How to Overcome the Challenges of Virtual Office Work

Back in 1995 only about nine percent of all US workers telecommuted to work. Telecommuting is another way to say that these peopleworked from home, were part of a virtual office, or were part of an electronically distributed workforce. In the decade that followed after 1995, that number of employees working in virtual offices skyrocketed up to 30 percent.

That brings us to present day, where about 37 percent of all US workers say they’ve telecommuted, according to Gallup:

“It is unclear how much more prevalent telecommuting can become because it is really only feasible for workers who primarily work in offices using a computer to perform most of their work duties,” reads the Gallup article. “While a greater percentage of US workers now say they have telecommuted than in the past, telecommuting remains much more the exception than the rule. US workers say they telecommute from home rather than go into the office about two days per month, on average. Nine percent of workers say they telecommute more than 10 workdays — meaning at least half of all workdays — in a typical month.”

Now, what Gallup doesn’t really quantify in their report here is the impact that startup companies have on this statistic. While telecommuting and working from virtual offices might be “more the exception than the rule” in the US, in startup culture it’s incredibly common and we see it a lot.

It has its benefits, but at the same time working from a virtual office can be a hindrance to productivity. Not to mention, trying to run a virtual office as a CEO or COO can be incredibly difficult. Despite the myriad challenges that surround virtual offices though, we see companies work with it and manage to find success.

Since virtual offices are such a big deal, we talked with entrepreneurs who live and breathe in virtual offices every day. They map out some of the big challenges they’ve come across, but more importantly, they talk about ways to work with those challenges:

Bart Mroz, CEO and Head of Brand Experience at SUMO Heavy

“SUMO Heavy is made up of a team of remote workers, spanning New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Poland. We work remotely because it enables us to limit distractions, work on our own time, and broaden our horizons for hiring. But, there are some issues we encounter as a remote team.

The most significant issue is the fact that we work in three different time zones, so we rarely have the time to meet all together as a team. We’re able to overcome this issue by giving each team member autonomy to achieve their own objectives. That means we don’t need a manager in Philadelphia watching over the work of a developer in Poland, for example. We have also found a silver lining in this problem—it’s the fact that, because we’re on different time zones, no matter what time a client pings us with an urgent problem, there is likely someone available to address it.”

Samantha North, Founder of PlacesBrands

“I work virtually for my own online consulting startup, PlacesBrands, which I founded in 2012. I’m based primarily in Istanbul, Turkey, but I work with clients and colleagues from all over the world. I have also been employed by a virtual company in Sweden, and have worked remotely as a freelance journalist. As well as working from home, I have worked from co-working spaces in Istanbul, London, Brussels and Munich. Sometimes I work in airport lounges too. As a virtual worker, I take advantage of my flexibility to travel as much as possible.

Some challenges I’ve encountered include:

  • dealing with loneliness;
  • getting the right tech and making sure it works;
  • handling clients in different time zones (but leveraging this to my advantage);
  • defining the line between work and non-work;
  • setting up the right working environment in my home;
  • discipline and motivation; and
  • distractions from friends and family members who think that working from home makes me ‘available’ for errands etc.”

Jeremy Sewell, Principal at Firefield

“I’m a Principal at Firefield, and we work with startups, entrepreneurs, and enterprises to build their web products. We are a completely remote team: I’m in Davis, CA, but we have people in New York, Boston, Spain, Poland, and Russia. Many of our clients are on the East Coast.

Our biggest challenges are communication and working in different time zones. We find that even though we work at different times, we needed to find a way to all be online and have a daily standup with at least a couple hours of full team overlap. This means we’re flexible on hours, but whether it is at the end, beginning, or middle of your day, you’ll be expected to check in with the entire team and be accountable for what you’re working on and answer questions.

When working remotely there is a tendency to work at strange hours; this should be fought. Everyone should work set hours so others on the team know what to expect when. This means I start my day at 6am PST and since I also am working with East Coast clients, it pays to be on their schedule. As a product manager, you learn to keep agenda items for each person you work with as you know you might only have one chance in a day to communicate with them.

We almost never use email, we use Slack so you can catch up in one place and see all relevant communication in one place. When you can’t regular check in with others, a company needs to have pretty hard policies on how things like Google Drive, Github, and Trello are used. This way others can also find a file, see code versioning, and understand what tasks are done and in the works without having to ask others.”

Sean Higgins, Cofounder at ilos Videos

“We were virtual our entire first year in business. The biggest challenge we saw was in being able to collaborate effectively. Startups move fast and it can be hard enough to stay in the loop on things when you’re all in the same room. Add working remotely to the mix and you and your team won’t just be on the wrong page you’ll be on completely different books.

We tried to combat this with a regular cadence (google Hangout meetings, team events, etc.). If we could go back and do it differently, I would have increased the amount of face-to-face time. Even to this day, one of our team members won’t come on full-time because to him working at ilos is sitting in his basement until 2AM by himself. My advice on having remote teams is only to do it if you need it and even then don’t neglect face time. Sometimes the old ways are the best.”

David Goldstein, CEO and Cofounder of TeamBonding

“As remote work becomes more popular, it is getting even harder for companies to improve coworker relationships. In fact, 65 percent of remote employees report that they have never had a team building session. To combat that, my team and I have started to roll out virtual team building activities that simulate a day in the life of a virtual team. Here are some of my other tips for building coworker relationships in today’s remote, digital workforce:

  • Embrace the Small Talk and Chit-Chat Online: When workers aren’t in the same office they often don’t have the same small talk and chit chat that allows them to relate to each other on a personal level. Opening up internal communication platforms like Slack and HipChat, and encouraging workers to express themselves outside of work dialogue (hello GIF’s!), is important.
  • Reply-All On Purpose (No, Really!): We’ve all seen the horrors of the mistake replay all email, but replying all to questions from workers outside your own office can show your business acumen and also your personality. Don’t always worry about filling up every ones email inbox.
  • Coffee Shop Days: While remote workers and work-from-home freelancers may appreciate their time outside the office, they can become bored and lonely. If you have workers on your team working remote consider suggesting a Coffee Shop Day a month where you join them and work alongside for the day.”

Tina Kalogeropoulus, Research Manager at PeopleG2

“Research what it’s like to work from home: it’s not just you taking your computer home. It’s not that easy, and you could fall into bad habits. Another challenge is getting motivated to actually start work each day. There are many things at home to distract you. If you dress like you’re going to an office, it’ll give you a mental boost. It’s also easy to over work when you’re not in an office punching a clock so I suggest taking breaks.

To break up the isolated set up, make it a point to talk to coworkers, and not just about work matters. Corporate culture is a big deal, so small things like The Water Cooler, one of the tools PeopleG2 offers, are a big deal. It’s a dedicated chat room for small talk and to give each other virtual high fives for special achievements.

Last, when you’re in an office by yourself you can become hyper focused on one task, due to the lack of external distractions, and can forget other action items (email, phone calls, etc.). Create a daily or weekly action items list to help keep you focused on all tasks.”

Image Credit: Flickr / Logan Ingalls’ page / cropped, resized

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Written by:
Will is a Senior Writer with Tech.Co, based out of America's Finest City: San Diego. He covers all territory West of the Mississippi river, digging deep for awesome local entrepreneurs, companies, and ideas. He's the resident Android junkie and will be happy to tell you why you should switch to the OS. When he's off the clock, Will focuses his literary talent on the art of creative writing...or you might find him surfing in Ocean Beach. Follow Will on Twitter @WJS1988
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