Upon reading Steve Connelly's "Why working from home kills culture," I felt compelled to speak out in support of the benefits a virtual company can offer. He makes some valid points on culture being about "togethering." But I'd challenge him to shift his perspective on what "togethering" means and how companies whose employees primarily work from home can achieve it in innovative ways.
My company has been a virtual company since day one. "But how do you keep track of everyone? How do you stay connected? How does anyone work together? Don't people get lonely?"
This is what everyone asks when I tell them we're virtual. My answer, that we're more collaborative, and more connected, is always a surprise. Being aware of the communication challenges to a distributed workforce and deliberately refining a process and supporting a team to thrive in this environment is possible.
Working from home isn't for everyone. We know that, and we respect people who need to be in a traditional office environment. We've had talented people go through multiple rounds of interviews before deciding they just weren't the type who could be successful working from home. To make this work, actively seek out people who are independent self-starters. But also look for people who will take initiative when they know they need to be around others. Encourage structured meetings in a co-working space (we love Breather!), or working in cafes, or even meeting at co-worker's home (the backyard of our co-founder Kristy's Napa Valley home is a favorite).
Surprisingly, technology has the power to make a virtual office feel like a brick-and-mortar space. Slack is a great way of making this happen, and while it's an expense, it's an effective one. One of its best assets is its ability to bring an "open door policy" to life. Seniority and reporting roles are less intimidating when you are having a conversation about an amazing Instagram influencer or last night's basketball game. Everyone responds to everyone—it doesn't matter what your job or title is.
This makes it easier for relationships to develop between people in different departments, who in an office might never spend any time together. It also eliminates physical barriers like closed office doors, which in turn makes it easier for junior-level team members to talk to people with more experience and benefit from those conversations.
At the same time, don't be afraid to try new technology solutions and chuck them when you need to move on. For example, for a while we had a private company Facebook group. When we made the switch to Slack from Skype, the additional functionally made the FB group irrelevant. So we closed it. Pay attention to results, use what works, and get rid of what doesn't.
You also need to pay attention to communication styles. It becomes your bread-and-butter. My team spends a lot of time identifying and discussing this. Under the umbrella of "Office Astrology," we share information like Myers-Briggs profiles, openly discuss and respect communications preferences like, "Ping me on Slack to give me a head's-up before calling me on the phone," and make group decisions about things like whether a weekly meeting will be a phone or video call.
When are you aren't face-to-face every day, trust and accountability are everything. Leadership teams need to be crystal clear on communications expectations. We tell our team to return emails in the same day, set an out-of-office message when away for more than four hours, and immediately respond to Slack messages to share successes, challenges and support needs.
Create regular touch-points to convene as a group, like a monthly virtual Town Hall meeting powered by a service like join.me. Once a year, gather in person to put these communication styles and preferences into context.
In the end, everything comes down to having the best and most dedicated team possible. Hire A-Team Players, and then trust them to be productive and ethical adults. That means believing they are grown up enough to manage their time and proactively ensure that they are available and forthcoming about everything necessary.
We spend so much time vetting candidates, implementing smart tech solutions, and learning about each other's communication styles and work preferences because we are virtual. Without visual cues, things like tone can get misinterpreted in an email or Slack exchange. When you don't work together in the same office, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard when it comes to interacting with others. Don't assume anything. Give and receive feedback openly. Clarify if you think you will be misunderstood.
If you are committed to creating a workplace where everyone is heard, your company culture can thrive, while still reaping the benefits of flexibility.
—Cat Lincoln is co-founder and CEO of Clever, an award-winning influencer marketing agency with a virtual workplace.