Plenty of people work from home occasionally, and plenty of managers work with people in different offices. But what if no one is in the office? What if your entire company consists of people working wherever they want to work?
That’s the reality for a growing number of companies that find central real estate unnecessary. Managing an entirely virtual team can be a challenge, but a few strategies make it quite possible, so you can reap the benefits of this new model.
“It is a big recruiting draw for the right type of person,” says Lisa Breytspraak Jasper, managing partner of IT strategy consulting firm Thought Ensemble, whose 13 employees are all virtual. “It allows us to lead our lives very flexibly”--and still get stuff done.
Here's how to make it work:
One upside of a virtual company is that you can hire people outside of commuting range. That said, just because you can draw talent from anywhere doesn’t mean you should. Felicia Rubinstein, founder of marketing and design firm 341 Studios, works with 16 people virtually. But they’re all relatively close to her Connecticut home base. “I like being in the same time zone,” she explains, and a one- to two-hour range makes in-person collaboration possible. Jasper casts a slightly broader geographical net, but still prefers to hire in clusters, including ones in Denver and Dallas.
She’ll hire superstars elsewhere--she recently pulled in someone in Ann Arbor, Michigan--but “we take a much harder look at someone in a city where we don’t have other people.” This makes travel more efficient.
Not everyone works well on her own. Jasper reports that “I interviewed some MBA interns recently, and they were flabbergasted: ‘Where would I work?’ So I gave up on that idea.” Instead, she prefers “relatively senior people who don’t need to be micromanaged.”
As a side note, as people get older, they may have family situations that make remote work appealing. “They’re appreciative of the flexibility and will go overboard to really work well for you,” says Rubinstein.
Getting people together for social events is great, but bonds arise from work structures too. “We move around between projects pretty fluidly,” Jasper says, and her employees spend roughly 20% to 30% of their time on client sites.
That means they’re getting to know different colleagues in person as they’re working. Rubinstein likewise reports that, “We have client meetings. Just because we’re virtual doesn’t mean we don’t see each other.”
Thought Ensemble has company-wide meetings for 90 minutes every Tuesday. While recurring meetings may be overkill when everyone’s already in the office, they do help virtual companies stay connected. Just don’t assume you need to use fancy videoconferencing to mimic the in-person vibe.
Rubinstein reports that 341 Studios favors basic audio conferencing in part because people don’t want to get dressed up. “We tend to talk with each other when we’re walking our dogs,” she says. Since physical activity boosts creativity, that may be a better approach than forcing people to sit in front of a camera.
Managing a virtual team requires letting go of the idea that being at a desk for a certain number of hours constitutes working. Jasper has no limit on vacation or sick days--but partners are responsible for a certain volume of sales, and more junior people are responsible for specific deliverables.
If you get it done, how you got it done doesn’t really matter. “We do actually track hours for client type work because we want to see how long it’s taking us,” Jasper says, but it’s an internal metric to make sure projects are profitable. “We don’t manage our company based on that."
[Image: Flickr user theaucitron]