It’s official: We at LaFleur are getting our first proper office space on June 1, and we’re all exchanging high-five emojis around here in anticipation of the move-in. We’ve operated as a virtual office throughout our history despite most of our team living in or near Grand Rapids, MI, so putting some roots down is a big and exciting step for us.
We’re not alone in this path, either: according to a growing body of research, virtual offices are becoming the new normal. Although the phrase “virtual office” probably conjures mental images of tattoo-rich tech startups, the New York Times reported in 2014 that the typical telecommuter is a 49-year-old college graduate who earns about $58,000 a year and belongs to a company with more than 100 employees, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.
I think I speak for everyone at LaFleur Marketing when I say that I’m really looking forward to seeing more friendly faces during the work day and sharing even more jokes, memes, and ‘90s movie references in person with this excellent cadre of creative and dynamic marketing professionals.
However, thanks to our two-plus years as a remote team, we’ve also gotten pretty good at working together as a remote team, and we have a lot of insights as to what works in a virtual office — and what doesn’t. In honor of our June move-in, we thought we’d look back on our time so far and share five tips on how to pull together a remote team and create chemistry, creativity, and efficiency in a virtual office.
1. A searchable chat program with lots of features is an absolute must.
At LaFleur, we’re big fans of Slack, which has been the lifeblood of our team communication for a while now. No, they’re not paying us to say this — we just find an enormous amount of value in the ability to search archived conversations, open and easily manage new channels, and set up reminders and daily stand-up meetings through Slack’s powerful and intuitive “slash” commands.
Of course, daily chatter and laughter are a big part of maintaining morale and good vibes, too, and Slack helps us there with integrated GIFs, smooth YouTube embedding, and a customizable and especially-lovable set of emoji.
Slack isn’t the only option, of course, and there are a number of alternative chat programs for remote teams out there. Just be sure to choose one that’s both robust in terms of features and fun for your team to use.
2. Project management software, online document sharing, and video conferencing form the other three legs of our table.
Our project management software, Asana, is perhaps the most important tool that keeps our virtual office going. Thanks to its easy-to-manage task creation and communication system, everyone on our team has a good idea of what’s on their plate, what’s coming down the line, and how they can manage their tasks to meet deadlines and optimize their day.
Asana’s simple and free-form interface makes it a very versatile tool as well, even if it requires a bit of trial and error to come up with an optimal flow for your team. As an example, we recently decided to re-think the way we structure and track tasks whose parts are delegated across different teams, but Asana’s ability to create highly-organized subtasks and drag-and-drop them between larger tasks made this an easy switch.
As for document sharing, we use Office 365, which works well — unless SharePoint goes AWOL for a few hours and no one can access their documents. It’s an occasional reminder that cloud-based systems are still in their infancy, so consider keeping offline backups of your current documents in a temporary folder. Office 365’s Word Online is also a whipping boy among our content team for its habit of instituting random font and formatting changes without rhyme or reason.
Admittedly, video conferencing has been our Achilles’ heel at times; too many meetings have gotten bogged down in technical audio/video issues. No one on our team is totally enamored with Skype for Business, but we didn’t have much luck with appear.in for large (around 6 or more people) meetings either — though many of us still use it for one-on-ones.
If you know of a better way, we’d love to hear about solutions that worked for your team. Feel free to post in the comments if you’ve got something to share.
3. Flexible schedules can be a beautiful thing.
Team members at LaFleur are mostly allowed to set their own schedules, which has been a huge benefit for many of us who have families, keep up freelance work, or just lead normal lives with things that come up during the business day. Rather than sending us out of sync, the distribution of team schedules across a wider part of the day actually makes us more responsive and versatile for clients, and this tends to unfold in a completely organic way.
As an example, on our content team, we all keep slightly different schedules: two of us work something like 9 to 5, while another team member’s work day skews a bit later. In practice, this means that we almost always have a content specialist available for both first-thing-in-the-morning urgent tasks and those last-minute client requests that tend to come through around 4:55 p.m., which also means that we are able to service clients on both coasts.
4. Be prepared to constantly re-examine your tools and practices.
I’ve only been with LaFleur Marketing for less than six months, but it feels like not a week has gone by where we didn’t try out a new productivity tool, virtual office policy, or organizational experiment. Not all of them stick, but many seem indispensable after a few short weeks — tracking our time with Toggl to see how long tasks really take, for example, or holding daily stand-up meeting with Slack’s Geekbot add-on.
The biggest potential pitfall of a virtual office is that employees are too dependent on communication, task management tools, and established workflows. When you don’t know where a project goes next or whose help you need, a remote team member can’t just ask the person in the adjacent cubicle.
Instead, you have to message or email someone, and if they take a few minutes before they look at that message and then have to follow up with someone else, who’s also away from the keyboard for a few minutes… You see where this can go. Suddenly, the task you had rolling just ground to a stone-cold halt for 10 minutes, during which time you didn’t want to start anything else but couldn’t really get anything done on your current task, either.
For this reason, virtual office managers and employees need to be restless and ruthless in looking at their existing practices and tools — because every minute lost to inefficiency or uncertainty tends to blow up into five when you’re working with a remote team.
5. Don’t forget to meet up when you can.
If your remote team functions within the same city, remember that an after-work beer together, a group lunch, or a team co-working day at someone’s house goes a long way to remind people that they’re working with real humans who care about them. A day at a virtual office can feel like a lonely stretch even on a day of flawless productivity and team chemistry — sometimes you just need to make some real human contact and hear someone’s laughter out loud.
Of course, these tips just scratch the surface of what it takes to run a successful virtual office, but they should help remote teams who are either just getting started or looking to re-evaluate some longtime practices that aren’t cutting it anymore. We hope they help your team come together to stay productive and have some fun along the way.
Tugend, I. (2014, March 7). It’s unclearly defined, but telecommuting is fast on the rise. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/your-money/when-working-in-your-pajamas-is-more-productive.html?_r=2