Could your PR agency function as a virtual team?

The long-held notion that productivity is a function of geography—you must be on site to get stuff done—is waning. Mobile technology affords myriad workflow options for today’s PR pro.

When I worked for an agency here in Chicago, there was one thing that drove me absolutely insane: They clocked you in every morning.

There was one day that I worked 22 hours, but by golly, if I wasn’t at my desk by 8:30 a.m., I would be docked pay.

It drove me crazy. It didn’t matter if you were at the office until 9 p.m. working on a new business pitch (as often happened) or traveling with clients and working more than 12 hours, you had to be at your desk by 8:30 a.m.

Now, those of you who know me well, know that 8:30 a.m. is midday for me, but that’s not the point.

The point was that having your butt in your desk chair was rewarded, not the billable hours nor getting results or even happy clients.

When I’m told I have to do something, I don’t react super well. It’s that whole having trouble with authority thing and the main reason I went out on my own.

Productivity doesn’t have to happen at your desk

Fast-forward to today: I run an organization with staffers across North America and Europe.

Because of varying time zones, everyone works their own schedules—with a few scheduled team and client meetings thrown in—with the goal of, I don’t know, getting their work done.

Let me give you an example.

On Friday, I took a SoulCycle class at lunchtime. On my walk over there, I talked to someone who might invest in Spin Sucks Pro and worked out a deal for our next steps. I took the class and, on my walk back, talked to a business prospect who verbally agreed to hire us.

Then, I had a hair appointment on Friday afternoon; on my walk there, I spoke with our Web developer and got through six action items. While sitting in the chair, I got all of the Spin Sucks blog posts for this week read, edited and scheduled.

I was incredibly productive, and I didn’t have my butt in my desk chair.

If I were in the typical agency world, I would have had to take a half-day off to do all that—or in reality, I would have scheduled my hair appointment for a Saturday and I would have taken SoulCycle at 5 a.m.

Instead, I write at 5 a.m. because that’s when my brain is freshest and there are zero interruptions; I ride my bike at lunchtime when both my brain and my body need a break.

There isn’t anyone who (a) sees me working at 5 a.m. or (b) is clocking me in every day.

And it is glorious.

Are virtual teams becoming more popular?

Yesterday my friend Travis Peterson sent a picture of a friend who had just set up his new office. It’s a gigantic umbrella on a Florida beach, with a beach chair, a folding table, his smartphone, and his laptop. Literally right on the beach. How would you like that setup?

The world, it is a changin’.

When we got rid of our physical office location in 2011, it was pretty scary. No one had a virtual team back then, and there were a couple of prospects who thought we were a fly-by-night organization (even though we were six years in by then) because we didn’t have an office.

One prospect told me she couldn’t do business with us because she couldn’t get past the fact that we didn’t all congregate in the same space every day.

When I asked her if that was because she planned to visit us, she said, “Maybe on the rare occasion I’m in Chicago.”

Today, the virtual team seems a bit more commonplace. I often wonder if we were the right agency for her and whether she’d still have a problem with it.

Still, it seems the only companies doing it today are in technology fields. Even in the agency world, we are an anomaly.

The pros and cons

There are major pros to setting up a business this way, other than working as I did on Friday afternoon:

  • You can hire anyone, anywhere. If they are best for the job, it doesn’t matter where they live, and you don’t have to disrupt their lives by moving them to your headquartered offices (not to mention not incurring the expense of the move).
  • Everyone is BYOD, which means the cost of equipment is pretty much nil. Today, employees have their own computers so we allow them to use that for their work. Our IT professional services all computers and is required to install the software we use (Dropbox, Zoom, Slack, LastPass). However, the expense of buying everyone a new PC every year or so is gone.
  • No land lines exist anymore. Clients have direct access to their teams through cellphones. There no longer is the need for a land line, and no one is skittish about providing their cellphone numbers.
  • The flexibility is incredible. As you saw by my Friday activities, I don’t care where people work, when they work or how they work, as long as the work gets done and the clients are happy. Of course, you do have to attend meetings and be around for clients on their work schedules, but I don’t care if you do it in the chair of the hair salon or on the beach.
  • Clock-watching subsides. When we were in an office, people would disdainfully regard other’s schedules. We had a content manager who liked to go to the gym at 4 p.m. She always came back to the office, but it was usually around 5:30 or 6 p.m., when most people had left for the day, so no one saw her make up those couple of hours. Instead, they got mad that she had “left early.”
  • Clients are also dispersed. Maybe not in the same way, but we work with clients in North America, Europe and Asia. A gigantic plus is that we have the technology down pat to use video chat for meetings. If we were in an office together, we’d not be doing it as professionally as we do today out of necessity.

The only thing I really miss about having a virtual team is the one-off brainstorms that happen after you have a really good client meeting and want to bounce ideas around. We’ve tried to replicate that through video chat, and it’s a nice replacement, but it’s not quite the same.

For the team members who are a little more extroverted than I, the drop-ins to people’s offices are missed. (I don’t miss that, because I never could do deep work in the office.)

Those truly are the only cons, so the pros far outweigh any resistance to building a business this way.

For those of you who have a virtual team, I’m curious to hear whether you love it and why. For those who don’t, what do you think it would take—or is it even possible—for you to work this way?

A version of this article first appeared on Spin Sucks.

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