Reflections on Becoming a Virtual Company

Feb 22, 2021 | Blog, McCreadie Group

February 2021 | Scott McCreadie, PharmD, MBA | Founder, President and CEO

Not unlike for everyone else, 2020 was an eventful year for the McCreadie Group, and it changed a number of aspects of how we do business. I would like to reflect on one of the biggest changes we made: transitioning to a virtual company. Fortunately, because we’ve had previous experience with remote workers and adapting to change, the results were positive, and the journey relatively trouble-free.

The McCreadie Group was founded in 2004, and like many startup companies, was quite modest at first. There was one employee, the founder, and no office space other than a spare bedroom. Over time, McCreadie Group grew as we served the investigational drug service and pharmacy education markets. Our first “real” office and first “real” employee came in 2006, but by 2014, we had moved into our third office, with ample space for the growing number of employees. This office, as it turned out, would be our final office space before becoming a fully virtual company.

Dipping our Toes in the Virtual Workplace

We gained experience with remote workers long before the pandemic. Hiring employees with specific training and direct work experience in our niche markets was, and is, important to us. Starting with an already limited pool of available candidates, we did not want to further diminish it by requiring employees to live in close proximity to the office.

We hired our first remote employee in 2013 as a director for one of our products. Being a senior-level position made it a little easier because there was less concern over supervision or the need for consistent mentoring. However, as part of that hire, we had to figure out the logistics, like video conferencing and how to share corporate resources securely across the Internet. Fortunately, the tools to make this possible were improving, but we still had some challenges given their limitations.

As we continued to grow, more and more employees joined us. Eventually we were operating with approximately a quarter of our staff working remotely and three quarters on-site. Steady advances in technology and communication tools made it easier to integrate these employees into the company and support interactions. It became our practice to fly-in our remote employees a couple times a year to team build and experience important in-person interactions. We were pretty happy with these arrangements and didn’t have any plans to change the model.

An Abrupt, Compulsory Move to Full Remote Working

To state the obvious, 2020 changed a lot of things. As the first cases of Covid-19 were being discovered in our country, we were all pretty naïve about how it would impact us. By mid-March, a stay-at-home order was issued in our state, and we abruptly moved all employees to working from home. We thought that it would be a few weeks, and then things would return to normal, and we would return to the office.

The transition was reasonably smooth. Given our experience with remote employees, and our agile, fast-paced environment, our teams were already adept at dealing with change. To complete the transition to a fully remote company, we had to buy a few webcams for home offices, VPN licenses, and other small things. The employees had to carve out space in their homes, boost their Wi-Fi, and learn to work alongside their families instead of their colleagues. All in all, the adjustment went well, and work continued with few interruptions.

As the pandemic crisis worsened, the stay-at-home orders were extended, and our office stayed closed. As the months rolled by, working from home became the new normal, and soon several things became clear to me. First, people are incredibly resilient and adaptable to changing circumstances. Our employees adjusted well to the change at all levels. Second, productivity seemed to improve overall. As an employer in a services industry, we don’t have a lot of hard metrics to measure productivity objectively, but the company was executing well and faster than before. We saw things like meetings regularly starting on time and involving less people. It became easier to form small collaboration groups without disturbing others.

Finally, we saw employees gravitate to work hours that best suites them. In the office, employee arrival and departure times had only varied slightly. Once we went remote, we started seeing more variety with work being completed even earlier in the morning and later in the evening. Our employees often worked several hours, took a break to assist their children or to take time for much needed self-care, and then return to working at a later hour. Schedules varied based on the needs of the employees and their families.

While there are a number of benefits to working from home, we found there were a few drawbacks as well, and they were related to the human connection that happens when people gather in the same place. It was harder to celebrate successes such as meeting a business goal, someone’s birthday, or an employee’s anniversary with the company. It also reduced the casual interactions with the staff that you didn’t typically work with on a day-to-day basis. We no longer had those “water cooler” conversations that had happened naturally in the office setting.

We tried to schedule some after work “happy hours” to bring people together, but the pandemic restrictions and concerns for everyone’s safety made that hard to do, plus it was tough to find a venue that was convenient for our employees based on where they live. We did find some success with holding a company picnic in September which most of the company attended. It was done in a socially distant manner which made it a little less normal than in the past.

Virtual by Choice

After a couple of months of being remote due to the pandemic, we began to ask the question of whether or not a permanent change to working from home was the right path for us. As the owner, the appeal of not having to pay for a lease and associated office expenses was of interest, but I had to ensure it wouldn’t negatively affect collaboration and productivity.

In May, we conducted a staff survey to get the perspective of our employees on whether or not we should make this work-from-home arrangement permanent. While the results weren’t unanimous, the significant majority of the staff felt their productivity was either the same or better than at the office, their ability to focus and collaborate was the same or better, they generally felt their opportunities to interact with their coworkers was not diminished, and generally agreed that their work/life balance was better. Most of the staff indicated that working from home was financially advantageous to them by not having the costs of commuting, eating out, etc.

Based on these results, the decision was made to make the remote arrangement permanent and become a virtual company. We ended our lease and closed the office space over the next few months.

I believe that had we conducted the same survey prior to the pandemic, the results would have been more mixed. The two-month forced trial run gave everyone time to adjust to the change and develop new habits and processes that worked for them. This unique time provided us the opportunity, but our culture provided the required skills and confidence. I have no doubt that our team, who is used to swift decisions and activity, were able to adapt more successfully than would workers who are accustomed to a slow-paced, conventional working environment.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of working from home, the improvements in productivity and collaboration seem to be holding, and the team is functioning well.  We discovered some adjustments from our pre-pandemic routines really helped in this new, virtual world:

First, more intentional, structured communication was needed. Because we no longer passed each other in the hall, we scheduled regular “check-ins” to ensure that teams were well-informed about what was happening with each other, joint projects, and our clients.

It was helpful to be clear with employees about expectations while working virtually, and to discuss how these expectations support our company values and goals. It is important that while working at home alone, employees feel like they are a part of a team and they can still see the big picture.

It became essential to plan purposeful, creative social activities. Once we return to “normal,” we will need to look for opportunities to bring people physically together from time to time to strengthen the team. In the meantime, we will continue to schedule virtual lunches and play online games. We even created a virtual “water-cooler” where employees stop by and “talk” about their day, the news, or their dogs.

In retrospect, closing the office and becoming virtual was likely the right move for us. A change thrust upon us by the pandemic allowed us to see a different, perhaps better path. We realize that many others, including the clients we serve, don’t have that option, and we admire their resiliency and flexibility to adjust to the realities we all faced. While new challenges may emerge, I believe the team will be able to adjust to meet them.