WORKING IN A VIRTUAL REALITY
Just because co-workers don’t see each other in person every day doesn’t mean there’s a lack of culture in the workplace.
If anything, there’s a stronger bond as a result, says Jennifer Wise, president and board chair of Wise Consulting.
“There’s a lot of trust and flexibility and independence in the work that they do,” she says. “They’re involved and engaged with the company overall, as opposed to just their piece.”
Wise Consulting, an HR and workforce-management technology solutions consultancy, is based in Hunt Valley, MD, but its team is all over the country. This tactic allows the company to hire the best without restriction to a particular region, and to hire people with a lot of experience in the industry, so there’s no big learning curve.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges to running a virtual company: Having a structured training program and promoting people from within can be difficult — but not impossible, Wise says. “There are a number of people that have been here 15 years plus, so I think they stick around a lot because of our culture,” she says. “We look for people that have that passion for providing great service.”
It’s not a job for just anyone, Wise recognizes. Not only do candidates need to have industry experience, but they need to be driven and up for a daily challenge. And as technology and governance constantly changes within the industry, her employees need to be flexible, nimble and quick to catch up as well.
During interviews, Wise Consulting may ask candidates about a mistake they made at a former job and see how that person handles the answer. Does he or she own up to the mistake, or blame it on someone else?
“We look for a lot of people that take ownership and responsibility for their work, because they’re not going to be closely supervised,” Wise says.
Wise Consulting aims to maintain a company-culture feel, even when staff members are working from a home office. Many are used to working in a corporate office setting with clashing personalities, and are adjusting to a new setting. For others, the challenge is learning to work with different clients.
To make remote employees feel part of the company, the teams hold weekly calls, and there are monthly all-staff calls. There’s also an annual gathering so everyone can spend time in person, together. The retreats used to be twice a year, but as the company grew and employees were busier, the all-staff gatherings were reduced to once a year.
Starting as a virtual company allowed Wise Consulting to thrive naturally, rather than transition from an office-based company to a virtual one. “We didn’t have any offices to start with, and it wasn’t anything that we had to convert to or change to,” says Chris Davies, director of consulting services for Wise Consulting.
Wise says keeping the Skype lines open and welcoming honest ideas best describes Wise Consulting’s culture. “Being very comfortable with being transparent” is how she explains the leadership. Particularly because of the virtual environment, Wise wanted employees to feel the company was as much theirs as it was hers — so much, in fact, that she decided to make the business 100 percent employee-owned. To celebrate, the leadership is making several road trips to visit staff and talk about the change in person with each of them.
Wise Consulting is also working to bring employees together for cross-team interaction so the company doesn’t fall into a silo effect. Wise says that’s only natural, given the company’s culture. People are always willing to help out, particularly under tight deadlines. “[It’s] the idea that I can Skype someone or call someone and say, ‘Help me!’ and they always respond and are always there, doesn’t matter what time of the day,” Davies says. “It’s always been a help-each-other-out kind of environment.”
Recently, during National Payroll Week, Wise Consulting held a celebration and sent goodie bags to each employee with a note.
Wise believes a virtual strategy brings out the best in people. “I hear a lot of laughing on the phone,” she says. “Technology has served us well.”
Photos (L to R): Top row: Jennifer Wise, President and Board Chair; Steve Grem, Director, Operations; Chris Davies, Director, Consulting Services; Marta Williams, Director, Consulting Services. Bottom row: Gail Wham, Director, Consulting Services; Karen Anikis, Director, HR; Deborah Malinowski, Office Manager