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They Said It Would Never Work

In Conversation with Alex Graves & Giles Court

They Said It Would Never Work

How Silicon Reef turned the dream of boundless agency – with limitless holiday, no fixed working hours and remote working for all – into a reality.

Three years after launching their SharePoint development agency Silicon Reef, founders, Co-Managing Directors and friends Alex Graves and Giles Court reflect on the journey they have taken and consider what makes the organisation work so well. Back in 2016 they started their business with a vision of creating a company without traditional, physical boundaries – an agency made limitless by the very technical solutions they develop for their clients.

They were told, when they started, that this model – without the traditional structures of 9-to-5 working hours and office-based employees – would never work, so what have the last 3 years taught them? And could this be a model that other businesses might be more ready to adopt post-lockdown?

Giles – We started Silicon Reef in 2016, 5 friends branching out with a deep expertise in all things SharePoint, a wide variety of skills and talents, but a strong and clear common vision for a new way of working. And here we are today with a team of 32, 65 live projects, a client list including Unilever, Mondelēz, BP, Santen, Pukka Tea, a high-end fashion label, and global mining company Anglo American. We are just about to enter our third year of trading now and, with the company split so absolutely into its component parts by the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown measures, we are still continuing to function almost as normal. It feels like a fitting time to look back at what we set out to achieve.

Let’s start at the heart of the company. What drives the Silicon Reef ethos?

Alex – Silicon Reef has had a goal of transforming the modern working model from the outset. We have always strived to enable employees to connect and work from anywhere, at a time that suits them – not just for convenience and efficiency for us as employers, but primarily so that those employees can live a life of balance.

As founders we crafted this purpose because we, and the first Reefers, came from an enterprise organisation that were themselves early adopters of this ethos. When we started Silicon Reef we wanted to take this experience and expertise and share it with other organisations.

Giles – I have always disliked commuting. The rat run used to put me in a negative mindset before I started my working day – almost without fail. In one role I had to commute between Northampton and Bournemouth every day and was working 10-hour days. It wasn’t healthy or sustainable. That job taught me the value of living a balanced life.

Silicon Reef has been architected around the needs of the modern worker. The directors and our experiences channel into this. It’s at the heart of what we do and is in the difference it makes to our lives and the lives of our employees. We wanted to be running a business that was successful, yes – of course – but also a business where people had a work life balance and we think we’ve achieved that. We all work in an organisation where we – and our employees – have the freedom to draw the maximum joy from our jobs, where we can ‘work happy’.

So, what does this look like day-to-day for Silicon Reef employees?

Alex – Our employees are everything. Growing the team and finding people who wanted to be part of our journey has been a really successful part of our growth. People have been drawn to Silicon Reef because of the culture and the life balance this gives to our employees.

Giles – Silicon Reef have a unique way of working in this industry. Our employees have completely flexible hours, limitless holiday and can work from anywhere in the world.

We live and breathe what we preach to our clients – that technology removes the limitations of the working day. We allow people to be flexible when and where they work for us. We are task and delivery focused, and, even for remote workers, don’t focus on the time employees spend being ‘online and visible’. Our absolute trust in our people – and our innate desire for them to succeed and learn – is the key to this model being a success.

Alex – Currently we have an employee working ‘full time’ from Spain and another working 2.5 months out of the last 14 from Australia, Singapore and New Zealand as she travels with her family. After three years of living and breathing our ethos we are now more than comfortable adjusting employees working hours so that they fit their family life.

Doesn’t this turn the traditional time and materials agency approach on its head?

Giles – Absolutely. Silicon Reef are outcome focussed. We look at breaking everything down into tasks. It probably stems from our tech background – the burndown charts & Kanban boards! We don’t clock-watch, and we don’t ask people to take a certain amount of time to complete a task. We ask them how long it will take and the best way to achieve it in the time that they can manage.

For us, our employees and their knowledge, talents and experiences are our business and our product. We know that if they aren`t happy our product and experiences will suffer for it.

Alex – Our service model is not simply about augmenting resources to a client’s team and supporting them to achieve their goals. Our product is outcome driven. If a client has a problem and resources at their disposal to solve that problem – we are here to apply Microsoft 365 specialist knowledge within the context and constraints they have to deliver the desired result in the most efficient way possible.

Giles – The way we work is to build real, sustainable partnerships with our customers. We will do T&M work, but only if it is appropriate for the type of work and absolutely fits the customer need.  Our preference will always be to help our clients in their own journeys as they evolve their operating model towards an employee empowered culture. As a result, all of the Silicon Reef employees, when working with a client, are viewed as an extension of their team.

Sounds idyllic! How does it actually work in practice?

Alex –    We apply a task-based approach to our delivery model, supported with great project and account management. This works so well for us; it allows us to focus on the outcomes and deliverables together.

For this ‘The Reefer Way’ is our guiding process, this is our 6-step delivery structure and it’s available as an App through Microsoft Teams for all employees. Wherever they are they can access this guide to running and delivering projects, our gate process, and all the communications tools they need, as well as using the Reefer Wiki, and the Tracker and Learning Channels.

Giles – It’s all about appropriate, consistent process, excellent people, task management, great communication and the most important element… trust!  We have very talented, committed people working for us, and they are all given the freedom and flexibility – and most importantly the trust – to succeed in their roles, however they choose to execute them. Underneath it all is a people-focussed culture, where relationships are vital – both across the internal team and with clients.

It does require a few adjustments to normal working patterns and behaviours which are actually quite tricky to master. It’s a learning experience for everyone and we are always trying new ways to make it work even better. We encourage people to block out their diaries with quiet time and ‘going dark’ time so that they can get in the zone.

Alex – We also encourage more regular, shorter meetings to help us surface small issues quickly before they turn into bigger ones. Most importantly we help and rely on each other to make sure everyone is working to deliver the same solution. And we always aim switch our cameras on when possible to emulate the face-to-face!

Giles – We have 3 offices in the UK, but no mandate for employees to be in at any specific time if it doesn’t suit them.

And even though we are spread across the country, and also in Spain, we come together weekly for video all-company meetings, and get together every quarter as a company to celebrate success and discuss the future plans

Alex – We do understand that nothing ever will be quite as good as being there in person, that’s why we still have physical offices. These allow our employees a place to get away from home distractions or meet clients if needed.

Essentially Silicon Reef is a workplace that enable people to work from anywhere and still be closely connected with the company.

Does this mean that your clients have to change their working practices?

Alex – Not at all! In fact, it means we are far more flexible and adaptable.

We work with a lot of international clients, with employees working across the globe. Greater flexibility is essential to creating a better service. Need a call at 8pm GMT? No sweat, we will just shift our day to make that work for the employees who need to do it, and there is very little change or disruption for us. We’re experienced enough to expect this type of requirement, so we are READY to deal with the needs when they arise

Giles – We are also able to be much more responsive to changes and issues that arise on projects and adapt our approach to solve any issues as soon as they arise. We have many more touch points with the clients to make sure our approach is addressing their needs, and we don’t have to book in a meeting days in advance with huge agendas, clients can just give us a wave on Teams and we will jump right on a call to chat.

Our flat structure and open culture mean we have fewer barriers and less hierarchy. On any project, any member of staff is able to reach another to gain assistance or specialist skills quickly.

What tools have you needed to make it possible?

Alex – Our universal adoption of technological advancements like Microsoft Teams, Planner and SharePoint have been significant enablers to scaling our project resources in an automated way. These tools didn`t even exist in any meaningful way when we started but we have adopted, adapted, and manipulated them into a bespoke arrangement that allows us to create project assets both automatically and at short notice. This is just a great example of how we have evolved our operation model.

How do you keep evolving that model so that you can learn and grow?

Alex – Everyone has a voice and are encouraged to challenge the Leadership Team where improvements can be made.

Giles – One of our most significant evolutionary steps was to implement ‘crews’ to help to build familiarity between our teams and the clients. With these dedicated teams we can achieve a small company feeling at scale.

We are always finding ways to innovate within our own project processes which helps us to maintain control across hundreds of projects at the same time.

Three years in and you’re obviously doing well, but how do you know it WORKS?

Giles – Because everyone benefits.

Our Silicon Reef team benefit because they able to work the hours that suits them, they don’t waste time commuting, they get to spend more time with their families – and this results in a happier more productive workforce.

Our clients benefit because they are working with a productive and efficient agency, working with a happy Account Manager who enjoys their job. We don’t have big overheads around fixed costs such as office space so this doesn’t get passed on through our pricing, and – most importantly – our culture means that we attract the best talent who provide fantastic results time and time again.

What do you say to the critics who said it would never work, or that it would work but only with a handful of clients and a small team – but it definitely wouldn’t scale…?

Alex – In the early days we were lucky enough to have a great client – Unilever – who gave us the foundation to build upon and work with exciting challenges like International Women’s Day, supporting digital transformation Connected 4 Growth, and creating applications to enhance the R&D and Procurement processes. We have since evolved from this foundation and are now forming strong partnerships and working with many other great organisations.

Scaling takes time but now – with 90% of our clients through referral from existing clients or our network – the quality of our work and the validity of our approach is well established.

Things seem pretty good for you guys. What do you think the future holds for businesses like yours, once we emerge from lockdown into a post coronavirus world?

Giles – Perhaps this is the new agency model, perhaps this is an improved model for businesses in general.

This is all going to feel very familiar to people who have been having to adopt new ways-of-working in the Covid-19 lockdown, but you’ve got to remember we’ve been running like this for years. Planned well and with the underpinning of regular – if not frequent – in-person get togethers, remote-working is extremely productive, cost effective and empowering for employees and employers alike. We are fully expecting to see more and more businesses coming out of lockdown and choosing to retain an element of their new remote working structure and practices at the very least. You only need to look at the huge uptake in Teams, and in particular the Teams Meeting functions, to know that remote working tools have been tested I ager across thousands of organisations, and their benefits will most definitely have been realised.

Digital tools processes and ways-of-working and communicating have definitely proved their value in the past few months!  We’re not far away from a business landscape where – as Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK said way back in 2012 – ‘having a digital strategy will look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy’. It’s definitely the case that in most businesses we work with now IT no longer sits in-silo adding applications to machines for users.

Rather they are becoming integrated into the business, and we are continually being called on to work with clients to enable and teach them how to do this successfully. And usually this is the first time they will experience this level of integration.

Alex – This is the shift we are seeing all over the world, and companies that make this change well are typically outperforming the others. It’s absolutely our belief that placing a digital heartbeat at the core of your operating model will unlock the benefits.

Benefits like: happier staff and better retention; access to greater skills and knowledge diversity; improved ability and agility to adapt to external influences and demand; greater access to knowledge and knowledgeable people; reduced office and fixed costs; improved security; searchability and traceability of all communication types; ability to stay up to date through cloud services; and, competitive advantages through innovation

Giles – If there is one thing that Silicon Reef is hoping to achieve in the future, it’s to show the world that the modern workplace can be empowering, flexible and productive.

We want to see every company in the world challenge themselves to take a people-first approach to their digital workplaces and re-imagine how their company might work better in this way.

Alex – That’s a neat summary. It feels like our model is being tested in anger now, and I’m proud of how it’s holding up.

Miss our meetups in London though mate.

Giles – See you for a virtual beer on Teams Friday night?

Alex – Done.

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