I work in a bedroom (well…there’s no bed or even a couch for that matter – it’s a bedroom converted into an office, so I actually do have to leave the office to sneak in an afternoon catnap).
PMG is an entirely virtual workplace, so our 19 employees exclusively work in their homes. We have no office space. And we’ve made it work for 10 years and our team certainly values the arrangement. We also know we are not alone – as many other small to midsized firms operate virtual workplaces, and a growing number of larger companies are embracing the idea of telecommuting or a hybrid situation where employees work from home for at least a couple of days during the week.
The Families and Work Institute’s 2014 National Study of Employers reported that since the last study, conducted in 2009, there was a 17% jump in the number of employers who allowed at least some of their employees to work from home occasionally and a 15% hike in the number of employers who allowed their employees to work from home regularly.
Whether your company is a virtual workplace from time to time or every day, it is critical to understand that these settings require special attention. Our colleague and friend Nancy Settle-Murphy has devoted her entire business to helping firms successfully manage virtual teams and her client list includes names like Procter & Gamble, IBM, and Partners Healthcare – so it’s clear that it’s worthwhile to take note! Nancy was also recently contacted by The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellanbarger for one of her Work & Family articles. (Note: only WSJ subscribers will see the full article.)
Some of the core benefits that can be enjoyed in a successful virtual workplace include:
- Attracting and retaining top talent
- Creating a culture that truly recognizes the work-life balance
- Less overhead and greater ability to scale without having to expand office space and related expenses
- Higher productivity among individuals and teams
Of course, working virtually does not come without its potential pitfalls, for both employers and employees. When we’re interviewing job candidates, we always point out that a virtual workplace is not for everyone.
Some of the more common challenges that can occur from working virtually include:
- A sense of isolation, especially for extroverts who are energized by others
- Feeling of less control for managers who like to have their teams present physically.
- Less ability to keep your finger on the pulse of the business (there’s no physical water cooler, break room, or cubicle chatter).
- Lack of communications about projects.
- Distractions, and blurred lines between work and home life. You might feel like you’re never away from your job, or in contrast, you never feel like you can fully focus on work.
After running a virtual workplace for 15+ years, we feel like we’ve learned a ton – and we have a solid sense of what this type of business needs in order to both leverage the benefits and avoid the pitfalls. We even won a 2015 Stevie Award for Best Run Women-Run Workplace that we are pretty proud of, especially since all of our employees contributed to our nomination!
Here are the five must-haves a business needs to create a great virtual workplace:
Communication and collaboration are critical when teams are partially or fully virtual, so your tech tools have to be top-notch. Luckily, there are some great ones available – from Trello to Dropbox, Zoom to Slack.
The right technology tools will work to keep your team members in touch, keep projects running smoothly, and make all documents and information quickly accessible. They can help managers collect feedback and keep tabs on the business. They can also help support a strong company culture – yes, that is possible (and important!) in a virtual workplace, even when people are not working side by side.
If a manager or business owner cannot trust their employees to do their jobs remotely, a virtual workplace will fail. There needs to be complete buy-in from the top of the organization that supports a flexible work environment.
At PMG, we tell our job candidates that we hire professionals who do not need micromanaging because they are committed to achieving excellence in their positions. We don’t need to know where our team members are at every moment of the workday.
Now, we have also learned that there needs to be some keeping to normal business hours – we would not want to employ someone who wanted to work 11 pm to 7 am every day or only work on weekends since that would not allow for reasonably scheduled client meetings, etc.
There also needs to be specific expectations set for employees about their role in the company, the work they own, and how performance will be measured. If this information is clear for all parties involved, then the logistical details of how they get their work done are less important.
3. Time Management
Working virtually is not a good fit for everyone. Some people will find it too challenging to separate work from their personal lives and will consequently be distracted by home life during the workday and vice versa. Helping your team to set boundaries for themselves so they can focus productively during their work time and then shut it off so they can have a rich personal life will increase the success of your virtual workplace and help retain great employees.
Having a designated workspace in the home is critical, as is having access to the right technology and tools. Creating a plan for the workday and the week overall is also helpful. Some of our team members find it helpful to put up a virtual “busy” or “out of office” message if they need concentrated time for writing, design, analysis or other focused work. I have also encouraged them to note in their Skype status if they have “office hour” time available during the day so their teammates will know when they can reach out for a quick brainstorm or just to take a virtual break together to chat.
4. Travel Budget
It is absolutely possible to create a great culture and achieve high productivity in a fully virtual workplace. But there is no way around the fact that face time has to happen for the best results. You need to have a travel budget to bring people together, either for a semi-annual or quarterly company gathering, since these live events will help build even stronger connections.
We have learned that when you do invest in bringing everyone together, it will be most successful if you plan time for business and for social. Plan a solid agenda for your work time and then allow some time for a casual dinner or outing where co-workers can visit and connect.
5. Sense of Togetherness
Even if your employees are not together all day, and even if they see each other just a few times a year, they can still enjoy a great sense of togetherness and function highly as a team. The tips above will help a lot – trusting them, providing the right technology, and giving them face time to build strong connections.
It is also good, and we have just started doing this, to use video as much as possible for team calls and virtual meetings. We all fall victim to multitasking when we are on a conference call, but this is much harder to do when you are on camera. Plus, your team will make much stronger connections when they can see each other.
We’ve also found that celebrating successes via email or during meetings is a great way to highlight all the good things that are happening in the company. We love to give shout-outs to team members that have had a nice win, and they appreciate the recognition. We also set aside time for account teams to schedule virtual brainstorms on client projects or to share a case study that could benefit another team.
Sharing company news and information regularly is also valuable to help everyone remember that they are part of something bigger, even as they toil away in their home office.
With the right technology, unfailing trust in your people, a commitment to time management, periodic travel for live gatherings, and a sense of team and the bigger picture, your virtual workplace will flourish.