How to Manage Team Unity and Brand Identity in a Virtual Workplace
By Kelli Korducki
Thanks to an ever-growing array of remote conferencing technologies like Google Hangouts and Skype, and the power of the Internet in general, virtual workplaces are becoming increasingly widespread. It isn’t tough to figure out their appeal: the flexibility offered by a remote work environment has perks for employers and employees alike. For workers, the option to work from home means less time wasted on commuting and, even, an invitation to feel more individually empowered—two crucial factors for improving morale and, ultimately, getting more accomplished on the job. For employers, managing staffers from afar also opens up the talent pool to people and skill sets from across the globe. A double-win, right? Well, not so fast.
The reality is, while virtual work environments offer perks aplenty, there are challenges that a company must contend with when a physical office space is pulled from the equation. The biggest of these virtual workspace hurdles is maintaining a sense of team unity. Every employer who manages remote staff members should be actively seeking out strategies for ensuring that all members of their team feel like they’re on the same page, work-wise, even when they aren’t working from a shared location. Failing to do so isn’t just a threat to internal cohesion, but can lead to unfocused messaging and even weaken an organization’s brand.
Chris Byers is the CEO of Formstack, a data management firm based out of Indianapolis. For the company’s first six years, the team was totally office-based. Then, in the summer of 2012, Byers’ wife was offered a dream job in Oklahoma.
“I was like, alright,” Byers recalls. “I can make this work somehow.” He traveled back and forth for some time, but quickly realized that a remote workplace setup wasn’t so far-fetched—a realization that soon dawned on some of his staffers, as well. Shortly after Byers’ own move, members of the team made the move to Chicago and San Francisco, but continued remotely working for Formstack. It was a tentative transition, but one that proved successful; for the past year, the option to work remotely has been wide open to anyone who seeks it out. Fifteen of Formstack’s 35 employees work outside of the company’s main office, and Byers has staff based as far away as Poland.
But how does Byers keep the team feeling like, well, a team?
“We have the virtual version of a water cooler,” he explains. It’s an instant messaging tool called Chit Chat that allows users to set up different “rooms” for one-on-one chats or group gatherings. One room is literally called “the water cooler,” where animated GIFs get thrown around all day by team members in between jokes and useful information.
The team also uses an internal wiki to store information. Additionally, every Tuesday all company members gather on a video chat to share what’s happening in every department. While Byers admits it isn’t necessarily the most productive meeting, it at least offers everyone the regular opportunity to see each other face-to-face. The entire company comes together once a year to physically meet, in-person.
While these strategies have helped everyone feel united on a personal level, Byers finds that Formstack’s biggest challenge as a virtual team has been figuring out the company’s culture and direction—key components of consistent messaging.
“We spent a lot of time really trying to define what our culture is, why we exist, where we’re going, and documenting that into what we call our ‘playbook,’” he says. “You catch things when you’re physically around people. It’s much harder to catch culture when you’re remote.”
Sara McManigal, director of talent at the email marketing company Emma, Inc., knows this well. With staffers based in the company’s main office in Nashville, a satellite office in Portland, and a few workers scattered across New York, Charlotte and Denver, making sure that everyone is on the same page can be a challenge.
“It’s an ongoing conversation about keeping everyone connected,” she says.
While Emma uses a chat room, the company has also found it helpful to establish point of contact in the Nashville office for what McManigal describes as “cultural things,” to keep everyone working from home or different cities apprised of what’s going on. That way, if the Nashville office hosts a company lunch or after-work get-together, the Portland office can feel empowered to do the same. The firm also hosts an annual talent week that culminates in a company talent show, in addition to a yearly holiday party.
While the company has been virtual for six years, ensuring that the ship runs smoothly as a geographically scattered enterprise requires constant adaptation and correcting for what might not be working. It also means being honest about priorities and goals, and keeping everyone on the same level. Most important, it’s about making sure everyone keeps in touch.
“Constant communication is really, really important,” says McManigal.