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In 2010, in the middle of the Great Recession, Bryan and Shannon Miles started a brand-new company called BELAY that provides virtual assistant and bookkeeping services. BELAY has grown to 1,100 team members across the country, but the company doesn’t have a single office -- everyone works remotely.
The Forsyth County couple has since become leaders in the remote work movement. BELAY was ranked No. 1 among small businesses for company culture by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2017. Later that year, Bryan published a book, “Virtual Company: The Way We Work Doesn’t Work Anymore, A Manifesto,” a playbook for how Shannon and he built BELAY.
Their expertise in helping people work remotely has never been more relevant as companies in Forsyth County, Georgia and across the U.S. have closed their offices amid the novel coronavirus threat. Employees are forced to work from home, many for the first time.
Bryan and Shannon have been in demand lately: Business Insider, CNBC, Today Entrepreneur, and a host of podcasts have called on the two in the last week to share their wisdom on the work-from-home experience.
“People know our history and our success with having a fully-distributed company across the country, so they’re like, ‘OK, how do we do this?’” Bryan said.
Before BELAY, both Bryan and Shannon were familiar with remote work. Shannon worked for McKesson Corporation for 10 years in the Gainesville and Northeast Georgia region but only went to an office 2-3 days a week. Bryan was fully remote: the construction company he worked for was based in Ohio, and his assistant was in Charlotte, N.C.
They took Bryan’s experience of working remotely and used that as the model for BELAY. First, they offered virtual assistant services. Soon after, they added bookkeeping.
They’ve since devised a checklist for the self-employed or companies to implement a remote work strategy successfully, which includes tips like:
● First, set up a home office -- Bryan recommends designating a space of 100 square feet, or less. “The place where you pay your bills may not be the best place for you to actually do web calls and have phone calls and do the things you need to do,” Bryan said;
● Have the right equipment -- computer, monitors, webcam and any other audio accessories;
● Gather your tools -- Whether you’re self-employed working from home or part of a team, Bryan and Shannon recommend a bevy of tools to help stay connected with your colleagues and be productive, such as project management platforms like Asana or Basecamp; a cloud storage service like Dropbox or Google Drive to share files; communication tools like Slack to replace email or Zoom for video conferences; and personal organization apps like Google Calendar or Todoist;
● Establish a routine -- take a shower, get dressed and stick to a schedule;
● Take breaks -- unplug, call a friend or change your setting to stay productive and engaged in your work.
Bryan and Shannon developed these principles as BELAY grew. The company now receives more than 2,000 resumes a month.
In that growth they found that many people assume that working from home is easy.
“That’s just not true,” Bryan said.
But there are certainly advantages, they said. Working remotely eliminates the stress of commutes, allows for greater flexibility to manage other life priorities and prevents the spread of illness around an office. The distractions in an office setting are gone, allowing for more focused work.
Bryan and Shannon also believe working remotely can foster more authentic connections between co-workers, particularly with video meetings.
“You’re now looking into my house, I’m inviting you into my home,” Bryan said. “There is a lens into someone’s personal life that becomes a bit more authentic. It can create a meaningful connection with other people.”
The BELAY team regularly meets using a video conference service. Occasionally they do a “virtual happy hour” on Thursdays where team members get their favorite beverage and talk about a certain topic.
“Working remote does not mean working in isolation,” Shannon said. “You can maintain connections and relationships with your colleagues and your bosses in a remote setting. You don’t have to sacrifice those connections.”
For all the virtues of working remotely that Bryan and Shannon have found, they recognize the current moment is different. Kids are home from school and need to complete work online. Spouses are sharing the same workspace together for the first time. Internet connections may vary from employee to employee.
“What this is today is not an ideal situation,” Shannon said. “This will be the hardest it is.”
The moment calls for employees to be flexible and employers “to give a lot of grace” to their workers.
“We’ll get it done and figure it out as a county and as a state and as a country,” Bryan said, “but grace needs to be very prevalent right now.”