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Real Meetings and Trinkets and Trash Unify a Virtual Company

Whether a company is virtual or not, personal meeting time is essential.

August 30, 2001
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espite his company's demographics, Jim Bodenbender decided not to rely on outsourcers to meet his company's primary employee-management needs. He is president of Chicago-based Madison Information Technologies, a private provider of customer data integration that helps hospitals and physicians eliminate duplication of patient medical records.

Name: Madison Information Technologies, Inc.
Location: Chicago, and dozens of virtual locations nationwide
Business: Identity management software solutions provider, works with medical companies to detect duplicate records
Employees: 82

The virtual company has 82 employees located in 16 states. About half of them work at home. Even the CEO works out of a home office in Atlanta.

Keeping everyone connected and working together as a team is a tall order. Even though the company is small, Bodenbender didn't want to outsource, he says, because providers offered rigid restrictions and limited options that didn't fit Madison's corporate culture. As long as their work is completed on budget and on time, the company gives employees plenty of freedom. Bodenbender also wanted greater control over HR functions than is possible with outsourcing. "I wasn't willing to have somebody transplant onto me his or her way of managing HR."

For Bodenbender, keeping most everything in-house means long workdays, because employees cross several time zones. For the company, it means an expensive commitment to higher-than-average phone bills, the cost of laptops and Internet access for everyone, and the expense of company-wide meetings.

Whether a company is virtual or not, personal meeting time is essential, Bodenbender says. Any company with dispersed employees has to be willing and able to take on the overhead and the downtime that result from face-to-face meetings. "For us to have a company meeting, as small as we are, costs about $75,000 just in expenses."

Bodenbender says his biggest challenge is maintaining a sense of teamwork with employees coast to coast. He deals with it by talking with employees every chance he gets about the difficulties of establishing those connections. The company also has two physical facilities, and a third is expected to open this year. The offices provide an anchor for the company. The Chicago corporate office handles the legal and finance departments and human resources, which includes recruiting, benefit administration, policy, and procedure manuals. Bodenbender outsources payroll because he says it's less expensive than doing it in-house.

Ongoing personal and business communication with far-flung employees also is important. That may mean sending kudos or corporate updates by e-mail, making a phone call of encouragement to an employee working late, or keeping people informed with a quarterly newsletter. The publication is delivered in hard copy to differentiate it from electronic mail, which is the usual mode of business communication.

Bodenbender says he's also a big fan of giving employees what he calls "trinkets and trash." These are the constant reminders that an employee is part of the company. It might be a T-shirt, a portfolio with the company's name on it, a rubber ducky, or a birthday card.

Madison overcomes geographic barriers to employee training by hiring only experienced people, and by using a mentoring system. A new employee is teamed with another more experienced person in the same general location for two to four weeks to learn the ropes.

Beyond the training aspect, ongoing mentoring programs also can be a good way to help distant employees feel connected, Parker notes. The in-the-field or long-distance employee is linked with someone at company headquarters.

Managing a workforce that is spread out is all about communication, Parker says, and it's not something most companies are good at. He knows firsthand what it's like to be on the other side of the world from corporate headquarters, because he spent several years abroad working for various other corporations. "On all my assignments, I felt like I was a little forgotten body in the wilderness."

Workforce, September 2001, pp. 76-78 -- Subscribe Now!

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