The Long Hallway
Issue № 236

The Long Hallway

You’ve heard of the long tail and the long walk home. Now, for all those micro design firms looking to grow to the next level, there’s the long hallway—the distance between the physical working spaces of the individuals that comprise virtual companies—which may be as short as a few miles across town or as long as thousands of miles across continents and oceans.

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In the past five years, due to the ever-increasing speed and wide availability of broadband data pipes, the virtual company has grown in popularity as an organizational strategy for businesses in tech-centered fields. The virtual company structure allows employees to integrate their work and lifestyles as they see fit, living where they want and working when they want. If your micro design firm has taken on a project that’s too big for your current capacity, if you need a representative in a new market, or if you want the best talent but can’t find it locally or affordably, you may choose to work with people who share your vision, but not your physical location.

This is not a new trend. Big companies have been doing it for years. A June 7, 2006 article, “Have Advice, Will Travel: Running A ‘Virtual’ Company on the Fly”, from the Wall Street Journal’s career site, CareerJournal.com, describes the trials and tribulations of executives who manage consulting firm Accenture, a 129,000-person company with many branch offices, but no physical headquarters.

What has changed is the ability of smaller businesses to access (and afford) technology that makes communication and coordination between scattered offices possible. Collaborative software company SocialText started life as a virtual firm, with employees located across the US. In a May 10, 2005 blog entry announcing SocialText’s eventual transition to physical office space, CEO Ross Mayfield describes his company’s start as “net-enabled bootstrapping.”

For small design teams, the long hallway represents a different way of working and a drastically different kind of business structure. If handled skillfully, it can be a flexible, scalable, and powerful way to compete with larger players. But it is also largely untested, challenging from a management perspective, and ultimately, an organizational method that is still evolving.

This isn’t your father’s telecommute#section1

On the surface, the long hallway of the virtual company shares characteristics with the well-established practice of telecommuting. Employees use tools like Skype and other VOIP services for telephone calls and phone conferences, instant messaging to keep in touch, wikis to preserve group knowledge and processes, and web-based project management apps to organize and direct workflow.

However, there is a fundamental difference between telecommuting and the long hallway. To be a remote worker means that the core function of a company lies elsewhere. Telecommuters work remotely for businesses that already possess an established culture and physical buildings. They are satellites orbiting a larger concern. For virtual companies with long hallways, the company exists wherever its people are—and nowhere else.

As creative professionals, we are experiencing significant, rapid changes to the nature of our work: Competition is increasingly international, talent is everywhere, technical skills need constant updating, and there is no set trajectory for our careers or previous model to follow. At the same time, entrepreneurial opportunity abounds, and technology has removed the necessity of being restricted to one place. So what happens now? While we may want independence, we don’t necessarily want to walk alone. In response, we search for new ways of interacting with each other. The “Hollywood model” of building short-term, flexible, project-based teams is one example. Open space gatherings of like-minded professionals at unconferences and meet-ups is another. As Richard Florida points out in his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class”, these new models rely on the strength of our personal networks, our ability to maintain loose connections with many people, and build communities both virtual and physical.

It is now possible to build a company that requires no physical spaces—at least not in the traditional sense of office buildings and cubicles. Employees may work from home offices, coffee shops, or hotel rooms, visiting client locations when necessary for face-to-face meetings. To create, manage, and grow such a firm requires skill sets far different from the ones we’ve developed for dealing with traditional organizations.

Long hallway culture for the micro design firm#section2

In many ways, design work is particularly well-suited to the long hallway, because practitioners are familiar with visualizing elements that do not yet exist, providing navigation for unfamiliar spaces, and living with ongoing change. However, if a virtual design firm is to be successful, it must develop an adaptive culture that fosters and strengthens connections between far-flung collaborators. It’s difficult, to say the least, to build a team across distances and establish a sense of accountability between members.

Your process is your practice#section3

For a micro design firm operating as a virtual company, process is paramount, which makes it important to think and rethink your design process. You’ll need to effectively communicate your methods in order to incorporate new people into your day-to-day workflow—explaining your vision of the project’s end state, documenting your choices, tracking your progress, and reviewing your results. It’s true that virtual companies, especially small ones, have to be flexible when it comes to people’s roles: one person may have to handle sales, marketing, design, coding, and bookkeeping all in the same day. Most people like to know what’s expected of them, though, so assign people clearly defined roles—at least on a project-by-project basis—whenever possible. For example, designate one individual as the lead contact for a particular client, or, if your company has multiple designers or coders, assign a lead person in each of those positions for each project.

Networked play is as important as work#section4

When you work with people in the same office, you interact with them through both formal meetings and informal encounters, in the hallway, cafeteria, and at corporate events. Conversations about common interests and problems help to cement mutual respect and camaraderie. Creating this kind of culture and spirit requires extra effort in virtual space. To better understand each other, virtual colleagues might share photos, playlists, blog entries, and other digital content. While it’s always important to know when to get down to work, it’s equally important to know when to goof off, and even to encourage it. There will be times when you call someone with a set list of topics to discuss, but there need to be times when you just call to chit-chat.

When it comes to team-building, long hallway companies have a cultural asset over telecommuter-based experiences. Virtual team members have much in common with each other when it comes to daily work life. Telecommuters, on the other hand, have drastically different day-to-day work experiences and environments from colleagues working in the main office. You can commiserate with another home-office worker about waiting for a repairman to come over and fix the dishwasher; someone in the main corporate office is less likely to be sympathetic to your plight.

Writing skills are an invaluable asset#section5

In a virtual environment, lines of communication, while broadly accessible and varied, are limited in depth. As humans, we are hardwired to read faces and body language, elements that are, for the time being, largely missing from our electronic communications. Video conferencing may change this situation eventually, but is still in its infancy, and will likely never be as effective as an in person meeting. We’re left primarily with e-mail, especially since it allows people with asynchronous work schedules to share ideas. Tone of writing is then, vital to virtual culture. In fact, writing may be the most important communication tool for long hallway companies, whether it be used to document specifications and processes, or discuss a current project.

Setting boundaries keeps everyone sane#section6

In a virtual firm, with workers spread across multiple time zones, the workday doesn’t really end until the project’s done. If you’re managing a long hallway team, your chief coder may be hitting her stride three hours after you eat dinner, and your designer may be cracking into the Photoshop files while you’re fast asleep. In situations like this, it’s worth remembering that just because we have always on communication, doesn’t mean we should always be communicating. Asking team members how and when they prefer to be regularly contacted can make a huge difference. Making appointments for phone conferences, and IM sessions, allows communication to be less intrusive and leaves space for people to actually get work done.

Personality is a key ingredient#section7

The personality, personal values, and general attitudes of team members inform the emotional culture of the virtual firm more than you might expect. Trust is an asset without which you cannot operate a long hallway company, so honesty in all dealings is an absolute requirement. It’s better to hear that a team member can’t complete a task than to find out on the day of a crucial deadline that a design component is missing. Adaptability and tolerance of different working styles are personality traits that can have a huge impact. And as with any project (virtual or not) enthusiasm, positive energy, and an encouraging spirit are priceless. Working in a virtual vacuum can be discouraging and draining at times, and it helps to have colleagues who can give you a boost when your own enthusiasm is flagging.

Getting together is hard to do (but worth it)#section8

And sometimes you just need to get the team together. Face-to-face encounters with your long hallway colleagues on a regular basis, whether it be for important kick-off meetings, quarterly assessments, brainstorming retreats, or industry conferences, allows people to bond in a way that they can’t in virtual space.

Walking down the long hallway#section9

When building a virtual team, remember that you’re trying to accomplish something very difficult: to create and maintain a close-knit feel between far-flung people. Don’t think it will be easy, and have great patience when it comes to scheduling, miscommunications, and personality quirks. Everything you do should increase your—and your colleagues’ comfort—improve communication and camaraderie, and generally make things easier. Large companies with fixed office locations spend gobs of money trying to keep their workers happy via cafeterias, workout facilities, coffee machines, and holiday parties. You should expect to spend a fair bit of your own resources on doing the same, even if it comes out in different ways.

The long hallway experience, while unique to each individual, has a most important shared aspect. The flexibility that comes with this organizational method gives people an opportunity to balance their work and their lives, to see daylight once in awhile or take the kids to the park, to shovel the driveway or catch a wave. And for creative people who make the choice to pursue their careers in this manner, the experience of virtual work coupled with real life may be all the shared culture they need.

About the Author

Jonathan Follett

Before founding Hot Knife Design, Inc., a Boston Web development and UI firm, Jonathan Follett spent nearly a decade wrangling financial data as the lead designer for the Massachusetts pension regulatory agency. He writes a column on information design for UXmatters.

26 Reader Comments

  1. For a design business, The Long Hallway is not an option: it’s crucial to survival. I’d say, scramble and adopt it during the slow initial rise of the trend, or be run over by it when it attains critical mass.

    Lucky Balaraman

  2. But what about the customer? I think it’s much harder to introduce a virtual company in business competition and explain it to it’s customer than building up a working team. Those guys who work for us are allready experienced in futuristic web behavior. The clients mostlikely aren’t.

    This article is a very good one, very interesting. But i think my question / problem with it is at least as important. Answers or suggestions?

    Stefan

  3. Hi All,

    Thanks for the comments, Lucky and Stefan.

    Stefan: In response to your question, I think, in competition for work, the virtual company relies heavily upon the business development skills, personal network, and professional reputation of its leadership. If clients trust your design sense and judgement, and you can show a track record of successful completion of projects, the virtual firm may be an easier sell.

    In terms of gaining exposure and finding new clients, I have a feeling that leaders of virtual companies will spend a majority of their time on the road, meeting lots and lots of people at conferences and smaller industry gatherings.

    For kickoff meetings, design reviews, and the like, I’ve found that it’s not too difficult to make your virtual team a “real” one for a few days, assembling on site at a client location. Going to the client, rather than making them come to you, is often seen as a value-added service.

    You’re right in that the sales cycle is complicated for the virtual company, and that some people will not be comfortable hiring a firm with no physical headquarters. But, I have a feeling that, over time, this fear of the virtual will abate, as business decision makers get used to the idea of the long hallway.

    Does anyone else have insight into this from a sales perspective? Has anyone won, or lost an account specifically because their team was virtual?

    Jon

  4. ALA is one of the few places in the virtual world where I frequently get the feeling that hey, I know exactly what you’re talking about! (Well, sometimes not, as it may happen, but that is also challenging and useful.) The situations and issues you discuss in your article are part of my everyday life, and mostly we’re just making it up as we go along, solving the most pressing problems asap and dealing with others – well, later, when they do become pressing problems.

    Thanks for a great article & greetings to everyone who is trying to create a balance between having a life and running a virtual company.

  5. I worked for a long time in a virtual team. We made every week one meeting so everyone was up to speed and to avoid double and unneccesary work. These meetings also help to build trust in the team. It is very important that everyone in a virtual team /company trust each other. Difficulties with trust are bigger problems then the long hallway.

  6. I don’t think there will be many virtual companies. But I totally agree that there will be many many projects with virtual teams. The difference is that a company has a common interest into something. Whatever the interest is, you want to build something stable, much more than just making a bit of revenue with one client. A project with a virtual team is different, you know that you are working together with the other team members for a limited time and after that you might work together again on another project, but you also might see the other team members never again. So if you have the possibility to work together on a project basis, why would you want to make a company out of that? A company makes sence if it is bigger than the sum of its parts. But to grow bigger these parts have to have strong relationships that I don’t see in a virtual company. So yes, work together as the article described, but not in the form of a company.

  7. The problem that I have is doing the business side: sales,
    accounting, lawyers, etc. These people can be annoying to find,
    but absolutely essential to running a small business. Sales
    can especially solve networking issues in finding clients.

    Is there any effort to attach these folks to the more technology based networks?

  8. I think it’s a thin line between a company and a team of independent professionals collaborating frequently. The key issue is indeed to ‘build something stable’, and yes, that is hardly possible if you just hire people cheap on a project-by-project basis without any intention to build long-term relationships based on mutual trust and benefit.

  9. I couldn´t see a great difference between a project team and a small virutal company. In both cases everyone is following the main goal of the company/project and also own interest. In a virtual company you couldn´t switch of personal interests especially with not equal employees.

  10. As far a sales go, the client doesn’t need to know that you’re a virtual company. Whoever is pitching to the client pitches as a member of the firm. Meet with clients either in public places, like cafe’s and restaurants, or in the clients’ own workspace. It maximizes the convienience to the client to do this, and helps them feel more comfortable. It shouldn’t matter that the guy doing the pitch is in NYC and the lady desinging the page is in Melbourne, AU, and the front end developer is in France, and the PHP guru lives on a houseboat in Lake Erie.

    Just provide a quality product and experience, and you can keep your vitrual company’s inner workings to yourself.

  11. We’ve got a core team of four supplemented by a network of subs in illustration, database management, programming.. (you get the idea). It’s worked well for us and allows us to be lean and flexible but still maintain a “physical presence” that seems to be important to some of our clients.

    But what’s really made that work well is the suite of tools we use to collaborate not just on projects but on ideas, direction, studio culture – the things you’d find around the break room table or during drinks after hours that we noticed we were missing as a partially virtual team. Our favorite of those tools right is Campfire (37Signals.com), we started out using it as a brainstorming space for our team and subs, but it’s evolved into an open-all-day studio space we all log into in the morning and sign out of at night – between which discuss projects, each other’s kids, future plans, ideas and everything else under the sun all day while we’re at work in other windows.

    It’s really helped our subs feel like they’ve become part of the core team, helped everybody get and stay on the same page and quick questions get resolved fast, with transcripts available to look back and check if there’s a conflict about what was said.

    Great article!

  12. I recently used a company that was pretty much based on this setup – although the project worked out well the senior managers I worked for were never convinced about the professionalism of them because they didn’t have “an office”. Admittedly these were not web or tech savvy people – the company’s core business had nothing to do with the web or IT – but a lot of companies still fit that description.

  13. Great Article. I’m in the midst of building my own virtual company. Two observations based on my experience:

    1 – Virtual works great when you have a group of people who are highly talented and self-directed. I think it’s much different to _develop_ the talent of a virtual team. Teaching really requires face time to be done right.

    2 – I think at some point you have t have some kind of “meat space” for your company. A nice office space where you can bring Clients and team members for meetings/socials and prospects for pitch presentations. Clients want to “know where to find you” and a nice office can help them feel like you are planning on “sticking around” and will take good care of their business.

  14. I think many creative professionals function in this sort of environment to one degree or another. The company I work for farms some of their work out to an agency in another state and maintain contact usually only by internet or phone. I rarely need to have face to face contact with my freelance clients, and even have a few clients whom I’ve never met in person.

  15. I’ve been running a virtual company for years now, and I actually make it part of my pitch. If you present it the right way, it’s a positive.

    For example:

    “Because I have less overhead, I can pass these savings onto you, Mr. Customer.”

    Get it?

  16. Thanks great article and much needed since our company is contemplating the long hallway. One concern, or maybe two, that I have is, the creative energy that happens in a room of people is almost impossible to replicate over the phone or via email etc . . . There is something to be said when everyone shares the same physical space and shares and discusses ideas freely. It seems almost impossible to have this dynamic in a virtual situation. And like another comment earlier I can see the ability to do projects in this manner but long term, strategic thinking regarding a company seems much more difficult.

  17. Losing the ability for face to face collaboration is indeed a challenge for management, but it is trumped by the ability to access a greater depth of talent. No manner of face-to-face will make up for a team that is composed of more talented individuals.

    BTW: Once again the quality of your articles is incredible.

  18. Transparency and honesty is crucial, especially when providing quotes for each creative project. There are dozens of on-line communities discussing rates for everything from logo design to Web site production openly. It takes a client five minutes to see if their own quote is somewhat realistic. Honest professionals will thrive in this virtual environment, which is very competitive. Honesty also generates many desired testimonials, inspiring present clients and establishing some credibility for new ones.

  19. In the 80s and early 90s I worked in a Fortune 500’s cubicle farm. Since then, I’ve worked in virtual companies only and absolutely love it. You do need self-motivated partners and fairly frequent phone/email contact to keep excitement at a steady high, in my experience.

  20. Great article. I run a micro firm acting as a virtual company. I haven’t found it difficoult yet to have clients embrace this innovative way of running a firm.
    They’re just happy when they understand that they’re buying the best they can buy. And they pay just for what they need, not for the overall “structure” that lies behind the project.

  21. I think that with the advent of instant messenging, conference groups, and webcams, that this is not such a bad idea. I’ve known someone who made a two hour commute to work one way. Then you’ve got the price for gas. This is a great labor and expense saving technology. People do need people skills to take advantage of it though.

    -ted

  22. Nice article. The long hallway can be quite OK for some businesses, can cut costs, and bring many other benefits. On the other hand, even if you have met your coworkers in person before, it is no guarantee that you can create a sustainable long term environment.

  23. …has demonstrated time and time again that many paradigm shifts have been forged in the heat of crisis…like now (Spring 2008):

    As the crushing costs of energy and resulting related expenses rise, virtual companies, telecommuting to established brick-and mortar businesses and hybrids yet unborn will spring up. Count on it.

    There will be little distinction between creative people and more (no offense meant) mundane types of knowledge/information workers in their remote work style.

    Current questions about virtual management, trust of workers unseen and “should I shave and shower before I web-cam the rest of the team?” are mere details.

    Soon enough terms and phrases like “virtual companies” and “telecommuting” will themselves be relics, as are phrases like “IBM compatible” and “new media” today. The actions and concepts behind the phrases will simply be the way we live and work–routinely.

  24. Wow this article holds true even today. In fact these days, it’s so easier to outsource work or form your virtual team and get work online. There are so many Web 2.0 project management and collaboration tools available these days!

    And I completely agree with copy-writing skills. I think even though the broadband speeds have substantially increased in the last few years, and videos have taken over to a great extent, but yet text still remains the main driver of the internet.

    Great article. Brought back a lot of old memories.

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