An increasing number of small businesses are employing full-time and contract staff who are based at home or on the road -- that's according to a recent study by the Milwaukee-based Dieringer Research Group. The research also shows that telecommuting has risen 41% overall since 2001.
But it's rarer to find entire companies whose staff come together online rather than in a brick-and-mortar office. John Piccirillo is the chief operating officer of one such concern, MediaThink, an Atlanta-based marketing firm that caters to small and midsize outfits.
Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein recently spoke with Piccirillo about how the business' four full-timers and 10 to 20 independent contractors manage to serve clients in hospitality, software, broadcasting, and other industries -- without the 9-to-5 office time. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: MediaThink has operated as a virtual company since it was founded five years ago. Why?
A: We had all worked for other agencies where we were behind desks, buried under e-mail all day long, and we realized that activity doesn't equal results. I used to think I was working hard because I was busy. But I wasn't really doing anything to move the company forward.
We wanted to be agnostic about selling people the products and services that they needed, not just selling them what we had, and we knew that meant being with our clients. I also knew that you develop new business by being out at the events that are important to your clients and potential clients. Competitively, I'll beat the other guy or uncover an opportunity somebody else won't if I'm out there in the mix.
Q: Where do your employees work?
A: We do have an office space we use, but we're rarely there. Everybody is all over the place -- at home, on the road, at meetings, working out of clients' offices. It can be a scary thing, by the way. There's something comforting about staying in your office behind your desk, as opposed to putting yourself out there all the time.
Q: Obviously there isn't a central place where you can check up on your employees or have them punch a time clock. How do you know people are working as hard as they say they are?
A: If you're the type of boss who wants to walk the halls and micromanage your employees, this isn't going to work for you. You also have to have the right people. Our work is very deliverable. I don't care how much time it takes to get a client's Web site done, for instance, I just want it done by Tuesday. You need to have people who can deliver on that kind of schedule.
Q: Is it hard to find those kind of people?
A: Yes. I probably spend 15% of my week talking to people who might join our network of folks that deliver services when we need them. Not everybody works well this way, so I might need to run through two or three people before I find a designer or developer or artist who can do it. Then I've got to find a couple of people behind him, because he may be busy when we have a project for him. So nurturing talent and developing people becomes the issue for me, vs. making sure they're doing the job I told them to.
Q: What are you looking for in a good job candidate?
A: Those who are self-directed. We don't want loners or people who aren't interested in the team. But we need people who have the ability to know what needs to be done and have a fire for creating a competitive advantage for our company.
Q: Despite the efficiency and flexibility, there must be significant challenges.
A: Communicating is the biggest challenge, since you can't walk down the hall and chat with someone. We manage that by knowing where people are all the time, using technology solutions. Our phone system extends to all our consultants, and they can point one telephone number to anyplace they happen to be, so they're always reachable.
We also do what we call "rhythm meetings." These are really fast get-togethers, no longer than 10 or 15 minutes, that we hold every day in our office. When there are long stretches where we can't physically get together, we suffer as a company. We realized that also hurts us with vendors and contractors who need face time with us.
Q: How do you keep morale and create a company culture when you have employees working by themselves?
A: You work really hard to call people up and talk to them about something besides a project. It's a personality-driven thing, but if you don't do it, you'll have plummeting productivity and burnout. It's not different than what an employer does inside the office by letting employees know he cares about them, but you have to work harder at it when your employees are out of sight, out of mind.
Q: Doesn't it get confusing to do everything by e-mail?
A: The availability of broadband connections and innovative software allows us to do a lot of things that would have been cost-prohibitive even a few years ago. We have a software system that does project management for us -- it's called Groove Networks. You have to have a system to manage different versions of documents for various projects and keep all the e-mails relating to that project together. If you don't, working online can be a hellish experience. We also use instant messaging.
Q: Is it tough persuading customers that your company should be trusted when you don't have a headquarters that they can drive past in the morning?
A: We don't usually tout the fact that we're virtual because it can scare people. After five years, it's not so much a problem anymore because we can show off the results we've achieved for our clients. But when we were starting up, it was more of a problem. We don't have a conference room on the 15th floor, and some people really miss that kind of treatment, but most of the time our customers are just fine with it as long as we get them the results they want. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues