By Larry English ’90
As president of a company that has been remote for more than 20 years, I have learned a lot about how to build a connected culture with virtual teams. Our 1,000 employees in 13 U.S. cities and India enjoy deep relationships in a highly collaborative culture. We believe any company can successfully adopt remote work with the right approach.
Since the pandemic began, we have been helping companies make that transition to a virtual environment. Most are surprised by what they see: Work is still getting done and productivity has increased. Most importantly, their employees are happier with the flexibility that working remotely provides.
For business leaders who are still on the fence or not sure how to make remote work part of your organization, I’d like to help by sharing some of what we have learned over the years.
Three keys to operating a remote company: people, operations and technology
If you want to become a permanent, high-capability remote organization, you must develop an integrated approach across your people, operations and technology. Below are a few critical strategies for each area.
The most important and difficult step is creating the right environment for remote work and training your workforce to be effective remote workers. They will need to learn new skills that allow them to interact differently.
Start with a foundation of trust. Trust is the foundation of a great remote culture. It’s rare to find employees who intentionally don’t work. In fact, the real problem is employees who work too much because they lose the boundary between work and home. Here are some tips to help:
- Create policies that maximize employee flexibility and empowerment.
- Don’t use tools that track if an employee is working. It is not necessary and harmful to building a great culture.
- Train employees to develop healthy boundaries so they have good balance.
- Encourage them to take breaks during the day to reenergize.
This approach has a proven ROI. Trust leads to happier employees, which leads to better culture, which leads to happier customers, which leads to higher profits.
Train your workforce on long-term remote skills. Building relationships virtually is one of the most critical skills a remote worker can learn. You can enjoy the same deep, trusting relationship with a virtual co-worker than an in-person relationship. Here are skills and techniques a good virtual worker often has:
- Model vulnerability. Vulnerability is the shortcut to trust. Teach employees and leaders to be vulnerable and not always make it about work.
- Bring your whole self to work. Share your personality, showcase who you are as a person, share your interests and encourage others to do the same.
- Take time to nurture personal relationships. Encourage employees to have a genuine interest in getting to know their teammates, to be curious and to learn what matters to them.
- Know how to resolve conflict virtually. Conflict is always hard to resolve, even when you can see a person’s visual cues. It’s even harder virtually. We use a training course based on the book “Crucial Conversations” to help employees become conflict resolution experts.
Train your leaders to lead remote teams. You need different leadership skills when leading a remote team, because employees can quickly feel disconnected. Check in with them regularly to develop deeper relationships. Transactional, business-related conference calls won’t cut it.
Instead, allocate relational one-on-one time (in-person or virtually) to check in with individual employees. During this time, connect on a personal level and give them opportunities to share any worries.
To fully integrate remote work into your organization, design and adopt operating procedures for your remote culture.
- Adapt your meeting structure for virtual calls – All your work gets done in virtual meetings, but they are also where you build relationships and reinforce your culture. Create a meeting structure and protocol that leaves room for personal connections and time for sensitive topics. Five minutes of personal connection at the start of each meeting goes a long way toward building a positive virtual culture.
- Build robust feedback mechanisms – Regular feedback is especially critical in remote environments. Anonymous and quantifiable feedback can identify warning signs, help you keep a pulse on how employees are feeling and guide employee development.
- Develop a hybrid approach to office/virtual work – You should have policies to guide you on when and how to mix physical office work with remote work. It may take some experimentation to find the right mix, but it’s time well spent. Some groups that benefit from more in-person meetings include new teams, teams whose members change frequently and teams that include new hires just out of college.
This biggest mistake I’ve made leading a virtual company is skimping on software tools. The right software will make you more efficient and lead to happier employees as your organization seamlessly collaborates from anywhere in the world. Software improves your remote environment by:
- Training employees on your culture (they can see the history of how you interact and treat each other).
- Creating virtual affinity groups that share a common interest to improve employees’ sense of belonging, such as veterans or runners.
- Breaking down silos – employees are more effective when they know what’s going on across the company.
- Increasing trust and making you a more transparent organization.
- Building an intergenerational workforce. The right tool increases engagement because employees can interact in ways they are comfortable with.
Companies aren’t going to have a choice. To win the war on talent, companies will have to offer office-optional environments to attract the best workers.
We’ve known for a long time what many companies are now finding out: Remote work is good for business. You will have happier, more engaged employees who stick around, enjoy a better culture and, ultimately, benefit from higher profitability. Get ahead of the curve now by developing a comprehensive plan for adopting remote work.
Larry English, who earned a B.S. in systems analysis from Miami in 1990, is president and co-founder of Centric Consulting, a management consulting firm that guides you in the search for answers to complex digital, business and technology problems. Before Centric Consulting, Larry worked for a large international consulting firm out of college until he got burned out at 25. He and his newlywed wife backpacked around the world as he tried to find his path in life – and he did. Shortly after returning home, he and his like-minded pals founded Centric with a focus on changing how consulting was done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness. Today, Centric is a 1,000-plus person company with offices in 13 U.S. cities and India.
In his new book, “Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams,” Larry unpacks everything he’s discovered about creating and sustaining a culture of collaborative teams in a virtual environment. To learn more about Larry and how to become an office optional company, visit LarryEnglish.net or connect with him on Twitter.