They used to meet around his dining room table.
That was in 1998, soon after Andrew Sobel founded Charlotte-based The Brixton Group, a company that recruits and matches contract information technology professionals with Fortune 500 companies that need them.
Fifteen years later, the Brixton Group is one of Inc. Magazine’s “Top-500 Fastest-Growing Companies,” revenue totaled $21 million last year, and Sobel still works from home.
But now his employees work from their own homes, too, scattered around the country, from New York to Philadelphia to Texas. They check in daily for video chat meetings via computer.
“Technology is amazing,” says Sobel, 40. “You don’t have to be shoulder to shoulder.”
Just as the anytime-anywhere accessibility of smartphones, tablets and laptops loosened the bounds of the 9-to-5 workday, new advances in technology have rendered a brick-and-mortar central workspace obsolete for some companies.
Sobel spoke about developing virtual workplace culture at a small seminar in Charlotte last week, hosted by the Strategic Leadership Forum of the Carolinas. More than 20 local business leaders, many of whom have hybrid virtual-office models, attended.
Also joining the panel virtually were Meikaela Zwieryznski on the sports marketing team for Mountain View, Calif.-based Google+ , and Andrei Hedstrom, president and CEO of San Francisco-based Sweetrush, Inc., a nationwide company that develops communications solutions.
The panelists’ far-flung participation illustrated how an increasing number of worksites do business these days -- from virtual workplaces, to working from home in some capacity via telecommuting.
The topic has generated debate in recent weeks, following Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s company-wide moratorium on allowing employees to work from home. Some say Mayer’s move hurts work-life balance; others say telecommuting hurts the sense of mission and unity among colleagues.
Sobel’s setup won’t work for every business, but he and other virtual veterans agree that the keys for success without office walls – good hires, efficient communication and dynamic company culture – are critical for any company trying to compete and stay relevant in a global, 21st-century marketplace.
One of the main criticisms of allowing employees to work from home is fear of distractions. What if she’s folding laundry instead of working on that report, or he’s watching TV instead of making those calls?
But diversions are inevitable, Sobel says, whether you’re at the office or the dining room table. To minimize their effect on the company, don’t try to control the work environment; control who you hire.
His formula: hire overachievers with a proven track record.
Sobel says his 11 employees do the work of companies three times their size, distractions notwithstanding, and he rewards them with highly competitive salaries. That’s easier to do, he says, when you’re not shelling out thousands of dollars a year on office space.
“Hire...people you don’t have to micro-manage,... who have internal drive,” Sobel says. Then, “give them some rope to either do something good or hang themselves.”
At the Brixton Group, “rope” means no set work hours and no limits on sick days and vacation time. The only mandatory event is a standing company-wide video conference call at 8:30 a.m. every morning.
He says he’s had no turnover since 2004.
Creating a culture
Dr. Arvind Malhotra, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, traces the rise of virtual management to the late 1990s, when Microsoft and Adobe were emerging, broadband communication became affordable, and e-commerce transformed the marketplace. First was audio-conferencing. Then email. Social media. Skype. Google docs.
Some of the first to embrace it were technology companies with a digital product and sales companies with a large on-the-road component, Malhotra said. But now, thousands of businesses from nearly every sector have incorporated it.
To make it work, experts agree, you have to develop a cohesive company culture.
When you work side by side with your team, relationship-building can be natural. Operating virtually, you have to consciously cultivate that same environment, Malhotra says.
To build community, Sobel flies entire families down the Charlotte to interview, and once they’re hired, employees spend several weeks training at Sobel’s house.
Key for Sobel, was creating a company culture that emphasized the team and valued individual opinions. That’s why, after he interviews potential job candidates in person, he also has every staffer interview them separately, virtually. Without unanimous approval, he doesn’t hire.
Says Sobel: “You’ve got to trust your people.”
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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