I’ve written about how before COVID has changed the workplace forever. Before COVID, companies were not a fan of virtual workers and thought they should be in one place to be managed and contribute as part of the team. But when virtual work became necessary in the wake of COVID, they quickly learned, “Hey, the staff seem to be doing just fine working remotely,” while revenues are still coming in as normal. That was great for the employees who were looking for the flexibility of working from home and now prefer virtual working. The real problem is, how do you manage a distributed workforce over the long term while still building the desired team performance and culture? You will learn exactly how to do that in this post.
Find out what your team’s wishes are
This does not have to be a one size fits all situation for each of your employees. Some people like virtual work (e.g. not commuting, working in pajamas). And some people prefer working in the office (e.g. taking a break from the kids, socializing with friends). So the key is to learn which path your team members prefer, working virtually or working on location. It is important that everyone’s needs and long-term goals are aligned if it is to be successful for all parties.
Change your recruiting approach
If you prefer to evolve to a virtual team for the long haul, you need to change your recruiting approach. Your job descriptions should be clear to a virtual office and remote team. That will remove the candidates who don’t want to work remotely. And on the other hand, many candidates are now actively seeking remote positions as many of their current employers have returned to office work and they want to keep the virtual work they were doing. Many are willing to even consider a pay cut to allow for that flexibility.
You also need to find out where the employees are located geographically. Some companies have said that the employee can be located anywhere in the world, if they have the right skills. That opens up much cheaper talent pools in Eastern Europe and Asia. But others have tried to keep staff in one central location so that it would be easier to get the team together in person when needed (e.g. for annual meetings, weekly happy hours, easier training). If you are a small business, try to keep it centralized, especially to simply file payroll taxes in one state. Once you become a large company, you will have to cast a wider net to find new employees from a wider geographic region.
Offer personalized options for those who want it
May companies offer a hybrid approach. Let employees come to the office as and when they want. The result of this is the loss of the 10,000 square foot office with dedicated desks for each employee, and replaced it instead with a 5,000 square foot office with shared workstations, similar to what you would see in a shared office workspace, such as WeWork, where employees would reserve a desk or conference room for the day as needed. This is also called a hotel model. The good news: your home office rental costs have just been cut in half!!
Replicate or save personal team building activities
Restaurant furniture plus leverages a virtual workforce largely based in the Cleveland, Ohio area. They recently launched a new fun committee that plans monthly in-person events in the area (e.g. Happy Hours, bowling parties). This helps break the monotony and loneliness that comes from working from home, and reinforces the fact that they are all part of the team. Without these types of events, it can occur “out of sight, out of mind” which doesn’t help with team building.
If you are truly a virtual company with staff spread across the country, in-person events become much more difficult and prohibitively expensive, so you’ll 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 personal business entrepreneur, I loved walking the aisles, seeing what people are working on, patting staff on the back, taking them out to dinner, or whatever. You lose all that with a virtual business, but those things are still just as important to your success. So make sure you have good analytical reports that can help you see which employees are doing well against the target, and which are struggling. Give compliments and rewards to employees virtually. Host virtual lunches with your team to talk about something other than work. etc.
Building culture becomes twice as difficult
It’s hard to build a “one for all, all for one” culture if you never see your colleagues in person. Even worse, it’s much easier to hide and ignore difficult conversations if someone can’t 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 turn their backs on their colleagues. So you need to continue to emphasize your team’s cultural values and ensure that all staff live up to the same standards, even if they are working from home.
Avoid “Zoom Fatigue”
In a virtual company, the only way to hold group meetings is via web video (e.g. via Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet). The problem with web video: it can be tiring, hurt your eyes, and it can be easy to turn them off, with the cameras off or your staff doing other work while the meeting is in progress. Only schedule meetings that are absolutely necessary and keep them to a minimum. And let the team know, if you have them, they are important and need to be focused.
I really love the move to virtual workforce. I think it will make companies more efficient equipment, so they don’t have to incur unnecessary costs. And it will make most staff materially happier with the increased flexibility that working from home brings. But for it to be a success, it is important that you follow the high-level guidelines above. Having run a virtual company for the past four years has certainly presented some challenges. But we learned from them, optimized for them, and led us to scale our business to new heights, with an engaged and loyal team. Good luck replicating this in your own business.