By Alyssa Hurst
With the touch of a button, you can transport your image and your voice into an office thousands of miles away. You can look a team member in Germany in the eyes, and discuss a document you are both simultaneously viewing and editing. You can call your company’s tech experts in San Francisco from your desk on the East Coast and have them troubleshoot an issue for you, and you can gather your virtual team around a desk for a daily huddle. Today’s businesses have the opportunity to not just take on a city, or a state or a region, but the entire globe. This is the power of dispersed workforces. But will technology ever be an adequate substitute for the bonds that are built around the water cooler?
Technology and talent
Technology has given businesses the ability to take their teams out of the physical office space and into the virtual world. Between telecommuting, distributed teams and work-from-home days, companies are finding more and more ways to successfully manage employees without the constraints of location. While the dispersed workforce comes with its share of difficulties, there’s a reason companies are adopting this model.
For example, in the technology industry, as in many others, the war for talent is raging. “People need these different skill sets, and the price is fairly high in some locations,” says Bruce Eckfeldt, founder and CEO of Eckfeldt & Associates, a business performance consulting company in New York City. Broadening your search for talent to candidates in different states, regions and even countries can give you the opportunity to find someone who truly fits your needs.
But, it’s not just about having access to a larger pool of talent; it’s about diving in and finding the very best. “The companies that are doing the best job at this are really seeing it as a talent opportunity,” says Eckfeldt. “They are really starting their talent processes with the assumption of virtualization, and then using that framework to go out and actually find the best talent in the world.”
Once that talent is on the hook, a dispersed-workforce model has the right bait to help you reel them in before someone else snatches them away. “Flexibility, and the things that come with that, are really important to the workforce of today, whether that is because they can put their child on the bus, or they just have a day that they can work from home [with their] head down,” says Angie O’Grady, partner and COO at StellaPop Consulting, a business consulting company in Washington, DC. Additionally, many of today’s top candidates appreciate the independence and trust that comes with working as part of a dispersed workforce. “Having that degree of autonomy attracts high-level employees,” says Paula M. Singer, chief strategist and CEO of The Singer Group, Inc., a Baltimore-based HR consulting firm.
Aside from the many talent-related benefits of a dispersed workforce, the model can help companies lower costs in some ways. Singer points out that by eliminating the physical office space, businesses put money right back into their own pockets. “You have reduced overhead, of course, because you’re not paying for office space, or for employees to be there,” she says. In addition, “you can scale up much more easily, because you’re not worried about space,” adds Singer.
Navigating the virtual landscape isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to maintaining communication. VP of human resources Robert Rosend knows what a challenge this can be. His company, which recently rebranded from Storeroom Solutions to Synovos, has employees onsite at locations throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “You have no idea how difficult that is in general, let alone that we have to make sure everybody knows that starting Monday morning at 9 o’clock, it’s not Storeroom Solutions anymore,” says Rosend.
And sometimes “there is no substitute for walking down the hall and talking to someone,” he says. “If you have a question … you walk down the hall to one of your colleagues, to a work buddy, to maybe your boss. Our people don’t have that.”
Many leaders worry about what effect this lack of face-to-face communication and camaraderie-building can have on the overall sense of teamwork and collaboration in a company. “You don’t have as many of those eureka moments where you all get into a conference room and you work on an issue and it is really intense and you come up with a solution,” says Eckfeldt.
But that’s not to say there aren’t merits in finding a new way to do things, Eckfeldt adds. “In a virtual team, you have much more of a slow boil,” he says. “It’s more of an evolutionary [rather] than revolutionary development. … There are a lot of things that are getting done by distributed groups of people that fundamentally could not get done by co-located teams.”
Making it work
So how can a company make its own version of a dispersed workforce or distributed team work? “Communication skills become very important,” says O’Grady.
It starts with regular meetings, via videoconference or phone. “To help make it work, definitely regularly scheduled conference calls, but also impromptu calls — like checking in [and] informal communications to see how people are doing,” says Singer.
At Synovos, employees get together in one location each year for training, reflection and fun. “There’s more time for socialization than anything else because these people don’t get together very often,” says Rosend. “They talk on the phone, they email, but they don’t sit down over a beer and say ‘So what’s going on at your site?’ or ‘How do you handle this problem?’ … People walk away from that totally energized and recharged.”
Making the model work also comes down to a company’s leadership. “As that leader, you have to be able to trust the team that’s working with you that they understand the vision,” says O’Grady. “People don’t want to just totally be by themselves, so the leader has got to make sure that they feel as if they are part of an organization,” says Singer.
The productivity problem
Productivity is a major concern for employers considering a more dispersed structure, or hiring their first telecommuter. “Is the employee hard at work, or out walking the dog?” as Rosend puts it. The key to making it work is to be clear about expectations and responsibilities.
“People in a dispersed organization have to operate with a stronger sense of being accountable for the work that they’re doing, … and the culture needs to support and enforce that,” says Eckfeldt.
To accomplish this, Rosend works to make sure each employee understands expectations. He relies on three questions to help triangulate exact tasks and develop a plan for completing them: “Do you understand what I need? Do you understand when I need it? Do you understand what the deliverable looks like?”
With the proper processes and expectations in place, Eckfeldt says, “the [dispersed] organization is more productive, because you’re leveraging individuals’ skills and capabilities better.”
Effectively making the move to a dispersed workforce is a balancing act, with many factors to consider. “Not everybody can do it, and that’s important to understand,” says O’Grady.
We asked local executives to share their strategies for managing a dispersed workforce.
“We operate under the philosophy ‘the closer to the customer, the better.’ For us, that meant physically placing our team members, over 100 of them, out in our network, interacting daily with the schools and companies that use our products. It has been the best investment we’ve ever made. … EverFi is a big culture company. It is critical to us that we communicate our values and DNA early and often. This is hard enough to do around the water cooler in the home office. It is even harder when 70 percent of your employees are on their own in 35 states. Making people feel that they are a part of a larger unit and larger mission is always our challenge. We work hard to make them feel connected.”
Robert Kennedy Jr.
The Kennedy Companies
“It starts with technology and it starts with the culture. You have to develop a culture where you develop good, solid lines of communication. Technology allows you to communicate, but it doesn’t do it for you. … We have about 110 employees. Anybody who wants to get me can call me direct dial, or they can call my cellphone. They don’t go through a switchboard. … Employees start with good communication skills, and it’s really the leadership that promotes a good culture that says, ‘Our doors are open, our phones are on.’ We try as a company to promote good collaboration.”
President and CEO
Apex IT Group
“We have found that our dispersed workforce, our field engineers that we put on site, allows us to stay connected to our clients and therefore drives efficiency … Some of the challenges have been making sure that they align with our culture; making sure they’re not out on an island; making sure that they are part of the company-wide celebrations. They are not onsite in our office day-to-day. Although they’ve been trained in our system, that’s been our challenge — keeping them engaged in the culture. … Our quarterly offsite team meetings require onsite presence and our monthly meetings are done in person, and then our weekly meetings are done on Skype for Business so everyone can see your face.”
Co-founder and CEO
“Our focus for the last two years has been on our culture, and it is hard to build a culture when you don’t get the face time. That has absolutely been a challenge. We’ve really worked on it. We have a RingCentral phone system that has video capabilities, and there are different teams up on video all day long. Our software development team is all remote, all six of them. They leave up a video chat window all day long, and it’s just like they are sitting together at a desk.” CEO
YOUR TECHNOLOGY TO-DOS
To make a dispersed workforce work, you need communication, enabled by technology. Our experts have tips to get your virtual office running smoothly:
- Create a checklist of tools each employee will need. Not all home workspaces are created equally, and sometimes it is the employer’s responsibility to bring them up to speed. “What is the equipment we as a company are going to provide, and what things do we expect the employee to provide on their own?” are among the questions employers need to answer, says Angie O’Grady, partner and COO at StellaPop Consulting.
- Train employees on the use of tools like Dropbox and Skype. “I can find the greatest tools, but if they are not easy to use, or I haven’t trained my team to use [them] well, [they] are not going to get used,” says Bruce Eckfeldt, founder and CEO of Eckfeldt & Associates.
- Check your tech before your meeting begins, and be prepared for anything to go wrong. Wasting 10 minutes out of every meeting troubleshooting bad connections and fuzzy video is not an effective use of time. “Build it in,” says Paula M. Singer, chief strategist and CEO of The Singer Group, Inc. “Just the same way I would build in time for traffic or an accident if I was driving somewhere. I never take the last plane out if I have a meeting in the morning.”
- Use technology to make up for lost in-person interaction. “Conference calls, virtual meetings and even social media are great ways to keep communication open,” says Robert Rosend, VP of human resources at Synovos. “We recently implemented Office 365, which has multiple tools for collaboration and communication, such as SharePoint and Skype for Business.”
- Set clear expectations and guidelines for how your organization uses technology. “You need to say, ‘Every Monday at 10 a.m., we are going to have our conference call, and our agenda is going to be posted in Dropbox by Sunday evening at 10 p.m.’” says O’Grady. “You’ve got to set some real clear parameters for how you are going to work together.”