A Pioneer of the Virtual Frontier

Written by Cecilia Sepp on January 22, 2019

For some people, remote or fully virtual work is a shock to the system. They need the separation of going from home to office and have difficulty adapting to a completely different method of working which relies on self-discipline and self-management.

Not everyone is cut out to be alone most of the time, and let’s face it: working virtually is isolating. Some people need interaction with others because it energizes them or helps them focus. Others need the structure that comes from being physically at the location of the organization.These are all things to be aware of for each person, and I highly recommend analyzing your personality type (e.g, introvert, ambivert, extrovert) when making a decision about work styles.

I was a typical 9 to 5-er with a rigid schedule for years before I leaped into virtual working. There was an adjustment at the beginning but at this point I love it and I can’t imagine working any other way.

Back in 2003, I started working virtually before it became a relatively common practice. Since no one else was doing it, I had no models to look to so I figured it out as I went. I had a brand new consulting company, no money, no clients, and no office to go to. There were a lot of long quiet days with little or no email, no phone calls, and no personal interactions.

My virtual workspace evolved over many years. At first, it was my laptop and a briefcase. Since my office was completely portable, I worked wherever I wanted—the living room, dining room, or back deck. At the end of the day I packed up my briefcase and put it in the closet, which gave me a clear separation of work time and personal time. The next step was a folding scrapbook table that had drawers and a nice tabletop where I would work. Eventually I bought a “real” desk that sits in the corner and is not at all portable.

However, my work is still portable because of all the devices, online services, and internet advancements. From thumb drives as small as a paper clip that hold 5GB of memory to online drives, you can take everything with you and even edit documents on your phone.

At first it was a struggle, and again, there were not many resources to help me transition to this style of work. I faced loneliness, a lack of social interaction, and poor personal habits (not eating right, not exercising, not using my time well). Eventually I figured it out and used my strong sense of self, self-discipline, and focus to become a successful virtual pioneer. Over time I started counseling other people about working virtually and helped them figure out their own “virtual style”. I was glad to share my experiences and lessons because I saw that this was going to be the way we live.

I have worked as a solo consultant, member of a virtual consulting organization, and as a CEO of a fully virtual organization. All the models work if you put the effort into creating a system that works for you and your team. What associations specifically are facing is the hesitation that comes from trying to manage a virtual team while creating a sustainable culture. I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to managing a virtual team.

For example, all our onboarding was virtual. As we were very small staff, the new staff person would schedule a series of calls with the other staff people so they could get to know each other and learn about what the other staff did. There was also a lot of online training and I encouraged the use of video-calling during this process. Some people weren’t comfortable with using video, but it was a necessary part of our communication culture so I encouraged people to relax into it.

We also held monthly staff meetings. Admittedly, they were very boring at the beginning: it was a series of people reading out their to-do lists and reminding each other about deadlines and other things we talked about all the time. We scrapped that format before we wasted any more of our working hours.

Instead, we started off with water cooler talk for people to chat about whatever they wanted - books, movies, and social stuff. That was followed by an ‘Ask the CEO’ section which turned out to be mostly unnecessary. Then we did something called Shared Learning, where somebody on the team would make a presentation about a webinar or a conference they attended or an article that they found of interest, presenting the learning to everybody else. Our culture as a virtual organization was strengthened through these conversations.

Ultimately, virtual work has taught me that the future of work is freedom and independence. At some stage, none of us will be employees anywhere in the traditional sense of the word. We will all be independent contractors attaching ourselves to projects that require our expertise rather than attaching ourselves to a place. Work will be you: you will be your own office, your own brand, your own company. Let’s embrace every step of the journey towards creating our own working world.

Cecilia spoke in the “The Future of Work is Here” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by AssociationSuccess.org on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.