It took an overcrowded office and the Great Recession to prompt Chris Dyer to open a virtual office and shut the door on the brick-and-mortar workspace when his lease ended in 2008.
It was a drastic move for the CEO and founder of peopleG2, a provider of background screenings. However, it brought the change in culture Dyer sought, with more transparency, better performance and an initial savings of $5,000-$8,000 per month. Today, all but three of 24 staffers telecommute every day at peopleG2.
Dyer’s staffers are among the 16 million people who telecommute part-time and another 3.3 million who work remotely 100 percent of the time, according to Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, a virtual company that helps jobseekers find flexible work options.
“There is a huge amount of skepticism surrounding remote work, and yet there is more workplace technology supporting remote work than ever,” said Sutton Fell in a news release listing FlexJobs’ “25 Virtual Companies That Thrive on Remote Work” for 2014.
“It is becoming much easier for all different types of industries to offer flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting options,” she added.
Medical and health, web development, sales, account management, writing and education are among the leading fields hiring for flexible work, according to the Flexible Job Index, a monthly look at trends in flexible jobs.
“The belief that people are only productive and working when they are in an office building is simply old-fashioned in this day and age, as is the belief that having a physical office is an absolute requirement for growing a successful company,” she noted.
Culture Change, Greater Transparency
Dyer found that teleworking has given him a clearer picture of his employees’ productivity.
“I can see completely whether or not they’re working because I don’t have any false data points,” such as the appearance of busyness to influence his perceptions, he said. And it shed light on who was grabbing the easy assignments—performing screenings that are not as time-consuming and challenging as others.
The move to a virtual workplace also solved the company’s overcrowding problem. When he opened peopleG2 in 2001, he and another staffer were the only employees. About two years later, 17 employees were working out of a space meant for 10 or 12 people, and the close quarters were causing friction.
The workplace culture needed to change, too. When the company was in startup mode, Dyer was hiring people he knew personally; that meant, he said, that the culture revolved around him. As the company expanded, new employees had a harder time fitting in and getting trained.
It was time for a dramatic shift in the business model, but initially Dyer faced pushback from employees.
“Pretty much everybody was against it,” he recalled. “They were really scared [because] … we had to really change the entire way we worked.”
Although he lost a few people who didn’t like the change, his “A” players “stuck around,” Dyer said. And he’s hearing from people who want to work there; the company’s careers page had 1,000 hits on March 19, 2014, after the FlexJobs listing of virtual companies came out, and resumes and phone calls from job seekers were up 20 percent.
Leap of Faith
Running a company whose employees are out of sight requires a leap of faith, acknowledged Howard M. Love Jr., founder and CEO of LoveToKnow, which publishes a family of web sites.
It has operated virtually since its inception June 2004 and employs 15 full- and part-time people in addition to writers hired on contract. The only exception to the virtual workplace is an office manager who meets with Love at his home two to three times weekly to handle paperwork, such as signing of checks. She telecommutes the other days.
“You have to realize you are not going to be watching that person come in the door in the morning and leave at night and look over their shoulder in between [times],” he said. “It takes a lot more trust and faith to hire and work with someone virtually than it does in an office environment.”
His managers discuss responsibilities and expectations with employees, which include engineers, ad salespeople, product managers, senior editors, quality assurance specialists and systems administrators. Before giving assignments, managers and employees estimate how long each task should take. “We really judge people on the body of their work,” said Love, whose company also made FlexJobs’ list. “It’s really no different than if they were two offices down in the same building … [except that] we’re not monitoring their physical movement, nor do we care.”
When he started his virtual company, Love said he didn’t know if there would be a limit to how large a telecommuting staff he could have and remain successful. What he has found: “There is no limit.”
He says there are “a fair amount” of employees whom he has never met in person but “we know one another’s lives.” However, working virtually is not for everyone, he noted.
“Occasionally we’ll hire someone who doesn’t get it. What we’ve found is there are people who have the self-discipline and the motivation and the work space [to telework] … and other people who, through no fault of their own, can’t do it. They’re perfectly wonderful workers in [a traditional] environment.”
He’s found there are three groups of people who don’t work out in a virtual business environment:
- Those requiring the camaraderie and interaction of a traditional office; for them, teleworking feels too isolated.
- Those requiring the discipline that a traditional office imposes, such as a stated start and stop time.
- Those who take advantage of being out of sight—an “extraordinarily rare” group, he said.
Among Dyer and Love’s recommendations for a successful virtual company:
- When starting a virtual company, consider involving staff in shaping how the business will work.
- Consider working with a mentor whose company operates 100 percent virtually.
- Opt for over-communicating with staff. That can include online chat rooms where teams share knowledge via instant messaging and a virtual water cooler area.
- Set expectations and goals and have weekly team meetings via conference calls and online screen sharing.
- Consider using Skype or in-person meetings to solve large problems. The face time conveys “the seriousness of the issue,” said Dyer, who calls “tiger meetings” for weighty issues. Staff members call “cockroach meetings” to discuss lesser problems.
Watch that staff members don’t “hide behind the technology” and become overly reliant on e-mails instead of picking up the phone, Love advised.
When it comes to overseeing virtual workers, “it’s just management in the end, and all the same principles apply,” he said.
Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.
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