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Overcoming the Stigmas of a Virtual Company

by Keith Fentress / December 20, 2018

Ever wanted to do away with a brick and mortar office and give every employee the freedom to work from home? That is a virtual company. Though the number of virtual companies is increasing, they seem to be pursued by independent consultants, technology companies, and small entrepreneurs. Rarely do I see professional groups working from home offices. A key reason for this may be the stigma that virtual companies are not “real companies.”

My company has been “virtual” for over 30 years and we have dealt with our share of skeptics. One common set of concerns I have heard voiced many times is that a virtual company is composed of part-time employees or independent consultants who have a loose work structure. Thus, there is no real allegiance to an overall company – employees do not receive benefits, they work erratic hours, are more difficult to get in touch with, and turn over at a greater rate than in “real” businesses.

I admit that I cringe every time I hear these concerns. In my experience, virtual companies are the opposite – a tight-knit group of employees who are loyal and professional, and who go above and beyond in their work efforts. They are available more hours of the day and have the quiet, uninterrupted time necessary to produce quality work. Virtual companies are not fly-by-night operations designed to acquire cheap labor by not having actual employees or benefits.

Not everyone understands virtual companies. I remember a client we had been working with for around six months. Several of us were at his workplace for a meeting and before the other participants arrived, he said “I know your dirty little secret.” He did not say it in a joking manner, so we held our collective breath waiting for what he was going to say next. “You guys all work from home and aren’t even a real business.” Right after he said these words, other participants started arriving for the meeting. Though I was feeling anxious about his comments, I composed myself and asked if we could speak after the meeting.

When the meeting ended, we went back to his office for what started as an awkward conversation. I did my best to address questions like, “How can you be a business without an office?” and “How will a company that does not work together get the job done?”

Though I do not feel the need to explain to every client that we are a virtual company, it does typically come up in conversation and it is on our website for all to see. We are proud to be professionals that work from our homes. Fortunately, we had worked with this client long enough to prove ourselves capable. He indicated that he was very satisfied with our services. I just had to remind him that we had been performing our work from our home offices and, if he was satisfied, nothing would change moving forward. Our job is to do the work to the best of our abilities, whether we work in one location or many.

We went on to finish that contract and several more for the same client. That was nearly 15 years ago. Fortunately, the stigma associated with being a virtual company is diminishing as more companies take advantage of technology and decide to have employees work from home. However, we still come across occasional skeptics so I will address three concerns that I commonly hear below.

It’s Not Professional to Work From Your Home

The first concern is that virtual companies are not true companies and, therefore, not a place where professionals work. It is important to know that a virtual company can be a corporation like any other company. And, that corporation can have salaried employees, healthcare, 401(k) plans, cafeteria plans, flextime, and other benefits.

As for being professional, that has much more to do with how you approach your work than where you work. In my mind, professionals are people who have expertise and experience in their respective fields and are accountable for their work. They communicate clearly, commit to the quality of their work, and hold to their deadlines.

I find that people who are successful at working from home are more likely to approach their work with a professional mindset. By not working with others in the same location, the office politics and water cooler talk are largely taken out of the equation. Managers and coworkers typically relate to one another through their work. The timely production of reports, analyses, programming, and other work efforts becomes the central focus of the work day.

I have often heard that because employees in a central office have so many meetings and interruptions, less than 50% of their time is dedicated to “heads down” productive work. This is where the employees that work from a home office excel. People who work from home typically have larger blocks of uninterrupted time, so they can focus on their work, which enhances both the quality and speed of their work effort.

Also, people who are successful in working from home tend to be self-motivated. They have a lot of autonomy, which is another workplace opportunity valued by professionals. Since no one is looking over their shoulder, it is up to the employee to manage his or her time in an effective manner. If you are not motivated to do so, there are plenty of distractions at home. The people who succumb to the distractions quickly find that working from home is not a good option. Having a company full of self-motivated employees who can effectively manage their time while working at home is one of the key benefits of a virtual company.

Virtual Companies Hinder Effective Communication

This stigma about virtual companies involves effective communication, teamwork, and the ability to organize to get things done. The thought here is that since everyone is working independently from separate locations, they cannot communicate effectively.

Advances in technology have made communicating in a virtual company much easier. With videoconferencing and instant messaging services, the opportunity is there for constant communication, even for virtual companies. Videoconferencing has become increasingly reliable, which has been a great boost to virtual companies (we use Zoom). The ability to videoconference and share screens when performing project work has been very successful across all types of businesses, including the virtual company.

Instant messaging is another tool that keeps employees in virtual companies connected real-time. We use Slack and have set up channels for our different projects. Sending a message to a channel alerts everyone working on the project about questions and progress. In addition, online project management applications (we use Asana) can help you organize and manage your projects across virtual teams. Project information can be displayed in assignment lists, a project calendar, and Gantt charts.

The bottom line is that technology now allows for virtual companies to stay in constant contact and to organize work on complex projects. The lack of constant face-to-face communication should not hinder a virtual company from getting work done.

Having said all this about technology, I will also say that there is still no substitute for periodic face-to-face interaction, even in a virtual company. I recommend that virtual companies get together on a somewhat regular basis to meet in-person and to foster team building. Such shared experiences are important to building a positive culture. 

It’s More Difficult to Get in Touch with People Who Work from Home

The notion here is that since a virtual company does not have a central office location, how do you know that employees are accountable for their time? Are they so wrapped up in their personal lives that they are difficult to get in touch with?

In my opinion, a virtual company should have business hours like any other company. All employees should be expected to respond promptly during those hours. Of course, one of the benefits of working virtually is blending your home and work life more effectively. This blending should in no way make one less responsive during business hours. If an employee is not responsive or accountable during work hours, this is an individual performance issue that must be addressed. In the age of cell phones, email, and instant messaging, virtual employees should be as reachable as any other professional.

From my perspective, the people that work at home see it as a benefit and are very conscientious about their availability. I typically find that virtual employees are more readily available and for longer periods each day than the people who work from brick and mortar offices. 

Final Thoughts

I believe the role of a company is to perform quality work in its industry while creating a culture where employees can apply their skill sets and thrive. Further, I believe that a virtual company can fully achieve this role. And, because virtual employees work from home, they are able to achieve a better work-life balance.

In my company, the average tenure of an employee is 16.8 years. A key reason for the long employee tenure is the opportunity to be a professional while working from home. We have found that working from home allows employees to be happier. Happy employees tend to be more productive. In the end, having happy and productive employees should be the goal of any company – virtual or not.

Tags: Virtual Company

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, snorkeling, and fly fishing. He also enjoys martial arts and playing the saxophone.

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