For One Translation Provider, Brexit and Covid Meant the End of the Physical Office Forever

Before the covid-19 pandemic, 78 to 83 percent of people who worked for language services providers (LSP’s) worldwide reported into a physical office, according to Common Sense Advisory. But last March, everything changed. On Friday the 13th, the United States declared the virus a national emergency. Video meeting platform Zoom became the most downloaded app in the Apple store, collaboration tool Microsoft Teams saw a 500 percent use increase in China, and Google started offering its video Hangouts Meet product for free. Three days later, on March 16th, French president Emmanuel Macron ordered mandatory fines for people who left their homes and on March 23rd, UK prime minister Boris Johnson followed suit. By the end of the month, only 13 countries in the whole world had not experienced some form of governmental quarantine, lockdown, or “on pause.” And the number of global LSP employees going into a physical office every day? Well, that fell as low as three percent. In two and a half weeks, white-collar workers went from being strapped to their desks to stuck in their homes, homes that had now become offices whether they or their employers liked it or not. The world was virtual.

Anja Jones — Photo credit: GetSet for Growth

But in the sleepy tourism town of Newquay, England, population 20,343, Anja Jones Translation (AJT) had gotten a head start. Over the past year or so, managing director Anja Jones had been working with office manager Nikki Cowland to transition the company out of the physical world and into the online one. Not because of covid, but due to Brexit, the January 31, 2020 departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Pre-Brexit, “Anyone from within the EU could come to the UK and ha[ve] the right to live and work [t]here,” Jones says. This had enabled her growing company to employ native language translators originally from the continent. But, she explains, with the “UK declaring itself out of the European Union, that freedom of movement stop[ped].” Work visas were now required. New hires had to prove prior residence or apply for an EU settlement scheme. “What that means for us as employers is we need to register as visa sponsors and we need to pay a certain amount of money to obtain those visas,” Jones says. To make matters even more costly, visas also now require a minimum salary of £25,600 a year. Starting pay for AJT translators is £18,000.

That left Jones with two choices: raise salaries to an amount the company could not afford or operate virtually with translators outside of the United Kingdom.

Virtual translators, in effect, are not a foreign concept to the LSP. A predominately freelance profession, translators typically work from their homes, bouncing between assignments for multiple companies. In the United States, it can actually be illegal for them to physically work inside an LSP’s office, as state and federal governments each have their own labor and tax laws regulating employees versus independent contractors. Treat an in-house translator like a freelancer — or vice-a-versa — and an LSP can face debilitating fines for misclassification. Jones says this type of delineation doesn’t exist in the United Kingdom, but as far as AJT is concerned, like most translation companies, they have off-site freelancers they work with from time to time as well as full-time individuals integrated within the team. So, like any LSP, AJT had a bit of a jump on managing telecommuters since project managers were already used to communicating with the company’s 150 freelance translators. In this way, every LSP had the same head start. But since Brexit, Jones had taken the lead, grappling with physical/remote concerns not just for freelancers, but for herself and for AJT’s 20 member staff: in-house translators, “jobs that aren’t strictly speaking just translation or editing…like QA [quality assurance] or TM [translation memory] updates or glossaries we’ve used,” she says, as well as four project managers and office manager Cowland.

And so Jones set out on a two year plan to transition AJT to a fully virtual model. As Newquay-based staff gradually exited the company, she filled their roles with telecommuters. By the time the shutdown came, eight of her staffers were already remote. Then Johnson’s order restricted the rest to their homes and before Jones knew it, her company had spent three months telecommuting. In June, Cowland sent the team a survey. “Basically 80% of our staff were like, we’d either seriously consider working from home indefinitely or we would take that option,” Jones says, which cinched the call to permanently remain virtual: “We’re a small company and a decision like that is obviously massive. It affects everyone. And if we made that decision and everyone really loved the office and really want[ed] to stay here, then it would have been a different story.”

According to Common Sense Advisory, at the height of the pandemic, larger LSP’s — those annually billing 20 million USD or more — saw the harshest decrease in the percentage of employees physically coming into work, going from 83 percent to 28. How many were happy about it, who knows. “Just like companies in other industries,” the research provider writes in its October “COVID-19’s Impact on Staffing and Offices at LSP’s” report, “LSP executives are rethinking the importance of physical offices and their purpose. By now, larger LSP’s have already invested in the technology and processes to support large amounts of virtual work.”

“As a smaller company, we’re much more flexible,” says Jones. AJT translates 1.5 million words a month for a total revenue of 1.5 million GBP a year with cloud-based translation platform Smartling as anchor client. According to Jones, it’s this relationship that’s kept AJT growing during what for many other LSP’s was a financially difficult year. (Smartling declined to share 2020 revenue figures.)

Like the Smartling tool itself, Jones says AJT has “always been cloud-based. Everything we do is cloud-based — everything from how we store our documents to the CAT [computer automated translation] tools we use to the communication tools we use [Slack] — everything is cloud-based. So that’s always been our strategy.” Yes, the company had an office — Jones was required to give six months notice in order to vacate the lease — but that office was more of a place to gather and collaborate than a load beam she built her company around. “There was no pivoting,” Jones says; when covid hit, “It was literally, okay, well, we will work from home, you know?”

Without cloud-based technologies, Jones admits taking her LSP virtual would have been a much more difficult chore. AJT can only use Smartling when its clients use the tool as well, which leaves the team without a project management system for other customer projects. “We don’t have a dedicated translation project management system at the moment,” Jones says, which has posed a challenge, making work more manual than she would like, keeping staff from being able to effectively plug into CAT tools and restricting project management to Excel.

She’s looked into Plunet, but fixing the problem would pose another challenge: how to remotely teach employees the new tool. “If you think about the training, when you have someone who sits with you and you can physically train them, sit next to them and have a conversation, look at the same screen and go through things,” she explains. Go remote, she says, and staff can no longer “just shout across the desk.”

“Not physically being in the same room means it can be difficult to gauge how someone is feeling and if they need any help,” says office manager Cowland, whose job includes employee health and wellbeing, something she adds “has taken on a whole new level of importance” during covid.

Jones says, “For some people — especially younger guys — if they’re living in shared accommodation and they have a bedroom and that small desk and then all of a sudden they’re in that bedroom all day, that has psychological effects.” Part of this can be avoided by letting new hires know they will have to work from home, but with covid, this unexpected change was thrust upon us all. In its virtual LSP report, Common Sense Advisory addresses “pandemic fatigue,” writing “Once the community of an office and its interaction is replaced by people on teleconference or audio-only phone calls, there is the potential for social distancing of a different sort — the breakdown of the values, standards, and culture of your company.”

It would be unfair, however, to confuse the dynamics of a virtual environment with any emotional fallout caused by poor management, enforced overtime, reduced salaries, physical safety concerns, and all the other issues that befell some LSP employees during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We really tried hard to kind of come together as a team and support each other,” says Jones, explaining the company hosts casual — not mandatory — Zoom calls “where people could hop on and just hear another voice and that kind of thing.” For new employees, there are also get-to-know-you video calls and presentations. Jones has implemented what she calls “a very structured onboarding process” with a week’s worth of one-on-one sessions between new and existing colleagues.

Checking in on people to see how they’re doing also continues to fall on Cowland, the essence of whose role has undergone a massive change: What does an office manager do when there’s no office? For Cowland in particular, she keeps up with accounting, payroll, and human resources concerns — which might or might not overlap with the same position at other LSP’s. During the transition, Cowland says she’s also been charged with the dirty work of shifting a still-thriving company out of the physical environment, “liaising with managing agents, landlords, tradespeople, cleaners, rubbish, and recycling collections.” Yes, when going virtual, don’t forget to tell the trash guy.

As for how many other companies will make the move like Jones’, Common Sense Advisory reports that depends on location and size. In western Europe — including the United Kingdom, 49 percent of LSP employees had returned to the physical office by the report’s October release, with a 63 percent anticipated return once the pandemic is over. In North America — where Smartling is based, this compares to 22 percent and 44 percent respectively. (Smartling went 100 percent virtual in March and plans to remain so at least until spring.) Post-corona, North Americans were most likely to continue working from home; China was least with 95 percent of employees expected to return. And for all of Jones’ talk about smaller companies being easier to pivot, AJT’s annual revenue bracket is not the one anticipated to see the greatest change: The report contends 77 percent of smaller LSP employees (one to 4.99 million USD) went into a physical office before the pandemic; 58 percent plan to return. But larger LSP’s (20 million USD or more) hosted 83 percent of employees in-office pre-covid. Only around half of those workers plan to physically return.

Employee head count — and not revenue, says Common Sense Advisory, is the true tipping point for how readily LSP’s were able to shift virtual. “Moving over 100 workers to remote work at the height of the pandemic was done more quickly or easily than it was for those with under 100 FTEs,” the report reads, conjecturing that possibly “companies with 51 to 100 employees simply kept more people in office at the height of the pandemic for what they thought were strategic, regulatory, or other reasons.”

AJT principally translates for consumer brand, marketing, and technology clients, as well as other LSP’s — industries that tend to require less regulatory oversight and that also typically understand the intrinsically cloud-based nature of modern translation. Also, Newquay is in a remote part of Cornwall, a region in southwestern England. This means that even when AJT did have a physical office, it was in what Jones calls “a fairly removed part of the world anyway.” While AJT does collaborate with the local business community, the majority of its clients are outside the United Kingdom. “So for them, whether there’s a physical office here or not, I don’t think they could care any less,” says Jones.

That said, whether they require special regulations be followed or not, it is important for any LSP contemplating the shift to communicate with customers about the move and how it impacts them. From 2005 to 2015, this reporter owned a Louisville, Kentucky-based LSP called In Every Language, which transitioned from office to virtual in 2010. At that time, the shift created local rumors that the company could no longer afford an office. Truth was, we needed to hire better-trained project managers than what the city’s workforce had available. Yet many were unable to understand that by moving to a 100 percent cloud-based environment, we weren’t hurting — we were actually ahead of our time. Ten years later, as many of today’s LSP’s prepare to physically welcome back employees post-pandemic, AJT may still be ahead of the curve. Fortunately, Jones isn’t seeing similar negative pushback. “The last six to nine months has been a much bigger acceptance for home-[based] work,” she explains — regardless of industry. From translation to journalism, everyone white-collar has had to do it. “I think it’s going to be a massive revolution of how we all work and live. I don’t think it’s going to come as a massive surprise to anyone,” she says, “But I think it’s all about how we communicate that.”

For Jones, that communication is clear: “We need to close the office. I kind of wanted it to be much more, no, this is what we’re doing. This is our response. And this is how we take our own destiny in our own hands.”

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2X entrepreneur; reporter & fiction writer; Kentuckian in NYC; advocate for straight-talk & continued improvement

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