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Leading a Virtual Workforce

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What does a typical work day look like for you?

How much of it do you spend commuting to and from an office?

How often do you really see your coworkers between meetings and being buried in emails and work behind the closed door of your office?

In 2011, we took a big step toward a virtual office. It was a one-year “test” to save money as we came out of the Great Recession (rent in downtown Chicago is expensive!). We certainly didn’t expect it become our business model.

At the time, it was a scary step to get rid of our office space. Telecommuting and remote work hadn’t become mainstream, except for those launching their own businesses and creating a digital nomad lifestyle. We had a few new business prospects look at us like we were nuts when we said we didn’t have office space. I can think of at least one new business lead we lost entirely because of it (funnily enough, it didn’t bother a single client).

Things are looking a little different in the business landscape today.

We know that having the flexibility to telecommute boosts worker success and leads to greater productivity by reducing stress. Think about cutting that commute time out of your day, being able to work at the hours where your productivity and focus peak, and not worry about having to take a half day off because you have to step away for a doctor’s appointment or meet the cable guy, whose window always seems to be somewhere between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

According to statistics from a 2014 American Community Survey, telecommuting makes up nearly three percent of the American work force, which was approximately 3.2 million workers two years ago. What’s more, Fortune 1000 companies are revamping their office space to accommodate for a workforce that’s away from their desk 50-60 percent of the time.

Leading a virtual team has its own special set of benefits and challenges. As a leader, it’s up to you to recognize the challenges and put systems in place to overcome them. Every single challenge can be overcome when the leader sets expectations from the outset. For example, when do you expect your colleagues to be “online” and available? On the flipside, when should they expect you to be available? Are there meetings or conferences you expect them to travel to? What’s your preferred communication style?

In addition to these questions, here are some of the benefits and challenges of leading a virtual team:

Benefit: You can hire the right team members, regardless of their time zone. One of the biggest perks for having a virtual team is the ability to hire anyone you want based on their qualifications and culture fit, versus their proximity to your headquarters.

Challenge: If you have team members around the globe, there might not be much overlap for real-time communication. This can create a disconnected team that’s having trouble communicating and relating to each other.

Solution: Create a virtual water cooler for your team. With tools such Slack, Google Hangouts, and Facebook Groups, there are plenty of options to figure out what works for you. When bringing on a new team member, make them feel welcome. This can be as simple as sending a company wide welcome email, or even a video call to get everyone in the same ‘room’ for a face-to-face welcome. If possible, plan an annual, in-person team meeting to get everyone in one place. All of these tools are great, but nothing replaces the in-person experience.

 

Benefit: Your employees and contractors have the flexibility to get their work done at their optimal productive times—as long as they’re still attending necessary meetings and meeting deadlines.

Challenge: A lot of managers cite “trust” as a roadblock to building a virtual workforce. The

biggest misconception about remote workers is they goof off on company time. If you’ve hired the right people, you’ll find that just isn’t the case.

Solution: Hire people you know you can trust. You can also build in a trial period where you’re checking in with your new employees once a week, and even hopping on a meeting to check on their progress of a project. This can be a slippery slope into micromanagement if it’s not handled properly. You want your employees to know you trust them, and you want to set a great precedent for remote work that does allow for laundry in the middle of the day or exercise at lunchtime.

 

Benefit: It’s all about bringing your own device (BYOD). Everyone has a personal computer these days, which makes the equipment overhead practically nonexistent for business owners.

Challenge: There’s no longer a central drive on the office network where all of the files can live, plus there can be security issues on personal computers.

Solution: Embrace the Cloud. With Dropbox and Google Drive, you no longer have to worry about a file getting lost because an employee’s computer crashed. Our IT professional services all computers and our team are required to install the software we use.

Before managing a virtual workforce, remember to also take stock of your own expectations and limitations as a leader. How you approach your virtual relationship will be an undeniable factor in the success of your team.


Gini Pro PhotoGini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

3 Comments

  • Gini, this is a great way of looking at this topic. I agree in the fact that working would become much easier every day if we didn’t have to actually travel to a different location to get to the office. With today’s progressing society, a virtual office would be the most efficient use of work time. I definitely think there would be less stress on each person on the team thus increasing the qaulity of the work done. I especially like the fact that you mentioned actually meeting your team in person annually. I do think it is important to have that personal connection with your team of workers because it brings everyone to the same “playing field” and helps to get to know everyone at a more personal level. Thank you for the thought-provoking insights!

    • Hey Patrick! Sorry for my delayed response. Yes, to all of the things you mention! I’m in love with working virtually. And, while video chat doesn’t quite make up for the in-person relationship, it is a nice replacement. I just spent a little more than an hour with our shared media director and it was like we were in the same room. She was even making fun of me for sitting on my heels in my chair. Nothing is sacred, even on video chat!

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