A quick guide to virtual support teams

We’ve been largely a virtualised business since we founded in 1996 – in fact, when we started we had just 3 employees and those were located at the opposite ends of the country. Our next two hires were also remote, so we’ve probably got more experience than most in running virtualised teams.

However, we viewed the staffers are being home-workers rather than remote, and when this was expanded in 2004 to include support on the other side of the world it was an easy step to find and manage skills and resources in any timezone.

Without a real “virtual plan” we bought or contracted services and products that allowed the client support to function anywhere in the world, it seemed wise to cover any and all eventualities. More than that, we encouraged folks to be mobile, to be fluid, and take advantage of the technology.

It’s not been without its challenges and last year we dumped our central office (saved us £35k a year) and moved from supporting location-independent working to making it part of how we work. It’s been a tough road and with no manual to follow we’ve largely ploughed our own furrow.

This has given us a lot of learning and if you are considering implementing an environment that gets rid of the daily commute and liberates your whole team to work when and where they want, then here are a couple of pointers:

  • People make this happen – you cannot force this on anyone. Get buy-in.
  • Not everyone will respond well, accept that you will lose folks, sad as that might be.
  • Everyone must be a great self-manager, with a can-do attitude and posses self-discipline.
  • The whole team must be good communicators – both written and verbal. The face-to-face world disappears into the rear view mirror pretty quickly.
  • Folks must proactively reach out for help – the traditonal watercooler is gone, so folks must be happy to put their hand up when they get stuck.
  • Integrity become a core hiring criteria – we’ve made mistakes in the past with staffers who, in hindsight, didn’t share the same values. Trust is closely matched to this, if you think you might not trust a hire, then you’re probably correct.
  • Some people are happy under a low-touch, highly flexible management style – in the location-independent world EVERYONE must not only be happy, but must thrive in this space.
  • The social world changes dramatically – folks now have to make an effort to be social. This can be a big killer but you can compensate by bringing the team together for events, training, conferences and the like.
  • Remove any blocks to flexible working – allow folks to work different hours or days and don’t expect everyone to be on-call all of the time.
  • Build applications and services that make all this work. Primarily this means using the cloud but also extends to ensuring folks have the right equipment, be that tablets, laptops or internet tethering devices.
  • Broaden the skill set in the business, there is nothing worse than having skill or resource squeezes – it’s stressful – so that means removing single point of failure skills and you also end up with a better skilled team.

As we enter a second year of location-independent working we’re actively seeking new ways to improve the how, where, when and what. That means new services, changing operating practices and (a lot of) cross training. Roll on 2014.

By Martin Dower