Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.
With offices in 10 cities from Vancouver to Halifax, Calgary-based David Aplin Group has grown into a sizable business. But Jeff Aplin, appointed president last year, wants to make the national recruiting firm that his father launched from their Edmonton home in 1975 even bigger.
Within three years, he aims to double the number of staff at the 150-employee firm, and more than double annual revenues to $100-million from just over $40-million last year.
He wants to pull off this expansion without adding any office space. “As we grow, it becomes a challenge to allocate square footage and an office to everybody,” Mr. Aplin says.
His solution: Create a new structure for the company that will see all employees working part-time from the office and part-time from home.
That could be tricky. “There are a lot of implications,” says Mr. Aplin, whose father, David, is the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. “It’s a bit of a can of worms from a people-management point of view.”
After buying a search firm in Saskatoon this spring, Aplin now has a few staff working from home full-time there. Mr. Aplin says some complain about feeling disconnected, and he’s concerned about what that might mean for a larger number of employees partly telecommuting.
“If we go to the work-from-home model, if someone is struggling or having a negative period of time, maybe they’re not as connected to the team and maybe we don’t know,” he says. “And maybe it’s not addressed as effectively, and then it starts kind of a spiral.”
While Mr. Aplin is still sorting out the logistics, he envisions employees working offsite for two or three days a week, whether full days, or mornings or afternoons. When in the office, they will share space for client meetings.
Although telecommuting is not a new phenomenon, dispersing employees would be a major shift for this close-knit firm.
Its concern is ensuring that, under such an arrangement, it continues to uphold a strong professional culture built around teamwork. “We’re very much a team, and my concern with people working offsite more is how does that affect the team dynamic?” Mr. Aplin asks.
The Challenge: As it moves to a model where staff work from home part-time, how can the company maintain a strong and team-oriented professional culture?
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
Sandra Reder, founder and president, Vertical Bridge Corporate Consulting Inc., Vancouver
The biggest issue they’re going to face around this is structuring the working relationship they’re going to have with these [employees]. And my biggest caution to them would be, if you’re going to go forward with this initiative, choose the people that you’re going to have working basically virtually very, very carefully.
They’ve got to hire very tenured people who can self-manage and have enough industry experience that they don’t need a lot of support and training. If they hire newbies, I only foresee chaos reigning supreme.
The other thing I would caution them on is their compensation model. If they are going to bring people in that are going to work independently from home, they need to really look at how they structure the model. Are these going to be independent consultants that subcontract to them, or are these going to be employees that are accountable to them? Even their employment contracts would have to be designed differently, because these are no longer employees that are showing up every day from 9 to 5 at a specific site.
Sue Skrzypczak, partner, Mark Longo & Associates, Toronto
It’s not just finding the right individuals, but it’s also being able to what I would call brand the individual. So, making sure that they represent the organization in a consistent manner.
When you’re in an office, you feed off one another. You can see and feel and smell and emulate what that brand might be. But when you’re remote, [it] becomes that much more difficult to have a frame of reference for what you would exude to the client, and to bring that consistent service and look and feel.
Especially when you grow, every ingredient you add to the pot either reinforces if you do it well or dilutes what you have. So it’s their ability to operationalize…on how to build that brand, how to replicate it, how to train it, how to reinforce it.
[Ask yourself:] When people are working remotely, how do I give them the opportunities to get together and still look and feel and see, in terms of company meetings, in terms of reviews, in term of statuses of how they’re performing, so people still feel a part of the entity?
Carl Fransen, founder and president, CTECH Consulting Group, Calgary
We’re a cloud-based IT corporation….[Most of our employees] can work remotely or anywhere they want with our technology. And we’ve done a lot of work to keep our professional culture acting as one unit.
Make sure it’s easy for [staff] to talk with one another….The [communications technology] that they select is going to be a huge monetary and physical investment that they have to stick with for the next probably five to 10 years. So they have to make sure it’s planned, staged, tested and then proven.
Talk to the people who are going to be using it, not the managers….Make sure that you have a large demographic of the users bring their ideas forward on how they can better use the system. And always roll it out in stages. Put five people on there, test the hell out of it for maybe a month or so – drive them, make them work hard, and see where it breaks. And get all the feedback you can. Without that feedback, you don’t know how to make the system.
THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW
Pick new hires carefully
Look for experienced employees who don’t need hand-holding.
Make communications system robust and easy to use
Get feedback from the frontline staff that depend on it to stay connected.
Keep the brand front and centre
Make sure employees represent the corporate brand consistently, no matter where they’re working.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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