Join the lovefest: how to successfully turn a company virtual

Kim Shepherd (Decision Toolbox, California, USA)
Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom (Decision Toolbox, California, USA)

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 12 October 2015



Shepherd, K. and Wirkus Hagstrom, M. (2015), "Join the lovefest: how to successfully turn a company virtual", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 14 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Join the lovefest: how to successfully turn a company virtual

Article Type: How to … From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 14, Issue 5

Kim Shepherd and Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom

Kim Shepherd is CEO at Decision Toolbox, California, USA.

Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom is Staff Writer at Decision Toolbox, California, USA.

When you take away a company’s “sticks and bricks”, i.e. the physical building, break room and desks, what are you left with?

The answer is simple: people and culture. Transitioning a company to virtual involves much more than formal risk analysis and assessing costs. It is about creating a feeling – something that goes beyond the data and numbers and into your employee’s hearts.

People have a tendency to assume virtual means disconnected or unstructured, as we do not have an office and therefore do not see our employees in person like brick and mortar companies. But it is the exact opposite. Decision Toolbox (DT) has been 100 per cent virtual for more than a decade and discovered in a thriving virtual business – you incorporate more tracking and performance metrics, and apply more thoughtfulness to connecting.

Traditional business philosophy may call for structured planning and analysis as the first step in making the move to a virtual environment; however, when it comes to going office-free, the approach must be different. Starting from the bottom up, a transition strategy must embrace the “squishy” and create a culture where staff feels valued, connected and excited about their work.

1. Design your culture

The employees of DT are tighter than a company where you see coworkers daily because we foster relationships. It is not by accident – it is by design. I often use the phrase “design what you want or deal with what you get”. I designed a company where everybody feels loved and nurtured – even without walls.

Building and encouraging a company culture that inspires a sense of community in a virtual environment is a calculated effort that involves the use of innovative tools, traditions and experiences. Use your internal messaging system to set up a “break room” where team members can share and exchange ideas, jokes, questions and successes. During holidays, host an ugly sweater contest where people post pictures via the instant messaging system and everyone gets to vote on the most hideous duds. Divide your staff into small groups for weekly conference calls so they can help one another solve problems or learn best practices. At DT, our team of writers came up with the name “Note Pod” for their bi-weekly meeting where they get together to discuss operational issues, share best practices or commiserate on writer’s block.

Simple bonding exercises like this are not accidental; we strategize every quarter on activities and programs we can do the next month to unite our dispersed team.

2. Shout it out: recognize individual achievements and successes

We call it the “NewsFlash”, and in our weekly e-newsletter, you will find all that you would expect, such as the latest company news and new client partners. We also use the bulletin as a vehicle for our employees to recognize each other for a job well done. It could be something as effortless as thanking a colleague for covering their desk for an hour while they head to a doctor’s appointment, but that recognition is a vital ingredient in virtual success.

Incorporating an annual face-to-face gathering is another way to foster recognition and team bonding. At our annual “All-Staff Meeting”, which has been held in fun locales such as Las Vegas and Huntington Beach in past years, we take time to give awards to our top performers while also recognizing the achievements of entire departments and teams.

3. Train management to motivate and inspire

Selecting candidates who are likely to thrive in a virtual model – those with an entrepreneurial spirit, motivation, self-discipline and a passion for excellence – is an essential component to taking your company virtual. When I hire my directors and leadership team, I hire them because they are excellent at what they do and I let them go do what they are excellent at. They have their own budgets – they may ask for my opinion, but never my permission.

Empowering management is an essential component to an inspired workforce, and I believe in top-down management. Find leaders who are going to uncover what makes the team tick and give them the freedom to be excellent.

4. Plan the metrics

If you are building a virtual company, the CEO has to imagine not what the company will look like virtually, but what it will feel like. Once you have that sense, it is time for the tracking. You need to establish your overall metrics first and then tie individual key performance indicators (KPIs) to them.

For me, overall metrics are the three Ps: individual performance, group productivity and company profit. We create new ways of “seeing” our employees by incorporating KPIs that include customer satisfaction surveys, days to find the candidate who is hired, repeat business and others.

Employing a performance-driven workforce model has worked for us. What does that mean? Everyone is in quiet competition with everyone else because the entire team is excellent. You cannot be less inadequate or even average at DT because our culture is so strong. Defining and communicating the performance metrics clearly to staff is critical; all individuals involved must understand the system, including measurements, rewards and consequences.

5. Assess the benefits

After you have created this tangible, feel-good culture, you can drive your employees to perform better and enhance productivity. This is just one of the benefits of taking your company virtual. We hear phrases like KPIs and return on investment and they sound like throw-away terms, but in a virtual company, they are part of the glue holding everything together. In a virtual company, all you see is the result of that expenditure or the KPI. You are not blinded by the fluff. I believe that if we did not have the culture that we have, we would get 25 per cent less productivity from our people.

If you want to look at hard costs, we have almost zero turnover of our staff. There are hard costs if you lose someone you do not want to lose, but retaining a solid workforce requires nothing but time. No dollars are attached to the company culture – it just takes the effort to plan, design and implement.

I challenge you to ask yourself why your company should go virtual. If the answer is attached to an intelligent business strategy like cost savings, increased talent pool or employee retention, then making the switch to a virtual business model may be the perfect fit for your company.

About the authors

Kim Shepherd joined Decision Toolbox, a 100 per cent virtual organization providing recruitment solutions, in 2000 as CEO. Today, she leads the company’s growth strategy, primarily through developing partnerships and alliances and as an active member of the Los Angeles and Orange County human resources community. As a recognized thought leader by human resource organizations nationwide, Kim regularly speaks on topics such as recruitment best practices, recruitment process outsourcing and the virtual business. Kim authored The Bite Me School of Management, a book journaling her business journey and the challenges she has overcome. In 2009, 2011 and 2012, Decision Toolbox was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Kim Shepherd can be contacted at:

Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom is Staff Writer at Decision Toolbox

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