6 Learnings from Working Virtually

It’s April 2022. Two years into the COVID pandemic virtual businesses are on the rise – yet they are still rare. Mostly small companies are adopting this format for several reasons: reduced fixed costs, lower environmental impact, a larger talent pool to source from, and the attractive flexibility to work from home, to name a few obvious benefits. Although the advantages of a virtual business are relevant and worth exploring, it also presents several challenges. These challenges need to be managed properly for the organization to thrive and to provide a positive human experience for everyone involved. Let me share my perspective of working in a virtual company for almost four years.

I joined GAIA Insights – a fully virtual business from the outset – in 2018. During the recruitment process I was told that all employees work from home in different countries, and that they travel from time to time either for team meetings or for client engagements. The role I applied for required 60-70% remote work and the rest face-to-face while traveling. Although at the time I did have experience working from home occasionally, it never was a full-time job like this one, and I had spent most time working in person. Let me share with you my take-aways and lessons learned in the past four years:

  • Socializing with colleagues is important and possible
    For a highly social person like me, it is important to bond with colleagues and clients. I cherish meaningful relationships at work and in my personal life. Contrary to what some people may think, it is possible to build solid relationships in a virtual world. It requires patience, perseverance, and creativity. Instead of randomly meeting people in the hallway, in the elevator, or at the proverbial watercooler, you can make time for virtual coffee chats, virtual lunches, and even virtual happy hours. You can also spend a bit of time at the beginning of meetings just checking in with each other. You may think these moments feel “enforced” or “artificial”, but that is just a matter of habit and mindset.
  • Self-discipline is key to be effective at work
    If you are anything like me – responsible, committed, and loyal – looking after yourself and developing self-discipline is essential to create a sustainable lifestyle. For me it was important to learn to set boundaries around working hours and to stop my people-pleasing habits taking over. It was not an overnight change, of course. It was a process that started with gaining awareness and it’s still a work in progress. Changes that helped me improve self-discipline such as stopping myself from immediately saying yes to everything. Before you commit, consider the overall workload you have and if you can realistically add another task. Schedule time for the non-work-related things you love and want or need to do, otherwise work will take over everything.
  • Be mindful of healthy habits and your well-being
    When you love your job as much as I do, you tend to devote all your energy and focus to it, and you may neglect basic things like eating properly or exercising regularly. Eventually, this will have a negative impact on your health and well-being – I have been there and learned it the hard way. Organizing your day and workspace to live a balanced lifestyle is a complex topic but let me share some basics: eat regularly and choose quality food, hydrate your brain, and allow yourself to pause from time to time, move your body during the day, and sleep enough. These are non-negotiable basics for a sustainable lifestyle. Learn to listen to your body and give yourself what you need to perform consistently. Tune in, find out what works for you. There are lots of great resources on how to look after yourself. It takes time to find your flow, it requires self-compassion and patience, as you will have good and bad days along the way.
  • If you crave human connection, find it outside work
    Working remotely and connecting with people only virtually can feel lonely at times. If you live with other people, it could somehow compensate for the lack of in-person contact with colleagues and clients. But if you live on your own, you may want to find a way to have social interactions outside of work. Your personal network, your friends, your family could help here. You could also do sports, which adds exercising to socializing, you could engage in a social cause that involves meeting people, you can opt to learn new skills or pick up a new hobby by attending classes or groups. If you look for it, you will find ample opportunities for social connections that you can enjoy in your leisure time.
  • Check your emotional well-being regularly
    Because you are on your own most of the time when you work in a virtual setting, it is important to check in with yourself. If you are having a bad day, connect with someone you trust, who can hold space for you while you process what you are going through. Avoid putting on a brave face while you are unwell inside. Whatever the reason, it will pass. In the meantime, give yourself the grace to acknowledge that you are human. Sometimes you may need to reorganize your work plans because you need to take some time for yourself. Going on a mindful walk, connecting with nature, meeting or calling a friend or a colleague you trust, meditating, taking a nap, and many other activities can help. Again, the key is learning to know yourself and what works best for you.
  • Trust is fundamental
    A virtual business must be based on mutual trust – there is no way to control what people are doing, you need to trust your colleagues and they need to trust you. To be able to build trust with others, remember to extend trust first. Whenever there is a conflict or misunderstanding, assuming positive intent helps a lot. This is also when the bonding and relationships you built pay off – when the time comes to navigate interpersonal tensions, mutual trust will allow for a smoother conflict resolution. In this regard, it is no different whether you work in an office or in a virtual environment: The feeling of working in a team where people are open and honest and caring with each other is priceless.

Overall, working in a virtual company has been a wonderful learning journey for me. It has opened my eyes to many aspects I was neglecting or taking for granted. I have no office where I can meet people and socialize, no cafeteria where I can grab a bite, or see people leave the office as a signal that the working day is ending. Not having those basic structures that a classic work environment provides, forces you to build those structures for yourself.

The experience also highlighted a few things that I needed to address to make my lifestyle more balanced and sustainable. It has been truly life-changing so far, and now working virtually feels natural for me. I do not miss working in an office at all. I can build meaningful relationships, learn a lot, and do amazing work with people virtually, which in the end is what I expect from my work – having a positive impact on others while learning and growing in the process.

Authored by Valeria Torino, Program Mentor at GAIA Insights