Like most companies, ours went entirely remote in March. But unlike many, we already know that we won’t be going back.
We were waiting for the greenlight to return to business as usual when a funny thing happened. Instead of asking when we should go back, we started asking why we should go back. Our employees were happy and productive, enjoying workouts and sit down breakfasts instead of battling Boston traffic. And even though we weren’t under one roof, the world kept turning and business continued to run smoothly.
What we determined was this: we don’t need to gather 9:00-5:00 to get things done. From there, we made a momentous decision for our business; we became a virtual company.
Other companies, from Twitter to Shopify, have made the same call—and this is just the beginning. As the coronavirus fallout continues, many companies will be seriously contemplating a permanent shift to remote work but unsure of how to make it happen. As someone who was in those shoes four months ago, I’ve learned a few things about how to make the transition successful; here’s what it takes to “move” to a virtual office.
Talk it out
Even when going virtual is the right move, it’s still a significant change. To combat uncertainty and address inevitable questions, we made company communication our top priority.
Our first step was assembling an interdisciplinary Pandemic Team to spearhead our response—a group that has now morphed into our virtual office task force. Then came weekly emails to employees outlining new changes, biweekly company-wide meetings, a Slack channel dedicated to updates and a comprehensive intranet stocked with company info and processes. It may sound cliche, but there’s really no such thing as too much communication when making a change this significant.
But just as important as proactively and consistently communicating with employees is encouraging them to do the same. Even a dedicated Pandemic Team can’t anticipate and account for every possible scenario or personal circumstance. Effective communication during the virtual office transition is a dialogue; employees have to feel empowered to share what’s working and what isn’t, like whether weekly department check-ins are helpful or too distracting. Whether it’s focus groups, employee surveys or 1:1 meetings, make an effort to talk it out with employees across levels and departments to identify and act on areas for improvement.
Treat employees like the adults they are
Remote work means managers can’t have eyes and ears on employees all day long. They have to trust the people they hired. This sounds simple enough, but if it was, interest in employee productivity trackers wouldn’t be spiking as much as 600%. The transition virtual—especially amid childcare closures—requires increased flexibility and accommodations for employees, empowering them to get things done on their own terms.
In my experience, it’s very freeing for people to become their own keeper; in fact, I often see greater autonomy inspire employees to go the extra mile. Research bears this out; granting employees freedom to control their own workflows often leads to greater motivation, engagement and performance.
Virtual offices require companies to ditch babysitting in favor of a trusting, flexible approach to employee management. Hire people to do great work, empower them to do it their way and hold them accountable for results, rather than hours clocked.
Don’t force fun (but do make it possible)
One of our employees’ primary concerns about going remote was that it can be a little lonely. Company culture doesn’t always shine through in transactional Slack messages or emails; virtual companies have to make a concerted effort to bring meaningful connections online, during and outside the workday.
We’ve encouraged all employees to establish regular agendaless meetings to chat about anything and everything—from new blog ideas to how badly their garden needs rain. These meetings, which many employees are having daily, are built to mimic the casual interaction of popping over to a colleague’s desk or running into them in the parking lot.
No strangers to Slack before, we’re also leaning on it more than ever. After launching our #flattenthecurve channel dedicated to COVID-related updates, we recognized an opportunity for fun hobby and lifestyle-related channels—from a #flattenmyabs fitness channel, to one documenting the trials and tribulations of parenting while working. The banter we used to exchange in our communal kitchen or at the stereotypical watercooler now takes place with a few more hashtags and emojis via Slack.
We’ve also made a concerted effort to offer activities outside work hours. In addition to classic virtual happy hours, we’ve gotten inventive with a yoga class led by one of our marketing employees and, our favorite to date, a virtual dog show. We’ve found creative theme nights often pique our employees’ interest and bring in bigger virtual crowds.
Through all of this, our goal has never been to force fun—but it’s important to us that we offer opportunities for our employees to connect. Company culture doesn’t happen as naturally in a virtual office; companies have to make it a priority to ensure it doesn’t slip through the cracks.
With these best practices in mind, my parting advice to any company considering a permanent virtual office is this: design as you go. Going virtual, amid a global pandemic, is uncharted territory for us all. We may not (and probably won’t) get it right on the first try. Since we “moved in” to our virtual office seven months ago we’ve watched, engaged with employees and learned to build on successes and ease sticking points. For any company considering the virtual office, remember we aren’t bound to our first attempt; we can all continue to iterate until we’ve designed a virtual office that’s right for our companies and their unique needs.