Our Secure Delivery Center architect, Tim Webb, just returned from a speaking engagement in London at the Monki Gras event. He talked to virtualization and what it means to work in a company (Genuitec) that operates entirely virtual. We've been doing this since 1997 and maintain global sales to Fortune 1000 companies on a daily basis - but we have no office. Here are some key takeaways.
1. Availability of the team. This means having the right management tools in place, such as Skype, to know who's online and when. This is key as folks are expected to keep normal business hours during their working day, but since a work/life balance is important in Genuitec - sometimes people go off and run errands or take care of the kids, or walk the dogs (or whatever). When folks are "out" they let us know by religiously using their Skype status to inform their team of what's going on and when. It helps us all plan better and more efficiently without an office.
2. Everything in the cloud. Since we're all working together on various projects from creating new software, to updating existing software with marketing and sales departments working in lockstep, we must have all the information available without constantly downloading it (or bugging each other). So we use the cloud - a lot. If the marketing department needs information on products in the pipeline we'll go to Google Drive and pull it down. If the sales team needs detailed info for a customer, they can find the technical documents all nicely organized and existing in places where we all can grab it. The cloud is key.
3. Expected responsiveness. This ties into the availability of the team. Essentially, if your Skype status is "green" your team members expect you to respond within 20 minutes otherwise, are you really available? If your status is set to "red", then no one bugs you, and "yellow" you're away. Simple really, but nonetheless important in a virtual environment. Even if a team member is busy a simple... "I'll get back to you"... suffices and lets us know you're on point.
4. New hires should fail fast. That sounds a bit tough, but working virtually is not for everyone. We've had top folks from known IT companies work here and they simply couldn't get into the groove of what's needed and when. We say "fail fast" because while over time people do improve, we're looking for folks with skill sets that go beyond software development and into time management, communication, and basic IT skills. Surprisingly, the smartest developers in the world can have trouble setting up their email client - that just doesn't cut it when working virtually so we move on and look for folks that are the "whole package" so to speak.
5. Communication guidelines. This falls into points 1 and 3. Essentially, when working virtually you must talk about expectations on communications. We don't care if you're working in your underwear or even coming in late to work, but it must be established right away how we all talk to each other, whether on the phone or through Skype or using IM and text messaging. In today's day & age, there are dozens of valid communications channels - and we use them all. Finding the right channel is key and then having the understanding if you're 6,000 miles away you'll still respond (not if you're sleeping though or off hours). :)
6. Project managers are human resource managers. Yes, that lands on the plates of managers for one key reason - the managers drive the product/marketing/sales teams and must work with people they may not meet face-to-face. So the managers decide not only the capabilities of their staff, but if the new hire fits in culturally with the company. It's a compatibility issue that is addressed on this level to cut out the middleman of a "HR manager" and instead take this task right to the various team managers as a priority in the hiring process.
7. Everyone is IT. At Genuitec we work on some of the most complex technologies in the market and have folks here who have left Silicon Valley to spend more time at home with family, friends and pets. The value is tremendous for everyone in this organization. But, if you get a virus on your computer, or you can't access email, or you're having problems installing programs -- you must figure it out. There is no IT manager who will stop by your house to fix the issue, so all employees in Genuitec are highly proficient at being their own IT manager. It's a must in the scheme of working virtually.