Virtual Work: Setting Your Business Up for Success in 2020
With the outbreak of COVID-19, companies all around the world are learning to work online. Team meetings, training and client onboardings have all gone virtual as businesses are settling into this new normal. And for the uninitiated, taking an entire infrastructure online can be intimidating – but it doesn’t have to be a death knell for productivity.
There are many benefits to a virtual work environment, and plenty businesses have been taking advantage of those long before the novel coronavirus made it a necessity. It’s not just about flexibility – although that’s a big part of it, and it’s not just because employees can work from their couch in their sweats. This study from 2016 found that remote workers were 87% happier than those who weren’t virtual, and happy employees mean greater productivity levels, which can only benefit a company’s bottom line. Plus, by eliminating brick-and-mortar offices, businesses save money on their overhead and operating costs and can additionally benefit from a broad talent pool (if your employees can work anywhere, you can hire the best candidates regardless of their time zone).
Of course, there are drawbacks to any practice. For businesses that rely heavily on face-to-face collaboration, virtual work requires software and a steady Internet connection to make video chatting, conferencing and communicating seamless. And by the nature of virtual work, employers have less direct oversight on their employees: There’s a certain level of trust required for virtual work to be successful.
If you’re new to virtual work, don’t worry. As the founder and CEO of EasyWebinar, I’ve been helping companies work virtually with great success since 2014 – and I have a few tips for anyone who’s new to the nature of virtual work (we’ve been fully remote since launch, and trust me when I say we’ve learned a thing or two.) But it’s not just about best practices for creating a successful virtual team. Nurturing a virtual culture is just as important, and there’s a key difference between those two areas. Best practices, of course, are industry guidelines, while culture is a little more loosely defined – and often means completely different things to different organizations.
Best practices for your virtual team
We’ll start with best practices. On the surface, working as a team doesn’t look that much different virtually versus physically: You’ll need daily standups, weekly meetings, monthly sprints – whatever frequency of check-ins makes most sense for your business. You’ll need ways to track productivity and KPIs, and you’ll need standard operating procedures that outline work hours and tools. You most likely already have these standards in place: All you need to do is take them online.
Run an effective virtual stand-up meeting
A friend of mine runs a small creative agency with less than five full-time employees. Before the coronavirus outbreak, daily stand-up meetings were not in place, since the team was in the office and tasks could be addressed throughout the day. With the migration to virtual work, a quick daily scrum has become necessary to keep projects on track and ensure work is being distributed evenly and accounted for. Here’s my checklist for these meetings:
- Always have an agenda, with a checkpoint for each ongoing project and a dotted line to the next required task and corresponding deadline.
- Make sure everyone participates. Employees should:
- Summarize what they did yesterday.
- Discuss tasks and goals for today.
- Highlight any obstacles, anticipated or otherwise, that might prevent progress on a project.
- Keep it short! You hired your employees to do a job – don’t keep them from doing it.
Implement apps to track productivity
As virtual work increases, so does the need for reliable software that can handle large-scale project management and productivity tracking. There are countless apps to help measure the amount of time employees spend on a project and assess workloads. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Basecamp is one of the most tried and trusted virtual project management platforms. It comes with a message board, interactive to-do list, group chat platform and document sharing hub, and provides automatic check-ins and a play-by-play of employee tasks.
- Roadmap does much of what Basecamp does, with additional options for forecasting and reporting and other software integration.
- Trello is an endlessly flexible, mobile-friendly project management app that makes cross-team collaboration and organization easy – even for those who aren’t naturally acclimated to organization.
- If you’re looking to simply track time on a task, Timely has a user-friendly interface that makes it easy – whether you’re measuring by groups, individual or an entire project.
- EasyWebinar works fantastically as a meeting and employee training system. Want to track whether your team is attending meetings? Participating in them? You can easily provide downloadable items, links, even polls inside meeting rooms. Best of all, they can be set to run automatically and they don’t require anyone live to click the go button.
Create standard operating procedures
Virtual work doesn’t mean your business is in a free fall where anything goes. Take the time to create standard operating procedures, and make sure these are communicated clearly to your employees. A couple things to consider:
- Outline work hours. If there’s a certain time you expect to be able to reach your employees, they should know about it. And if an employee will be unavailable for anytime during that period, ask them to block that time on their calendar – that way if they’re offline, you know what it’s for.
- Detail virtual tools and video conferencing requirements. Set your employees up for success by ensuring everyone is using the same platforms and has downloaded the correct software to make virtual communication easy. There could be five different ways to hand a project off to the next employee – if you have a preferred timeline or procedure, make sure it’s documented and your employees are aware of it. (PS – EasyWebinar works great for this, too!)
Nurturing a Virtual Culture
Now comes the virtual culture aspect. This is the tricky part, but nailing it is the most rewarding, too. Because virtual work is done, well, virtually, and without the benefit of interpersonal communications and camaraderie that working in an office can espouse, it’s crucial that you create a sense of belonging and collaboration among your employees. Here are some of the best ways we’ve found to nurture a strong virtual culture.
Hiring the right team members
Not everyone is cut out for virtual work.
We’ve talked about how taking your business online means broadening your talent pool beyond the zip codes surrounding your headquarters (which might as well be your living room). It’s up to you to hire people who benefit from remote work, which often means getting through the workday in nontraditional environments.
Ideal virtual employees are self-starters who are organized and have enough discipline to ignore the call of Netflix during work hours. They can adapt on the fly to impromptu conference calls and troubleshoot fire drills. And, critically, they must be impeccable communicators.
Building a sense of shared leadership
A 2014 study found that shared leadership arises from a collective responsibility in decision-making processes, where team members support each other in shared objectives and projects.
When a team is virtual, hierarchical leadership becomes less tangible. Employees are essentially islands, and hopefully you’ve hired self-starters who don’t need the motivation of a Big Brother hovering over their shoulder to get work done. This means that in virtual teams, shared leadership can compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction by building trust between team members and shared responsibilities.
In other words, virtual team members learn to rely on each other beyond what a traditional team might. When one individual completes a task and the project transfers to the next team member, there’s a sense of accountability that comes with tagging the next team member in – not to mention ownership of results.
Creating open communication and feedback
Every boss wants honest feedback from their employees, but when your team is virtual, it’s especially important to have a pulse on the workforce. When your company goes virtual, you’ve got a unique opportunity to remove some red tape. Face it, you’re all sitting around in your pajamas anyway, so why not solicit some honest feedback? Create an anonymous feedback form and ask for comments from your team on what procedures can be improved. Do this regularly – weekly, if possible – and address the suggestions by either making the changes or explaining why you won’t.
And just because your employees are remote doesn’t mean they can’t have fun with one another – while still getting work done. Make it easy and entertaining to communicate with one another with Slack, one of the best messaging platforms for companies on the market. It supports endless channels that can be created based on projects, clients and more. It also has file-sharing capabilities and, best of all, a comprehensive GIF dashboard. It might not have the thrilling Jim vs. Dwight energy of The Office, but would you really want that, anyway?
Check here to see how we suggest getting honest feedback from your clients as well.
Keeping up morale during quarantine
Few people welcome change, particularly employees – and in uncertain times like these, transitions are especially challenging. Many of my clients have spoken to feelings of agitation and anxiety within their teams. Do your best to reassure your newly virtual employees with frequent updates. I also recommend checking out Project Mindfulness, a service providing virtual meditation sessions for the team. Don’t underestimate the value in these small gestures: Now more than ever, your employees want to know that they have support from their employer.
Before the pandemic, virtual work was on the rise in the U.S. Now, with so many companies being unexpectedly forced into the practice, I recognize that there will be some growing pains. I challenge you to view this as an opportunity to grow with your employees and learn more about how they work best. Trust me when I say the grass on the side of virtual work is awfully green.