Timeshare CMO has been a 100% virtual company since its start in 2014. Today, we collaborate remotely from across five states and four time zones.
In this blog series, we're sharing our experiences and tips to help anyone who’s trying to make a virtual company work. In the attempt to uncover what makes our virtual company work so well, we’ve hit on a three-part framework. This is part two in a three-part series about what we’ve learned as a team about building a virtual company. More about our framework can be found here. We’ve found that a successful remote workplace starts with certain types of individuals, then company culture builds around those individuals, and the tools that support them come last.
So let’s say you’ve got the right people working in a virtual company. They know how to get stuff done without a lot of external structure and their home work environments set them up for success. Now we’ll turn our focus to the next most important part of building a remote team: your company’s culture.
Like a brand, culture is the summation of all the experiences a person has when they interact. In the case of company culture, it’s the sum of the experiences your team has, not only with you, but also with each other and with your customers and suppliers. How does your team feel about each other, your company, and yes, you?
Even if you’ve never thought about your company’s culture, it is something that exists even in 2-person startups, and it’s really hard to change once established. In tech, we generally say that the first 5 hires set the tone, and past ten a culture tends to be pretty locked.
Here are some things we’ve discovered about remote work that help us build a productive and inclusive culture—and by extension make employees and customers want to stick with us:
#1: ACKNOWLEDGE EMOTIONS
Melinda, Founding Partner: In a virtual environment, it’s hard to see people’s expressions or nuance, so we ask that everyone be explicit about their emotions: whether it’s fear, frustration, irritation, or family issues that may interfere with focus or performance.
Unlike most workplaces, we embrace emotions in the workplace as a normal and natural phenomenon that deserve attention, so long as they’re addressed productively.
When everyone acknowledges their feelings in productive ways, concerns are addressed faster, little things don’t derail us, and we find interpersonal conflict to be reduced relative to other work environments we’ve experienced. As leaders in the company, Scott and I model this behavior at all times.
Here are some examples:
No hybrid meetings. Ever dialed in to a meeting where everyone else was in the room? It was hard to hear and harder to participate. At Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, these “hybrid meetings” were banned for their ineffectiveness. At Timeshare CMO, everyone in a meeting is either in the room physically or they’re online/phone. This ensures no one is at a disadvantage. Our clients soon come to value this approach too. We can’t control it on their end (they may have several people in a conference room) but for the most part, this rule keeps everyone at the same level of participation.
Ditch video calls. There’s real research that suggests that people are actually better at determining the emotional impact of words and discerning the emotions of the speaker when only voice is used.
Provide constructive outlets:
We created a Slack Channel exclusively for the expression of frustration, called #rage-cage. We got this idea from our friends at Truss, and their explanation of it here is worth a read. Our Slack description for this room reads: “IF YOU ARE NOT IN ALL CAPS WHY ARE YOU HERE?” Slack provides many ways to express emotions, from emoticons, to gifs, to classic IRC-style markdown text. Demonstrate, model, and encourage these types of tools to humanize interactions and lighten the mood wherever possible.
Proactive communication. In a remote environment, people are unlikely to notice when someone is bothered, overwhelmed, or frustrated unless you go out of your way to bring it to their attention. This has a focusing effect and it has the ability to get you what you need more effectively both in and and out of virtual environments. Tip: schedule proactive check-ins with team members on projects as well as in direct reporting channels. There are likely far fewer meetings in virtual environments, so your team will welcome these as opportunities to interact with you and with each other.
#2: PUT EFFORT INTO COMMUNITY
Todd, SEO Strategist: The “face time” in a traditional office is not as available in a remote environment, which can lead to feelings of alienation in team members. The more you are able to make everyone feel included, the more likely they are to feel appreciated as an integral member of the team.
Michelle, Senior Editor, Accounts Lead:
Establish a regular meeting of some kind so that the group can interact live and chat about what they’re up to—whether it’s about work or not. It’s so important to foster casual interactions so people get to know each other better. It helps everyone trust each other more when they’re in the thick of the work.
Remote games, competitions, polls, and brackets can all build that camaraderie. We created “Find-out Fridays,” a chance to ask questions large and small of a different team member each Friday. Done via its own dedicated Slack channel, it’s a way to get to know each other better and have some fun on a Friday. Questions include “What’s the weirdest thing on your desk?” and “What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?”
Janice, Graphic Design: Getting to know your virtual team personally is where we all become human beings to one another. Finding that commonality with each person really strengthens trust and connections.
For example, one of my colleagues mentioned how nice it was to be able to trust her team to deliver items she needed before vacation so she didn’t have to worry about anything. To me, I would have moved mountains for her, not because I HAD to, but because I wanted to. I care about each and every member of my team. I wouldn’t want them to stress! Without this connection, I wouldn’t feel the need to go above and beyond. Connections build trust, and in a remote world, it’s imperative.
#3: THE COMPANY ISN’T THREATENED BY REMOTE WORK
Melinda, Founding Partner: One reason companies struggle to implement remote work models is that they started out as face-to-face, and it’s very difficult to change that model.
Some people will inevitably be threatened as the perception of “work from home” still conjures up an idea of workers taking advantage of the company. Our position—and our experience to date—is that this is unlikely and can be easily dealt with if spotted. All our team members track their hours, even if on flat fee contracts or full time employment. So, if the issue is that some people don’t like that remote workers get to work in their pajamas, don’t let that stop you. If we are to live in a meritocracy, it really shouldn’t matter if someone is in their pjs, workout gear, or in high heels.
Janice, Graphic Design: I feel more connected with my virtual team than I have ever felt with any other team in a traditional work environment. I have never felt a connection with the person sitting in the cube or office next to me. I always kept to myself. At TCMO, we go out of our way to get to know one another since we are scattered all over the world. This is a much healthier and fulfilling working relationship, in my opinion—one with longevity and loyalty.
This doesn’t mean we never meet
We don’t know how large we can grow Timeshare CMO as a virtual-only company, but we have decided to find out the limits of remote work, and to, when necessary, pioneer our own techniques to get stuff done, make clients happy, reward our team, and build a workplace culture we are proud of and enjoy being a part of.
Wondering if there’s a chance to meet face to face? Absolutely, and here’s how:
As founders, Scott and Melinda do live meetups one-two times per year, usually 3-5 days at a stretch, and with a healthy mix of fun and work.
Timeshare CMO team members are encouraged to meet with each other and clients as opportunities arise. One of our Midwest-based team members got to meet a client who was in town for a conference before she had even met another TCMO team member! Another will travel an hour to meet with a teammate and client who are flying in for an event.
As our team grows, we do anticipate an annual offsite. And with people contributing around the country, that could be anywhere!
How does your company culture foster—or hinder—a virtual workplace?
Next time, we’ll talk about how the tools a team chooses can make or break productivity.