It has been about 10 years since our digital marketing agency got its start, and after building an extraordinary team of 12 people, we remain a virtual working environment; that is, all 12 continue to work from home. This post explains the 3 things important to make a virtual work environment really work.
There was a time about 6 years ago when we got infatuated with office space. We looked around a bit and found several opportunities that would work for us, operationally and economically. However, the thought of paying rent didn’t sit well. And, after spending my 25 previous years commuting during the busiest times of the day and spending most of my waking hours in the “land of cubicle furniture” (corporate headquarter buildings), there was apprehension about driving to an office every day. After much consideration, we decided to invest in better people than pay the landlord. So, we dropped our search for office space and began our search for exceptional people. That decision has paid off well.
Over the past nearly 10 years, 3 things have emerged as critical to making a virtual work environment work.
#1 - The right people in the right environment
Here’s a ubiquitous statement – you’ve got to have the right people. Some people can’t perform working from a home office – others thrive at it. Maturity, an internal drive to accomplish good things for the customer, being a team-player and having good organizational skills are requirements in a virtual environment.
Additionally, the employee needs to have the right environment at home and needs to tell his/her family members they are working, not just sitting at home always available to do the next chore around the house. It is critical that the employee has a remote area of the house for an office. Setting up on a dining room table or in the corner of the family room won’t work. On the contrary, converting a bedroom into a home office is often the best approach because you can always close the door to get away from activities going on in the rest of the home.
#2 - The right tools to collaborate and monitor
Technology advancements have made the virtual environment almost as collaborative as being in an office. Instant messaging (IM) is a staple. Having a tool that provides the work status of every employee all the time is important to managing accessibility and productivity. Additionally, it is much less disruptive to the employee when a fellow employee “pings” someone via IM vs. stopping by their office and interrupting project work or a critical thought process.
Video Skype and Google Hangouts provide video meetings for groups of people. After having video meetings, people often wonder why we ever get together in person at all. I’ve heard some virtual companies have cameras on everyone as a way to facilitate collaboration and communications. That sounds good but frankly who wants to be on camera all day every day? I think that’s taking video a bit too far.
Finally, a project management system capable of recording and tracking hours is critical. Basecamp has been the platform we use. It is a good repository of project and client related documentation, and it does a great job of tracking employee hours by project.
#3 - Demanding workload that supports high productivity
There’s no substitute for being busy. If you don’t have enough work to keep employees working at a fast pace, minds start to wonder and before you know it employees get comfortable using the work-at-home situation as a way to get home chores done and/or babysitting the kids.
Good employees will always rise to the occasion and find ways to improve their productivity and impact. So, when in question err on the side of having more work to do than less. Then, work on ways to improve individual productivity to avoid employee burnout.
Combining the right people with the right technologies and a demanding workload are the keys to success in a virtual working environment. It is always better to invest in people, than paying rent.