Ever since IBM, Yahoo and other organizations began implementing policies that limit or altogether eliminate virtual employees, there have been more and more conversations about this being the beginning of the end for remote employees. I, for one, strongly hope not.
I have worked from a home office for nearly a decade and have run a successful, completely virtual public relations and marketing firm for the past five years. Granted, we are nowhere near the size of IBM or Yahoo, but to my mind, leading a company is the same whether your employees are in the next cubicle over or in an entirely different time zone. Here are some of the best practices we’ve adopted to create a strong culture and vibrant virtual workplace.
1. Set clear boundaries.
Some people still believe that “working from home,” means “doing your work whenever you feel like it.” For our client-centric firm, this is definitely not the case. We need our team to be predictably available during our standard 8-to-5 workdays, and this is made clear to existing team members and new hires alike. Of course, we don’t expect (or want) our team members to sit in front of their computers for nine hours straight every day, so we’re just as clear that they should take regular breaks every day, whether that’s taking a long lunch or a number of breaks that may include folding laundry or raking leaves. While we expect the best from our team, they should be able to reap the rewards of working from home as well.
One tool that provides complete visibility and access to each member of our team at all times is our virtual office platform, Sococo. Every team member has his or her own office and a colorful icon shows whether they are available, busy or in the break room. Team members can chat via text or knock on go into each other’s offices to speak, share screens or video conference. Sococo also has conference rooms, which allow teams or the whole company to gather in one “place.”
2. Formalize personal interactions.
With the pace at which we work, it would easy for some of our team members to go through an entire day without interacting with another human being. To avoid this, foster collaboration and keep our teams connected, we have regularly scheduled team and company meetings and stand-ups — some as short as 15 minutes — to make sure that our team members are interacting with each other as if they were in a traditional office.
For our Monday and Friday all-hands-on-deck stand-ups, each team member turns on their video, because seeing someone’s face adds that necessary human element that may not come through with just their voice. (This also guarantees that our team members are showering at least twice a week.) My team leaders and I also have regular one-on-one check-ins with our direct reports where we make sure no work is falling through the cracks.
3. Build repeatable, automated and predictable workflows.
The vast majority of our work consists of writing, editing and designing various types of content for our clients. To juggle the dozens of content pieces we are working on at any given time, we use Podio project-management software. We’ve made customized apps for each type of content we create, and workflows in those apps guide our editorial process from beginning to end, as well as sending us a reminder of the tasks we need to do.
Podio also helps us focus our conversations. We’ve replaced most of our internal email with @ messages on the appropriate Podio page. This allows each team member to have their finger on the pulse of every single project, without ever asking someone else, “Hey, do you know what’s going on with XYZ?”
4. Create a culture of quick and effective communication.
One of the ways we earn and keep our clients’ trust is to be responsive. We answer their emails quickly, even if that answer is as simple as, “Sounds good to me!” As a virtual company, we make a real point of letting our clients know that we are listening and that we are ready to meet their needs. This same principle applies to internal communications. If our team members are in their offices, we expect them to respond promptly to texts from their co-workers or knocks on their office doors.
5. Last but not least, make time for fun!
Yes, we set strong boundaries and yes, we want to focus our daily efforts on serving our clients, but we’ve also found that an essential part of creating a cohesive team is making time for group activities that have nothing to do with work.
Every other Friday, instead of an all-team meeting, we have Funday Friday, where we might share our best and worst vacation stories, play the competitive quiz game Kahoot!, or break into teams to create imaginary seven-course meals. We even recently had a teacher come give us a class in chair yoga!
At the end of the day, virtual is not for everyone. It is imperative that you do what is best for your company, clients and the culture you look to create. A successful virtual company requires a strong foundation built on trust, cooperation, collaboration and communication. This starts with you and your leadership team. Employees can be productive working in an office or from home, just as they can be unproductive at both. How productive and successful your virtual firm can be depends on how effective your leadership team is.