Guest Blog: Working Virtually – Lessons Learned (Part One)

As a part of PRMS’ ongoing commitment to behavioral health, we invited Pat Troy, IOM, CAE, President of Next Wave Group, LLC, to be our featured guest blogger this month and share her insights on the benefits of working from home.

In March of 2006, Next Wave Group had about 2,500 square feet of office space in a nice suburban office park with a courtyard and a great Italian restaurant steps away. We had a well- decorated reception area, a workroom for big projects, a conference room, a kitchen, and seven offices. Of course, we had the usual complement of workstations, furniture, files, appliances, copy equipment, kitchenware and even a soda/candy machine.  We also had a full complement of employees. It was a nice set-up, but it didn’t seem right somehow, and it was expensive to sustain.

When 9/11 hit in 2001, I grew concerned about how we might operate if we couldn’t go into the office. We gave Vital Documents notebooks to everyone with key information, contacts, and plastic sleeves for floppy disks. Everyone was supposed to take it home with them every day – just in case. Two years later, in 2003, along came Hurricane Isabel. We all had our notebooks and plans. It was a good thing, because for three weeks we had no power at the office. Everyone worked remotely. For some it was home, and for others it was coffee shops or homes of family and friends. We came through it with a more liberal work-from-home policy and the knowledge that we didn’t really need an office to function.

In the years that followed, more and more people were working from home. Some days it was just me and the office manager who were at the office. Here I was, paying for all this space and empty workstations. Money was tight and it just didn’t make sense to operate that way. The Isabel experience taught me that it was possible to operate virtually, so why not? I made the decision in April of 2006, and by the end of October the process was complete. I took my time because I had a lease and was in no particular hurry.

I feel for the many thousands of people who were driven to work at home because of COVID-19. There was no time to prepare or work out ways to operate and frankly, nobody knows how long it will last.

While much has been written about the specifics of working from home from an employee’s perspective, what about management? How do you land on your feet when your whole operational model is turned upset down?

Operating virtually will change you and your organization in profound ways you could never imagine. You will approach communications, solving problems, internal operations, meetings, hiring practices, and just about everything else in new ways. This may not be so much intentional, as it is just a natural reaction to changing circumstances — provided you take the time to ask yourself the question – “why are we doing it this way?”

You probably have heard the story of the young wife who was cooking a ham. She cut the end off the ham before putting it in the roasting pan. Her husband was baffled and asked her why she did that. She said that her mother always cut it off, but she didn’t know why. The couple asked her mother and she said she really didn’t know why either, but her mother always cut it off. Grandma had the answer. Her roaster was smaller than the ham, so she cut the end off the ham. So much of what we do in business is like that, and going virtual is the chance to break through the barriers you never knew existed.

I will zero in on a few key operational areas and share our experiences, including our surprising observations.

Working Hours – In a regular office setting, most communication takes place during the business day. When you are working virtually, and people have the freedom to work whatever hours they want (except for the person answering the phone), patterns start to emerge. There are early-birds and night owls and those who are 9-5ers. In time you will find that it is a plus to have people available at odd times, as problems often occur outside of working hours. You also soon learn that people are more productive when they pick the times they work, and most work more than required because they want to do things right. When working with contractors (which I prefer) is part of the deal – legally, they MUST make their own hours.

One-on-one Discussions – I bet you have experienced having an employee knock on your door wanting to have a discussion. The employee is well-prepared, but you have no idea even what the topic might be. When you are working virtually, it is much easier to respond to a request for a call with “let’s set up a time to talk, and what is the topic?” These discussions produce great results for both parties.

Hiring Practices – Once you start working virtually, you find there is no need to hire people who live within commuting distance from your office. Instead, geography is no barrier. If the people you are hiring work from home, choose their hours, use their own equipment, and are accountable for the quality of work they produce, they are really not being treated as employees. They are functioning more like independent contractors. Working with contractors gives you the flexibility to expand and contract as needed. You are no longer limited to a set number of offices, with a set number of desks, with a set number of workstations. You can find the right person to fill a client’s needs. Contractors are often different from employees, in that they enjoy their freedom and typically are “self-starters.”

Meetings – We all strive for more productive meetings, and often that is hard in a live setting. In general, however, we find that Zoom meetings, or even conference calls, are more productive because there is more adherence to the agenda and more attention to process. The down-side is the loss of personal interaction. When possible, we bring people together and I visit with contractors when I travel. It is not the same, but a sacrifice for a different operational model.

Paper vs Digital – In a regular office, paper proliferates with the help of the copy machine and desktop printers. There are filing cabinets to contain it and organize it. The work-flow is often sequential, with papers passed from person to person. When you are operating virtually, everything must be digitized. Yes, that is work for someone to scan in every document that doesn’t go into the trash, but it is worth it. The trickle downs from limiting paper are huge, including saving money on an office copier, freeing up filing cabinets, not having to pay people to file documents, not spending as much money on paper, toner and everything else that goes with high paper usage, including archival storage.

Systems Thinking – From my perspective, this was the most important way that working virtually changed us. We used to think in terms of tasks or sequences of tasks, now we think in terms of systems. It didn’t come easily. I was asked by one of my contractors to provide a table of organization. Oops – the truth is that with everyone being a contractor, that table of organization must, by necessity, be very flat.  How can I supervise all those (40+) contractors spread out all over the country? The simple truth is – I can’t. I can’t legally have contractors working for contractors. Then I realized that it was the systems that were driving everything. We are all accountable to the systems and to each other. Working with association clients, we have six interlocking systems: Governance, Finance, Membership, Communications, Programs, and Events. Each team member must understand his/her role, and some individuals work in more than one system. We are all charged with keeping the systems moving in a frictionless way, and we constantly work to improve the systems.

Conclusion Looking back, I know I did the right thing by moving away from the traditional business model. At the time, it was a big move, but we had no idea how radically this one change would impact every aspect of our operations.

Next, see Part Two of Ms. Troy’s blog post with tips and tools on working virtually.

 

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