Virtual firm

With 100 employees working from homes scattered across the Pacific Northwest, keeping the work flowing and a team spirit thriving at marketing outsourcer MarketFitz Inc. can be a significant challenge.

For Chief Executive Officer Heather Fitzpatrick, the answer has been solutions both real and virtual.

Like a traditional company, MarketFitz has a group of managers whose only task is to oversee teams of employees. She has training programs to help new recruits mesh with the company, and she uses meetings and internal literature to build camaraderie and team spirit.

“We’re an unusual company in what we do,” says Fitzpatrick, whose company outsources entire marketing departments to its clients. “Because they’re remote, we have to make sure our people feel they’re part of a larger team.”

Because the company is 97 per cent virtual – three of the 100 employees work in the company’s Seattle offices – building a team mentality is important, Fitzpatrick says. But it’s also important because 70 per cent of the virtual workers are part-timers, working between 10 and 30 hours per week. Without efforts to keep employees feeling part of the organization, those workers could be lost to other companies or projects.

The triumvirate of tools – tech, literature and meetings – is implemented in large part by the Talent Managers. These three managers are the company’s first-line interaction with its employees in the field. Talent Managers, who really are internal HR managers, are responsible for making sure employees understand the company’s technology and policies, and fielding any concerns or suggestions. The Talent Managers were among Fitzpatrick’s first hires when she launched the company in the summer of 1998.

“Those positions are really critical to us as a virtual organization,” she says.

The managers visit with employees, or associates, at least twice per month to discuss work and build a personal connection between the workers and the company. Fitzpatrick hosts her own luncheons with three of its 40 core team members every few weeks to ensure everyone is viewing the company’s vision the same. These meetings supplement the strictly business calls the teams frequently have to discuss new clients and project status.

Since the company is broken into teams that service specific industries, each industry leader is expected to stay abreast of emerging topics or trends in the category and hold conference calls to keep the team updated.

As for literature, MarketFitz publishes a monthly newsletter, written by several staff members, that includes company news, personnel milestones and events, and updates on technology. The newsletter also announces the time and place of the company’s occasional parties. The newsletter is posted to the company site and e-mailed to employees.

The company’s training program is a recurring endeavour. Whether it’s a new feature on, the collaboration site the company uses for project management, or a refresher on company policy and standards, Talent Managers and team heads work with employees to ensure everyone is brought up to speed on new applications or practices.

Finally, while the company is virtual, it has a 1,500-square-foot office in Seattle with seven dedicated workstations. If an employee cannot work at home because the family is around, or should an employee want to drop in to work or meet with a co-worker or a client, the space is available. It also allows people to meet and greet one another on a more frequent basis in an environment that’s comfortable and central to all.

“It’s a very quiet space,” she says. “We might be a virtual company, but our employees have some traditional needs sometimes.”

Sure, employing three HR managers in a virtual organization can be costly. But Fitzpatrick believes the key to keeping people together is to keep them informed and in touch. Between the Talent Managers, the newsletter, training and the office space, very little separates MarketFitz from other traditional employers, Fitzpatrick says.

“It’s a better system, and we profit in other ways. We’re flexible. Having people commute would be a huge disincentive,” she says. “We don’t spend money on facilities, but we spend money on the team.”

Jeff Zbar is an author and speaker on telework, free agency, and small or home office (SOHO) issues. His books include Safe@Home: Seven Keys to Home Office Security (FirstPublish, 2001) and Your Profitable Home Business Made E-Z (Made E-Z Products, 2000). Jeff works from home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Questions or comments? Write him