With COVID-19 on everyone’s radar, many existing small or medium-sized publishers struggle over the choice of trying to make do working remotely with an incomplete existing team or just outsourcing to a remote production team, which can feel like a betrayal and a new source of stress for the replaced team member who can’t help being sick or caring for family members.
For new publishers trying to hire a new in-house staff at a moment’s notice, hidden problems may be discovered only down the line, such as continual spot-training and day-to-day micro-management of a full design and production staff in-house.
It’s no secret that many firms like to hire young in-house employees that feel “malleable”. These same team members are often high-maintenance in reality, often with little to no insight into unusual problems.
Oftentimes, the experience needed to even evaluate such new employees in key production positions simply isn’t there. Therefore, when problems come up, management isn’t equipped to deal with them, or even spot them before they spiral out of hand. At such times, it’s likely that everyone is on their own, even though it’s a production team under one roof.
Bigger publishers increasingly face the same issues to the extent that they need to continually expand into new feature topics, creating new teams with new editors and additional new production staff. As a result, starting a new magazine section can in itself feel like starting all over again from scratch. Take heart, though. The silver lining with remote production teams is that you get to define the position through your remote team experiences before hiring your permanent staff members. And for this very reason alone, many may find that the remote team solution strikes just the right chord.
When is a remote production team a good fit?
Microsoft Teams has shared statistics on the adoption rate for their project management solution. This, in part, is an effort to help employers understand how they can help employees to work better from home, but also to address quarantine and social distancing concerns for businesses now taking place.
One option is to hire out one or more aspects of the periodical production at a time. Publishers can outsource one or more of the following to start:
- Cover design
- Content design
- Page production
- Social media
One reason why your publishing business could do better with an outsourced team is that magazine layout design isn’t what it used to be before the dawn of the digital transformation. Standards change fast in the fast-paced worlds of web development, publication production and online marketing. Blink and you could miss something huge.
You and your in-house people may not have the time or the luxury to notice web standards changing beneath your feet. Do you just accept sinking into quicksand as it dawns that you can’t possibly keep up on the technical end of running an online magazine? Or do you reach out and ask for help from an experienced outside remote production team?
It may surprise you to learn that many bigger magazines are increasingly turning to digital marketing, layout design, and content production teams just to meet their deadlines and push out their publications reliably. That’s because more and more online periodicals with mindshare are leaning into the outsourcing revolution. Employers are looking seriously at outsourcing now to fill in the gaps, even if they’re not quite bold enough to risk inconsistency from talent crowdsourcing platforms like freelance websites.
Taking publication productivity to the next level
Let’s look at some of the realistic pros and cons of outsourcing to a magazine production team for your periodical layout design, production countdown, marketing and related needs.
- Define the position before you hire full-time staff
- Pay for what you can use, not for a full-time employee
- Competitive solutions and problem-solving
- Earned respect for the team’s best work and for pleasing you
- Fresh solutions from a busy agency that faces a variety of challenges every day
- No need to train a production team or rely on a single designer never to take time off
- Flexible timing — using the remote team for crunch times and 24-7 availability
- Scalability — need more manpower and services at a moment’s notice?
- Remote production teams are more likely to be up on latest technology
- Remote marketing teams experience more diverse challenges and are more competitive
- The camaraderie factor: no shared coffee and donuts if your team is remote
- Many offshore teams don’t have local or in-country offices or adequate English skills
- Most domestic outsourced teams may not provide adequate production cost savings
- Less need for agency-level problem-solving could overwhelm you with free time
- The outsourced team may shed new light on issues you’ve never noticed
- Real-time video meeting apps for that “being there” can be too transparent
- Flexible timing and scalability may leave you with a bad taste once the normal team returns
Remote production team cons in greater detail
A supposed lack of camaraderie may well be a false assumption, and here’s why. According to Forbes, as of 2018, 50% of the workforce was already predicted to be remote by now. Things have changed since then, however.
Amidst the very serious Coronavirus quarantine and social distancing taking place at this writing, some of the hidden reasoning for this statistic becomes evident. Globalism has a downside: deadly new emerging viruses. Assuming the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) arouses a vaccine and an effective form of mass treatment soon, there are many other reasons that remote work is making more and more sense in more normal circumstances, such as increased efficiency.
Implementation of project management tools like Trello and Basecamp have long been on the rise. From 2017 to 2018, spreadsheet use went down from 74% to 67%, with the difference resulting from opting for PM tools for organizing workflows. Virtual messaging centered around a solid PM tool builds trust through detailed, concrete documentation, resulting project coherence, and a greater likelihood to reach deadlines via projected deadline notification systems. And such systems make it evident that “being there” is not necessarily a benefit.
Chalk this up to the PM tool’s easy referencing of what’s been agreed upon and outlined. Add to that the ability to course-correct visually and ping the entire group on deadlines and announcements that point to a specific decision point location on the PM tool board.
With a PM tool, it’s not as easy for people to get out of the loop. These tools can reduce the uncertainty down to a level impossible if relying on word of mouth, face-to-face meetings or email memos. Indeed, in-house workers are often using the very same tools that remote workers use, attending the very same kinds of remote meetings, and often are different from their out-of-office coworkers only in that they are paying for more expensive lunches and spending an average of $400 (US rate) each month on the traffic-laden commute — all-too-often late for work and out of sorts as a result.
Poor communication skills of remote teams is not typically an issue with remote production teams. This is true so long as the team has a sufficiently sophisticated, native-language-fluent PM thoroughly able to understand your own native work culture and concerns — usually a vetting requirement to get the project.
Or if the publisher is willing to hire a more costly domestic team for a redundant level of fluency, this issue again becomes a moot problem. In either of these scenarios, communication isn’t actually the problem, but in one, there is a significant cost-savings and an opportunity to schedule additional work with a team that is hungry to prove value.
According to a recent ongoing Workamajig project management survey, process inconsistency typically accounts for a far more significant reason why projects fail, according to 25% of survey participants.
Moreover, a lack of project status visibility was cited by 10% of that survey’s participants. And as we’ve seen, these issues are all typically covered by the most popular and reliable PM tools on the market today.
The remote production team’s reliance on proven PM tools rather than in-person meetings and emails is typically what holds projects together when the project and work details begin to mount up and/or when emergencies arise. And according to a closer look at research from professor Nicholas Bloom at the Harvard Business Review as early as 2014, many businesses were already reporting productivity gains of over 13% from simply switching to a remote work approach. In fact, even for in-office work cultures, the evidence clearly suggests that 1-2 days a week at home boosts office worker morale and well-being significantly, contributing to greater productivity and likelihood to be ready for the big problems when they arise. Backing up that claim, a more recent survey by Owllabs suggests that 29% of workers surveyed stated they were happier than when they worked on-site. Yes, that’s right, roughly one third. The same survey suggests 40% of remote workers are more willing to work overtime.
Domestic interim production team cost obstacles are not easy to overcome. The cheaper the cost, the more likely you’re not hiring a production team, but a hastily-gathered band of independent freelancers with a freelance PM at the head, not a well-oiled team. This is actually a ticking cost bomb waiting to explode in many cases.
If there are aspects you simply don’t want to go offshore, but still want to save on some costs, you can always hire one domestic PM to manage both domestic and offshore teams. And many may find a combination of domestic and offshore teams allows a 24-hour work cycle for emergencies and unexpected tight deadlines. Your local PM can manage the offshore PM and the local team, too, distributing the management of offshore team members through the offshore PM.
It’s not a one-sided benefit, however. Employees and team members alike benefit from this production arrangement that allows for lower cost while adding the hidden boost of 24-hour availability, a way to meet unexpected next-day deadlines.
Less problem-solving can seem to many like nothing is happening. This “con” may seem facetious, but hold on! A lack of problems to solve can seem to many production heads like a storm brewing. There are many who are set on edge by no visible problems. They imagine that they are suddenly living in a bubble, not getting crucial information.
The reality is that an outsourced production team that already works together, has a fluent PM already familiar with your regional market via CI tools, and that has cheaper domestic or offshore back office overflow could easily overwhelm you with how few problems there are to resolve.
As long as your remote team lead is 100% in sync with you, so is the entire team backoffice — wherever they are. Remote production teams are more likely to be coherent work units that have deep experience working together. They’ve usually already worked out the bugs of their own interaction needs. You don’t need to worry about managing all that.
More learning of the good kind is not actually a con either, of course, it’s another hidden pro. But it can also be overwhelming to learn that you’ve been doing it wrong all along. Many in-house teams are trained wrong by a non-expert entrepreneur and everyone just accepts the program thinking the boss knows best — even when the boss is saying “I don’t know if this is right”.
A well-seasoned remote team may be able to point out many known unknowns and unknown unknowns by asking if you have a preference for your current method or would prefer a proven optimized method already in existence.
Real-time meetings are still possible…*sigh*. Kidding aside, many managers and business owners need to “feel” everyone in the room in a very visceral kind of way. That experience is completely viable from out of the office, as anyone who’s been working remotely in recent years is aware. Zoom is one of the ways this is done every day for remote team members or entirely remote teams.
Video meetings not only can provide crystal-clear video and audio for meeting discussions, but can also allow participants to be tagged for participant reference, phased into the background for audio-heavy participation, or even share screens for on-the-fly visual help or presentations.
One of the key benefits of remote video meetings is to keep a handy timeline reference of all meeting decisions. Jill from accounting shy on camera? Block her cam. Not sure about a policy decision? Check the meeting record. No more lost context due to vague or barely-existent meeting notes. And with deeply contextual voice+text+video meeting reference fully automated into your meeting methodology, you’ll more easily understand and evolve how your team meetings function without the Jim from sales constantly distracting everyone. Because, well, you know Jim…
Your normal team won’t be as scalable or available. This is not their fault. But there is a silver lining here. Your stand-in team can stand-in for your usual team the rest of the year, not just during quarantine. Holidays? Remote team. Inclement weather? Remote team. Sick day absences? Remote team. Vacation month? That’s right, remote team.
Your home team will probably appreciate the fact that you have backup available. They’ll appreciate that while nobody knows their job quite like they do, your remote team is there at the ready just in case.
How to start
- Get thorough input from all stakeholders on the following
- List all remote-method production costs. Include an estimate for everything that requires either money or time.
- Determine the scope of in-house functions under consideration. Do you need design help for just getting the crucial cover just right? Or is full layout help a priority also? Do you need a full production team also? Or just a layout editor to smooth things out after the fact?
- Think through print issue protocol. Print issues are difficult. There are no design or layout second chances in print. But the print quandaries extend to all kinds of unforseen areas, also. Advertising text, bleed problems, color snafus, proofreading: you need a defined approach to handling these things remotely.
- Decide on your quality/errata policy. Quality costs time. If you don’t have lots of time, commit to the reality of under-the-radar online corrections for less crucial items, and the standard legal correction notice for things that need to be recognized formally, like problematic factual errors regarding organizations, groups or individuals.
Putting together the ultimate all-remote design team or a reliable mixed-remote production team can seem daunting. But as we’ve seen, not only is remote work becoming the default in the short-term during the 2020 era of quarantine office culture and social distancing, it’s becoming more of a common safety valve for businesses in normal times as well, if not fast becoming a new normal.
With the right deliberation process (above), your organization can overcome the hopefully short-term obstacle of coronavirus calamity and continue to plot a continuous growth for a positive future for your company. At the same time, you can also provide a safe and happier method of work for those valued individuals you already depend upon.
Connectivity is the underlying key to work in the 2020s no matter how you look at it. Utilizing remote teams and a more flexible remote work culture is one sure way to steer any publication toward clear, open waters and avoid the icebergs that await in an uncertain future.