A List Apart


The Long Hallway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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

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.

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