Create an Awesome Virtual Team

By Kathy Miller on April 23rd, 2014

I read with interest Kelley Holland’s article in the New York Times, When Work Time Isn’t Face Time. Ms. Holland described the pros and cons of telecommuting, virtual meetings, and distance management almost as if this way of working is novel and fraught with pitfalls and surprises. I can’t argue with either premise.

Nonetheless, our successful management consulting company has been organized with a virtual team structure for the past 10 years. We have been quite successful using this organizational design to our advantage. We are small by choice. In fact, some refer to us as a boutique management consulting firm. And we are located in a state that many of our clients view as anything but glamorous. Nevertheless, we have built a practice that can compete with the big guys! Our clients include some of the largest and most successful corporations globally. We have been in business for 27 years and we are not slowing down.

How have we done it? I attribute much of our success to our “virtual” organizational design. I decided to take the company “virtual” about ten years ago, long before this approach was popular or even accepted. I did it because I wanted carry out a business strategy that called for a fresh approach to the design of our organization. Yes indeed, structure can support strategy.

The technology that made it possible was just coming into its own. (See the Entrepreneur Magazine article featuring our story and how we used technology, Wherever you Go, There You Are). We downsized our physical real estate and invested in those systems that facilitated our work arrangements.

The change did indeed affect our organizational culture for the better! We were in a better position to attract the best and the brightest talent to our team because of the flexibility in living and working that we offered. Because of lower overhead, we were not under the constant “utilization” pressure experienced by so many more traditional consulting firms. In other words, we didn’t have to keep a large cadre of highly educated and expensive consultants busy with client work all of the time. We have been able to offer a variety of work arrangements to our far-flung team members including part-time and contract work. Each person on our team has his or her own unique needs, and, in general, we can accommodate them. This approach has led to a culture in which people are eager to work for us, are extremely loyal and perform excellently all the time.

Of course the picture isn’t completely rosy. We all have to work hard at establishing a culture in which people feel part of the team, work well together and function synergistically even though we don’t see each other face-to-face every day. It does take effort and most of all trust. I hire only those people who are mature team players who I can trust and who trust each other and me. My job is to create the conditions under which they can thrive. Some days are better than others. Nevertheless, this structure has allowed us to achieve goals that we could not have dreamed of with our old, traditional, face-to-face culture. Certainly physical proximity to one’s coworkers has its advantages. However this traditional organizational design also has grave limitations for the strategy that we are pursuing. And yes, after 31 years of running this company, I’m still having fun most days!