A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
Almost all my professional work is with groups and teams, and much of it is, of course, virtual – increasingly so over the last 15 years.
There’s no need here to sing the praises of virtual teams. Flexibility for the participants, reduced costs of travel and less redundancy are just some of the benefits. The use of virtual teams also allows a start-up or early stage business to hire people who wouldn’t necessarily want to relocate, in addition to saving the cost of relocation. Not having physically moved someone across the country also makes it easier for both parties to separate, should the hire not work out.
Here’s the problem: many younger businesses become so accustomed to working virtually that they don’t even contemplate the alternative – working together in the same physical space – until not doing so becomes an expensive problem. Similarly, I find that younger employees in younger organizations increasingly have little experience in face-to-face working, and rarely think of it as a useful exercise – until, again, the absence of physical proximity becomes highly problematic.
Here are the three circumstances in which I’ve noticed that working (only) virtually causes problems:
1. When complexity begins to overwhelm the business.
Every growing business eventually hits Whitewater – a stage when complexity brought on by growth stretches to the limit the organization’s ability to execute. During Whitewater, the business often for the first time needs to install robust systems and processes in order to reestablish stable outputs. It’s typically during this time that the dynamics of working virtually come under severe strain.
Setting those systems and processes in place – and consistently adhering to them – then triaging the organization out of the Whitewater stage requires consistent face-to-face interaction, as adjustments are made rapidly in real time. The main reason the core team needs to now work together physically is due to the nature of the problems being worked on: these are no longer the underlying, core activities of the day-to-day business, but rather in an area (installing and working with systems and processes) that is entirely new to almost everyone.
2. Hiring senior employees to take on responsibilities previously undertaken by the founder(s). Another rite of passage for every growing business is to reach the point when they need to hire someone to take on a crucial task that up until now has been handled by one of the founders (often sales, but it can also be marketing, quality control, or just plain management).
At this point, hiring someone virtually rarely works. It’s almost always just too delicate a transition to mange remotely. If you want to replace ‘you’, even just a bit, you’re better off hiring someone you can work with face-to-face, at least for six months.
3. When the business has become overly bureaucratic.
When businesses grow, they often begin to ossify, coming to depend on systems and processes too much, and falling into a stage of decline I call Treadmill. In Treadmill, we begin to emphasize form over function, and everything we do as an organization smacks of process, precision, false certitude, inflexibility and rote.
In the Treadmill stage, the mechanics of virtual working (primarily email, messaging and online screen-sharing sessions) become amplifiers of homogeneity. The spark of creation and the rejuvenating effect of serendipity tend to get lost without unplanned synchronous activity (aka bumping into people and shooting the breeze).
So if you’re running everything (or nearly everything) virtually, just pause before giving yourself too much of a pat on the back. It’s a powerful tool, but even more so when mixed in with real-world flesh-pressing.