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Centric Consulting’s Larry English on building a great remote organization

February 23, 2021 Article 7 min read
Jim Proppe
As COVID-19 abruptly moves remote work from a “model of the future” to the reality of the present, Centric Consulting president and author, Larry English, shares his secrets on surviving — and thriving — as a virtual organization.
Man working from home a virtual office environment.March 13, 2020, is a day I’ll never forget. When we announced Plante Moran was closing all its offices due to the spread of COVID-19, my partners were concerned. “Can we really do this?” they asked.

My answer was: “We have to do this. We’ll figure it out.” Our 3,500 staff members took their laptops home that evening, the IT department worked over the weekend to connect them remotely to our systems, and on Monday morning, we opened up as a “virtual” firm.

Since making this major pivot nearly a year ago, the learning curve has been unimaginable. As a firm, we’ve accelerated our ability to serve clients digitally by years, and every day we learn new ways to support each other and maintain our culture remotely. It’s a story that’s being repeated across the country and the globe.

Delivering business remotely and digitally

For Larry English, his partners, and their more than 1,000 staff at Centric Consulting, that Monday morning last March was much like any other. Centric Consulting was already a fully digital firm and had been operating without offices — as a 100% remote company — since it was founded in 1999.

“Our business plan is to deliver all of our services, anywhere in the world, remotely and digitally, Larry says. “We’d been operating this way for so long; we were very much along that curve when the pandemic hit.”

As Larry describes it, remote business is much more than just working from home — it encompasses the idea of doing business anywhere. And to do that you need a digital workspace that enables and supports staff and clients.

Remote business is much more than just working from home — it encompasses the idea of doing business anywhere.

“You need to get everything to the cloud, your processes need to be digitized, and you need to have a workforce that can effectively work remotely — it’s the alignment of people, process, and technology. You can’t do just one component.”

For many organizations, technical and process challenges are just the tip of the iceberg. The “people” part of the equation — adapting to new forms of interaction and work patterns — can often be the toughest. People crave social interaction during the day, and they feel better when there’s a personal side to conversations — not just business. Larry says this can be helped along by carving out a few minutes at the beginning of meetings to build personal connections. “At Centric, we often start a meeting with a question like, “If you could be in any sitcom, which one would it be?”

Balancing work and home life in a remote environment

Another problem remote staff experience is the blurring of the line between work and home life. It’s important to get away from work mentally, and in absence of a daily commute to the office, Larry recommends doing something deliberate to mark the transition at the end of the day. He says the Germans have a word, “Feierabend,” that basically means “closing time” or “end of work,” and they have a tradition that ends the day. “In their case, it might be to open a beer,” he says. “Basically, it means, ‘I’m done working for the day. I’m not going to think about it, I’m not going to check my email, I’m not going to do any of that stuff until the next day.’”

COVID-19 is taking its toll in many nonwork-related ways as well, and Larry says even organizations that have been fully remote for a long time are deeply affected by these aspects of the pandemic.

“As a leader, my most important job right now is understanding where my people are at and helping them get through this period. We’re a family, so for us, it’s all about compassion. It’s so critical.”

As a leader, my most important job right now is understanding where my people are at and helping them get through this period.

This is also a high priority at Plante Moran. Our firm has many staff with school-aged children and, last summer, we became increasingly concerned that amid increasing stress levels, it looked like school and office closures might continue indefinitely.

We knew we couldn’t solve all the problems, but to help take the edge off, we got together with our staff to find solutions. We created the Plante Moran “Work-From-Home-Remedies” to provide financial assistance for childcare or tutors, reimbursement for home gym equipment and home office improvements, and additional scheduling flexibility for people who are taking care of others.

Maintaining service excellence and organizational culture

On the business side, an added problem for leaders during the pandemic has been maintaining service excellence and organizational culture in a remote environment.

On the business side, an added problem for leaders during the pandemic has been maintaining service excellence and organizational culture in a remote environment.

The challenges are familiar to many businesses: adding and developing staff virtually, winning new business using collaboration technology such as video, building relationships and serving clients in a digital environment, and the really big one — maintaining a strong culture remotely.

Over its 20-year history, Centric Consulting became so successful at overcoming these challenges that Larry wrote a book about it. So what’s the secret to not only surviving as a remote company but achieving exceptional growth?

“Culture is our secret sauce,” Larry admits. “Once we realized how critical culture was to our success, we refined our vision to create an unmatched culture in the industry. Then we began to actively invest in it and manage it. Over time, it started to win awards and helped us generate our great growth.”

The investment took many forms.

“Our investment in collaboration software helped us build culture in ways we couldn’t before. For example, if somebody new joins us and they’re a veteran, we have a virtual group of veterans in the organization they can join and have an immediate sense of belonging. You couldn’t do that if you were tied to a single office.”

Larry says while technology supports culture in many unique ways, face-to-face contact is still important and doesn’t go away — Centric just does it differently. Instead of flying to another city for a meeting that can be done just as effectively by video conference, Centric invests in person-to-person time to get together to have fun.

“We get together — the entire company — three times a year with the goal of deepening relationships and energizing people. We have fun, build culture, and create those epic lifelong stories. We can’t measure the ROI on it, but we know what it does for our culture is immeasurable. It’s what’s made us successful, it’s why people love being here, and it’s why people don’t leave.”

I couldn’t agree more about the emphasis on culture. Plante Moran is widely known in the professional services industry as one of the top culture firms, and like Centric, we invest heavily in it. I’ve had people in the profession ask, “How much money do you spend on all that culture stuff that you do?” I say, “We don’t spend a dime on it, it’s an investment that pays for itself 100 times over.”

More from Larry

Why did Centric choose to be a 100% remote company?

“My partners and I wanted to a create company that had all the good parts of consulting work while making sure our employees were happy. We thought being remote would allow people to spend more time outside of work doing things they love. The reasoning was if our employees were happier, they’d take better care of our customers, which would lead to better ROI. It turned out to be very right.”

On his leadership style:

“Some people have told me that I’m a ‘hands-off cheerleader.’ I try to set the vision and the context and then get out of people’s way. Beyond that, I spend a lot of my days calling people to thank them — I’m an eternal optimist, and I try to infuse that energy into the organization.”

What led you to write your book, “Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture with Virtual Teams?”

“Remote work was a little-known concept 20 years ago, and we were blazing a lot of new territory. I kept having to explain over and over again how we had no office but had a great culture. So I decided to write a “how-to” guide for organizations. I told my partners I was going to write this book, and they said, ‘Larry, that’s the dumbest idea you’ve ever had.’ So I started writing the book. And just as I’m getting ready to publish it, the pandemic happens, and suddenly everyone wants to know how to do this. And my partners said, “This is the best idea you’ve ever had Larry — good job.”

Leadership personality profile

Your leadership approach in one word: Inspire

The leadership quality you most admire in others: I most admire leaders who can see a vision that no one else sees and set out to change the world.

Your best piece of business advice: Kindness always wins in the long term.

What you look for when you hire: Leaders who are curious and able to put themselves in another person's shoes.

To be an effective leader, you cannot: Lead by power.

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