Sandra Lewis - Worldwide101

In 2009, sick of the daily office grind, Sandra Lewis started Worldwide101, a network of virtual assistants based across North America and Europe. The company has grown to a team of dozens, providing VA services (and more) to customers big and small around the world.

How has Worldwide101 managed to keep service quality high while building a distributed team of happy employees? We talked to Lewis to find out.

What does Worldwide101 do and what's your role there?

Worldwide101 supports demanding founders and executives with premium virtual assistants that they can trust to represent them, and their business for the long term.

We differentiate ourselves in three ways:

Worldwide101 has also recently launched We Are Virtual Assistants, which is a platform to promote excellence in the virtual assistant industry and to provide information, expert advise, tools and resources to succeed remotely, and in a virtual environment.

I am the Founder of both businesses!

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you?

We have 81 Worldwide101 team members spread across North America, Europe and the UK. We all work remotely and from our home offices.

It seems natural for virtual assistants to be remote -- they're working virtually, after all, and often part-time -- but you also hired remotely for the core full-time team at Worldwide101. What made you decide to opt to build a distributed company instead of getting an office and co-locating everyone in one place?

After working for 20+ years in a corporate environment in the US and the UK, I decided that I wanted a change in pace. And so in 2009, we moved our family to France (my home country) in search for a more balanced lifestyle. It was then that I started thinking about how I could continue to pursue a rewarding career and yet lead a life far away from the stress of a big city, and office politics! So to answer your question, it was my desire for a remote lifestyle, which lead me to build a distributed company, where everyone would have a chance to pursue a rewarding career in their own environment.

I also wanted to give the opportunity to as many talented professionals as possible to join Worldwide101 and to find rewarding work no matter where they are located. One of our key values at Worldwide101 is to promote happiness at work. I believe that the world is quickly moving towards more flexible working arrangements, and that professionals will value more and more the ability to work from home, or from anywhere in the world!

How do you keep your team feeling connected?

We work very closely as a team, and put a huge emphasis on “over-communicating.” Emma, who is our Ops Manager, should really be called our team cheerleader because her only job is to ensure that our growing team has the support they need to succeed. She is the ultimate connector, coordinator, and happiness champion!

Since we don’t “see” each other on a consistent basis every day, we have to constantly be thinking about what to communicate to the team, and ensuring that everyone still feels part of our company.

One of the things that works well and keeps our team connected is their ability to partner to work on client projects or to provide back up for each other when someone is ill or away on vacation. We actually have people who volunteer to be “back ups” because they enjoy “meeting” others on the team!

On a practical note – we have built an intranet with onboarding videos, guides, and a knowledge base. It’s also a place where we post company news, video updates, and team insights. The onboarding is of course accompanied with video Skype meetings to go through the materials “in person,” but the Intranet provides the ability for new team members to learn at their own pace, and to revisit the content, and review procedures whenever they have a question.

We also have a couple of monthly newsletters to keep everyone connected.

And we celebrate birthdays, new babies, and anything worth celebrating!

What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?

Getting everyone on the same page, and hanging out just for the sake of it!

Since we don’t “see” each other on a consistent basis every day, we have to constantly be thinking about what to communicate to the team, and ensuring that everyone still feels part of our company. The expression “out of sight, out of mind” can be quite prevalent in a virtual environment – and so we are doing everything we can to keep everyone in mind all the time!

What is the biggest benefit that being distributed has afforded your company?

We have been able to hire and onboard some very talented professionals from various background, and cultures. When working with a distributed team, our talent pool is significantly expanded, time, energy (and money) is not wasted traveling long distances, infrastructure costs for offices and equipment are reduced to almost nil and employees value the freedom and flexibility. Honestly, for Worldwide101, for our clients, and for our team, it’s only been a win-win-win! Having said that, remote work is not for everyone and so it’s important to know how to hire for success.

Do you think you lose anything by working remotely?

Hanging out just for the sake of it (see my previous answer).

We have a virtual open door policy, we expect people to speak up, and we promote happiness, and long-term partnerships.

What do you think is the most important thing a distributed team can do to ensure successful collaboration?

I believe it’s really important to create an open door policy – or in our case a “virtual” open door policy! Our team knows that they can get in touch with our management team at anytime, and one of our company mottos is to speak up no matter what.

We also try to do video announcements as much as possible, because it’s nice to “see” each other, and it helps us connect on a more meaningful level.

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

We are in touch with our team at unscheduled times. So for example, we’ll randomly Skype someone to say hello and for no particular reason.

On a practical level our team’s performance is very much linked to customer satisfaction, so it’s relatively easy to spot when there is something not quite right operationally, and to address it.

What sort of culture does Worldwide101 have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

We have a virtual open door policy, we expect people to speak up, and we promote happiness, and long-term partnerships.

As opposed to other virtual assistant companies where VAs get assigned random clients, we give our team a choice of the clients they want to work with based on their preferences (type of work, industries, availability, etc…) We are proud that our team has been with us for years, and so have our clients, and we attribute it to the fact that both parties choose to work together, and commit to making it work!

Do you ever feel any tension between the needs of the VA staff and those on the core team?

No – we all work as a team pretty seamlessly!

Why do you think that is?

I think it comes from the fact that everyone is very clear on his or her role and responsibilities, and everyone understands their place in the organization. We have a marketing and sales team promoting our services, and speaking with customers, and we have operations supporting our team, and then our team of VAs supporting our clients! Our company is pretty lean.

What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?

We look for individuals who have made a conscious decision to work remotely. These days, with the rise of flexible working, many people apply for our positions without having necessarily thought it through, and because it sounds like novel idea to work from home. We look for applicants who desire this lifestyle, who value the flexibility that it provides, and who will work hard to retain that privilege.

We also look for professionals who have excellent communication skills both verbal and written. We do a lot of emails, so clarity of communication is key to succeed in a virtual environment.

Describe your personal work environment.

For the past year I have spent most of my time in a rural part of South West England. I have a home office looking out to sheep and lambs, and I really appreciate the bounty of nature, and the peaceful feeling it brings me.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

It’s hard to disconnect when you work from home. The only thing I found that works is to walk my dogs, and I am very grateful that they beg to be taken out or I might never take a break!

Clarity of communication is key to succeed in a virtual environment.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I work in blocks of time. That is, I find that it’s more efficient to schedule two afternoons a week with meetings back to back instead of having days of meetings and personal work. Somehow the blocks of time to do different tasks have been more conducive to my productivity.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

Skype, Slack, and Google Apps. There are a few more but these are really essential.

What do you like to read?

I recently finished reading Raising the Bar by Gary Erickson. It’s a fantastic read about integrity in life and business, and a very inspiring story about living life with passion and creating a good environment for employees to succeed and be happy.

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

Lay a solid foundation before thinking of growing too fast. When your entire team is remote it’s easy to plow along without noticing there is an issue or someone is completely not onboard! Take your time, listen to people, reach out often, and create processes, which will allow for growth.

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.