If everyone on your team worked out of the same office you’d probably install a water cooler or snack station, where your employees could catch up on the latest. You’d smile when you saw each other (and that would be often), and you’d ask about each other’s kids, pets, hobbies and other goings-on. You’d host annual picnics and holiday parties.
When your business is virtual, that whole “bonding” thing gets a little more complicated. There are no water coolers to gather around. You rarely if ever see your employees in person, and you probably don’t know their spouses’ names, let alone the names of their kids and pets, or what they do in their free time. There are no annual picnics or holiday parties, because you all live in different cities and countries.
As a business owner managing a virtual team, your challenge is to look past physical distance and still create a cohesive and conscious virtual culture – a company culture tailored to the needs of your virtual business and remote employees.
Focus on Values
Company culture doesn’t evolve out of the blue. It’s not something that just happens. Virtual culture begins with awareness – a conscious decision to infuse the way you work with your company’s values.
Values may sound like the teddy bear of the corporate world – the workplace equivalent of grasping hands and singing Kumbaya around the campfire – but they’re one of the most important elements of your company culture. You make the conscious decision to define your values and you’ll hire based on them; you’ll work every day to uphold them. They are the bedrock of your business culture, and ultimately your business success.
Here’s an example. At Boldly, one of our core values is kindness and respect. While it may seem a bit touchy feely, we attribute a big piece of our business success to the way this value influences our company culture and all our decisions. It’s a major influence in the way we hire, which has a roll on effect to the way our team work with and support our clients. Likewise, it has a major impact on who we attract and accept as clients, and therefore the experience and job satisfaction of our team. See the circle? Through this value, our aim is that everyone that engages with Boldly, either as a client or as a team member, has a win-win experience. And yes, more satisfaction = more business.
Above All Else Virtual Culture Starts at Hiring
If you were hiring an onsite employee, you’d automatically assess each other to determine “fit.” Your interviewee would glance around the office, assessing employee interactions, décor, and workplace chatter; you, in turn, would evaluate his or her professionalism and personality, and whether they measured up to your ideal.
The hiring process for a virtual employee is different, but company culture must still come into play. Remember, your team will make or break your business, both operationally and in how your customers perceive your company. Your virtual employees must share your company’s values and let them shine through in their actions.
Adapting to Working Virtually
Managing a virtual team means modifying your approach. While you may be tempted to try and tighten the reigns to compensate for the lack of person-to-person contact with your team, often the opposite is what works best.
- Management Style: Working with remote employees requires trust – confidence that they’ll do their jobs on time and on task. Successful virtual companies swap micromanagement and the overseer mentality for a workplace that manages performance and results, not tasks.
- Virtual Community: You must develop systems to foster communication and a sense of unity among virtual employees. This requires more forward thinking and action on your part, and in turn will help resolve conflict, influence decision-making, and encourage creativity.
- Promote Engagement: No matter the type or size of the company, it’s important to encourage your employees to engage. Figure out how you’ll do this: will you host weekly roundtable meetings via Skype? Could you setup a private social network for office chit-chat and socialization?
- Recognition & Reward: Many companies choose to implement recognition (think employee-of-the-month) or reward programs as appreciation for a job well done. Consider how you’ll motivate and encourage virtual employees to do their best – and how you’ll convey your sincere thanks when they knock it out of the park.
4 Tips to Building a Virtual Culture
As you define your values, your company culture will develop to support those values. To give you a jumpstart on creating a successful virtual culture, here are four tips (and a few examples from successful companies and entrepreneurs):
- Set up regular video meetings. Face-to-face conversation, even via video chat, is far superior to a phone call. Schedule regular video chats to touch base with remote employees and check in on operations, like author and entrepreneur Mike Michalowicz (The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur and The Pumpkin Plan), who uses Skype to virtually tour his manufacturing shop and touch base with the shop’s manager.
- Embrace technology. One of the most important aspects to a thriving and successful company culture is technology that reinforces the human element: collaborative tools, communications software, and other solutions that make your employees’ lives easier, tasks more effective, and jobs more satisfying.
- Encourage conversation and camaraderie. The absence of a water cooler does not make water cooler conversation unnecessary. Consider giving your employees a forum to chat casually, as they would across an office or lunchroom table. Private social networks like Yammer are an excellent medium, used by small teams like Heyworks to organize group conversations, but also to share links, videos, and friendly conversation.
- Choose the right talent. The right people—that are committed to your values and to working virtually, and it will all feel effortless.