Seven practices of effective virtual companies

In the UK alone, more than one million people worked mainly from home last year, and the proportion of people who used their home as a primary work base hit 8.4 percent. The appeal is obvious.

‘Remote work is not about working more hours in more places,’ writes David Heinemeier Hansson, co-author of Remote: Office Not Required. ‘It’s about spending the hours of work more productively.’ Here we explore seven essential practices that ensure that the vision of virtual working becomes a reality.

  • 1. Commitment. Starting from the top down, and embraced from the bottom up, everyone in a virtual company has to be committed to a new work style. Becoming a virtual company doesn’t just mean getting rid of the cubicles. It’s a shift in mind-set, management practices and self-discipline that has to be visibly practiced by management and thoroughly understood by everyone.
  • 2. Trust. Hubspot’s company policy has just three words: Use good judgement. Whether it’s holiday time, expenses or prioritising work, they trust the people they’ve hired to put their team above themselves, the company above their team and the customer above all else. Virtual companies have to operate on this same basis. Bosses have to trust that their employees will do the work and colleagues have to be able to rely on each other.

    Of course clients and customers need to be able to trust virtual companies too. It’s easy to let security slip through the net when employees use their own devices, so be sure to provide anti-virus software for any device they use for work, and consider using remote management software like Samsung KNOX for mobile devices in case of theft or loss.
  • 3. Develop effective processes. When you are all in a central office, if you need to book holidays or even just order more stationary then there is an obvious place or person to go to. Not so with virtual working, which is why it’s important to experiment with, get feedback on and establish a set of core processes.

    Remote working is certainly great for designing your own working style, but there still have to be standard processes in place to help people complete the practicalities of their day-to day tasks.
  • 4. Adopt appropriate tools. You might be a virtual company but your employees cannot manage with virtual devices. Give them what they need to do their job well, like a Samsung Chrome-based notebook PC, that lets them get out of the house and work from hubs or coffee shops and keep their creativity flowing.

    Similarly, spend time exploring the best collaboration, document sharing or HR management software. As a virtual company this will often mean taking advantage of cloud technologies and software as a service (SaaS) that has been especially designed for mobile and tablet devices, to help people work on the go.
  • 5. Assess work not presence. ‘Remote work is still stifled by managers who think that it’ll lead to employees goofing off,’ writes David Heinemeier Hansson. The people who work for you have already been through a rigorous selection process; it’s unlikely you would have hired anyone lazy or deceitful so why not trust that they will work hard, no matter where.

    Managing remote workers means assessing outcomes, not hours. It also means making sure employees understand how their work fits into the overall progress of the company so that they can assess their own progress and priorities.
  • 6. Communication. Random moments of creative friction, nuggets of great ideas and sparks of friendship are all born out of little chats here and there and they can make a company great. In a virtual company, however, there are no water coolers, no communal coffee breaks or ‘just stopping by’ moments. It takes a conscious effort to IM, email, phone or videoconference, so make it as easy as possible to do so.

    Remote workers also need to feel confident in ‘speaking up’ from a distance and know that they will be heard and respected. Create a culture of openness and make sure management sets a good example by sharing new strategies or board meeting notes.
  • 7. Live meetings. Arguably the biggest obstacles to successful virtual working are social. Humans are naturally social beings, and even in a virtual company there has to be some real-time interaction. Regular weekly meeting, set at a standard time and done via phone or videoconference are a great way to keep everyone on the same page and build some rapport, but nothing can compare to in-person meetings.

    The occasional face-to-face meet-up can really help team members to bond, which helps to combat the risk of isolation that virtual working can bring, and leads to better understanding in future communications.

    And even if you aren’t a fully virtualised company, you can still benefit from the flexible, collaborative and mobile working environment that these practices engender and have happier and more productive employees as a result.