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March 3, 2011
The Strange Reality of Working Virtually
What’s the key to success when you’re miles away from co-workers?
In the days before Skype, FaceTime, and pervasive Wi-Fi, I once worked at an agency where a fellow writer moved out of town and worked for us remotely. It wasn’t long before he was often late for conference call presentations or just generally unreachable. The joke in the agency was that he was simply out walking his dog. For eight hours a day.
This talented guy soon found himself on the outside looking in—and it simply wasn’t working. But even now that technology has improved, is working remotely the best solution in an increasingly fast-paced, collaborative business?
Plenty of people work remotely, and some advertising agencies and marketing firms are virtual to a large degree. The idea is appealing. Less commuting, the chance to live in the city you want to live in, etc. Freelancers have made it work for years. But what if you’re a full-timer working from a distance? It’s not easy.
If you work in an agency on-site, then you know that proximity, and presence, goes a long way. Changes to ideas, concepts, or budgets can happen in a hallway when two or three people randomly bump into one another. And heaven help you if you happen to be on vacation, or out of town, or simply out of the office when it’s crunch time to make decisions. If you’re not the final decision maker, and you’re not in the room, you’ll likely get screwed. All too often, the adage is true: Out of sight, out of mind. If you’ve worked on something and you’re not in a place you can successfully advocate for it, are you prepared to find that things have changed in your absence? Incidents like that can make or break your success on the job.
So what does it take to be part of a team when you’re not all together? It takes a deliberate sense of accountability—to do work on time, to be available to discuss the work, and to decide as a group what the next steps are.
But beyond the simple action steps, there needs to a highly developed sense of understanding from everyone: A lot of empathy is needed, along with the skills to correctly interpret the attitudes and intentions of people when you can’t see their faces or read their body language. Many great ideas or good points of discussion have been neutered by a bad quality speakerphone or emails lost in the ether.
It’s also not a problem that’s solely internal. Even client presentations are often conducted remotely. So you can’t see a marketing director’s reaction to the work, or more commonly, you can’t see them fiddle with a BlackBerry while reviewing PDFs of an concept. I’ve been on conference calls where we presented work to three separate marketing folks in different cities on various quality phones. Unless everyone knows how to handle the process, it’ll go south fairly quickly.
No matter how much technology we use in business or how much technology we create for our clients and consumers, virtual existence has its limitations. This is still a business where face time matters. Where working relationships and friendships can be honed across a conference room or over lunch or a beer. Hell, much of life works that way. You can’t bond in the cloud.
If you work virtually, what are your keys to success? Are you taking advantage of live Skype chats or ways that groups of people can virtually make real-time changes to a document? Have you been able to successfully develop client relationships without ever seeing them?
We’ll continue to develop more ways to be in touch and work from anywhere. But just as we do that, we need to keep in mind that we’re not communicating with target audiences—we’re communicating with people. And we won’t be successful doing that unless we can do it successfully together in the process of creating ideas.
Let’s hope we can successfully bridge whatever distances we exist and work in. Otherwise, no matter where we live, we’ll have a long way to go to do great work. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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