What Does it Mean to Have a Virtual Team
The classic definition of the word “office” is no longer relevant. How and where one can conduct business has opened up, allowing more versatility and flexibility. More and more companies are opting to employ staff and teams out of state, or even out of country. Ten years ago, hiring a software developer in Russia when you are headquartered in Seattle would have been unheard of. Now, it’s standard operating procedure. Companies of all shapes and sizes are going global with their employment. Tools have been crafted with virtual teams in mind, and coworking spaces like ATLAS Workbase are being created with high tech resources to support remote teams.
Three company founders generously offered some insight on how they are successfully utilizing virtual teams to build their businesses.
Rootstrap was the brainchild of founder Ben Lee, one of Forbes’ Top 15 Instagram Influencers to Follow in 2017. He has been involved in founding and/or leading five startups. Rootstrap is the product of the merging of two of those startups. It’s an award-winning digital development studio with 70+ employees worldwide.
Lumenomics founder and CEO, Marti Hoffer, has created a company made up of an almost entirely virtual team. The natural lighting company that focuses on sustainability, efficiency, and smart technology, employs roughly 40 full timers with another 60 contractors.
Pete Peng is a program manager at WavCatcher, a company that creates signal boosting technology. In a mobile-dependent age, these enhancements translate to less dropped calls, longer battery life, and less lags. The company has a team of less than 20 employees.
What are the Primary Differences Between Managing a Distributed Team Versus a Traditional Team?
While the obvious difference between a remote team and a traditional team is that one is physically present and one is not, there are a lot of day-to-day redundancies that you may not have considered.
According to Peng, “It is far easier to motivate and communicate within a traditional team model […] because of emotional resonance through direct engagement and the immediacy which enables clear calls to action that expedite workflow. The benefits of a distributed team include greater agility and access to resources, e.g. outsourcing, which enable cost savings.”
The team at Lumenomics discovered that training is more difficult when a team is compiled of employees around the globe because so much learning has to do with gaining knowledge via “osmosis.” Hoffer described this, “You have to be very focused and work very hard to share information. When you’re in an office you overhear conversations happening around you, and organically apply that to the role you have in that company. When you converse via platforms, no matter what they are, you’re not part of every conversation.”
Ben Lee of Rootstrap agreed that the challenge of keeping everyone on the same page is the primary difference between a traditional workplace and managing a remote team. “Managing a distributed team requires you to be a lot more hands on about communication. In fact, I’d say most – almost all – of my day is spent communicating and making sure everyone is working in sync. In a traditional office, it’s a little easier to keep everyone on the same page because you’re all literally in the room together – but when you have a team working on a project remotely, you have to be really proactive in maintaining that togetherness.”
What Made You Decide to Run Your Company Primarily Remotely?
When asked why companies decided to hire remotely, it came down to two shared reasons: 1) money and 2) talent. Many companies do not wish to be restrained by location when it comes to talent. If the best person for the job is 2,000 miles away, they should be the one hired. According to Hoffer, “I want to invest in the best talent no matter where they are located.” Peng added, “The talent and experience associated with our technology and business model are not locally available.”
Rootstrap, unlike the other two companies, has three offices around the world where employees work (New York City, Los Angeles, and Montevideo, Uruguay). They also encourage remote work because “some people work better remotely” and “remote engagements often mean you can recruit better talent.”
All three of the companies have team members scattered across the U.S., as well as full-time employees outside of the country.
The Advantages of Running a Virtual Team
Each company we spoke to had a different reason for working with a remote team and why they find it rewarding. According to Lee, flexibility is key. The team at Rootstrap knows that every worker achieves productivity in a different way and that “increased flexibility makes everyone happier to be working at Rootstrap, and it certainly makes us more efficient as a company.”
One of the areas of management that Hoffer is most passionate about is the work/life balance. When asked about the rewarding side of running a virtual team, the Lumenomics founder referenced the hours saved commuting. The average US worker commutes 26 minutes each way. Working from home, or a local coffee shop, allows employees to “enjoy more of your one beautiful life.” According to the founder, 95% of our time is spent indoors. Going along with their push toward natural light, Hoffer wants employees to have the opportunity to spend more time outside in the sun.
The Challenges of Running a Virtual Team
According to Peng, the challenge comes with proving a new kind of business model in an established marketplace, “Being a virtual company requires significant and immediate demonstration of credibility when compared to a brick and mortar competitor because of its intangibility.”
Both Lee and Hoffer looked at the question from the management side of the equation. According to Lee, “There are a lot of benefits to going distributed in terms of efficiency and productivity, but it’s also a lot easier for things to get left behind, forgotten, or misunderstood. That’s important to watch out for.”
Hoffer mentioned a couple challenges. First, it can be difficult to keep employees accountable when they aren’t in an office setting. Second, employees can miss out on the innate knowledge that comes when employees are all gathered within earshot of each other. It can be difficult to find a comparable way of keeping communication open between employees.
The Most Powerful Distributed Team Collaboration Tools
The variety of management tools available is one of the biggest factors that makes running a virtual team a reality.
Coworking spaces such as ATLAS Workbase are also playing a large part in making the remote employee a reality. ATLAS was in large part designed with distributed workers/teams in mind. The state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment in the meeting rooms creates virtual meetings as they’ve never been seen before.
Hoffer advises against running a company through email as it “sucks you into the urgent and not important. When you start your day using email, it results in anxiety and disconnection.” The company utilizes Base, a software platform that allows the team to document results and communicate effectively. They partner this with Google Suite and Box, tools that share and store content.
Slack is a powerful communication tool used by Rootstrap and many other established businesses. According to Lee, “Slack is a lifesaver. We’ve cut down on email dramatically thanks to Slack, which saves us tons of time.” The company also uses Trello for organization and an internal tool called Arbor, which helps create product backlogs and organizes feature lists.
What Advice Would You Give Someone Considering a Distributed Team?
“Set up systems to replace the physical office. Adopt technology and create routines that make it effortless for employees to stay in communication with each other. Use Slack, have standups, use Trello, anything that helps to provide structure. Without a physical office to bring everyone together, you have to create your own rules and norms that provide the necessary structure to keep everything coherent. But if you can do that, running a distributed team can be incredibly rewarding – both financially for the business and for everyone on a personal level.” ~ Ben Lee
“Have a standard operating procedure that is a living growing doc. When you are training someone up, give it to them. Revise it as processes change. Then, take that narrative and make some 30-60 second videos for employees as most people are visual thinkers. Get outside. You’ve given yourself a little more time. Now figure out how that’s a part of your formula.“ ~ Marti Hoffer
”Have clear and documentable guidelines for each team member; regular and documentable communications to the point of redundancy to ensure actions are completed in a timely manner. Conduct regular conference or virtual meetings to provide the semblance of culture. Team members are not machines, and human nature requires behavioral leadership in the form of positive reinforcement.“ ~ Pete Peng
Should You Be Hands On While Managing Your Virtual Team?
According to all three virtual team managers, this is a resounding “yes.” The only way to ensure that you are getting the best and most productive results from your team is to stay in constant daily communication. Detailed instructions, expectations, and company values should be effectively and consistently communicated. Just like employees in a traditional office setting must share (or at least understand) your company vision, the same is true for virtual employees.
The best way to achieve this is through tools. All three utilize some form of virtual meeting tool. Rootstrap uses Slack for daily communication, Lumenomics uses Base, and Wavcatcher uses cell phones and emails to stay in touch.
Are Distributed Teams a Long Term Solution?
Remote employees are not going anywhere. With tools like Base, Slack, and Trello becoming more accessible, and work spaces like ATLAS Workbase bringing folks from across the world into the same room, companies employing virtual teams will only become more common. This enables companies to hire the best employee for the job no matter where they are located, and save thousands of dollars every month on leasing or purchasing office spaces.
However, everyone works differently and because of this, traditional companies are not going anywhere either. The rewards of virtual teams are more appealing to minds like Hoffer and Lee. For Peng, remote teams are less of a long term solution, with the challenges outweighing the rewards for a more established company.