One year ago, we made a strange, but important, business decision.
We decided to go completely virtual, giving people the opportunity to work from home, save on commute time, and be more productive with little to no daily interruptions.
At the time, I said we’d revisit it in 10 months to see if, at the year mark, we should go back to having an office.
When we discussed during a staff meeting a couple of weeks ago, the answer was a resounding no.
How it Works
At the time, there were only two of us in Chicago, with other members of the team spread across the country. And I was spending a good three days a week out of the office. So it wasn’t a big deal.
But during the past year, we’ve not only added new team members from other states and Canada, we’ve added some from Chicago. And everyone works from home.
For the people in Chicago, I do in-person one-to-one meetings with each of them on Mondays. I do the others by phone or Skype, depending on the person’s preference.
Then, on Tuesdays, we do an all-staff meeting where we have the chance to discuss client work, upcoming projects, and business results. We’ve tossed around the idea of having the people in Chicago in one room while those not here join us via Google Hangouts.
I suspect, though, people enjoy not having to get ready for an in-person meeting or making a commute to one location in favor of chatting on the phone.
Pros and Cons
I remember a couple of years ago, a very well-respected business leader in my Vistage group said to me, “I don’t think you like managing people. It goes against your personality. You should find a way to run a business where you don’t have to do that anymore.”
He was right. I’m naturally an introvert, which is a hard personality for a business leader. I don’t like to be interrupted. I like my routine. And the HR issues that arise from politics in the office drive me absolutely insane.
People used to argue over the temperature of the office, turning the A/C up and down until one month our electric bill, for a 2,500 square foot space, was $1,000.
Those arguments are gone and so are the, “He ate my food” and “Why are the dishes piling up in the sink” debates.
No one comes in to my office, slams the door shut, and starts to vent…no mater what I am working on at that particular point in time.
I love it.
From a business perspective, my team is completely focused on results, not activity or staying at their desk during lunch or after hours just to prove they work more hours than anyone else.
Productivity has increased nearly 30 percent.
But, on the flip side, most of our communications are electronically, where you miss sarcasm, nuances, and body language. If a person is having a bad day or isn’t feeling well, they project that on the email, instant message, text, tweet, Facebook message, or pigeon carrier you just sent. And sometimes it’s not so good.
We have to be really careful about having hard conversations in person or via the phone (which still isn’t ideal, but sometimes the only way) vs. electronically.
People ask me all the time what we do about meetings. The truth is, I’ve had the occasion to have three meetings, in the past year, that required space. And they were all with vendors so it wasn’t important we have an office to show off.
If clients in Chicago want to see us, we go to them. If out-of-town clients want to see us and they’re visiting Chicago, we meet them in their hotel lobbies.
There has only been one new business meeting where the prospect wanted to come meet with us in our offices. When I told her we are virtual, she dismissed us from her list of candidates.
I guess there still are people who think legitimate businesses have to have actual office space.
Which is Better?
All-in-all, the pros completely outweigh the cons. Heck, the increase in productivity, alone, outweighs the need for office space, rent, furniture, security, utilities, equipment, and more.
It’s a new day. The web allows us to work like generations before us never would have imagined.
We now have the opportunity to work with experts around the globe, without having to incur the cost of moving them to one location or them having uproot their lives.
Who knows? Maybe offices will eventually go away and those people who scoffed at us will come back, looking for advice on making the virtual thing work with multiple offices and multiple employees.
A girl can dream.
A version of this first appeared in my weekly Crain’s Chicago Business column.