Three Different Takes on the Virtual Office

Technology Associations Now November/December 2014 By: Gayle Bennett

Moving to a completely virtual office can provide flexibility, dramatically cut costs, and improve efficiency and productivity for a small-staff organization. But managing a mobile workforce and maintaining team cohesion can be challenging. We explore three very different virtual office models.

The Energy Council of the Northeast (ECNE) has a small staff, but it used to have a very big office. The association always needed the hefty square footage to provide training to its members. But business models change.

Members still need the training, but they started asking ECNE to provide it onsite at their companies. "Once we did that," says Darlene LeTavec, executive director of ECNE, "it wasn't hard to do the math." The association needed to reduce its physical footprint.

With a total staff of three, LeTavec saw an opportunity to not only trim the training facility from the budget but also downsize even further by becoming a mainly virtual office. Staff work primarily at home—particularly her—but there is a small suite in an executive office building for when her two staff members need to work together or when everyone needs to meet. Switching to this hybrid virtual model has saved the association about $70,000 a year from the operating budget, LeTavec says.

Going virtual makes particularly good sense for small associations. As LeTavec points out, "The very nature of a small-staff organization is that you have to be flexible; things turn on a dime." Logistically, coordination is always easier with fewer people.

While switching to a virtual office is easier for small associations, offering them budget-saving measures and increased employee flexibility, there are still some challenges to overcome. Before deciding to lose the lease, association leaders must work through how to sustain good communication, maintain team unity and culture, and transfer paper-based processes to online tools.

She Wrote the Book on It

Patricia Troy, CAE, principal of the association management company Next Wave Group, moved to a virtual office in 2006 and has never looked back. In fact, she was so happy with the decision that she wrote a book—Flex: The Virtual Office Advantage—about going virtual to help others make the switch. Here she shares some lessons she's learned along the way.

What was the smartest thing you did to prepare to go virtual?

To make the decision to do it quickly rather than spread it out over a long time. I've talked to people who say they need a three-year plan or a five-year plan. In my mind, I think that would have drawn it out far too long. It was a quick transition.

What was the toughest part?

Dealing with all of the stuff—the physical stuff, the copier, printers, and all those kinds of things. That's not what really makes a business at all, but [they] are the outer trappings of what we tend to confuse with being a business. Just trying to deal with all of that can be overwhelming.

What do most leaders get hung up on when they are considering this?

Worrying about if people will like it. Will they get social interaction? Will they be able to have some of the benefits of being in an office where people can stop by and talk to people? People worry about that a lot more than they need to.

What's the biggest benefit you've realized?

What we found, and it was a bit of a surprise, is we started being more effective working together this way. I used to have an open-door policy, and people would wander by my office and say, "I want to talk with you." They knew what they wanted to talk with me about. I didn't. And I would do the same thing to them. So, now it's, "Can we set up a time to talk?" "OK, but what are we going to talk about?" Because we have to make a deliberate effort to meet, that changes everything. Everyone is prepared when they get there. I think our effectiveness has really gone up. There's a lot more accountability and independent thought that comes about when going through this process.

What do you miss most in a virtual office?

Casual communication. You just don't really have that when people don't see each other. I send out a weekly newsletter—a simple thing—about what's going on companywide. It's the kind of stuff that they might pick up in an office even though it's not something they are working on. We try to keep people informed that way. That's the biggest thing we miss.—G.B.

Staff Communication

Maintaining consistent, clear, and routine communication among staff is critical in any organization. It's a bit trickier in a virtual environment—and all the more important.

Jaclyn Reeves-Pepin came to the National Association of Biology Teachers in late 2007 as a consultant to manage its programs. NABT had already been struggling financially, and in 2009 the economic downturn forced the board to lay off the staff of nine and hire an association management company. Reeves-Pepin stayed on as the only NABT staff member and eventually became the executive director. She works at home in Colorado Springs, and the AMC she works with, Drohan Management Group, is in Reston, Virginia.

Reeves-Pepin has weekly conference calls with her two staff members at Drohan. "That doesn't mean we aren't talking at other times as things arise, but we schedule that hour even if we don't have agenda items," she says. "It's easy to say 'Hey, we have nothing to talk about. I could use that hour back.' But you really need to use that hour to continue to maintain your relationship."

Maddie Wagner, communications and marketing coordinator at the Association of Staff Physician Recruiters, works in Pennsylvania, her executive director is in New York, and the AMC they work with, which provides eight staff members to ASPR, is in Minnesota.

Most of the work is organized through monthly conference calls, she says, and she admits that it can be challenging sometimes. "It's a lot different than if you were in a face-to-face meeting in a conference room. You don't have the advantage of seeing people's body language. You can't really tell if they are fully engaged or not, if they have some distraction."

Which is why face time is still necessary—it's the key to maintaining good working relationships and open communication. Reeves-Pepin travels to Reston to meet with her AMC staff at least every quarter and sometimes more, in addition to interacting with them at NABT conferences and meetings.

"This scenario works because I travel," she says. "If I was only based in a home office and I was only interacting with staff at conferences, it wouldn't work. You do sacrifice some creative energy when you are telecommuting."

LeTavec schedules ad hoc, in-person, full-day meetings with her staff when communication is breaking down via phone, email, or chat. "We save up a list of things that we're going to discuss when I go up there and meet with them," she says.

Laura Skoff, CAE, president of Team Dynamics LLC, which helps nonprofits transition to virtual platforms, emphasizes that managers, in particular, need to pay attention to communication. This is not only for reporting and tracking reasons—which are important—but also to maintain the human element. "The pace at which you can work in the virtual office is astounding—the focus, the quiet, and lack of distractions," she says. It's easy to end your productive day and go do your own thing, but managers need to make time for just checking in, she says. A virtual office "succeeds when people still feel part of the community. It's always nice to know that you are part of a group working toward an end."

Hiring From Afar

Hiring and onboarding staff is hard regardless of the work environment. It might seem particularly difficult in a virtual environment, but those who've experienced it say it's not that bad.

Hiring in a virtual office is very similar to hiring in a brick-and-mortar office, Skoff says. At some point, all staff members need to meet the candidate in person to determine how that person would fit into the mix.

LeTavec hired one of her current staff members after ECNE went to its hybrid model. She's learned that in onboarding virtual staff, more communication than normal is necessary because you're missing the casual walk-by and check-in.

Wagner knows the hiring and onboarding experience from the new virtual employee's point of view. She had an advantage going in when her boss in New York hired her to work in Pennsylvania. She'd been a physician recruiter, which required her to both travel frequently and work virtually, and she also served as a volunteer with ASPR, where she had worked with her now boss. In other words, she knew what she was getting into, and she knows it's not a role for everyone.

"Someone who's looking at the virtual environment needs to really assess their team's skills and personality traits," Wagner advises. "It's not just about having good employees you can trust. You need to make sure that they will thrive in a virtual environment. They may thrive in an environment where they are around people all the time, but put them in an office where they are stuck with themselves five days a week, and it can be scary."

Do you have employees who thrive on the social environment of an office? Do they value in-person communications above all? Is it too distracting for them to work in their home office? If employees answer yes to any of these questions, a virtual office might not be the best environment for them.

Easier Than You Think

You might think you need a lot of fancy, new cloud-based tools to go virtual. But you probably don't. Wagner says ASPR has relied mainly on a shared drive, email, and conference calls.

LeTavec did need to find online tools to manage some of ECNE's paper-based systems—and needed to shift everyone's thinking in the process. "I kept saying to [my staff], forget how we are doing it right now; let's concentrate on why we are doing it that way," she says. "Why do we track course registrations like this? And why are we recording information on the inside of the physical paper file folder?" With the answers to those questions, they could focus on finding tools that allowed them to accomplish the same things without paper.

After talking to a commercial cloud provider (which turned out to be too expensive and more robust than they needed) and trying out Box.net, Google Docs, and a number of other tools that just didn't work for them, LeTavec and her team found that file-sharing and storage site Dropbox and the online project management tool TeamworkPM did the trick for them. Additionally, iChat, which they already had on their Macs, has become the go-to quick and casual communication tool. "That's where a lot of the back and forth happens that you would normally do if you were in the same location," LeTavec says.

And it's just easier to communicate and coordinate with a smaller staff. "We're not this big organizational machine," says Reeves-Pepin. "Smaller organizations are more nimble."

But even with a small staff, maintaining the social element of an office is important, and technology can help here too. Some of Skoff's clients have developed virtual "water coolers" where employees can post baby pictures, jokes, and what they did last weekend. It can be as simple as setting up a listserver. "It is important to do that, so that people feel like they know what's going on with their buddies who are working with them and the esprit de corps is maintained," she says.

The bottom line, Skoff says, is that you probably don't need much more than you already have to go virtual. "I think a lot is made about how challenging this all can be," she says, "but when people are mature adults who are interested in getting the job done and delivering outstanding results, you have a good, strong partnership that can be virtual very easily."

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Remote Possibilities."]

Gayle Bennett

Gayle Bennett is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, DC.