I have previously written about how COVID has changed the workplace forever. Before COVID, companies were not fans of virtual employees, and thought they needed to be in one place for them to be managed and contributing as part of the team. But once virtual work became required in the wake of COVID, they quickly learned “hey, the staff seems to be doing just fine working remotely”, with revenues still coming in as normal. Which was great for the workers looking for the flexibility of working from home, and now preferring to work virtually going forward. The real problem is: how do you truly manage a distributed workforce over the long run and still build your desired team performance and culture. This post will help you learn exactly how to do that.
Learn What Your Team’s Desires Are
This does not need to be a one size fits all situation for each of your staff members. Some people love virtual work (e.g., not commuting, working in pajamas). And some people prefer working in the office (e.g., break from the kids, socializing with friends). So, the key is learning which path your team members prefer, working virtually or working on-site. It is important everybody’s needs and goals are aligned for the long term, for it to be successful for all parties.
Change Your Recruiting Approach
If you prefer to evolve to a virtual team for the long run, you will need to change your recruitment approach. Your job descriptions need to clearly be speaking to a virtual office and remote team. That will weed out the candidates that don’t want to be working remotely. And, on the flipside, many candidates are now actively seeking out remote positions, as many of their current employers have reverted back to in-office work, and they want to keep the virtual work they were doing. Many are willing to even consider a pay cut, to enable that flexibility for them.
You will also need to figure out where the employees are geographically located. Some companies have said the employee can be located anywhere in the world, if they have the right skills. Which opens up a lot cheaper talent pools in Eastern Europe and Asia. But others have tried to keep hiring in one central location, so that it would be easier to get the team together in person, whenever that may be needed (e.g., for annual meetings, weekly happy hours, easier training). If you are a small company, try to keep it centralized, especially to simply payroll tax filings in one state. Once you are a big company, you will need to throw out a bigger net to find new workers from a broader geographic region.
Provide In-Person Options for Those That Want It
May companies are offering a hybrid approach. Let employees come to the office, when and if they ever want to. The result of that is losing the 10,000 square foot office with dedicated desks for each worker, and instead, replace that with a 5,000 square foot office with shared work-stations, similar to what you would see in a shared office workspace, like WeWork, where employees would reserve a desk or meeting room for the day, as needed. This is sometimes referred to as a hoteling model. The good news: your home office rent costs just got cut in half!!
Replicate or Keep In-Person Activities for Team Building
Restaurant Furniture Plus engages a virtual work force that is largely based in the Cleveland, Ohio area. They recently launched a new fun committee which plans monthly in-person events in the area (e.g., happy hours, bowling parties). This helps to break the monotony and loneliness that comes from working in your home, and does a great job of reinforcing the fact they are all part of the team. Without events like this, “out of sight, out of mind” can set in, which doesn’t help with team building.
If you are truly a virtual business with staff located across the country, in person events becomes much harder and cost prohibitive, so you will need to figure out how to replicate the above with “virtual events”. In the wake of COVID, several new service providers are offering virtual team building events (e.g., trivia nights, murder mystery parties), which you may want to consider for your business.
Managing and Cheerleading Becomes Twice as Hard
As a serial entrepreneur of in-person companies, I loved walking up and down the aisles, seeing what people are working on, patting staff on the back, taking them out to lunch, or whatever. You lose all of that with a virtual company, but those things are still equally important to your success. So make sure you have good analytical reports that can help you see which employees are doing well vs. goal, and which ones are struggling. Provide compliments and employee awards virtually. Set up virtual lunches with your team to talk about anything other than work. Etc.
Culture Building Becomes Twice as Hard
It’s hard to build a “one for all, and all for one” culture when you are never seeing your peers in person. Worse yet, it is much easier to hide, and ignore having difficult conversations, when someone cannot easily tap you on the shoulder and take you into the conference room to talk about it. You still want your staff to become loyal to the company and have their peers’ backs. So, you need to keep emphasizing your team’s cultural values, and make sure all staff are living by those same standards, even while working from home.
Avoid “Zoom Fatigue”
In a virtual company, the only way to have group meetings is by web video (e.g., via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet). The problem with web video: it can be tiring, hurting your eyes, and it can be easy to tune them out, with cameras turned off, or you seeing staff doing other work while the meeting is in progress. Only schedule meetings that are absolutely needed, keeping them to a minimum. And, let the team know, when you do have them, they are important, and they need to be focused on.
I actually love the move to virtual workforces. I think it will make businesses materially more efficient, saving them from spending on unnecessary costs. And, it will make most staff members materially happier with the increased flexibility that comes with working from home. But for it to be a success, it is important you follow the high level guidance above. Having run a virtual business for the last four years, it certainly has presented some challenges. But we have learned from them, optimized for them and has resulted in us scaling our business to new heights, with an engaged and loyal team. Good luck replicating this in your own businesses.
George Deeb is a Partner at Red Rocket Ventures and author of 101 Startup Lessons-An Entrepreneur’s Handbook.