that, expanding internationally and looking at how they could take their model and the Octopus brand around the world. Octopus have a business in Germany, operations in Australia and they are also looking at a number of active conversations in a number of other markets to launch this business around the world this year. Using their tech, using their people, using their approach of, it’s 99 percent about the future. She believes that there shouldn’t be any walls between countries and between people, they offer cheaper, greener power with excellent customer service enabled by tech here and that’s the message that they are planning to take round the world. There’s still an enormous amount of interest in that. Octopus landed the investment deal during the middle of COVID, in the worst time because Origin believed in the opportunity for growth. Rebecca believes that it is a great success, to which businesses can still flourish and still expand and still grow even in the most difficult times.
Tom said that one of the things he has seen and the behaviour change he’s seen is not that the business leaders were ever uninterested in issues of sustainability or ethics, but that focus has just been ramped up, there is an increased lens on it now because of this new shift in the horizon. If your primary objective is delivery of results in the next two to five years, the next 12 months, next quarter, you have a very, very different lens on the world’s to the one that says, what’s my legacy going to be when I’ve left the business and is it still around in 20 years’ time? Tom then gave the example of the PPI crisis in the banking sector, he said that he has heard CEO’s being explicit with their leaders in saying that they cannot even get close to an ethical violation like that. He said that they’re looking at their supply chains, the manufacturing, they’re saying they have turned a slight blind eye to this in the past, but now they have to be ultra-conscious of the fact that they don’t just want these people to be happy today, but to still be supporting them in five, 10, 15, 20 years’ time. He explained that it’s not that people didn’t care about these things, but the leaders are always balancing multiple objectives, multiple stakeholders, when you shift your eyes that further horizon, the balance of your interests change and it places more focus on the ethics, the sustainability issues than perhaps it was there before.
Rebecca believes that COVID has inevitably sped up the move to a more digitally enabled work future, something you might have seen happen over the next 10 years or so has really happened over a few months which, in many parts, is good. She said that more flexibility for people is good, people have a lot going on in their lives, at work and at home, people have found benefits from being at home and being with their kids, being able to duck in and out of working at normal times and not normal times. She added that the businesses that they work with, it seemed accepted that it doesn’t really matter if someone’s not around for a few hours in the morning because they’re looking after the kids because they’ll log in again in the evening, and actually they can work like that. She said it’ll be interesting to see where it settles in terms of that hybrid, because certainly some people do struggle more than others at being completely remote. She explained that they use lots of different channels to communicate, for example their family dinner over Zoom seeing record attendance, Slack which they use as a business tool, Whatsapp, so there are many different levels of interaction even digitally. But some people do struggle as well with just looking at a screen all the time, so they have introduced different initiatives, such as buddying up and listening ear systems where they reach out to people and there’s someone people can go to who has counselling training. She said that she hopes most businesses will find a more hybrid way of working, some will lean more towards one side of the spectrum than other based on how they’re enabled with the tech and what that company culture is.
Jeremy said that the first question for any businesses is, is your business able to operate partially or substantially by remote. Obviously, there’s a lot of areas, a lot of businesses, such as food production and others that it’s just not an option. He acknowledged the luxury of being in a fairly service dominated economy where a lot of businesses are able to port online, he said at the bank they have been in a good situation. It’s about having the I.T. infrastructure, have you made all those investments over a number of years to really enable you to quickly port your business online for the bank? He explained that they have been a business that lives off of travel to a lot of countries around the world, a lot of people spend a lot of time out of the office anyway and so they are well set up with I.T. support and infrastructure. From a communications perspective, Jeremy said his team has almost not missed a beat, he has a team of around 75, 80 people and they are working in almost every area completely effectively from home, he has been asked if there is anyone he wants to send back to the office and except maybe some areas of multimedia production where it might be useful for that team to be together, he can’t think of anyone where it is vital for them to be in the office. He said that it’s the work life balance that is the big challenge, which is what has been emerging over the last few weeks, as well as the mental health challenges and they manifest in lots of different ways. But certainly, the inability for some to really demarcate what’s work, what’s home, he added that the phrase ‘we are not working from home, we are living at work’ really captures it for him. People don’t take any time out, they’re not taking their leave, partly because people are feeling, if they can’t travel then it’s not real leave anyway. But it’s clearly not healthy and not sustainable. He explained that they have a great mental health support team and health team that’s certainly seen a really big uptake, especially for staff that are living on their own or living in small apartments and suffering, exacerbating all of those pressures on others already. They are doing a lot of work right now to work out the tactics to really counter some of those effects, some of them are just slightly banal such as, can you take Fridays off from meetings? Can you have email free weekends? Can you encourage all these things that we’ve heard about before? But maybe now they’re more important. Right through to more fundamental thinking about how they can shift expectations, manage performance and design, a new contract with staff where they move away from the presenteeism. He said they are analysing the work that gets done and really freeing staff up to genuinely work from home in a new way and not just do the work they were doing in the office at home. So, it’s a complex challenge but Jeremy believes that if we’re in this situation for a substantial amount of time, we’ve really got to answer some of these questions.
Tom believes that there are particular challenges around young members of staff and that’s his biggest concern at the moment. He added that there’s a broad spread of issues around culture, having that cultural autonomy, that Rebecca talked about at the start, is hugely important. When you’ve got that and you’re set up to give people autonomy and responsibility, it’s much easier to let people go and work remotely. Whereas if you’re used to sitting over people and managing them task by task, then doing that remotely is much harder. So, it leaves managers panicking, are people working or are they sitting on their backsides watching another Netflix box set! He added that he thinks there’s more than just having a technological preparedness, but nothing overcomes that challenge of young people who at the start of their career, are there to learn and maybe don’t have a great home environment to work. Tom recalls when he first started working at a PR agency, he described himself as arrogant, which only got knocked off by being around people with more experience, who would slap him around when he when did stupid stuff and worked with him until he sorted out his time management and those really basic skills, he said things like how to pick up the phone to a journalist is very hard to do when one of you is in one part of the world and one of you is in another? Or, how do you write a business email, because you could collaborate on that via the cloud, but it’s much easier just to sit there around the desk and do it together. So for all of those things, he is really worried about this conversation, about the rise of remote working, because, he said the people who can do it are people like himself now, not people like he was then. He has the space to work from home, he can isolate from his children for a while, so he has a quite space, he said that he can do it quite comfortably. But lots of people can’t. And if all people who are teaching are off in their nice house in the Cotswolds, how do the young people learn?
Jeremy said that he agrees with Tom, he added that there are some really positive effects that we’re seeing as well that we shouldn’t lose, because if we do eventually move back to office, in his organisation, he doesn’t want to lose those benefits. He said that he has heard from a lot of staff that they feel more included, staff that used to maybe work remotely more often and dial in, with lots of people sitting around the table in a very exclusive way, they feel much more included. Even in terms of tackling some of the hierarchical challenges of the organisation, everyone’s box is the same size, you don’t have the big boss sitting at the top of the table dominating the conversation. So, people have felt that it’s levelled the playing field. They felt that the inclusion has gone up and they’re really important to capture if we do if we do end up moving back to older ways of working.
The three traits of Athletic Organisation
In his new book, Tom talks about what he calls the Athletic Organisation, he said that the idea is to try and communicate what it takes to be future proof. Taking the classic traits of an athlete as the traits that you need in the future proof organisation. What does an athlete have that I demonstrably don’t?
Tom argued that the physique of a company that was appropriate 30 years ago isn’t appropriate to the physique of the game now, just like if you took the best footballers from the 1970s, 1980s and dropped them into the modern Premier League, they’d struggled desperately because the game has moved on. The same is true with business. Tom advises companies to go and look at these different categories and ask: How do you look at the future? How are your senses? How well are you connected to the future and what’s going on in your environment? Work on that and develop that, he encourages them to accelerate their decision making, this second pillar. He added that he actually does some of the things that Rebecca spoke about, giving people autonomy and responsibility to take decisions close to the edge of the organisation and then look at the structure of their organisation get themselves into shape which also comes back to what Jeremy said, in terms of this of these global networks, global supply chains, global value chains. In the modern future proof organisation, it is very much a network, it’s not a tightly integrated monolith. It’s closely connected to a variety of diverse partners who supported day in, day out and its activity.
Rebecca explained that she thinks about her team at Octopus, what they’re spending their time doing in terms of percentages; about 50 percent of what people are doing, she knows what they’re working on, about 25 percent of the time, she has absolutely no idea what they’re doing because they will come up with their own stuff. The other 25 percent of the time, they are always ready, as a team, to down tools and do the next big thing. She said that in her team, they do all of the creative in-house, including creative design, build new apps and media buying. It means that she doesn’t have a rigid backlog work plan that they run through, but people are empowered to come up with their own ideas. For example, someone in her team, the head of digital marketing, came up with the idea a few years ago to do a competition giveaway on Facebook. She explained that they had some stuff around the office from places they had sponsored, such as some Arsenal footballs and an Amazon Echo. Max decided to put it in a big pink box and wrap it up and give it away on Facebook as a competition. Rebecca took this idea to their CEO, Greg, who said that they don’t do competitions, but Max insisted, and they did it. It was incredibly successful, for them. They had a huge amount of engagement from it and it was one of their most successful ever acquisition campaigns. Then the next year, Max came to them again with the idea to give away a Tesla. Rebecca said that it made her feel a bit uncomfortable even though she likes to think she is flexible with what her team do. But, it was again, a very successful campaign because he knew that he was empowered to think really hard about what would actually grow the business and took that upon himself to come up with amazing ideas.
When asked, how can the athletic organisation prepare for the hundred meters, the 10,000 and the marathon at the same time, Tom said that there’s a fundamental shift in culture which helps you prepare for all three. We already have a lot of processes in place for the hundred, the hundreds like the next big thing, what we’re working on next. Most organisations, even if they don’t do it very well, they have the process in place and there’s a lot you can do to refine those processes. There are very practical things like get your finance team out of looking at last year and get them looking at next year in a bit more depth, take some of the load off them in terms of the processes of manually churning through last year’s results and focus on next year doing some scenario planning, perhaps. The ten thousand, that’s the really interesting window for Tom, what does the next two to five years look like? He said that’s really where this, carving out one percent of your time to look in a structured fashion at what’s next has huge amounts of value. For Tom, that is the biggest weak point in a lot of organisations, certainly big organisations’ planning approach is that, what could appear on the near horizon that’s utterly disruptive for our industry and how do we turn it from a threat into an opportunity? It is that structured process, diverse views and opinions done on an iterative basis every six months at a minimum. The marathon, beyond the next set of seven years, that may be something you don’t think about quite so often. It gets you into the realm of ambition, but certainly every four or five years it’s worth doing that exercise that maybe takes more than half a day, maybe it takes a week, two weeks and a lot of engagement to reset those objectives, missions and goals. That’s the way you want to be. He said that if it were him, he would be focusing on that 10,000 meters one, that’s where most people get tripped up.
Working with PR Agencies
Jeremy explained that he does work with some agencies, but they are mostly in-house as they have a large communications team. He said that agencies, by and large, have always worked in this model. They’re able to be flexible, they bring together teams, often geographically dispersed teams to work strongly in different areas. They’re always good and very responsive to their clients, they understand the changing needs and demands even mid-flight. He said that we’ve got a lot to learn from some of the best agencies in terms of the way that they have traditionally approached their work, brought real creativity to their work as well. In many ways what we are trying to do within the large in-house communications team is to model themselves on some of those agency behaviours, think about internally across a big organization how they’re really serving their clients powerfully and well, how they’re being flexible, how they’re bringing that creativity. He added that he is using every ounce of technology they’ve got to really deliver their work. The agency model is one to look at.
Rebecca agreed, she said the agencies are already quite in this way of working because they’re a team not in your office you work with. At Octopus, they do all of their creative in-house, the only agency resource they use is a PR agency because Rebecca thinks they’re essential to have, they have that little black book and those slightly different skill sets. But she said they think of their agency as part of their team and so she wouldn’t cast any distinction in the way they work with them separately.
She then went on to explain that she slightly disagreed with Tom’s point about needing the in-person environment for a young person’s work development. She said that whilst there is nothing that directly replaces face-to-face element, there are actually a number of digital channels that can be used. She believes that it’s really important to use all of them. She explained that she has been delighted to remove her four-hour daily commute during lockdown and has been able to use that time to connect with her team and more junior members of her team one-to-one. She said that she goes directly to junior members of the team with tasks, those who may not necessarily interact. So, worked based chats and social based chat; How are you doing? How are you getting on? Use WhatsApp, phone them, use Zoom calls, there’s still lots of different mediums on which you can link with people. She added that their agencies are very good, they have Whatsapp as a quick turnaround for urgent things, email for slower more strategic things and then pick up the phone if she needs to speak to someone right now. Some of the ways they have engaged with good agencies over the years have actually enabled her to really understand how she can keep talking to people in a different way and actually get that social side as well as keeping that coaching going. She said that she has found that that does work really well. Then you can also pick up where people are struggling as well. She gave the example of a young lady in her team who she has got much closer to over this period, she was really struggling working at home. In the end they arranged to have a meet up and as their office started opening, she came into the office a little bit earlier than some others so she could have that human interaction. Always think really hard about tools that are available to you to connect with people. Young people are very used to interacting digitally, with their friends and so she thinks we need to tap into that rather expecting the world to come up with a new solution.
Jeremy added that those are great ideas from Rebecca and really good behaviours. There is some early research that he has seen here, which shows that the teams have been quite effective at porting to online where they’ve already had quite strong bonds and they’ve already had that sort of human interaction. But there’s a real challenge in terms of onboarding and bringing new talent or reforming teams and restructuring teams. Then it becomes very challenging for new people, but even existing people moving within an organization the ability to have recognition, to be seen to for their skills and values, to be seen across the organization with some other tactics. He explained that to tackle this, they have started to get different staff to chair different meetings, for instance, not always be chaired by the manager or the boss, but try and rotate that just to try and build the visibility of people that might otherwise not have that visibility across the organization. He said that as time goes on, this could be one of these things that becomes much more of a challenge. A team that knows each other and already works well together face to face can spend a few months talking online. But if they don’t know each other and they haven’t got any reference points, so many of those online conversations become very transactional, you miss out the socializing conversations; How are your kids? What did you do at the weekend? Did you see that last night? Relationships become built on business transactions only then over time, those bonds and the tightness start to weaken as well. And that’s another big challenge.
Rebecca explained that she would always use a PR agency because, even though they have got very good, strong in-house PR people, agencies have a breadth of contacts and knowledge in different areas, they’re communications experts. She believes that if a PR agency is worth its salt, it is already good at communicating through a number of channels, this shouldn’t impact them at all. If a client feels that they’ve seen some drop in service during COVID, one has to understand that people will individually have challenges and be respectful of those. But as an agency they should be able to adapt this and take action.
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PRCA Return to Work Survey
The PRCA recently released the findings of a survey of agency and in-house leaders. It found that the majority of respondents favoured a return to office life, but 42 percent were either reluctant or had mixed feelings about it. One agency felt that it was important to get their energy back for their teams and be in the office. But some have also said that younger members of the team have moved back out of the city and into their parents’ homes, and therefore there is more reluctance to resume city-based working
Rebecca explained that they are currently in the process of moving into their new offices in London at the moment. They have already seen some people are really keen to come back. They have safety procedures in place so that people are comfortable coming back. But she thinks there will always continue to be flexibility, where people will work from home as well, that hybrid model perhaps indexing towards digital maintain permanently.
Jeremy said that at the World Bank, they probably will, by and large, move back to office-based working. The building and the physical manifestation of the bank and where they are in Washington, DC and in every country in the world, that physical presence is probably seen as being important. He added that they are quite a conservative organisation, what it will do medium term is certainly drive forward more flexible home working and more regular home base working, hopefully managers will reflect that this has been quite a productive time and they will take a different attitude and hopefully will manage to maintain some of the stronger inclusion that they have seen and be creative in some of the things they have learned over the last few months.
Tom believes that the trend towards remote working is going to accelerate. But in the short term, he said we are going to see quite a rapid snap back to old ways of working while companies, that don’t have Octopus’ culture, work out those challenges. How do we do this well? How do we manage people remotely? How do we onboard people and maintain that pastoral care role over our employees? All of those things need working out before we can make that wholesale shift to more remote work.