The Virtual Company: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It was a conscious decision to be a virtual company, and it’s actually a decision that we made long before Civilis came to be.  As serial entrepreneurs, we’ve found lots of ways to make money. But as far as we’re concerned, making a profit is not the only reason to build a company. We’re of the mind that if you have the unique ability to create anything from nothing—to turn a mere idea into reality—why not build something that makes the world, and the people in it, better for it?

Our philosophy is that our company’s very existence should support the lifestyle of the people in it, rather than the other way around. Quite simply, Civilis exists to make life better for everyone we work with:  our employees, our vendors, our contractors, and our clients.  If we’re not adding value to those relationships, then what’s the point?

Being a virtual company is definitely not a cost-cutting strategy. In fact, it’s no less expensive than having a traditional office (we know, we’ve done the math). Rather, our virtual environment is a deliberate cultural strategy that allows all of us to do what we love and love what we do.

But a virtual workplace is not right for everyone. Whether you’re an employer considering instituting a teleworking program, or a prospective employee dreaming of a Google-esque career, here are a few things to consider.

Virtual company considerations for employers

  1. Attract top talent – As an employer, a virtual workplace allows us to recruit the best talent from across the US, without geographical constraint. Without a physical office, we can seek out and hire the very best in our field without requiring these folks to relocate.
  2. Maximize productivity – Because our people have complete freedom to work in whatever environment is most productive for them, together we can literally customize each person’s workplace. Some of our employees prefer to work from a busy, energetic location, so in those situations we arrange for our team member to work from a co-working space or even from a neighborhood coffee shop.  Some do their best work in a quiet environment free of interruptions, so in those situations, we help our employee find a location with four walls and a door, or to set up a dedicated office in their home.
  3. Well-defined and highly functioning infrastructure – We’ve found that well-documented, easily-understood processes have been key to our virtual company success. We have documented job descriptions and performance expectations for each and every member of our team. Every policy, procedure and process—from when to use email vs. phone vs. IM, to how to conduct a strategic planning session with a client—is documented and accessible online as a shared file. And our technology has to be top notch, so we have a small but mighty team of gurus in-house as well as a 3rd party IT support vendor who work together to ensure we stay connected to each other at all times.
  4. Hire for cultural fit – We realized early on that our company culture was actually an outgrowth of what was important to us, the founders. We learned (the hard and costly way) that the people we brought on board would have to have values similar to ours if they were going to thrive in our nontraditional environment. So in our hiring process, we go to great lengths to discuss company culture and values with our candidates, and we use screening instruments to measure for cultural fit.

Virtual company considerations for employees

  1. Personal-work-life balance – Our virtual structure allows our people to not only work from wherever they please, but to set their own schedules as well. There’s something very liberating about deciding when to arrive at work, when to take a break, or whether to set up your mobile office outside today. We have found that giving our team members control of their own working environment makes for happier, healthier employees.
  2. Working independently – To be successful here, our employees have to be self-directed and self-motivated. They need to be energized by working for long stretches of quiet time without interruption or without another human being in the vicinity. Some people, without another person around to provide direction and discipline, can find themselves too distracted by non-work goings-on (e.g. that load of laundry really needs a good folding). If you’re the type of person who needs others around to keep you focused and on task, the virtual office world might not be for you.
  3. Limited feedback – Although we try hard to provide lots of public recognition (a really effective way to encourage great behavior) virtual kudos often don’t have the same impact as a literal pat on the back or round of applause. Every day, at least one person on our team does something truly spectacular that the rest of us aren’t around to experience firsthand. If you’re the type of person who likes to be front and center, or who derives satisfaction only if someone else recognizes what you did, a virtual workplace might not be a good fit.
  4. Support of your non-traditional job – Although the virtual workplace is gaining popularity, it is still considered by most an unconventional way of earning a living. Friends and family might not take you or your career as seriously as if you went to work at a big company with a physical presence. If the opinions of friends or family members are important to you, it might behoove you to include them early on in your interviewing process so that you can make sure they get all their questions answered before you decide to make the leap.

No doubt, a virtual company structure provides tremendous advantages to a company and its team. But being successful in this environment requires an honest understanding of what it means to be a part of such a company. Just like a brick-and-mortar company, a virtual company experiences all the highs and lows of a traditional workplace—the good, the bad and the ugly. And remember: Although you may not be able see the secret sauce being made, it is still very real and very yummy.