Social Design for a Virtual Organization
This is my site Written by Alora on April 13, 2009 – 1:49 pm

Virtual OrganizationAt South by Southwest, Brazen Careerist author and CEO Penelope Trunk was quite emphatic that, when starting a new business, having a geographically distributed team is rarely possible. She said this on her panel, as well as again when we spoke in person. She was a strong advocate of the notion that, for the first handful of employees to get a new business off the ground, having everyone in the same room is invaluable.

Conversely, a dear friend who is in the process of developing a business from a one-man shop to a full-scale product company, disagrees strongly. While he has never been an advocate for ‘butts in chairs’ as an organizing model in general, he definitely doesn’t subscribe to the idea that the people you would pull together to get a business started can’t do what they need to do virtually. If someone is good enough for you to enlist to help get a business off the ground, then they should be talented enough to do what they need to do remotely, while communicating with the rest of the team in an effective manner.

However, he does admit to a single hurdle that will quickly need a solution: team-building — which ultimately leads to organizing models and culture.

In the most immediate term, the easiest way around this is for the people working together to found the company to already know each other. If those in the trenches to get it off the ground have worked together in the past, have long-standing relationships (both personal and professional, ideally), and respect each other’s abilities, then it there is a foundation of mutual trust that helps get the ball rolling.

But there are still obstacles with that, even among people with common work histories and mutual trust.

What is everyone doing?

This is the area where newer organizations, if they implement some basic technology solutions in the beginning, can really set a strong precedent for organizational transparency. Enterprise 2.0 has some great capabilities when it comes to finding ways for people to have a transparent audit-trail of their day, that can be visible to everyone.

What code did your developer fix? What are the status of the bugs? How many phone calls did your salesperson make? What is the state of the new partner contract? Has there been any performance degradation today? Which client just requested a new project? Almost all areas of a business can be supported by tools that have standard out-put capabilities (such as RSS), which can be aggregated centrally so that an entire, geographically distributed team can see what is going on in everyone else’s corner of the business.

For some people this is a bit on the creepy ‘big brother’ side. I’ll concede that I can understand why. But this is where the reason for it is important, and where the cultural element is critical: this is about building a culture of transparency, not a culture of mistrust. The “how” and the “why” make all the difference when it comes to the “what.”

If leadership were excluded from this type of transparent work tracking, then it would be easy to argue ‘big brother.’ But the idea is that this starts with an organization’s leadership. They are leading the way by ensuring that their activities are truly transparent.

So much of the Enterprise 2.0 sector is focused on transforming established businesses into transparent and collaborative environments that we don’t spend a lot of time discussing the first rule of building something new: lay the right foundation to begin with, and you can build whatever you want on top of it.

Penelope Trunk made a great point when we spoke: the technology a business chooses to implement speaks to their culture and their values. She is right. Businesses getting started today have almost no technical or financial excuse for not leveraging some great technical solutions — all of which can help reinforce some essential cultural values — to get work done. Cloud computing and SaaS (often freemium) solutions are too pervasive.

If you want your team to collaborate, set up a wiki. If you want feed everyone’s activities for the day into a centralize spot and can’t afford to buy a solution yet, use Yahoo! Pipes. If you want a centralized dashboard that everyone can access easily, use Google Apps. If you’re totally overwhelmed and have no idea what you need, check out Zoho or one of Mashable’s infamous and extremely helpful lists. There are plenty of solutions, most of them with free (or at least very low cost) options. And if you start off using them from day one, they will become part of everyone’s routine and you can skip the painful change management efforts that come with trying alter everyone’s behavior down the line.

Blowing Off Steam, Celebrating and Bonding

Ultimately, the truly hard part about having a virtual team is that there is a certain degree of bonding that really just requires face-to-face interaction. This is where it is most helpful if your virtual team isn’t so far apart as to preclude semi-regular face-time with each other (i.e. if the team is scattered around the Bay Area, but can meet for long lunches/working sessions every couple of weeks at a centralized location). However, sometimes this simply isn’t possible, and the team is a couple thousand miles away (or more). This is where you have a real challenge.

The strongest bonds I’ve ever forged with co-workers — and the point at which co-workers really started becoming true friends — were always a result of bonding under extremely stressful circumstances. It’s the ‘war buddies’ syndrome. You always learn the most about people when you put them under true pressure. And the bonds that form between people under those conditions are commonly very strong. But more often than not, they are strongest when everyone is in the same room.

So how do you truly build a cohesive, trusting, bonded team when everyone is dialed in on an ooVoo conference call from their home office? Particularly once the company starts growing a bit, and it is no longer 2-4 people who all already know each other, how do you start adding in more of the expertise you need without adversely impacting the group dynamic?

This is an on-going source of debate and speculation. Most of the more robust and well-tested virtual team-building models are based around taking formerly co-located teams and re-distributing them (think IBM giving up office space and sending their employees to work from their home offices). So while a quick Google search on “virtual team building” comes up with a host of plausible hits, in the end, most of them are variations on cheesy in-person team building exercises that I rarely find all that effective.

As VC funding continues to dry up, and small startups are forced to do more bootstrapping, geographically distributed companies are going to become increasingly common simply because office space is too expensive and people can’t afford to pick up and move for a low-paying/high-risk startup role. That is going to force a lot of experimentation in this are, and many of these models will have to be developed.

Of course, odds are that my friend’s model will be a common one: if you are going to roll the dice on a new business, it usually feels like a safer bet doing it with someone you not only know, but someone you know you can work with. So, as with many other things about a small startup, you can get away with certain short-cuts in the early days that you have to keep an eye on, because they rarely scale the way you need them to, and if you aren’t paying attention, they’ll come back and bite you before you know it.

  • Troy Reynolds

    Inexpensive alternatives to free software seems like the answer to many of the issues when faced with leading a virtual team. Wouldn’t a cloud-based app be an ideal solution for assigning tasks to groups and subgroups here?