How to Cultivate An Effective Virtual Culture

To understand how corporate culture can work in near virtual companies, come to the talent show that Emma Inc. holds every year.

The Nashville, Tenn.-based email marketing firm has 100 employees, including many who work from home or offices in Austin, Texas; Denver; New York; and Portland, Oregon. But come spring, everyone heads to Tennessee for a week, a trip that culminates in employees taking the stage at a local club on a Thursday night to juggle, play the saxophone, belly dance or perform some other talent.

Stir in Your Own Ingredients

It’s just one way the 10-year-old business ensures that no matter where an employee opens their laptop computer, they get what makes Emma unique, says Clint Smith, chief executive and co-founder. “We’ve defined our culture well and in a way that allows other people to get it right away,” Smith says. “When you’re tiny you pass it on through osmosis. We’ve done a lot” since then to continue that.

Events like talent shows aren’t just fun, they’re rituals that help define what a company it is, and that’s doubly important when most or all employees work from home, the road or branch offices, says Mary Sobon, a business consultant who works with Smith.

Startups operating as virtual enterprises from Day One, companies sending employees home to telecommute and businesses hiring more mobile workers are changing the conventional wisdom about how to create corporate culture.

Often the job of disseminating that culture falls to the human resources team—and that’s no small feat. “HR will be challenged to find ways to create an esprit de corps in the virtual world,” says Kate Lister, a telework expert with the San Diego-based Telework Research Network,

But try companies must, especially if they’re looking to grow quickly. “You have to go outside your four walls, literally. You won’t be able to do what you want to by bringing people into your building. It just doesn’t work,” says Sobon, an ex-McDonald’s marketing executive turned culture coach who assists startups and fast-growth companies.

That reasoning flies in the face of some evidence that geographically close collaboration is more effective than working together from a distance. In one of the studies that Jonah Lehrer cites in a recent New Yorker story called “Groupthink,” partnerships where researchers worked within 10 meters of each other were found to be more successful than those where co-authors were located a kilometer or more apart.

But that could be changing as videoconferencing, instant messaging and other technologies help employees navigate the barriers of remote work.

A Manifesto, Big Board and Company Apartment

At Emma, the talent show is one of the more visible things management does to make sure that wherever they are, employees “get” the culture of the company, whose products are used by tens of thousands of small and midsize companies and other creative agencies.

Here’s what else Smith does, and what he and Sobon suggest companies with all or nearly all virtual workforces do to spread their corporate culture:

Create a company manifesto. Once Emma hit 25 employees, Smith and co-founder Will Weaver wrote down the tenets they used to run the business in an Emma style guide. “It’s how we make decisions, collaborate and lead. It’s a tangible, living, breathing thing,” Smith says. Managers talk about it constantly, and are continually adding new things. In recent years they added an “Emma Lexicon” to cover unique terms and phrases used internally.

As more employees traveled for work, they included a section called “How Emma Travels.” “We’ve also tried to shrink the style guide in spots to keep it focused on high-level themes, letting details like how individual teams operate remain within those teams’ training and orientation,” Smith says.

Hire like-minded people. At Emma, anyone who applies for a job and seems like a good fit has to answer a list of 10 questions, some serious, some silly, including, “If you had a boat, what would you name it?”

“It’s our first attempt to understand how they think through what they write,” Smith says. If he likes what he reads, he follows up with an in-person or video interview. Screening doesn’t stop there: new employees are on probation for their first 30 days. In all, about 2 percent of people who apply are hired, he says.

Use multiple forms of communication and freely share info. Emma employees keep in touch via video chat, phone, email and instant messages, but face-to-face meetings trump everything for discussing the uber-important stuff, which is why Smith encourages staff to visit Nashville regularly. To keep employees apprised of how the company is doing, he installed an “Emma Big Board” patterned after a stock exchange ticker, in the lobby.

The screen displays a real-time, constant stream of high-level financials, new customer wins, information about ongoing projects plus updates from employees’ Facebook and Twitter accounts. A second board is located in the lobby of the company’s Portland office, and employees can also pull up data on their laptops.

Spend big on travel. “Once we started turning on satellite offices, we knew we had to turn up the travel budget,” Smith says. He doesn’t just talk the talk. Last summer, he rented an apartment in Portland for a month—and brought his wife and kids along—to spend more time with the dozen employees located there.

“As the CEO of a company that’s grown a lot, it’s nice to see him still be involved at that level,” says Matt Thackston, an engineering project manager who worked at Emma in Nashville before moving to the Portland office three years ago. “It’s another part of that commitment to the culture that he wants to foster.”

Make out-of-town employees feel welcome. Smith bought a condo across from Emma’s Nashville office that staff can use when they’re in town on business. The company is moving to a larger building this summer, and Smith has already rented a nearby apartment to keep visiting workers’ commute down to a short walk.

Choose space that fit the company’s vibe. Even virtual businesses have some office space, and Smith uses Emma’s to set the stylish and hip, yet quirky and creative, vibe he hopes infuses its entire operation. Emma’s first office was in a room inside a little house in one of Nashville’s mixed-use neighborhoods that he rented from another business. As it grew, the company moved into a succession of larger spaces, most of them in similar old houses that had been converted into offices.

When the company moves this summer it will be to another historic building. “We could have found something cheaper in the suburbs, but the suburbs doesn’t feel like us,” Smith says.

Get help. Smith belongs to two entrepreneurship groups he uses to hash out culture and other issues with fellow business owners. He also hired Sobon to spend 15 to 20 hours a week as his culture agent, working with both managers and employees.

Not everything’s perfect. Smith is still struggling to find a good calendaring system. The company uses Basecamp, Campfire, Jive, and Yammer for collaborating and internal communications because he hasn’t found the perfect all-in-one solution.

According to Smith, though, the overall effect of the culture on Emma’s growth and effectiveness has been positive. Employees working remotely are adding new accounts three times faster than their counterparts at Emma’s headquarters “and they’re outperforming themselves [in terms of customer wins] at a rate of more than 50 percent year over year so far in 2012,” he says.

While part of that’s because of a rebounding economy, it is also the result of remote staff having had time to settle in together as a team, he says.

It all comes back to helping employees bond, regardless of where they work. At the talent show, when Emma’s information systems guy “the one who takes care of our laptops and network, gets up on stage and drops the most impressive sax solo you’ve ever heard, that’s fantastic,” Smith says. “I’ll never look at that guy the same way.” He adds: “When you have that kind of night, it’s a tremendous bonding experience.”

About the Author:

Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce Management contributing editor based in Portland, Oregon.

Reprinted from Workforce Management

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