Virtually here: The virtues and vices of remote employees

We’re all aware of the trend to move away from the traditional office to a virtual space and this phenomenon looks set to continue. But just how does the move away from perfunctory office environs affect people? Who will flourish under this new system and who will fail? And how do we need to adapt our businesses to make this a happy virtual space?

As a virtual business with no fixed abode, we surveyed the Beany team to give us some real life input into the highs and lows of the virtual working world (our team all work remotely across New Zealand from Dunedin in the South to Opua in the North).

Before I get into the results of the survey, it’s important to understand why our business is only ‘virtually here’. Our virtual office was born out of a desire to achieve two key objectives:

1.    Lighten our business overheads so we could deliver a lower cost accounting option for small business people

2.    Provide an alternative for people (particularly working mothers) to escape the tyranny of traditional offices with a clock on/clock off approach.

There was not a lot of ‘philosophy’ behind it. It was more of a pragmatic approach to real life issues. When you attack a problem from a purely practical point of view however, it can sometimes create other situations you hadn’t contemplated.

So what are the experiences of our team?

They all love the freedom to work when and where they want.  

Strangely enough, because of this, we sometimes feel more connected! Real life does intervene sometimes, yet has a minimal impact on our working week and team communications. Children do get sick, in-laws do visit, funerals are attended, children are born and life is woven more tightly into the week. Peoples’ lives are not quarantined into work (at an office) and home. There is spill over between the two areas and we totally understand and embrace that. It also doesn’t matter what you wear, so you can be working in your PJ’s or swimwear (although we’re not sure whether this is good or bad!)

Productivity is increased

It may be because the people we attract to work with us are naturally self-motivated and organised but, in general, we’ve found that empowering people with set tasks to achieve in a certain time frame works really well. Less time spent measuring time, and more focus on outcomes and delivery. Our workflow looks less like an accountant’s spreadsheet and more like a pipeline.

People miss people

Despite the upside, there is a downside. Being the social animals that we are (and we hire the most social of accountants) we do miss each other. One of our team mentioned talking to herself more! Everyone mentioned the lack of physical interaction as an issue for them. Interestingly, the team was independently finding ways to overcome this, from being more social in their personal lives to starting a co-working space. We hold virtual meetings online across the different parts of the business on several days of the week and encourage ‘over-communication’ between team members – we do this by using Google Hangouts, Slack, Google Drive, via text, on the phone, in the CRM, on Zendesk and in our Beany software. It’s a constant stream of chat, noise and communication.

Having recruited, retained and replaced a few of my virtual team over the years, I suggest the key attributes you need to look for when finding a virtual staff member are self-reliance, confidence, and self-motivated. They need to be articulate, communicative, sociable and organised.

We try and keep our virtual team as happy as possible…My key tips to achieve this are:

  • Over communicate

If you’re not sure people understand what you mean, they don’t. Repeat, expand and include everyone.

  • Structure

Have regular, short virtual meetings (using Hangouts or similar) with everyone there so they can see each other and exchange information. Have fantastic processes with end-to-end systems.

  • When you can meet in person, do! 

It’s quite perturbing to actually meet someone you’ve employed for a year face-to-face for the first time!  But it’s great – it’s like catching up with an old friend. They are the same but slightly more, well, real.

We’d love to hear from others working in or managing a virtual team about how you make it work in your business. You can email me at sue@beany.com.