A guide to thriving when working virtually

4 minute read

When he was seven, my youngest son turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, “Mum, you’re not a big deal.”

I was no stranger to his unsolicited feedback (Me: “I’d like to write a book.” Him, “You could call it, ‘How to stress out your children”) and I had recently returned from an “Overcoming low self-esteem when everyone hates you” workshop so my resilience was high. Fortified by a day’s worth of motivational Instagram quotes and a Pret lunch, I was ready with my retort, “Actually, I AM A BIG DEAL.”

Yes, in the confines of my solo home-working environment, I am the biggest deal there is. I answer to no one. I even ignore the dog. I’ve got 10 years’ experience of working for a company where the virtual is viable. However, we are still the exception, not the norm. So, it’s been interesting to witness the corporate world tackling this approach. This week several client companies have shut their office for a ‘test run’ should they need to send people home to work virtually during Coronavirus quarantine. Others are being told to take their laptops home every night in case they can’t come in the following day. Virtual and remote working is rapidly becoming a social imperative to shield us from the spread of disease. It’s seen as ‘risk mitigation’ and a ‘business continuity’ response in extremis. In other words, something that businesses only do when they absolutely have to.

Yet we live in a world where people have embraced digital as a means of enabling better lives and better business. So why isn’t virtual working more prevalent?

Rather than give top tips about what pyjamas to wear when working from home, companies should embrace virtual working as part of a long-term solution, not short-term crisis management. Here’s what they need to think about to make virtual working work.

When Caffeine was founded back in 2007, it boldly went where few consultancies had been before – into the Cloud. At the time, our totally virtual model was an anomaly. We were frequently asked, “Where’s your office?” Yet our belief was that the clients we wanted to work with would judge us on the quality of our work, not the size of our office.

Fast-forward to today and we continue to serve a raft of big-name organizations none of which care that we don’t have an office. We therefore believe we have some insights into how to make virtual working pay.

One:  Offer a better service than your non-virtual competitors

We are a lean organization made up of people with years of experience. You hire us, you get us – a dedicated team, working at pace on your project. We built Caffeine on three principles:

  1. We always act out of heart and conscience
  2. We are “respectfully disrespectful” – we tell our clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
  3. We act with rigour and vigour. No long meetings, no doorstep documents. Just well thought through sharp advice.

And as important as all of those are, we are enjoyable to work with too.

Two: Have contacts and contact

Contacts are what you have when you start out – most people are not going to be happy giving you business if they haven’t met you in the flesh. Caffeine’s founders worked in some of the world’s largest marketing services agencies and were extremely well connected before going virtual.

Contact covers two elements.

The first is actual physical contact. To avoid the dangers of becoming a recluse you do (once any self-isolation is lifted) have to have regular contact with other human beings in ‘real life’. For all the benefits of digital, meeting people in person is still the most effective way to discover how what you offer can benefit another.

The second is virtual contact. Virtual working world requires more not less contact with clients. Clients take on virtual companies for a higher level of contact and an “always on” approach. You’ve managed to escape commuting – so you have to be prepared to send a work email in Tesco’s every so often.

Three: Reputation

No one can hire your business unless they’ve heard of you and unless they’ve “heard” good things about you and seen a little of what you’re about. In the old non-virtual age, if you had a large shiny office and a visible workforce people felt pretty safe in hiring you. The new safe is reputation. You’re good at what you do, so don’t be afraid to ask your clients to recommend you to others. Ask for a testimonial at the end of the project and keep in regular contact with clients past and present – not just when the pipeline is looking wafer-thin.

Four: Stick to core business

When working virtually, it’s easy to get stingy. When working in a non-virtual corporation you don’t have the option to be the HR person, the business growth consultant, the designer, the brand advisor, the public relations department, the caterer, the stationary manager, the IT department, the cleaning staff. But when working virtually, you do. You find you can “just about” do everything. Resist the temptation. Otherwise you’ll find yourself distracted from core business and spend your work life doing things that aren’t in your area of expertise. Of course, outsourcing costs. However, non-virtual companies spend up to as much as 50 per cent of gross profit on office space. Aetna, the US insurance giant, reports that home working has saved it $78 million in real estate costs.

Virtual working is the way of the future. Flexible and virtual working has the potential to transform how we do business – making work more productive, more profitable, boosting efficiency and harnessing some of the world’s brightest minds. Employees benefit from greater flexibility, freedom and greater enjoyment. And that’s a big deal.

Louisa Clarke

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