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Focus Beats Technology in Enabling Virtual Workplaces - 1313037240


HPM Exemplifies How Good People, Structure, Clear Expectations Outperform Gadgetry

PHOENIX (Aug. 10, 2011) — A recent Forrester Consulting study of how businesses manage virtual workplaces shows that many are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. According to entrepreneur Peter Feinstein, who has managed a virtual workforce for more than 12 years, this could come from equating a successful virtual environment with the need for expensive, state-of-the-art collaboration technology when all that’s really required is hiring responsible professionals and setting clear expectations for communicating and meeting deadlines. “I think it’s fascinating how some companies think their technology must be cutting edge in order for a virtual office to work,” says Feinstein, president and chief executive officer of Higher Power Marketing (HPM), an advertising agency founded on a virtual model. “I guess it’s the lure of the bright, shiny object.”

The Forrester study found that more than 70 percent of respondents said having an understanding or proficiency in collaboration technology are a must for employment, but less than 43 percent plan to invest in specific collaboration tools, demonstrating a gap between expectations and action.

“The research suggests that senior leaders and hiring managers accept that a global economy demands virtual teaming, but we believe they may be short-sighted on its benefits,” said Charles Bullock, vice chancellor of academic affairs at California’s Brandman University, which commissioned the Forrester study. The virtual office is a hot topic as businesses look for ways to reduce overhead, cut down on travel and be more environmentally responsible. And while the housing crisis has restricted workforce mobility, the virtual model enables companies to hire the best talent available, regardless of geography.

People Make or Break on Organization

Feinstein advises focusing less on gadgetry and more on personnel. Getting the right people in place – wherever their places may be – offers more return on investment (ROI) over the long haul, he says. Technology depreciates quickly, while humans gain value as they gain experience. He looks for motivated people with the focus and discipline to work independently, as well as the communication skills and accountability to work remotely. Always a bit ahead of the game, Feinstein has built HPM into one of the nation’s leading cost-per-action advertising agencies – with staff in seven states across four time zones – and kept it there amid the rapidly changing media landscape. “We’ve proven that exceptional communication and the capacity to be focused and disciplined are the foundations for success in a virtual environment,” he says.

Indeed, Bullock says, “Innovative companies can leverage virtual teaming as a competitive advantage when the organizational culture promotes trust and communication, and incorporates an array of interactive technologies to foster better collaboration.” Personnel at HPM collaborate with nothing more advanced than a networked server and a modern phone system. “Our server has common space where we can all put files for mutual sharing, reviewing, editing and commenting,” Feinstein says, “and we’re only a few weeks away from implementing a cloud-based telephone system.”

The people at HPM describe a communications environment that is open but structured. “We work together in a team environment, the same if not better than in an office setting,” says Alyssa Brailsford, the firm’s New Hampshire-based media relations director. “Communication is open between members of our team and the edict of a virtual world assists with this.”

Data Processing Director Rod Mel elaborates: “Peter has set guidelines to streamline emails, to try and reduce unnecessarily cc’d emails. All of us know one another and each of our roles in the company, which dictates with whom we communicate on an issue.” Mel works from northern California.

Emphasize Expectations

The Forrester study found concern among managers about establishing accountability with distributed workers: 57 percent said trust was a challenge for managers of virtual teams. Other key concerns included communicating effectively, managing projects and deadlines and creating consensus.

“We maintain a fairly rigorous approach to setting and meeting deadlines,” Feinstein says. “We don’t have problems creating consensus. It’s actually what happens when you have a group of highly professional, intelligent team players. We’ve evolved and now have a very proficient group of people who seek consensus.” To get there, Feinstein suggests asking for daily activity reports as a means for correlating reported activity to self-evident accomplishment. After a time, he says, a manager will have a sense of what activity is resulting in what productivity and can scale back reporting or even eliminate it.

Stephanie Klein, HPM’s New Jersey-based vice president of operations, says each staffer pulls his or her own weight. “We are definitely a team. And Peter strives to set that up so that we aren’t coming to him with everything,” she says. “He’s spent a lot of time and energy building a virtual team he can trust to run HPM daily without him needing to micromanage. That is a lot more difficult with virtual offices, and it has come partly through trial and error.”

Executives in the survey also were concerned about missing intangibles, such as cultural or body language cues and the absence of “water cooler” or more informal communications. And only 35 percent viewed virtual teaming as an important strategy to provide employee flexibility and job satisfaction. “I share the concerns with the missing intangibles,” Feinstein says, but that is just part of the virtual situation. “Even video conferencing is not the same as the in-person experience.” Folks at HPM are willing to trade that water-cooler camaraderie for the benefits of working at home. Without having to commute, people start their shifts less stressed and more productive. “Everyone gets to work during their peak efficiency, during the business hours of his or her time zone,” Feinstein says from his home office in Arizona. That not only reduces the financial and environmental costs of commuting but also stretches the hours available for customer service.

“We are all in different time zones and work on flex hours to fit our individual situations,” Mel notes. “There always seems to be someone online at any given time, so issues are acknowledged for clients pretty quickly.” Klein appreciates “the trust that I’m doing my job without someone literally looking over my shoulder.” Indeed, Feinstein suspects that many of the executives surveyed may be focusing too much on what will benefit the company’s bottom line and not enough on what will make high-quality people want to work for them. “I strongly suggest the employer and top executive team possess and communicate an attitude of gratitude in working with the entire team. With everyone spread out, any element of dissatisfaction can bring an entire department down” Feinstein says. “It really is so much easier to be kind, caring and compassionate with people. Everyone is deserving of respect and admiration for what they do in our company, and I make sure I communicate that both individually, and recognize it to the full staff.”

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CONTACT: Peter Feinstein, 888-501-5544 or pf@hpowermarketing.com.

Higher Power Marketing is one of the nation’s leading cost-per-action (CPA) advertising agencies. Sometimes called perinquiry (PI), cost per lead (CPL) or pay-per lead (PPL), CPA is a form of direct-response marketing in which the advertiser receives free ad time and space while paying only for results. In return, the advertiser gives up control of where and when the ads will run. Agencies that offer PI have relationships with media outlets and access to their unsold inventory of ad time and space. They place the ads as space becomes available. The advertisers pay only for qualified responses, or “actions.” A CPA strategy allows the client to establish a stable, predictable cost per lead (CPL) without the burdensome and unpredictable expense usually associated with ad buying.

Brandman University, which commissioned the study, is a private, non-profit institution established in 1958. Part of the Chapman University system, Brandman offers a progressive, innovative curriculum and strong support services designed for working professionals. The university serves more than 10,000 students in more than 200 undergraduate and graduate degree, certificate, credential and professional development programs in arts and sciences, business, education and health, offered online and at 26 campuses in California and Washington. For the school’s take on the Forrester survey, and a link to the study itself, visit www.brandman.edu/PressReleases/Forrester.asp.