How ATTA Has Worked Virtually For 17 Years

16 March 2021

The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has been a primarily virtual organization from its beginning, with two of us working at desks in a spare room in Washington state and one other person working from home and based in California. As we expanded the team, we moved to a little office in Monroe, Washington, with 3 or 4 people working there depending on the day. Life transitions happened and many of our employees moved away but did not want to leave ATTA, and the team grew with experts in different markets in the world, so we gave up the physical office and went fully virtual around 2015. We were already 80% virtual with the USA team on the west coast and the east coast, plus internationally in Egypt, Bulgaria, Mexico and Canada. It just made sense; we are a global organization so it’s natural for our team to be global.

Advantages of a Virtual Team

Aside from the obvious advantages like not having to pay for expensive unnecessary office space, there are many more benefits to a virtual team; here are just a few that I believe are especially important:

1. You can hire the best talent because they can stay where they are in the world.

The sun almost never sets on our small ATTA team around the world. Having people based in different countries and time zones means more availability and responsiveness to your internal and external stakeholders. With the prevalence of global commerce, having a local person in your market who speaks your language can make all the difference in relationships. A global virtual team means a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds, all with a shared passion for their work and the organization’s mission.

2. Employees can choose true work-life balance.

Everyone has their own life circumstances, and I believe that prioritizing life over work is essential. We’ve always had working parents on our team, and if we had a physical location and demanded that employees be there from 8-5, we would have lost many of them. Allowing staff to have flexibility in their day, and setting expectations around this from all involved, allows them to handle longer-term situations like raising young children, or shorter-term situations like caring for a sick relative or dealing with home construction.

3. Team members feel a sense of ownership.

While working virtually requires people to be responsible and self-motivated, it’s important for a company to engender a sense of ownership. Giving them enough freedom that they glean satisfaction from their work, rather than saying they worked their 8 hours today and are not doing a minute more, encourages a much more positive and productive atmosphere. When employees feel like they own their own project, and it’s not just something impersonal they are getting paid to produce for ATTA, they are going to create better work and be happier while doing it.

From a higher-level philosophical perspective, I believe part of the reason for ATTA’s success is that we’ve been very clear about what really drives us: our motivations, ethics, mission, and vision. This clarity in communication has attracted the right staff, advisors, members, board, customers, even vendors; everyone has the same drive and a similar ethos. This gives people a reason to go beyond the normal level of effort, because it’s partly their mission too. Having a clear mission that goes beyond dollars means that virtual matters less because people are on the same page.

Disadvantages of a Virtual Team

1. Working remotely can feel very impersonal. 

Some people need more interaction than a virtual organization can provide. Employees don’t get the person-to-person interaction in human form through working remotely. I like to suggest to super social people that as they plan out their work week, to be sure to also schedule some social events like lunches with friends. That’s not a brand new idea, but an encouragement to make social interaction deliberate can help them not feel as isolated all day long.

2. You need to find the right people.

In addition to the impersonal nature of working virtually, this type of organization structure requires people who are either self-starters or don’t need a lot of supervision, or can pick things up quickly from being supervised online. In the past, we’ve had people who have needed more direct or constant supervision, and it was hard for them to adapt to this type of environment.

3. Trust is more difficult to build in a virtual organization.

Without a shared office space, it is often more difficult to know what people are doing. We use a lot of tools to manage projects and stay in touch, but in my opinion the most important aspect of a remote organization is trust. With ATTA’s team, peoples’ actions and outcomes are pretty visible, and we have such a motivated crew, that this hasn’t been a big issue for us. However, this is not always the case, and we have heard stories of organizations that have suffered from unprofessional or even corrupt employees, causing emotional, financial, relational, and reputational damage.

I would recommend to anyone potentially facing this type of situation to listen to your instincts and investigate. Warning signals are important to pay attention to; do not simply assume they are due to cultural misunderstandings or poor communication. Dig deep, be honest with yourself, and resolve any potential issues while trying to be transparent with others and mitigate any damage as best you can.

Another area requiring policies and enforcement is financial accountability and rules. Be clear about things employees can and cannot spend money on, and how it needs to be reported and accounted for. Have a clear policy and enforce it appropriately.

When tense conversations need to be had, they should be done over video, not email or text. Similarly, difficult decisions should be made on video if possible. This helps keep people accountable and also keeps the personal connection strong. We also encourage our employees to have their video on during zoom calls whenever possible. Keeping meetings short also means people are more able to focus and less likely to multi-task. I like to make 30 minutes the default time for a meeting, not a full hour unless absolutely necessary.

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

Building Trust and Relationships

To help overcome some of the challenges of working remotely, any activities that can be undertaken to build trust, like in-person team meetings, should happen. One conscious change we at ATTA have made over time was taking our team retreats from intense subject-driven meetings to a more relaxed environment. We started out with constant “to do’s” every day from dawn to dusk, with only evenings set aside to eat and drink and explore. As we’ve matured, we specifically plan the majority of the time as just human interaction and fun, with a much smaller amount of time focused on agendas and subjects that need to be addressed.

This shift in mindset during our in-person time together has been one of the most powerful things we did. Our team has figured out how to work well together online, but inevitably minor conflicts can arise. Becoming frustrated with another team member can lead to building assumptions and biases, but getting back together in person reminds us all what we’re here for and helps us see past differences. Any human requirements and relationship requirements that people normally have need to be taken even more seriously in a virtual organization.

Some Tips and Ideas

Especially with the lack of true in-person interaction during the time of COVID, our ATTA team has come up with some creative ways to maintain the human connection on our team. Over the 2020 holiday season, we did a “gratitude partner” program, where team members were randomly assigned one other person to show their appreciation to in some way. There were no timing, monetary, or content requirements. Little things like that mean a lot to people.

If you feel your virtual meetings are getting stale and predictable, bring something or someone new in to shake things up. We invited Lee Kitchen to host an online dance party to boost the team’s spirit at a stagnant time. When one of our dear employees passed away due to COVID, we brought in a grief counselor to lead a session to help us cope with the loss. Bringing in other perspectives helps break the team out of a slump or a tired pattern.

Even virtual meetings with external people can be made more interesting with a little creativity. Recently I had an online networking meeting with a group of CEOs, and in advance I mailed a gift package with some gear and offers from our members GRAYL, ROW Adventures and NRS. Even though the meeting wasn’t in person, the attendees all received a super cool box with physical travel-related items. They were grateful and it allowed me to talk about those companies with more of a real-world connection. It was a little extra work to put this together, but it put a nice real-world spin on the meeting and the attendees will remember it every time they use one of the items.

Even in this stressful and unprecedented time, it is possible to bring virtual organizations together in a way that can lift spirits and break team members out of their daily routine in a good way. To learn more about our suggestions for employees working remotely, check out ATTA’s Top 10 Tips for Virtual Organizations. If you have other ideas on how to engage remote employees and stakeholders, please share them in the comments section below!