Discoveries from the Evolving Virtual Workplace
In the Summer of 2021, Nebo made it official: the company moved out of its comfortable Washington D.C. office and launched its innovative next chapter as a virtual, geographically distributed organization. By August, the company’s 16 employees worked from 10 different states or districts, multiple U.S. time zones, and two different countries.
Though the company had been operating remotely since March 2020 and continues to work on-site, in-person with some clients, the decision to become permanently remote signaled a significant shift for Nebo. By setting a stake in the ground as a virtual company, we acknowledged that Nebo’s “new normal” would look very different from the normal of 2019. We wondered, “Would approaches that had been adopted as pandemic-era substitutes endure for the long-term?”
Unsurprisingly, this shift raised other important questions that are now familiar to organizational leaders: How do we nourish our unique culture in a virtual format? What innovations are necessary to maintain excellent delivery of services to our clients? How do we prevent burnout and successfully on-board new staff? Which existing practices no longer serve us in our new way of operating? What new adaptations must we make?
Does this list sound familiar? As we sought to learn more about the realities of our work place, our curiosity (and our list of questions) continued to grow.
To better understand the impact of Nebo’s transition to a virtual and distributed workplace, we conducted one-on-one staff interviews and administered a comprehensive survey that explored topics including culture and connectedness, physical environment and workspace, policies and procedures, technology, and more. In the process of analyzing the data, I worked with my colleague Luke Peters, Nebo’s Manager of Business Operations, to identify trends that are true for our Nebo colleagues, but may be broadly applicable as well. I would like to share some with you here:
One size does not fit all. You’ve probably heard this one before, and based on our findings, it’s true. The potential benefits and challenges of remote work vary greatly depending on one’s life circumstances. We discovered that while staff may agree on a broad sentiment (i.e. the belief that staff gatherings are important to fostering connectedness and company culture), they may disagree on the specific details (i.e. the best use of time at that staff gathering). This realization was helpful in identifying the different needs and priorities that exist within the company – information that can inform our decision-making now and in the future.
Organizational flexibility is a strength…and may create challenges. The staff was unanimous in its appreciation of the flexibility – in geography, in work hours – provided by the remote work environment. In fact, 75% of Nebo employees make use of the company’s flexible work hours, opting to slightly adjust their start and end times based on their individual needs. While there is resounding support for flexibility, there is a corresponding concern about the challenges of collaboration with colleagues when schedules don’t align, as well as a question about the boundaries of the work day when some colleagues may be “on the clock” and others finished with their work for the day.
Spontaneous connection with colleagues is a tough nut to crack. We learned that our staff wants to connect authentically with their colleagues and get to know them outside of their professional roles. Unfortunately, many folks also noted how difficult it is to recreate “watercooler moments” where you catch up briefly with a colleague about a Netflix show or about a recipe you cooked this weekend. Spontaneous moments of connection are hard to come by when virtual face-to-face interactions are often scheduled. Nevertheless, we are exploring novel ways to build moments of connection for colleagues, even if they don’t take place in person.
Revisit, revise, repeat. Nebo staff appreciated efforts to build community and maintain company culture from afar, but expressed that our practices may be in need of a refresh. Approaches that met the needs of employees a year and a half ago may have grown stale. We must reexamine the objectives and desired outcomes of the routines we have adopted, take a step back and ask: Are our practices still having the intended impact? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that we have our finger on the pulse of the staff and organization overall?
It is this final discovery that continues to resonate with me. For two years, the coronavirus has required us to live in a constant state of adaptivity. Often it feels like change is the only constant. While the pandemic has brought this adage into sharp focus, the sentiment has always been true. Life is a continuous cycle of change that requires us to tune in, assess, and adapt to meet the needs of the moment. As Nebo ventures forth into the constantly evolving world of virtual work, there is comfort and reassurance in the simple truth that we must “revisit, revise, and repeat” to move forward.