In September of 2011, I walked into our 2,500 square foot, River North swanky office in downtown Chicago and the only person there was my assistant.
Everyone was either out on the road with clients or working from their home offices in other states.
The rent was $12,000 a month, not including utilities and hardware and security and the rest of the overhead.
We were in a tight cash crunch because, while the economy was beginning to rebound slightly, the government had just hit the debt ceiling crisis and clients were skittish.
They didn’t want to pay their invoices in their normal 30 days because they were worried they wouldn’t have the cash to survive another down economy so soon.
We decided to see if we could get out of our lease.
Two months later, we put everything in storage and told everyone we’d all work from home for a year, save some cash, and see how it went.
More than SEVEN (!!!!) years later, we are a completely virtual organization with no plans of ever going back to an office space (I guess I should do something with all that furniture that is in storage!).
Focus on Goals, Not Butts in Seats
I thought having a virtual organization would be more difficult than it is.
Clients don’t care…as long as their work gets done and they can still access our brains regularly.
We’ve had only one prospect look down their nose at us and say they don’t trust a firm that doesn’t have a brick and mortar office.
It’s allowed us to hire the brightest and best, no matter where they are in the world.
We can compete with the gigantic, global firms.
It’s allowed us to stay lean and mean…and to save enough cash to help us out in the down cycles.
But, mostly, it’s been a way to lead a brilliant team focused on results, rather than why so-and-so didn’t get to the office until 9:30 a.m. or left at 4 p.m. or took 90 minutes at lunchtime to work out.
(Argh! That stuff used to drive me crazy!)
Seven Tips to Run a Virtual Organization
The biggest question I get from clients, prospects, and peers is:
But how do you lead a team you don’t see?
Yes, even in 2018…I still get that question.
Here’s a little known secret: it’s actually easier to lead a virtual team than it is a physical one.
I’ve watched productivity skyrocket and, while we still have the water cooler with the Spin Sucks community, it’s far less “wasted” time than in an office.
Also. I never have to hear how cold or hot it is in the office, how so-and-so left their dishes in the sink, or how the fridge smells.
Everyone is trusted to do their jobs, when it works best for them AND have the flexibility to go to school events or doctor’s appointments or work out at lunchtime.
This is how we do it:
I meet with my direct reports every week, my leadership team daily (quick stand-up meeting), and the entire team once a week.
Unless I’m on the road and it can’t be helped, I never miss those meetings.
When we were together in an office, it was easier to miss or cancel those weekly meetings because I saw and talked to my team constantly so it seemed less a big deal if they were missed.
And…we do them on Zoom so we can see one another’s faces.
Video chat isn’t a replacement for in-person, but it sure comes awfully close.
When new people start, they always have about 30 days of bewilderment while they try to figure out if no one really cares if people aren’t at their desks for a certain time period.
(It also takes them about a month to figure out they can come to our weekly team meetings wearing ball caps.)
Everyone has very specific goals—and then we have company goals.
We track against those instead of number of hours worked.
Here’s another little known secret: when people work from home against goals, they actually work more and are more productive.
Talk Weekly About Goals
We don’t wait until the annual review to see if people met their goals.
We talk weekly about where we are and what still needs to be accomplished.
And we use our Level 10 meetings (see below) to drive those conversations.
During my meetings with my direct reports, I go through that plan and we discuss what’s been accomplished, where there are challenges, and what our opportunities are for success.
And, if something is amiss, we don’t wait until the formal reviews to bring it up. We hit those conversations, head-on.
Offer Extraordinary Benefits
I’m not talking about better health insurance or more against their retirement savings.
I’m talking about unlimited paid time off and four day workweeks (which we do every summer).
You’ll find you have to force people to take time off, both when they’re sick and for vacation.
I’ve had to threaten to take away raises and bonuses from people who don’t take time off.
Track Time and Projects
Both allow me, at a snapshot, to see how people are spending their time, where we are at capacity, when it’s time to hire, and who is meeting—or exceeding—their goals.
Conduct Level 10 Meetings
I am a huge, huge Traction fan, which is written by the EOS founders.
In it, they describe a Level 10 meeting (complete with agenda) that helps you and your team stay focused on goals.
We know, week-by-week, when people are behind (it’s almost always me) and what we need to do to get back on track.
Run Meetings with Transparency
I begin every team meeting with asking everyone to talk about one positive thing going in their personal lives, and one positive thing in their professional lives.
That gives everyone the opportunity to talk about what went well and where there are challenges.
Sometimes there are client concerns and other times it’s about the technology we’re using.
It allows me to keep a strong pulse on what’s really going on…even from 2,000 miles away.
And it gives us all an opportunity to get to know one another personally. Something you miss when you’re not together all day, every day.
And Now the Floor Is Yours
Sure, there are challenges to running a virtual organization, just like there are challenges to having everyone in one space.
For me, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Now it’s your turn…do you run or work for a virtual organization?
What has been your experience?