To make a virtual office function well, you may need to take some extreme measures. These companies did--and they're better off for it.
Do you have employees in multiple locations? Do you have employees working from home?
Great--but how do you ensure a distributed workforce comes together to create an outstanding team?
The following is a guest post from Walter Chen, co-founder of iDoneThis, a team management tool that makes it easy for people to share what they've gotten done. (Here's a post of mine about essential online tools that includes a description of iDoneThis.)
Distributed work run entirely against the way we've been socialized to work: We commute to an office, we make small talk at the water cooler, we shuffle into conference rooms for meetings... that's how we get stuff done.
You wouldn't put a physical office together without putting some thought into layout, furniture, and environment. Just because virtual offices do away with those traditional considerations doesn't mean there's less to think about.
That's why successful teams not only acknowledge and address the challenges of having a distributed team, they take exaggerated measures to ensure that they succeed.
To make a virtual office function well, you may need to take extreme measures and invent new ways to work together:
1. Share everything about yourself with your team.
Your employees probably don't know how much their co-workers make (much less their bosses, or even you), how much they sleep, or the specific steps they're taking to improve themselves. But those are exactly the details they share every day at Buffer, a social media marketing start-up with team members around the world.
When you're co-located with your team you gain an incredible wealth of contextual information about your teammates just by being around them. While those details may seem superfluous or trivial, that richness of context breeds trust.
Distributed teams get none of that, and that's why Buffer took such a deliberate approach to making sure that its team has context. Extreme transparency is a fundamental value in their company. Every employee at Buffer receives a Jawbone UP wristband that tracks how you're sleeping, if you're walking enough, and more, which is all shared with the team.
They also use our productivity app, iDoneThis. Everyone at Buffer, including the executive team, logs what they got done, what they're doing, and how they can improve--and they do that every single day.
2. Turn your webcam on--and leave it on all day.
Tapping someone on the shoulder to talk feels so easy, it seems strange that spontaneously Skyping your colleague seems like such an intrusion. The distinction is big enough that I personally never Skype someone without a prearranged meeting.
And since scheduling is a nuisance too, that often means I let opportunities for virtual face-to-face moments with my colleagues slip.
When Foursquare opened its first office outside of New York in San Francisco, they proactively took a drastic step to address the problem and make sure their teams on opposite coasts would stay connected. They took the typical idea of videoconferencing and gave it an unconventional twist, creating what they call "The Portal."
While most videoconferencing takes place according to preplanned meetings in separate conference rooms, the Foursquare team devised The Portal as a video conference system that was always turned on and running in the primary work area rather than in a little-used room.
You can walk up to The Portal in San Francisco and wave good morning to your colleague in New York and start a spontaneous conversation. Daily stand-ups take place in front of The Portal, bypassing all the nuisances associated with setting up a call, like struggling to connect, reconnecting after a call drops, and waiting to invite other participants.
For distributed teams without a Foursquare-sized budget there's Sqwiggle, an always-on video chat system that shows your team what you look like in your pajamas. Sqwiggle works like The Portal except that it only uses your webcam and monitor, not thousands of dollars of Cisco videoconferencing equipment.
3. Wake up at 3 a.m. every morning. Seriously.
If your teammate is sleeping while you're working because you live in different time zones it can take an entire two-day cycle to resolve an issue that would otherwise take minutes. Projects fall behind schedule, but worse yet, small frustrations and setbacks accumulate and become hugely demoralizing.
Qualtrics, a rapidly growing analytics company, solved this problem--but the solution required every employee to start work at 3 a.m. every day for a year: They synced time zones with their European customers to share the exact same work day.
Imagine selling that to your team.
Qualtrics took this extreme measure to ensure they could work synchronously with their clients and resolve issues in real time rather than let time zone issues force problems to roll over from one day to the next without resolution.
In addition, since the second-hardest part of time zone syncing is time zone math (the hardest part of time zone syncing is starting your workday at an ungodly hour) Every Time Zone is an invaluable tool, providing a visual guide to the local time around the world.
4. Overcommunicate, overcommunicate, and overcommunicate some more.
When you work in a virtual team you lose the primary way you have communicated with people your whole life: face-to-face conversations. Without face-to-face access, communication often flags, creating inefficiencies or, worse, loneliness and disengagement.
Laura Roeder, founder of LKR Social Media, a social media education company with a distributed team, had an insight on how communication happens on distributed teams that led her to adopt an extreme policy.
When a team works virtually, it loses the power of shared physical space. So instead, technology becomes that shared space. Just like a company might have an office area, a kitchen, a conference room, and a relaxation area--all kinds of physical spaces to catalyze different types of employee interaction--a virtual team must use a varied range of technological conversation channels.
Rather than be like some companies that only use email, at LKR Social Media they use six times as many tools. They use Yammer for water cooler conversation, iDoneThis to keep everyone in the loop on work status, Google Hangout for video conferencing, Skype for one-on-one calls, PB Works as an internal Wiki, and Wrike for structured conversation about projects.
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