Rituals & Tools in Building a Virtual Organization

Our MCFTech team has grown to something in the range of 60 resources, spread across five continents  including resources in more than seven states as well as Colombia, South Africa, Nepal, China, India, Philippines and the UK. The other day I stumbled into an article about the failure of recent JC Penney CEO Ron Johnson, which cited his attempt at creating a virtual leadership team as one of the major issues. This, along with other headlining moves (i.e. Marissa Mayer de-virtualizing Yahoo!), certainly puts a spotlight on the challenges of the virtual organization.

As we’ve been growing our virtual operation, one thing that has become clear is that being virtual can’t be a casual or accidental thing. A virtual workforce needs to be implemented intentionally and with specific tools and rituals to support and encourage behaviors that create similar experiences to on-premise working.

  1. We don’t always get this right but we try our best to level the playing field by not grouping up people on Webex conferences. What this means is that each person who joins a conference does so from their own line, even if in the same location as others. This helps avoid sidebar conversation and ensures everyone is heard clearly.
  2. Initially, our team used Skype primarily for chat. We recently adopted Lync and spent several months enforcing a no-Skype policy. The reasons are that Lync tends to have much fewer non-work distractions and does a lot more for quick sharing, group conferencing and logging chat content. The status lights on Lync also make it easier to tell if someone is really free, which leads to more frequent impromptu connections.
  3. Every Friday we have a team call-in that lasts about 30 minutes. We present company news, important topics and also use the time to present new technical discoveries, cool things we’re doing for clients, and especially personal stories or videos (recently we’ve had a rash of skydiving escapades).
  4. Knowledge-capture sessions are another great way to generate shared information and knowledge virtually. We have a weekly Use Cases session where we present short blocks of content about various subject matters over Webex. The recordings are then sliced and converted to YouTube videos on an MCFTech channel. This provides the effect of having a DVR-like experience of knowledge sharing, where team members  — and especially new staff  can quickly get information about a range of subjects relevant to the company.
  5. In the end, there is likely no true substitute for the water cooler conversation, so we use the savings from not having offices to get key team members together in places like Costa Rica, Lake Winnipesaukee and Jamaica.

I do expect that as we continue to grow there will be new challenges that will require new ways of thinking about how we operate virtually. What’s clear is that success as a virtual organization can’t come from virtualization as an afterthought — it has to be an explicit choice and requires specific tools and rituals to support creating the cohesion that can be lost without real face time.