Going Remote: When The Office Is Optional-Or Even Obsolete

Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

Does a virtual workforce work for everyone? Of course not!

Sometime in March of this year, it seemed as if the entire world shifted to a remote workforce. This went beyond just support centers where, in the past few years, many agents have been able to assist customers from the comfort of their homes. This was much bigger. Almost every company on the planet sent its workforce home. The remote office was not optional-it was mandatory.

But what if it wasn’t mandatory? Would you still want a remote workforce?

I’ve asked a number of business leaders these questions. The answers have been mixed. Some have said they can’t wait to bring everyone back together. They miss the camaraderie. They miss the synergy of meeting with a group and brainstorming new ideas, resolving problems and more. Others have said they won’t return to their offices. They have learned that their businesses can operate efficiently and productively without having the overhead of a fancy office.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of a remote workforce was growing. Stats and facts showed that a majority of younger generations (Gen Z and Millennials) were more and more interested in working remotely. It’s predicted that by 2028, 73% of all departments will have remote workers ( Upwork, Future Workforce 2019).

Sir Richard Branson said, “In thirty years’ time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.” He didn’t come up with this in the last few months when almost everyone was forced to go remote. That quote came from a 2013 article Branson wrote when he noticed that technology was giving us an opportunity to communicate and collaborate with people on the other side of the world.

While many of us have been pushed into the remote office world in the past few months, others have been doing it for years. In some instances, the founders of companies made the conscious decision to not have an office, even though almost everyone else in their industry did.

That brings us to Larry English, one of the founders of Centric Consulting and author of the recently released book, Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams. His virtual working experience didn’t start this year or last year-or even in the last decade. It was 20 years ago when English and his friends left their jobs at a major consulting company and started Centric Consulting. Their goal was to build an organization with a remote workforce in which the culture would contribute to both a successful company and happy employees. Sounds like a business utopia.

It started with several like-minded coworkers who were frustrated with their jobs. They wanted a place that they would love to work. They now have 1,000 employees in 12 U.S. cities and in India, all of whom work remotely some or most of the time.

What does it take to create a remote culture? Here are a few takeaways from the book:

· Trust: If you don’t trust your employees this won’t work. You can set guidelines and parameters and your employees must agree and adhere to them. They are the minimum standards. Some cultures allow for flexibility and let employees make their own hours. Some have more stringent workday requirements. In both cases, employees are on their own to meet the expectations of their employers. For this to work, there must be trust going both directions. English suggests creating as few rules for working remotely as possible. Empower good people to do a good job and let them do it.

· Culture: Following up on trust, which is a part of culture, organizations are worried their culture will suffer when they go remote. But, being virtual can enhance your overall culture-it can promote flexibility and a better work-life balance for employees. Many remote cultures gauge success on meeting minimum standards and outcomes, regardless of when, where and how long it takes to get the job done. One of the most critical steps is designing opportunities for personal connection. Unlike brick-and-mortar companies where this happens naturally, virtual companies need to design these interactions into how they operate so that employees build relationships and feel engaged in the company. For example, Centric starts all of its virtual meetings with a virtual water cooler that is focused on connecting on a personal level. Once you have your culture established and everyone is connected and aligned, having clear expectations gives employees the success criteria they need.

· Hiring Right: Not everyone can fit into a virtual culture. If someone hasn’t worked this way before, it may look exciting. That doesn’t mean the concept is a fit. Centric spends half the interview process determining if the person has the right skills for the job and the other half determining if the person is a cultural fit. Virtual company recruits must be especially great at collaboration. That’s why Centric looks for candidates with a natural inclination to be helpful and to collaborate with peers, partners and clients. This trait is difficult to teach if not already present.

· Face-to-Face Meetings: Just because you are a virtual company doesn’t mean you will never meet face-to-face. This isn’t about in-person meetings, rather meetings that utilize some type of video conferencing technology. Most commonly, this is a Zoom call, but it could be any video communications platform. All that said, having the occasional in-person meeting creates something special. Company-wide events can be a great way to get to know your colleagues even better-and get into alignment with everyone on a different level.

· Continuous Feedback: Just like Amazon customers can leave feedback on products they purchase, employees can leave feedback about their employers on Glassdoor.com. Centric encourages its employees to leave honest reviews. In a virtual company, you have to measure more frequently to keep a pulse on employees you don’t see every day. You must build in regular touchpoints with employees on an individual and company-wide level to stay well-informed of employee satisfaction and culture. Continuous culture improvement comes from receiving ongoing feedback, which helps you continue doing what’s working, fix what’s not and improve on all opportunities.

· Collaboration Tools: The tools you provide for employees to collaborate with each other must be easy to use with as little friction as possible. Great tools are even more important for virtual teams. They allow your team to be more efficient, collaborate better and even build culture. The right collaboration tool is a serious investment. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an expensive one, but it deserves diligent research before bringing it into the company. This is your communications lifeline. Simply put, it must work-and it must be easy to use.

Plenty of books have been written about the virtual workforce. Besides the fact that English’s book is a quick read and is easily understood, what really intrigued me was that the company has been virtual since its inception more than 20 years ago. Virtual was always its culture. That’s what caught my attention years ago and that’s why this book is relevant today. They didn’t find success after switching because of a worldwide pandemic. They found success from day one.

Does a virtual workforce work for everyone? Of course not! There are plenty of businesses that must have a headquarters and facilities. But if you’re the kind of company that can go virtual-even partially-then this book will fill your brain with ideas to make the transition easier and increase your odds of success.

Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.

Shep Hyken, customer service expert, business speaker and New York Times bestselling author, helps companies deliver AMAZING customer service and experiences!

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