Cranes, Trains, & Automobiles: Evolving Work Culture In The Digital World

Sketch of a crane flyingSketch of a crane flying
Table of Contents

COVID was - and continues to be - a world-altering illness to put it mildly. On the corporate side, there has been a massive shift in day-to-day interactions, both internally and with clients. We have written about our take on the highly contentious work from home culture that has found precarious footing after the lockdowns; in summation, we support flexible hybrid work, but not a fully remote work force for our particular industry.

We noticed during the lockdowns - and temporary work from home orders - that employees were taking advantage of their newfound locational flexibility to travel and work simultaneously. Rather than getting cooped up in a closet-turned-office, some staff members departed to any place that had some crossover in working hours and reliable wifi. Cabins of family or friends, shared AirBnBs in Mexico, or co-working and living in Chile from some stories we've read.

Due to very few companies having any regulations for work from home - outside of those with intensive security requirements or in heavily regulated industries - it wasn't deemed a problem until they started forcing team members back to the office (keeping in mind, we are technically one of those companies). Back to 2-4 weeks of vacation, and 49 weeks of dreary commutes, cubicles and in-person meetings for a large number of the North American working class.

We have reached a crossroads in modern working culture, where it seems it has to be one road or the other; either all staff can work remotely, or everybody has to be present in the office to some extent. Either piss of the team members that have finally gotten the taste of freedom that remote work offers, or abandon the in-person foundation of company culture. Whether or not it's agreed upon, some people have had jobs they've enjoyed in their lives, particularly the office aspects.

With trying to keep ahead of the trend curve, we have introduced a few measures to help bridge the gap between fully remote and in-office work with four company pillars;

  • 9-day fortnights
  • Core working hours
  • 4+ weeks of work away
  • Subsidized company work away

9-day fortnights = long weekends for all

To preface this, our shorter work weeks are a work in progress. We still work 80 hours every two weeks, and that is something we'd like to actively reduce in the future without reducing salaries. With that being said, we're a small fish that doesn't necessarily have the year-over-year consistency in not going bankrupt to take too many risks (see the following paragraphs for examples of those).

Weekends aren't long enough. With modern work culture tending to lead to burnout in many career paths, Saturdays are usually used for recuperation and Sundays are catching up on personal duties; laundry, groceries, family get togethers, and the like. Then it's right back into the grind of the work week.

With 4 days of work every other week, we've attempted to take the first steps to getting our team their personal days back. Time to go hiking, head out camping, sitting around on the couch doing nothing, or whatever it is they didn't get to do on the previous two-day sprint of a weekend.

As of right now, with ~10 pre-existing long weekends, and an additional 26 added on with the 9-day fortnight, we've almost tripled the number of expected days off per year without accounting for PTO.

Our goal is to eventually push for the 4-day, 32-hour work week when we're absolutely sure it's feasible. With the way recent studies have been going, we may be there sooner rather than later, albeit there is still work to be done to ensure that stress and expectations don't increase with the reduction in hours.

Core working hours

There are countless reasons why the 9-5 doesn't make sense, but here are a few at the top of the list:

  • No school has 8:30AM-5:30PM class hours. That means after school care, babysitters, arranging pickups, and more problems for parents.
  • We all have different productive hours. Some wake up at the crack of dawn, some sleep in. Why share the same start time?
  • 2x-4x commute times. Everybody starts at the same time, everybody is on the road at the same time.

With the collaborative aspect of our creative work, we do require some crossover between staff hours so lines of communication are open. We achieve this by setting our core hours: 10:30AM - 3:00PM. As long as work gets done and hours, for the most part, are accounted for, we encourage team members to work on their own schedules. The only caveat to this is if they're required in client meetings in which case we do ask that they be available.

4+ weeks of working from (almost) anywhere

Wake up in the morning, stretch out, head down the block to the beach, grab a cabana and crack open the laptop for an hour of answering emails before brunch.

Not only is that scenario possible in today's working environment, it's something we're actively trying to encourage. As of this very moment, we have staff planning on personal trips for up to 2 months at a time, working away in:

  • Kyoto, Japan for the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival.
  • Managua, Nicaragua
  • Queenstown, New Zealand
  • Bogota, Colombia
  • Saltspring Island, Canada
  • Hawaii, USA
  • and more

We are in the golden age of international and domestic travel, and with the deep dive that the economy has taken into digitalization as a result of the lockdowns, it is the first time in history that travel and work has been more than just a pipe dream.

With the ability to either sublet, rent, or AirBnB personal residences, find flight deals for next to nothing, and travel in lower cost of living countries, it's even feasible to make money by traveling on another continent.

Our minimum vacation time for junior roles is 3 weeks (albeit we're flexible on that), and one month of work away. With our company-provided work away (see next section), our team has the ability to spend anywhere from 2-4 months away from the office per year if they so choose. Is it as good as fully remote for 12 months per year? Absolutely not, but we believe it is a step in the right direction.

As is the case with a few of these points, there is a 'but'. It's just not feasible for there to be any crossover of working hours in some areas of the world. We ask team members to restrict their work away destinations to ensure that they are within 8-9 hours of our normal time zones; it usually means anywhere in the Americas, Oceania and East Asia, and Western Europe/Africa are fine. We also require that they have access to steady internet services.

Cranes, Trains, and Automobiles: Company Work Away

By far the most important initiative that we've launched as a young company, we recently returned from our first most-expenses-paid sojourn abroad. It was costly, it certainly slowed down our growth, and it was incredibly risky in dozens of ways.

It was also, without argument, the best thing we've done.

What did it look like?

The Trip

July 1 - July 31

Countryside of Normandy, France

Explicit Costs

Quite a few AirBnB hosts offer 40% or more off for renting out for 30-days or more. We managed to find a good discount in France, but it was still not a cheap purchase by any means. Thousands per head that attended.

Another facet of the purchase was subsidized flights. We pitched in $500 per staff member towards flight costs. With some of the deals on flights, we had team members flying round-trip to Europe for as little as $200 after accounting for the subsidy.

A cost that we didn't account for prior to leaving was the roaming fees which was a massive oversight.

Finally, we ate the cost of a rental car and gas as, being in the country, public transit and walkability were not possible. With rental prices in 2022 being sky high, it was a fairly sizable expense.

Underlying Costs

Outside of the hard costs of the adventure, there were some underlying costs that we had to account for.

Sales took quite a large hit as our entire business development team was on a different continent than the bulk of our client base. Despite the growth of the company, we dropped about 50% in sales in the month of July compared to the year prior. That being said, we are on pace to beat out sales expectations for the year which makes it a much easier pill to swallow.

The final cost was potential recurring client drop-off and sub-par project work. Informing clients that you can only meet with them during a small window in their morning is a nuisance. Having to deal with some lag in both video calls and email responsiveness was the cherry on top. Despite changing our European working hours to ~12:00PM-8:00PM GMT to partially compensate for the time zone recalibrations, there was absolutely a risk of a drop in client satisfaction.

Potential Improvements

Many of the underlying costs listed above will be mitigated as we grow.

  • Lack of redundancy: With the size of the company at present, we don't have the resources to double up on roles, so any staff member moving abroad means an interruption of some magnitude for our projects or sales. In the future, our goal is to expand on the initiative to better accommodate a rotating schedule of some sort to ensure we have some of our team available during normal working hours.
  • Internet bandwidth: our choice of team AirBnB had 1980s-level bandwidth which made the first couple days of work very difficult. We wound up upgrading fairly quickly with the help of our host. In the future, we'll be making sure that internet access is suitable for multiple team members working or streaming video at the same time prior to booking anything.
  • Non-central location: the lack of walkability which came along with renting a house in the country was a problem. Our next work aways will be more central to ensure it's easy for team members to get around without depending on a shared rental car.
  • Roaming: Pertaining to the issue we had with massive phone bills, with a little research we were able to find Airalo, an e-sim provider that could have saved us thousands of dollars in fees. Whoops.
  • Time zones: European time zones are a little less convenient for the bulk of our clients in North America. Central and South America are obvious options to reduce the time discrepancies, but we're also going to test the far Eastern Hemisphere to see whether early morning workdays are preferable for staff and clients alike.

Initiative Success

In our opinion, the first test of Cranes, Trains, and Automobiles was a resounding success! By that, we mean it didn't put us out of business, the team members that attended seem to have taken full advantage of the dramatic reduction in travel costs to get in and around Europe, and we have continued to grow as a company after returning.

From a health and wellness perspective, we see travel as a tremendous boon to character growth, creativity, and work-life balance. The more we can encourage it internally, the more we believe we can foster enriched lifestyles for our team, which in turn means happier staff, better work, more satisfied clients, and a step in the right direction for work culture in general.

What's next? 

We've been collecting bucket lists from our team and pinning requests to maps to see where it is that everybody wants to go and what events they want to experience abroad. With the success of the first iteration of this initiative, we're now setting aside funds to make sure that we can make it even more affordable for staff to attend in the future.