This article was published on February 17, 2020

I’ve worked in a ‘virtual office’ for 3 years – here’s what I’ve learned

Trust, not butts in seats, keep remote teams connected

I’ve worked in a ‘virtual office’ for 3 years – here’s what I’ve learned
Mitch Robinson
Story by

Mitch Robinson

CMO, eXp World Holdings, Inc.

Mitch has led teams for tech companies like Zillow and Expedia, and today leads a marketing team for eXp World Holdings, which owns eXp Real Mitch has led teams for tech companies like Zillow and Expedia, and today leads a marketing team for eXp World Holdings, which owns eXp Realty and VirBELA. He works each day in a virtual workplace, and loves it.

I’ve successfully managed tech company teams for many years (including at Expedia and Zillow), and for decades I thought my magic as a manager was an in-person kind of magic. I thought to be effective, my team and peers needed to see and hear me in person. But three years ago I joined eXp Realty — a real estate startup with an entirely remote workforce. 

At eXp Realty we use our own virtual workplace called VirBELA. That means not only that my colleagues and team don’t see me in person very often, but they don’t even see me. That’s because in the virtual world, we all have avatars — just like in a video game. 

Turns out, I still have my magic, even though I couldn’t tell you with certainty what color hair some of my colleagues have. 

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In a world where more people are working remotely (almost one-third of US workers say they work from home full-time), how does a manager keep their “magic?” I’m now CMO at our parent company, and I manage a nine-person team in charge of marketing, communications, events and more. Here are some tips I’d like to share.

[Read: Inside the company building holographic offices ….. in a holographic office]

1. Trust your team

Trust is the foundation to a high-functioning remote team. That starts with hiring — I always try to hire people smarter than me.

My head of communications engages directly with the media far better than I can (or sometimes have the patience for), and I like it that way. I can certainly be the loudest voice in the room, but hiring great people really means I can count on them to make good decisions, and they feel that trust.

Just as important is the trust between team members. If they don’t trust one another, remote work just doesn’t function very well. How to establish that trust? Good communication is essential, so that means establishing norms with the team around how quickly they should be responding to emails and chat or text messages.

Plus, we have all made a commitment to each other of being in our virtual world together most of each working day. This lets the team hold one another accountable, which leads to trust.

Credit: VirBELA
I might not know my coworkers’ actual hair color, but that doesn’t mean we’re not a great team.

2. Don’t clock hours — look at results

Remote work is great for many reasons, but the no. 1 reason I enjoy it is the flexibility. My office is in a finished area of the basement. It’s perfect as it’s steps away from the kitchen and it has an outside door where I can slip out for a quick walk around the block, which is something I like to do to help clear my head and think about things more deeply. Catching my son’s soccer game or running errands at odd hours is another benefit of working remotely.

To empower my team to enjoy that flexibility means I need to set clear expectations, and then measure how people are performing against those expectations — not how many hours they’re sitting in their virtual seat. 

3. Have fun

Remote work means the team isn’t often grabbing happy hour or lunch together. But building relationships is just as important as being in an office. On a typical workday morning, I check in with my team in the “marketing circle” where we all “sit.”

We might quickly chit-chat about our previous night’s activities (“Did you watch the Seahawks on Monday Night Football?”) and then segue into an open conversation about a project we are all working on. I can split off into 1:1’s or team meetings. It’s very collaborative, and those fun parts of work keep us connected and prevent people from feeling isolated.

After the last three years working remotely, it would be hard to go back to working in an office. I think about some of my past commutes — driving bumper-to-bumper and listening to two full albums a day — and would never want to go back to that. And I know I’m not alone.

Remote work is efficient, it helps companies’ bottom lines and people are happier and more productive — it just needs trust to flourish.

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