The appeal of the virtual workforce is strong across many businesses today. The ability to employ professionals with minimal overhead, to source expertise from across the nation (or world) and the opportunity to put together engaged teams without the boundaries of physical limitations all draw the attention of business owners, CEOs and organizational experts.
The benefits to a virtual workforce are easy to spot, but the requirements to ensure a successful virtual workforce are not always as easy to assess or implement. Human resource experts will tell you that employee engagement is critical, and driving purpose and meaning across all teams is paramount to success. But how do you do that when the virtual workforce carries with it any number of variations in physical location, interests and motivations? Is a true virtual culture possible — and if so, is it scalable, manageable and able to be harnessed?
I’ve always thought so. My partner Dennis and I set out to build a virtual company from day one. We were going to provide outsourced accounting services for businesses nationwide. We didn’t transition from brick-and-mortar to virtual — and we were doing it in 2004, when virtual wasn’t quite so well defined and the simplest limitations like access to high-speed internet could confound even the best potential employees.
But we were determined to develop an entirely virtual workforce without qualification. All employees would work from their own home offices across the United States. This would give us access to the best of the best talent and enable us to combine low overhead (though some of that would ultimately be repurposed into IT overhead) with an ever-evolving cast of tools, techniques, processes and resources. Here’s what I learned along the way about building a virtual culture from the ground up.
The Virtual — But Oh So Real — Challenge
The early days brought challenges that we solved by flying, literally, around the country to help get new employees set up with computers, software and webcams. This wasn’t particularly scalable or cost-effective. As we grew from a handful of employees to dozens and technology grew alongside us, we naturally transitioned into our first guiding principle on approaching virtual company culture: Find an equal or better way to do everything a physical office would do, but virtually.
To succeed virtually, the best practice we discovered was to take everything employees experience in a physical office — from water cooler chit-chat to all hands meetings to displaying family photos on desks to incoming visitors — and make a virtual version. To do this, everything you create must tick the following three checkpoints:
1. It has to be an equal or better solution than what an employee would experience in an office.
2. It has to maintain a virtual footprint.
3. It has to be scalable and manageable.
Culture Across A Country
One of the biggest challenges in virtual companies is that a lack of physical homogeneity can mean a varied, and therefore disconnected, group of people. But if you approach it correctly, you can use this to your advantage. With employees living everywhere from New York to Alabama to Iowa and crossing all categories of age, gender, religion, interests, hobbies, familial status, etc., you need to be especially cognizant of creating an all-inclusive environment. To succeed, you need to make sure you have “something for everyone.” Your best bet? Ask everyone for their input on what they want — and keep asking.
There are many ways to solicit opinions, input and feedback from employees at every turn. You can start by implementing polls, anonymous suggestion boxes and even trial runs of programs and clubs. Encourage employees to champion something they’re passionate about. This helps take the burden off your executive team to manage every program and allows staff to get more involved from the beginning.
After over 14 years of soliciting feedback and implementing ideas, our laundry list of virtual clubs, programs and events is robust. Consider adding to your culture strategy some of our team favorites:
• A team fitness club.
• Fantasy leagues/online competitions for football, college football, basketball and college bowls.
• A recipe club.
• Dedicated “off-topic” social areas for chat, sharing, etc.
• Volunteer paid time off and the ability to use company time to support local causes.
• Christmas tree-decorating and pumpkin-carving contests.
• An annual pizza party with individual delivery to employee homes.
• An epic virtual walk/run/bike challenge every summer to a new destination.
• Virtual video chat coffee breaks.
• Quarterly all-staff town hall meetings.
• Weekly feedback loops via anonymous office polls.
• A virtual suggestion box.
Wrapping It All Up
Managing company culture is a full-time job. Task your HR and marketing teams to collaborate on initiatives while soliciting feedback from your entire team constantly and consistently. But by ensuring you keep a finger on the pulse of the company, you will reduce turnover and improve employee engagement rates.