In 2006, Birches Group was a year old and I was going through the recruitment process. I was interviewed by one of Birches Group’s founding Partners – I was in the Philippines and Jeff was in New York – we talked on Skype. When I started work in our Manila office with seven other staff, all four Partners (our supervisors) were abroad. Now, 14 years later, we have over 100 staff working in international teams, collaborating with strategic partners in different countries, and engaging clients all over the world – mostly remotely. Our operations are enabled by our ability to work virtually through email, messenger, and teleconferencing, and almost all staff have laptops; technology keeps us globally connected and functional. But beyond technology, it’s our mindset and attitude that has made us an effective virtual team even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are the five most important lessons we have learned about virtual work:
1.Focus on Purpose and Output
It’s our experience that when everyone focuses on the purpose of their work– the what and why, instead of the how or where – processes, jobs, and teams can be flexibly configured to address disruptive situations. We find it easy to instill this purpose-focus in our staff because we hire people who are adaptable and who can organize their work in creative ways that are optimal for their own and their team’s productivity.
At the end of the day, our performance is measured by what we deliver – our outputs. We set productivity and quality metrics, regularly measure performance using our simple Community™ system, and celebrate good performance with bonuses of up to 2 months of base salary, all without a 9-5 office or having our managers looking over our shoulders.
2.Redefine the Workday and Workplace
The “workday” is a variable concept in Birches Group and the “workplace” has always been entirely optional. Before COVID-19, we work remotely up to three days a week, and on whichever day we do come to the office, some come in at 7:00 am while others come in at 3:00 pm. Someone on my team works on the weekend and takes her “weekend” off on a Wednesday. This flexibility enables staff to avoid Manila’s horrible traffic and we work at the time of day that we’re maximally productive (for example, scheduling work hours that coincide with our client based on their workday).
The only thing that changed during the COVID-19 pandemic was that we put in place core hours from 1:00 to 5:00 pm Philippine time and our international teams – spanning up to 13-hour time differences – set overlap hours, all to maximize interaction and fight isolation. My Philippines-based team works directly with the Managing Partner in New York and we flexibly switch between morning and evening meetings.
While it seems that the workday is longer (I regularly do telecons at 9:00 am and 9:00 pm on the same day), it’s really because we can shuffle together work hours and non-work hours. It’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration, and we are able to easily make space for what we need to get done in our personal lives.
3.Eliminate Bureaucracy and Paper Trails
The workday and workplace are the peak of 1950s office technology, and paper forms and bureaucracy are its foundation. It was partly because we’ve progressively been eliminating bureaucracy and going paperless that we were well-prepared to go completely virtual in 2020.
Everything from our leave applications to medical insurance forms are available and submitted online through a third-party HR platform, BambooHR. Internal processes have few signatories and any that require them, we limit signatories to one manager or HR – and all of it is done electronically. Beyond streamlined processes, as an offshoot of our output-driven culture, we have established clear accountabilities, so staff know who to approach to get something done. This eliminates bottlenecks: our staff don’t have to be in the same place at the same time as their managers just to chase down that next signature, and work can continue without impediment.
4.Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
For us to collaborate in a flexible work environment, we adopted an attitude of “spontaneous accessibility”. We count on staff being accessible and responsive through email, messenger, or voice. When we are working, we respond within an hour of getting pinged and reply to internal emails within 24 hours. This doesn’t mean we require staff to be connected 24/7 – we still sleep, take leaves, and disconnect on weekends – it just means we distinguish between which engagements are truly urgent and which of them can wait.
Another change during the COVID-19 era: instead of our usual once a month management meeting with the Partners we now have them weekly but only for one hour. More frequent but shorter meetings allow us to target issues and get quick resolution. After each weekly meeting, the Partners send an email to everyone in Birches Group covering announcements for the coming week, updates on initiatives from across teams, and highlights of new projects won or new clients secured. Staff are assured knowing that business continues, and everyone is informed of what’s going on.
5.Strengthen Employee Engagement
It’s not just more communication, we also bolstered our employee engagement program. Our Employee Engagement committee continues to organize events like Friday evening watch parties and fun, social media-powered initiatives like Instagram Bingo. The committee organized a 15th Anniversary party which we celebrated last April 30, 2020. It was a one-hour party attended by a hundred staff on Zoom – there were live musical performances, videos and pictures of staff activities throughout Birches Group’s history, 10-year service awards, and toasts from the Partners.
Group photo of our team ahead of the 15th Anniversary Party
Human Resources organizes regular “lunch and learn” sessions hosted by different teams and attended by staff from across Birches Group, as well as a session on mental health and wellness delivered by our medical insurance provider. We also shifted our learning content to a learning management system that is easily accessible to all staff online. These engagement initiatives boost morale and foster closer cross-team connections, and most importantly, strengthens our community.
Virtual work is the new normal. These may be unprecedented times but as you can see from our experience, virtual work is something doable and worth doing.
How is your organization coping with virtual work? Please add your comments and questions below, and of course, reach out to us if we can assist your organization in operating in the virtual world!
PJ has been working with Birches Group since 2006. He currently leads Birches Group’s Manila-based Design & Strategy team which is responsible for developing Birches Group’s Community™ integrated HR platform, delivering consulting projects, conducting client training workshops/events, and developing strategic communications and marketing initiatives. PJ goes where the work and clients are, and to date, he has traveled to 33 countries for Birches Group.