Navigating the Virtual Workplace
When your staff is 100 percent remote, how do you responsibly wrangle the team and productively achieve?
When we launched Matrix Providers in 2010, our business partners had families in different locales, so we started virtually, knowing that setup couldn’t scale. Then it did. Matrix Providers today has 42 corporate employees in 16 states with cloud-based computers and servers and one IT consultant who keeps the company wired together at the highest technical standards.
Yes, it's working – but it hasn't always been pretty.
One of our initial concerns in launching a company with partners and employees in different places was that, without physical proximity, we'd soon lose the interpersonal connection and accountability that creates excellence and commitment. Nevertheless, we dove in and quickly learned to simulate that constant contact with nearly continuous phone calls, frequent in-person meetings, periodic “summits” of five to 15 people among specialty units like recruiting or accounting, with cross-fertilization of other departments’ guests. Needless to say, Matrix Providers uses a lot of phone time and email, plus Skype, GoToMeeting and other virtual platforms.
Moreover, there are practical, logistical issues like mailing addresses and hiccups with securing lines of credit, when no physical address exists. Matrix Providers uses a downtown Denver office as a mail drop. That office's staff forwards all snail mail to an internal "post person," who distributes the it as needed, but often electronically.
The company works to avoid snail mail sign-ups and to use electronic distributions whenever possible. Today, only about 5 percent of Matrix Providers’ mail is on paper. This is not a perfect solution: One business credit card company turned us down solely because we did not have a brick-and-mortar office. We are fine without them.
But we've learned to adapt.
We employ video teleconferencing one-on-one and with groups. Once a year, we gather everyone for a much-anticipated annual meeting that we work to make as interesting and congenial as possible. Two years ago, the company took all employees and families on a four-day Bahemian cruise; this year we filled nine beach homes on a North Carolina shore and gathered in a “great hall” daily for the business agenda.
The organic benefits of this model are obvious: Matrix Providers has zero facilities expense. True, the travel budget is larger than a conventional, brick-and-mortar office – airfare, rental cars, hotels and meeting places does require a budget. However, that is modest relative to overhead in conventional office. Moreover, we have found that people who work continuously from home have a high tolerance for occasional business travel.
The company could never hire top staff via electronic engagement only. Instead, we hire corporate staff mostly from internal recommendations, which has proven to enhance accountability and collaboration and eases on-boarding. What has naturally evolved is that like people, of like professions, who live close to each other, create bonded teams who work hard together and for each other. They meet and mix for working lunches and social events. For example, our business team has evolved in the St. Louis area around our first accountant; our recruiting team is almost entirely based in North Carolina and our operations team grew in-place in Virginia. Many of these teams can drive to summit meetings.
Every new corporate hire involves complete HR onboarding in complete compliance with that state’s employment law and at least two, face-to-face meetings with supervisors or the Matrix Providers' leadership team. Once hired, each receives a FedEx package with a plug-and-play Matrix Providers office within two days. Hiring in 16 states, however, requires an excellent, knowledgeable talent team accustomed to navigating state employment laws for all of our health-care workers.
Our company has been pleasantly surprised with the goodwill and grace felt and extended to all employees when no one's family must move. There are no moving expenses, no homes needing selling. Families stay intact and in-place. Families can care for kids and elderly without day care costs.
Here's one rub: Employees often work too hard. Matrix Providers has had to look at and help with people who work too many hours. People often circle back to the desk before 8:00 a.m. and long after 5:00 p.m. There is no "colleague flow" to the door at 5:00 reminding us to go home; we've had to ask our staff to remind each other to stop after a full day.
Hiccups and culture-inventing aside, the benefits stack up, far beyond any real or imagined "cons" to virtuality. Flu epidemics do not spread among us. Internet downtime, power failures and storms affect only one person at a time. With remote work and laptops being routine, travel does not disrupt. We get to see and hear each others’ kids and dogs. We don’t have fire drills emptying the building. We don’t have business security concerns. With people in six time zones, from North Carolina to Hawaii, Matrix Providers has normal business hours that encircle the whole globe. We deploy program managers close to our Department of Defense facility, with customers in all six US time zones.
Though we did not intend to build a company that was 100 percent virtual, today we're glad it has worked out that way. Matrix Providers could not have grown as quickly as it did.
Founded in 2010 by Dr. Bill Rivard, a retired Army Colonel, Matrix Providers serves government agencies with the government's contracted medical staffing system. Since its inception, Matrix Providers has achieved 99.4 percent placement rate. In 2017, Staffing Industry Analysts named Matrix Providers as the 5th fastest growing United States staffing firm