Moving from remote work to a virtual office

The difference between remote work and a virtual office? Building accountability, providing effective onboarding, and connecting teams don't have to suffer.

My experience in a virtual office started with my interview with WNDYR. I was asked about working from my home office. Confidently, I responded that remote work filled over 20 of my 30 years in corporate America. I was ready for this, it was just something I knew. Response nailed. Then I get the feedback:

“WNDYR doesn’t have remote employees—we work in a virtual office.”

What? Is this different?

I know how to work remotely. I’ve read the online guidelines. I’ve lived the life for years. I get up, dress, have good wifi, and resist the pantry’s calling.

But the response caught me off guard. Then came the realization, washing over me. For most of my life as a remote worker, I had never really felt like a member of a virtual office. However, this place is different. And I understand now, it has to be.

Over the last 6 months, I’ve been able to experience those differences firsthand. This is what I’ve learned.

Redefining remote work

A remote worker is someone who works outside of a corporate brick and mortar office. If you Google “remote work“, you’ll find lists of tips on how to manage your remote work environment, technology, and approach. Many of these lists start with the need to treat remote work as if you’re in the office. Perform your morning routines, come prepared, bring your best self. While those tips are helpful and necessary, they miss the other side of the equation:

Specifically, what can organizations do to create an environment where a remote worker is part of a virtual office, and not stranded as a remote employee?

Think about other uses of the term “remote”. Living remotely often implies getting off the grid—a desert island—and separating from others. Remote cousins are people that you’re related to but have little relationship with. For many organizations, a remote worker is someone that does specific tasks outside of the company’s regular operations. You can see this in the way people talk about roles that could exist remotely. The reasoning goes: if the person can perform their job duties with limited interaction with others, then that role is good for remote work.

The difference between remote work and a virtual office

In a virtual office environment, however, the approach is not to define which corporate roles can become remote, but how the corporation as a whole can adjust to make each role effective for remote work. In this sense, we’re changing the narrative to bridging gaps, rather than dividing teams.

To bridge gaps, inclusion, communication, accountability, and fun must be built into the organization.

Personally, I’ve been a part of and even led organizations with remote workers. I remember all the conversations about making sure we include the remote staff. We’d set up web conferences, send fun little trinkets during office get-togethers. Don’t forget to let Joe know about that impromptu conversation we just had, etc.

The approach here is like trying to throw a net around your remote staff to keep them close. It may feel like you are doing the right things as an organization, but your staff still feels remote, and what’s worse—they often act like it.

However, in order to be effective, everyone needs to row in the same direction. Get on the bus or get rolled over. There’s no “I” in “TEAM”.

There are so many phrases about bringing people together in an organization to meet corporate goals, but can the organization as a whole uphold those messages?

From the start of a person’s journey in the organization, are they being immersed within the team? Is the team expanded around them?

The power of onboarding

At WNDYR, my journey started with the most amazing onboarding I’ve ever experienced. At first, that may sound like an exaggeration—onboarding is about filling out paperwork, training, meeting the rest of the team, and so on.

Not here. At WNDYR, onboarding is a truly meticulous process and it’s one that doesn’t just focus on how to bring an employee into the organization, but rather, how the organization prepares to include the new employee in all crucial aspects of its operations.

Over a 10 day journey, I was walked through a well-defined task-list that provided immersion in nearly every possible learning style. So, why did we do this? To identify my optimal learning style, so that our team could know how best to work together.

The seven learning styles

Visual (spatial) Learning through pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
I was tasked to watch videos, review graphics and images.
Aural (auditory-musical) Learning through sound and music.
I was tasked with listening to recordings from my co-workers on the key tenets behind WNDYR.
Verbal (linguistic) Learning through words, both in speech and writing.
I was tasked to write about the things I was learning in my own words. I was asked to internalize and re-produce information.
Physical (kinaesthetic) Using a hands-on approach to learning.
I was tasked to show my world (where I work, what I’m about) by taking a camera and documenting personal experiences.
Logical (mathematical) Using logic, reasoning, and systems to learn.
I was tasked each day with steps that took me on a logical progression, leading to the creation of my personal 30-60-90 day plan, which then carried forward into my infinity sessions.
Social (interpersonal) Learning in groups or with other people.
I was tasked with connecting with future co-workers on video conference calls. I learned what they did and who they were.
Solitary (intrapersonal) Working alone and using self-study.
I was tasked to research WNDYR’s world and the impacts (positive and negative) on the business.

WNDYR’s onboarding process worked to integrate me into the virtual team in a way I had never before experienced. Here, you get to know your team while also getting to know yourself.

Why focus on integrating remote workers into the virtual office?

As a remote worker, you can hide and slip by. Out of sight, out of mind. Without integrating into the team, remote workers rarely know who or when to ask for help. Eventually, when this disintegration catches up to the company, management usually takes one of two approaches:

  • Ignoring the problem
    • Trusting employees to do what’s right. We don’t hear from Joe much, but he gets his work in on time…
  • Implementing the Big Brother approach
    • Measuring the time employees spend in each application and using employee tracking software to monitor their every move
    • FYI, this approach has spawned an amazing industry of mouse jigglers, which have spiked in cost since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak

Ultimately, neither end of that spectrum will help an organization implement truly effective remote work. Over the years of study and experience, WNDYR has developed an approach that supports both accountability and respect for the individual.

WNDYR’s approach to effective virtual teams

One of the key components of WNDYR’s approach is compassionate conflict. If something is wrong, if someone is not performing, the issue is addressed—up front and honest, but open in a way that I have never experienced before. This quickly leads to either an employee’s exit (because they can’t handle the honesty), or a renewed level of accountability that creates a team-focused approach not bound to any four walls.

Politics are minimized because everyone knows where they stand. It’s such a simple concept, but it takes focus, a growth mindset, and trust that must be fostered constantly.

WNDYR is open in a way that I had never experienced before. It’s part of the message from the start: radical candor, compassionate confrontation, openness, and transparency. These aren’t just words, they are a different way to approach work.

In an office environment, you get to develop relationships with your colleagues, whether in the break room, waiting for a meeting to start, at lunch, or during the normal course of a day. You joke, you tell stories about the kid that emptied the trash can across the living room, or the dog that takes up more of the bed than your spouse. You disagree in the meeting, but after the meeting there is a one-on-one opportunity to resolve the conflict in your co-workers cube.

As a remote employee, you miss that. But you shouldn’t have to. Knowing those around you (virtually) creates team bonds and fosters accountability.

How does WNDYR adjust remote work?

At WNDYR, there are so many intentional components in place to force the interaction that would normally be missing. It’s not just being able to see pictures of everyone’s pets (although that is ABSOLUTELY crucial), but more importantly, it’s learning how people work—what drives them, what drives them crazy, and how best to interact with them.

A white Jack Russell dog with a red collar is pictured perched up on the arm rest of a car with beige interior
In memory of Jack, 2006-2020

At WNDYR, we take personality tests seriously. Knowing if someone’s a “detail dodger” or a “last minute racer” fuels your interactions.

At WNDYR, we tell people constantly when they do well AND when they screw up. We don’t discriminate. Virtual offices must have both.

At WNDYR, we ensure everyone knows the goals. Learn them, internalize them, and state them in your own words.

At WNDYR, we measure openly. We track metrics across the board and bring visibility to everything. Transparency helps team members pinpoint where they need to improve and when to ask for help.

At WNDYR, we task. No emails with asks. No walk-bys in the halls followed by, “Hey, can you….” We task one another. It’s an objective, practical, and non-demanding approach—an approach that allows each of us to easily track and manage work while being respectful of everything we all have on our respective plates. Work is chaos and, at WNDYR, we embrace the chaos.

At WNDYR, we know how to work in a virtual office.

Whether you’re a veteran of remote work, or have plopped into that reality more recently, we can help.

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