Building a company where everyone works from home
By Cynthia Spraggs
I grew up in a small town, and in Atlantic Canada where our company grew from, career opportunities can be dismal, especially in smaller places.
The only option, if you wanted a better job, was to commute for maybe two hours, or more in bad weather, to work in a city. Or you could leave your hometown completely and move to the city. Or you could relocate to Alberta.
The big reality about the East Coast is that it’s a generational thing. There are many generations of people living in the same place. They have extended family in small communities, and it’s a really big thing for people to have to move away, and leave all that support and connection behind.
That’s why so many people in Atlantic Canada are really well-educated but employed in jobs much lower than their skills would be in other markets.
The whole basis of Sales Beacon is to give people better opportunities, while leaving them in their small communities. And that make a lot of business sense, because if you have happy employees, they are going to go the extra mile for clients. This means that we have higher client satisfaction and higher employee retention.
So we looked for a way to allow employees to work from home, or wherever they want, to be able to do interesting, challenging work, and earn a much better livelihood than they could working at a local coffee and donut place.
This way, they can live the kind of life they want to live — enjoying their neighbours and their community — and not have to wait 40 years until they retire to do it.
Environmentally, it also makes sense. You’re not putting tons and tons of carbon dioxide into the air by commuting. And there’s less air travel for business meetings.
How the technology helps virtual teamwork happen
Back when the company began in 2007, the tools available for remote team collaboration were, by today’s standards, limiting. Being able to work virtually was a pretty big deal.
But it was important to learn fast how people could work without the human contact experienced in a regular workplace. So, the company developed methodologies that work for virtual distributed teams. These are not necessarily the designs that work for bricks-and-mortar teams reporting to one manager.
I took over the company in 2011, and since then the technology and our understanding of how to use it to manage global virtual teams has progressed. We’re building an exciting environment where people have the opportunity to start at a junior level and proceed to a more senior level. People are working on some incredible projects without having to leave their house or step into an office.
The human side is essential
We’re the first to say it isn’t for everybody. This tends to be a company that is extremely good for introverts. I’m a big fan of Susan Cain, who wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.
She talks about how a lot of people compare themselves to extroverts, but we’ve found that if extroverts are going to work with us, they may need to do their work in a shared office space so they can get the in-person human interaction they crave.
We’ve learned that even with the communications technology available now, you have to make a lot of changes to make a distributed virtual team perform well. Most of the popular project management systems that people keep trying to apply to distributed teams were actually developed for people in the same building.
Six Sigma, Agile, PMI — they all originated with bricks-and-mortar teams in mind. Trying to apply these traditional methods out of the box to teams working from numerous locations just doesn’t work.
We work with large IT companies and, out of necessity, we had to learn how to be extremely good at making large virtual teams perform, because even the IT giants, with all their tools, don’t have it down perfectly. Part of our skill-set is around keeping people involved and engaged in team meetings, where many or even most of the people on the call are actually multi-tasking something else and not paying attention.
We’ve developed webinars on that topic — how to hold virtual meetings where people pay attention, and then actually do the tasks they’ve committed to.
What we’ve found is that because we work virtually, we can hire people based on ability, not their location. And we also look past their CVs. You wouldn’t believe how many incredibly bright, well-educated people have had to break up their career for family and personal reasons.
Divorce, moving home to take care of aging parents, illness — they can really put a wrench in a job history. Because of this, we make an extra effort to see if someone is a high-quality individual with common sense who would be right for our business.
We put them through an intense training program, and we mentor them, and then we start them in on projects, beginning with the easiest ones because we want them to succeed.
Some companies have tried letting employees work virtually, and they’ve had to pull back on that because they couldn’t make it work. We find that by hiring right, providing intensive training and mentoring, and making sure that we rely on more than the latest collaboration tools, we can offer opportunities to people they’re not able to get anywhere else.
Cynthia Spraggs is CEO of Sales Beacon, a company that implements enterprise sales programs using virtual teams. For more information, visit www.salesbeacon.com.