How We Transitioned From Brick-and-Mortar to a Virtual Workspace

Written by Liz Icenogle on December 11, 2018

I work with ARMA International, a completely virtual organization. In the fall of 2016, we transitioned from our brick-and-mortar office with the option for employees to regularly work remotely into a completely virtual environment. How did this process work out for us? And is the future of work virtual beyond our organization?

The State of the Workplace

A study done on the state of workplace analytics showed that in the last ten years there was an increase of teleworking opportunities by 115%. In 2016 alone, 43% of employees in the private sector had the opportunity to telework. If you follow these trend lines, I believe more organizations will increase the opportunities to telework primarily because it makes financial sense and can increase employee satisfaction. For individuals, virtual work is appealing as they seek to find an environment that allows them to live their best life. As people and organizations get more comfortable with virtual work, I believe more organizations will become completely virtual environments.

There is often an uncertainty from organization’s leadership about how virtual work will affect production. I know this is a question our organization heavily discussed. How do you measure work product? How do you know your employees are working? This led our organization to holistically discuss productivity measurement. We determined that what we were doing was not incredibly different than how we anticipated we would operate in a virtual environment. However, as technology improves organizations are becoming less concerned about following more traditional models of employee work tracking.

Our Transition Story

During our transition at ARMA, we tried various tactics to ease concerns about what work life would look like and, in particular, how we would continue to communicate. For example, there were a number of extroverts on our staff who loved going to the office and found interacting with other people energizing. What made them happy in the physical office could not necessarily be duplicated in the virtual environment.

With the help of our outside HR resource, we talked about about the importance of self-care along with the importance of setting boundaries and even distributed some resources to help support the conversation. One of the primary topics we discussed: When you’re at work, you’re at work. The physical space doesn’t change that you are working; your mother-in-law shouldn’t expect to just stop by anytime! It is imperative that employees build a structure of communication with the people in their lives and with each other.

We set expectations about how people communicate. For example, let’s not use email all the time for quick questions because our inboxes will be unmanageable. ARMA uses Office 365 platforms to chat and video chat. The platform also includes a virtual water cooler where we share pictures of our pets, families and other personal moments of interest. This helps us keep up our communication and personal connections.

It was important to establish limitations around video calls and communication. Calling someone without warning is akin to dropping in on someone’s office. It can be an intrusion on their concentration. In a physical space, someone’s door might be shut for a reason; and we try to use availability statuses to mimic these cues.

With the transition, we expanded geographically into hiring employees from other parts of the US, outside of Kansas City where our office was formerly based. With our virtual hires, we’ve experience an influx of people interested in working with us due to the flexibility this environment offers. Our interviews were conducted via video to better get to know the candidates and to filter out people who would be uncomfortable with this type of communication.

For the final round of our interviews, we brought a few team members onto the call for a group interview. We purposely built in time at the beginning for the team to chat so that when the interviewee came on the call they would get a sense of our culture and have the opportunity to join in naturally. It made the whole virtual hiring process more human and personal.

The transition to virtual was a significant time investment from identifying our physical document retention policies to the nuts and bolts of our technology to planning for business continuity with no drop in service to our members and customers. The planning and discussions around employee policies and office culture helped us with a great transition, but we have learned a lot in nearly two years. The conversation continues as we seek to improve our practices and to gather ideas for maintaining a strong employee culture.

Liz 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.