Avoiding common virtual workplace pitfalls

Discover the difference between ‘cockroach meetings’ and ‘tsunami meetings’ as part of this guide to staying connected and achieving efficiency in a virtual workplace, from company culture expert, Chris Dyer

Businesses that are considering going the remote route face some challenging questions: how do you know people will do good work and not just fool around? How will they be able to work together when they’re apart? Even if they do collaborate, can companies foster a team dynamic that remains consistent with their brand?

The answers to all of these questions lie within the culture that supports your employees. You can’t change human nature. And that’s a good thing, because some of its most intrinsic elements act to motivate people to do their jobs well. If leaders concentrate on a culture that encourages motivation and engagement, their workers will make the right choices and achieve the brand’s goals.

To focus, or not to focus

Let’s debunk the first fallacy about working from home, or another offsite venue – that if a person is not in a corporate chair, being watched, the mental wheels will not turn. This simplistic view is insulting to most adults who agree to perform certain tasks in exchange for a salary. A better question is, why wouldn’t they work? At any company, if objectives are not completed, the slacker will be cut loose.

A better issue is how well they focus on the task at hand. And this issue is certainly not the sole province of remote staff. Depending on your bricks-and-mortar office layout, an ability to focus depends on the same lack of distraction as it would at home.

Open office plans are common in times when rents rise, and consolidation saves money. Trading separate closed-door offices for rows of cubicles may reduce office space but increase competition for peace and quiet. I know denizens of these offices who take work home evenings and weekends so they can commit to a deeper focus. It’s easy to extrapolate this reality to full or part-time telework. 

At my fully remote workplace, we simply write in the rules as employment requirements. For example, people must have a dedicated office space – no laptops in cafés or papers piled up on the washing machine at home. They must have the appropriate network equipment, such as current computer hardware and software, high-speed internet service, and any communication apps that the group uses. They must be available for mandatory meetings, either in person or by teleconference.

Some things don’t need to be detailed. Any conscientious adult knows they can’t multitask with chores, family care, or other obligations and get their work done. We let employees separate their work time from personal time, a measure of self-control that puts the worker in the driver’s seat. As long as they complete what needs to be done, to quality standards and on time, we don’t cross the line into managing their schedules. The less we interfere, the better they can focus!

Tear down the walls of isolation

But won’t virtual workers get lonely and spend all day on the phone with their friends? Again, that’s not the way to get a raise, much less a steady salary. But it’s up to remote companies to help their people connect. If individuals need help, or have news to relay, they can’t just knock on a colleague’s office door or herd people into an emergency meeting.

When my office went remote, we had to create new meeting protocols. Sometimes you need that quick one-on-one; sometimes you need team input; and other times you might want company-wide consensus. How, we wondered, could we set up those exchanges as quickly and effectively as possible? How could we ensure that people at remote stations were prepared and paying attention?

We set rules geared toward maximum participation of the relevant parties, active engagement, and achievement of concrete objectives. We did this by considering what gets in the way of that sort of efficiency and effectiveness. People tend to dislike meetings that start or run late, meander off topic, and lead to still more meetings, rather than getting things done.

Now, the company always starts meetings on time, shoots for an early endpoint, and narrows the agenda to one or two main topics. Including the right people, who are prepared with the right information, increases the odds of checking things off our to-do list. To get those relevant players on board, we created a sliding scale of meeting types, based on the degree of urgency:

  • Cockroach meetings’ involve low-priority issues on which anyone can provide input, if they feel they have something to add. When we call a cockroach meeting, people can opt in or out and don’t have to put aside more important work to attend.
  • Tiger team meetings’ convene active members of project teams to share information, solve problems, or move toward their objectives. Tiger team meeting announcements only go out to those involved, on a need-to-know basis.
  • Ostrich meetings’ let managers and other decision makers get information downloads from key players who can best inform them. If I call an ostrich meeting, people with the facts know the CEO wants background on an important issue, fast.
  • Tsunami meetings’ are less frequent but address big concerns that can make or break the company’s viability. Tsunami meetings typically consider ‘what-if’ scenarios to arrive at backup plans for sudden or significant events, such as the illness or death of an executive or quicker-than-expected sales growth.

These guidelines make networking second nature, and meetings are more effective now than when we wasted time in our old in-office gatherings. Besides easily providing opportunities for formal collaboration and acknowledgement, we also have a digital platform for more casual group communication. Shout-outs to co-workers for their help, quick questions for the team, and even in-house surveys via instant messaging keep us connected.

Create true cohesion through transparency

The above solutions give us many individual workers who are capable and prepared to do their jobs, and ways for them to collaborate. But what makes them a team? And what makes the team a reflection of our brand? A culture that brings everyone on board, on a level playing field, does that. Just as with traditional hiring, onboarding is the time to indoctrinate new employees to the company’s mission and vision. If you’ve hired well, these people are accepting of the company’s values and way of doing business. Periodic reminders about core values to all staff align everyone with the organisation’s brand.

People are also part of that brand. Their talents and knowledge base contribute to it. So, a means of sharing accurate information among them keeps the brand consistent. In a traditional office, memos and word of mouth might work. But in a virtual model, there needs to be tighter quality control in communication. The best way to achieve a high level of transparency is for everyone to know what everyone else knows, who those people are, and how their work fits into the greater business scheme.

As our remote staff ebbs and flows, we periodically outline to the group the roles and job goals of every member, from clerks to the CEO. We explain why they do what they do, so when someone needs a resource, they know just where to look. There might be a pop quiz on the subject in company surveys or meetings. When individuals understand how their colleagues fit into the corporate family, they know they’re not alone, despite the distance between home offices.

In addition to updating this role-and-goal information continually, we also try to level the playing field by allowing anyone to consult with anyone in the company they believe to be helpful. This virtual ‘open-door’ policy invites collaboration and new ideas. People can compare data or clear up misunderstandings. Transparently sharing information brings the whole team together, with the resources they need to do their best work.

Today, our fully remote staff represents us well in the marketplace, as our performance level indicates. Enjoying the freedom to work as they choose keeps them engaged, and our shared accomplishments erase feelings of isolation. We’ve found that distance is no match for knowledge – and people who are motivated to think independently and act in everyone’s best interests don’t need to commute to get to the same place.

Leadership speaker Chris Dyer is a performance and company culture expert and author of The Power of Company Culture (Kogan Page, 2018).