Sometimes, being all-virtual isn't the answer

Grower's Secret, which makes organic plant growth enhancer, held almost all meetings virtually to reduce its travel footprint but found structured face-to-face interaction improved efficiency.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

My personal passions include an interest in businesses created with the idea that products don't have to be bad for the environment to be effective. So, several weeks ago, I found myself chatting with Chaz Berman, CEO of Grower's Secret, a Honolulu-based company that makes what it calls plant growth enhancer.

This isn't my green column, so what I'll say about the company's products is pretty basic. Berman describes it as organic juice that helps improve the growth of fruits and vegetables. It is derived from mushrooms, specially those that growth in symbios with eucalyptus. "It comes from nature, and it is self-propagating in the lab, meaning we can create a sustainable supply of the substance," Berman said.

But this isn't about Grower's Secrets products, its about its use of technology. Like most start-up companies, Grower's Secret has used the principles of nimbleness and flexibility to guide its technology investments. Aside from its location in Hawaii, the company has a processing site in Oakland, Calif., and a sales and marketing office in San Francisco. Berman said it was only natural that Grower's Secret look to the Internet and various cloud-delivered software applications to help connect these offices. Along the way, it began using conferencing technology and services extensively in order to communicate and to cut out an unnecessary travel.

Makes sense, right?

Only, over time Berman said Grower's Secrets managers came to the conclusion that all-virtual, all-the-time wasn't the right formula for the company's meetings -- at least all of its meetings. That's why the startup decided that it would institute a "core hours" concept. On those days, the staff knows executives and managers will be available on-premises to answer questions, work through process issues, or just to chat about things that are on their mind.

While that may seem counter to the company's "green" agenda, Berman said it has improved staff morale, resolved misunderstandings that can occur sometimes as a result of remote communications, and helped the company make decisions more quickly. Remember, this is a pretty small company with a serious growth trajectory predicted -- it had sales of slightly less than $1 million in 2011 and is shooting for $6 million this year.

"At the end of the day, people work together because they have relationships," Berman said. "Being in the next cubicle is really, really helpful."

That's not to say that conference calls and video-to-video sessions aren't necessary or helpful for day-to-day business. But managers needs to consider the make-up of their team and what they need to accomplish together before moving to an all-remote model -- or face a potential hiccup in how their employees collaborate.

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