Virtual reality: how to build culture when your team are a bunch of avatars

Often the most successful start-ups and small businesses begin with a pipe dream; microscopically debated and dissected with close friends over (more than) a few bottles of red wine in the wee hours of a weekend morning - a dream to make a difference, be a game changer, and succeed. Some on the other hand, are borne simply from the desire not to have to wear pants to work. Whatever the motivation, businesses today benefit from the added privilege of globalisation as a leg up to increase profitability- ease of entry into emerging markets, cheaper manufacturing offshore, and relatively easy access to flourishing market conditions in other corners of the globe.

 

From a people perspective, globalisation has also allowed key players to emerge to enable this shift into remote working such as Upwork, Elance, and a plethora of virtual assistant platforms for almost any work task imaginable, thereby allowing a business to reduce overhead costs and ultimately become a leaner, more agile player.


Businesses can no longer expect to remain competitive in today’s market without embracing the benefits of virtual teams. Entering new markets generally require a physical presence in country, and manufacturing offshore more than often requires local labour. The drawback here is that your most important people will NOT be sitting cosy in your main head office and your company will not continue to build Culture in the traditional manner (company branded water bottles never worked anyway, people!). It's time to think laterally.

Historically, many teams have operated remotely to some degree- whether it be separated by space (from desk dividers, to oceans), separated by time zones, or disproportionate allocation (ten members in one office, and two in another country). Culture was often built, refined and strengthened by the physical presence of the team, the daily interaction, the face to face banter and the chat-at-the-water-bubbler interactions -those not in the thick of it were often disengaged and isolated. Today, business owners are sitting in their undies in their lounge room wondering how they are going to grow company Culture with a 'homeless team'.  Never fear, here are a few tips that can help you conquer at least some of your HR problems.

 

21st century inter-webs 

Embrace a team instant messenger service such as Slack, Yammer or even Lync for easy communication. All conversations are recorded and archived, documents can be uploaded and downloaded, and channels can be created to tailor communication to selected audiences. 

  • Slack is a game changer for virtual teams in allowing your people room to let off some social steam. If your chat is strictly professional you are missing the whole point- in remote teams, the old water cooler conversations are now replaced with giphy's, emoticon jokes and banter which ensure all your people feel connected no matter where they are.
  • Track work through a project management tool so all members are in the loop with project progress, such as Asana. Planday allow efficient scheduling for the whole team, ensuring transparency of meetings and tasks.
  • Emotion tends to be the sore casualty with traditional online communication, which impacts credibility, engagement and trust. Utilising Google Hangout for the more in depth all-hands meetings, or strategy style get togethers ensures the emotion is not left to the wayside and rapport is built and fostered.
  • Competition is king. Set clear expectations of your communication channels and reward your most active communicators- the new platforms all allow you to analyse the stats to understand who is utilising it more than others.

 

Face time, not FaceTime

  • Apple have moved mountains by allowing people to visually connect and communicate remotely, but nothing will replace the benefit of getting on that plane to share a real beer with your team.
  • The money you save by outsourcing or offshoring should outweigh whatever cost it takes to fly your local team over to meet their fellow band of merry men and women once or twice a year for a retreat of super exciting team building adventures.
  • Hold frequent all-hands meetings on Hangout, and fly a different member to participate in person each time. Rotate this around and you'll see a change in engagement levels in no time. 

 

Engagement

My favourite word! Three more favourite words: transparency, authenticity and trust-based-two-way-ongoing feedback (phew, pushed the limit there!).

Being remote can have its challenges with your team remaining focused, but giving everyone input into changing processes, pivoting into a new market, or receiving feedback will do wonders for their engagement with the business, and give you some damn good ideas from the people that know your product or service the best.At the end of the day, trust is a two way street- loosen the control and share the leadership.

 

Final pearls 

  • With remote workers, weekly output is your only measure of productivity and for that you need to trust that your people are doing the right thing. Hold your team accountable for output, not time. 
  • Culture will take you further than any employee handbook or Code of Conduct ever will. Be content knowing that your culture will pivot and flex with every new hire and every lost employee, and your new found adaptability will allow your business to ride any challenge. Those with rigid expectations of culture struggle to adapt to business changes. 

Follow these steps and the best part will be you seeing your culture grow... whilst still only wearing your undies in the lounge room.

 



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Lina Barfoot

Lina Barfoot , Editor at SavvySME

Love this article! The idea of creating a culture when there is no real world interaction probably seems impossible to a lot of people, but I think it's clear that it's necessary to start as freelancing/working out of office becomes more and more common.

Jennifer Lancaster

Jennifer Lancaster , Owner at I Want That CRM

I think you should mention that it is very risky hiring freelancers who come and go just for out-tasking, and a long term staffing solution with one of the managed VA teams could be a better proposition. There is a lot of ripping off on these sites, charging employer fees that are way too high and giving little to the actual freelancer.