OPW INTERVIEW - Apr 21 - Darren Romeo is appropriately named. He is the COO of World Singles Networks, and has been focused on diaspora dating around the world. EligibleGreeks and ArabLounge are two of their largest dating sites. And they're doing very nicely. I learned that they run it with a virtual team, and I thought you'd like to learn more about this way of operating. Here's my interview with Mr Romeo. - Mark Brooks
When did you go virtual?
World Singles Networks went virtual back in 2011. Up until then we were in a relatively large office given the size of our team. As the months went by, the office became less and less frequented in a very natural, organic way. Folks were working more from home in a blended capacity. And due to a rewrite of our main application, our development team expanded rapidly across several different regions of the country.
How did that transition go?
For the most part the transition was smooth. Being that so much of what we do already happens through a digital interface, there weren't too many adjustments we had to make from an operational standpoint. Even when our offices were side by side, it was more common for communications to be channeled through several different channels/tools. Over the years we have used an evolving array of services.
What project management tools do you use?
For project management and more, Basecamp has been a part of our workflow for some time, less so recently. Backpack (Basecamp retured this product recently) has been helpful for simple task management between small teams and groups. We've used Unfuddle (Kanban card system that is more advanced than Trello), and a little Pivotal Tracker (agile project management tool of choice) for more development-centric ticket/project management. And InVision is now finding a way into our mix of tools, mainly as a specialized space for design management. Unfuddle's latest product, One, looks promising as a lightweight task manager.
Any other tools?
For messaging, presence, and real-time communication we've used Skype, Screenhero, Yammer, Google Hangout, Campfire, GoToMeeting and are beginning to experiment with how Slack may fit into our rhythm.
For non-sensitive file sharing and storage we've used Dropbox along with the built-in file management features of various other products.
For process modeling (BPMN 2.0) and information visualization we've been using Microsoft Visio, Tableau, XMind, and Lucidcharts. Screencast, TinyGrab, Jing, have been used for sharing quick links to screencaps. We share a lot of screencaps.
What we use is in constant flux and differs across teams and departments. Certain services fall in and out of vogue. We trust that the utility of each of the tools in our set will survive on their own merits without the need for any sort of official decree or centralized decision-making.
What were the initial challenges and surprises?
What was probably most surprising was all of the little things. We are humans--nourished by so many subtle, semi-tangible, often invisible energies. These energies are only noticed, if at all, by their absence. An easy smile, the fist bump, jokes at the water cooler. Especially curated details of weekend trips. Urgency. Nuance. The scrunched nose--I don't understand what you're saying. The nodding head--I totally understand you. Sarcasm even, which can be so difficult in virtual spaces.
There are so many bits of information, so many signals that can be meaningful that are no longer transmitted. In a physical space, you see who is meeting with whom, for how long; you get a sense of the vibe and tone just from the richness of ambient sounds and background conversations; the orbits and rotations of visiting vendors. Small talk with the mail carrier. You can feel when others are in the zone sometimes just by the rhythm of keyboard clicks (or the lack thereof.)
Gone is the surety of connection that eye contact affords. (Is there such a thing as eye contact in the virtual world? Looking directly at the camera as if reading from a teleprompter?)
We miss out on shades of privacy. By having so much control over what gets transmitted, we tend towards sanitization. We mute our microphones to politely silence the noise of chomping lettuce, strange ticks and buzzes lurking in the cables. The virtual office and its various channels can be either on or off making us sometimes long for a more analog experience.
How has it worked out?
Of course there was the immediate improvement to the bottom line :) The virtual office also instantly expanded the scale of the talent pool we could draw from. Many on the local team were thrilled to eliminate commutes and the related machinations. Reducing our carbon footprint felt good too. As well, with far less verbal touchpoints we had to be much more specific with our written communications and specifications; this has probably improved our writing skills and contributed to better documentation habits.
It'd be disingenuous of me to say that I don't miss being with folks though. Our company conferences are such a source of inspiration and camaraderie, for instance. Much of that is probably a product of basking together in all of the intangibles. The atmosphere upon everyone's arrival on day one is simply electric.
Will you stick with being virtual as the company grows further?
There will always be a place for the virtual experience in the life of our company; it has come with many important advantages both tactical and strategic. And given how technologies continue to shrink and bend time and space, distributed workforces are pretty much here to stay. As World Singles grows to the next level, our sense is that we will most likely evolve to a form between the virtual and the physical; realizing the maximum benefit that both approaches have to offer. Why just have your cake when you can eat it too?
What advice would you have for anyone considering moving to using a distributed workforce?
Given the added complexity of the rapidly shifting technological environment in which we operate, a monolithic approach to anything is probably not a good idea. I'd advise folks who are considering moving to a distributed workforce to view it as a tool, not as a solution. The days of either/or are long gone. I'd love to go to outer space but I wouldn't want to live there full time; at least not yet :)
As far as specific ideas on how to make the most of a virtual workspace, think of it like being an astronaut. Folks in the virtual office sometimes experience feelings of social isolation; they wrestle with reduced physical movement and stimulation. Differences in time and the logistics of communication must be taken into account. Astronauts are trained with these and other such considerations in mind. They develop deliberate practices to counter the effects of a zero G space. Here are some suggestions for the virtual office astronaut:
- Don't pocket all the savings from dropping office rent from the books. Reinvest a portion of those savings on team building exercises and opportunities for folks to meet in-person throughout the year.
- Utilize video as much as you can. While it sure doesn't beat face-to-face interaction, a video call helps to restore a richer information exchange between participants. It provides a sense of place and context. It matters if it's snowing outside of a colleague’s window. It's cool when a cat skips effortlessly across your teammate’s desk. Plus, you'll have to groom a little more often. This is a good thing.
- Cultivate virtual norms. We have to shift what we think of as good manners in virtual spaces since we have fewer tools to soften and contour what we say. Technology will tend to exaggerate succinctness and directness; help make this okay--especially for those on the team who may be a little extra sensitive in risking offending others. Help make it safe for people to communicate explicitly. It can be a boost to clarity, trust, and getting to the point. You may think emojis, emoticons and the like are a bit silly. They are J However, they can go a long way in helping to express tone. Consider adding them to your messages especially whenever there is extra risk for misinterpretation or ambiguity.
- Do you have a no-disturb protocol? It's a lot easier to see when someone's busy when you walk over to his or her desk--there's no need to put up a sign. In a virtual space, folks may not want to seem rude or unavailable by posting a do not disturb sign. Flow and mojo are crucial to productivity and creativity; intentionally create room for virtual quiet. Sometimes we all can be just a stray pop-up notification away from falling out of the zone.
- Unite distributed space through movement; experiment with walking meetings and group game play.
- Promote sketching, drawing, diagramming and sharing of created artifacts. Take extra steps to help people ‘see’ what you’re saying and improve operational alignment at the say time.
- Constantly ask the question: how does our virtual space promote our core human qualities--courage, trust, empathy? When we don't have to share bad news face-to-face, when we can avoid an awkward conversation with a note left on IM, we sometimes lose out on those opportunities to practice being (a better) human. The same goes for a pat on the back and those moments between the hustle when we celebrate what we've accomplished. Together. Better humans make better companies.
Mark Brooks: The Courtland Brooks team have been a distributed workforce from day 1, back in January 2005. Tools I recommend are Sococo for team communications, and creating a virtual office. Teamwork for project management complete with Gantt charting. Basecamp for lite document collaboration and communications. Freshbooks for invoicing. Uberconference for client calls. We don't actually do company conferences but I see this as essential for companies where the majority of the workforce are full time. We have water-cooler calls on occasion, where the team just natter, and we introduce new members of the team as we add special advisors. The best book IMHO on remote-working culture is The Year Without Pants which is about the distributed workforce that runs Wordpress.
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