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Is it really possible to take a company from a physical location to a virtual space, and take a team used to face-to-face work entirely online? Last week, Andy McLoughlin discussed this topic in Going Virtual: Can Any Organization Do It? He pointed out that while some companies requite a physical location, many can have at least part of the team working virtually. But what are the potential pitfalls?
Here’s a breakdown of some things you should consider before taking a leap into the cloud and trying to bring your team along with you.
How portable is your business? If you’re dealing in intellectual property creation or knowledge work — anything that can be produced and delivered electronically via computers, the Internet and phone — then you’re probably in good shape for moving your company into the cloud. Andy mentioned public relations and marketing as good candidates for virtual companies: the virtual agency model. Any content creation shop with creative teams — ad agencies, news agencies, copywriters, bloggers, podcasters, editors, online producers — can work remotely.
Just asking yourself the simple questions: “If we didn’t go into an office together, could we still get work done?” and “If so, how?” These will lead you down the path of thinking about how to configure, or reconfigure, your business. You need to deeply analyze the way you currently get things done and document it. Illustrate your work process using a mind-mapping or flowchart tool. Break down how your projects are handled from start to finish. When does your team meeting face-to-face? Envision how that would look as a videoconference instead. What are the steps you might be eliminating by going virtual? Don’t just stop at mapping out your process and translating that to a virtual workflow. Add dollar amounts to your current process versus a virtual process. You should begin to see why virtual work makes good financial sense.
Even if you’re in an industry with proven virtual models, this doesn’t mean that your company that has been entrenched in “the office” can eschew physical location and hit the cloud running. As you probably know from managing people: people hate change. Even if change is for the best, the very act of changing can paralyze some. You may have to make some hard decisions about how to handle resistance against the change to virtual work. Start with open communications, present the concept of going virtual to your team, and suss out the champions of this model. Chances are, you’ve been approached in the past by someone or several team members who’ve asked about telecommuting, even part-time. For the nay-sayers, find ways to offer support every step of the way as they transition from being in the office to working from home.
You may want to bring in consultants to assess your team and offer individual consulting on setting up their virtual workspaces. Set up training sessions for workers and their managers to make sure everyone is up to speed, not just on the technology changes but the culture changes as well. If not everyone is thrilled with your intention to go virtual, don’t be shocked. Be prepared.
In my post What Does It Take To Run a Virtual Team (Redux), I listed the needs of a virtual team, namely:
- Communications amongst your team members and externally;
- Management of projects, team members, deadlines, and document;
- Archiving of files, knowledge and communications content;
- Interaction between team members including integration, collaboration and socializing.
There is no “one size fits all” technology solution for every company that goes virtual, although there are many enterprise solutions available from Microsoft (s msft) to Cisco (s csco) to a never-ending procession of innovative startups looking to solve the problems of virtual work. If you pick a fully-integrated enterprise system, keep in mind it may be more expensive and less flexible than newer, more innovative solutions. The rub of going with smaller startups for your virtual infrastructure needs is that you may have to cobble together several tools, so while they might be highly affordable, you’ll be looking at issues such as cross compatibility and integration.
A common question managers ask when confronted with the prospect of managing a virtual worker is “how am I going to make sure they get their work done?” A manager who is constantly looking over a worker’s shoulder to make sure they are working is going to have to go through a fundamental shift in how to manage — and how not to manage — to be able to handle managing a virtual team. Managing virtual workers isn’t about watching them like a hawk and micromanaging their every move. Instead, the infrastructure you put into place should have built-in checks and balances to watch productivity and on-time delivery.
Make sure your processes and expectations are not only clear but also communicated clearly to team members. Not everyone will thrive in a virtual work environment, but the issue may be less an inability to get work done and more to do with a feeling of isolation or being disconnected from the team. Be ready to address any issue that crops up as you move toward virtual work and have a plan for addressing issues including missed deadlines, lack of participation, failure to properly document or archive, and forgetting to log time, if that is a requirement.
You need to decide how committed you are to going virtual and how flexible you’ll be with team members who resist. Can you afford to move in phases, first deploying the team members who are ready, willing and able to take to the cloud, while leaving the others in the office? In order to get the real benefits of going virtual, you should at least consider downsizing the physical work space and look for suitable alternatives that offer real cost savings.
As more and more of your workers opt to go virtual, pretty soon those who are resisting may give in or give up. There is no way to please everyone, but having an understanding that you may have some very unhappy team members from the moment you say “virtual” should help to guide you in your approach. Consider consulting your lawyer to make sure any drastic changes you make in your workplace don’t infringe on workers’ rights.
By thinking through your process carefully and thoughtfully in advance and spending time considering and reviewing the technology you’ll use to build cohesion amongst your dispersed team members, you can certainly construct the ideal virtual workspace. Bringing everyone to the cloud without encountering some digging in of heels is the best scenario, but as a leader and manager, be prepared for the worst.
What do you think about bringing your own company into the cloud?
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