More and more small businesses are virtual businesses, operating without a central location and with employees (or contractors) spread hither and yon who use the tools of the Internet Age to work together. If you’re just starting a small business, this is a great way to leverage your start-up capital since you don’t have to rent physical space to house your employees. Instead, you can use those precious funds to grow your business through marketing or for other purposes directly related to making your new business a success.
The growing array of communications options, like Google Hangouts and Skype’s group video calling, make it easy to hold virtual team meetings. Project management tools like Basecamp and SmartSheet, both of which clients have used to make me part of their virtual team, help keep everyone accountable. What’s not to like?
Well, small business owners who haven’t used this business format before do worry about whether they’ll get what they’re paying for from their remote employees or contractors. Concerns arise such as: How will I know these people are really working? How do I build the strong company culture that I want if people are not working together under one roof? How will I turn everyone into a cohesive group of strong collaborators if they never see each other?
In other words, managing remote employees or contractors is not a walk in the park. But its benefits for the small business owner can far outweigh the challenges if you take time to learn how to do it right.
Back in the late 1990s, when I was doing more public relations work than ghostwriting and had more work than I could comfortably handle on my own, I ran my business virtually, hiring up to three remotely located contractors at a time. This enabled me to take on larger projects with larger budgets while avoiding the expense of setting up an office with employees and all the costs related to that. It was a win for me income-wise and a win for my contractors, who got a steady supply of assignments without having to devote time to digging up new business on their own.
To learn more about how to manage remote employees or contractors, check out these three articles, all of which contain excellent advice that I found to be true in my own experience with running a virtual business:
In an interview on this topic with CEO Mark Murphy, of Leadership IQ, a leadership training firm, he raises many good key points about managing remote employees. I especially liked his response when the interviewer asked if it can be easier for remote employees to hide bad news because without face-to-face contact you don’t have any of the visual cues that will tell you that someone is stressed (body language, facial expression, etc.). Murphy acknowledged that this was true and then said:
“Leaders of remote employees, especially, have to eliminate blame from their lexicon and get rid of the notion that the person who brings the bad news is the person who deserves to get yelled at. We need to protect these channels of communication. So when an employee brings you a problem, set the blame aside, because no matter what the situation is, there is no upside to an emotionally blaming reaction. Put your focus on fixing the problem or helping the employee to fix the problem. It’s positive and forward moving and it keeps the incoming information flow protected. Employees aren’t going to be apprehensive to bring you bad news in the future when you set a precedent that you are there to help fix the problem and not to fix blame.”
In “Virtual Management: Four Secrets to Managing Virtual Employees,” Michael Tasner, founder of Taz Solutions a web marketing firm, gives excellent advice based on 11 years of experience in running a virtual company with more than 100 contractors. Here is one of his best points:
“In order to ensure efficient employee performance from your virtual workers, it is important that you set the groundwork from day one. Employees should have a dedicated working space and working hours. Within that space and hours, they are expected to be within reach of their phones or computers.
Some firms allow more flexibility than others, but your company’s policy needs to be clearly stated so that employees can be held accountable. If your handbook does not include information related to working remotely, it should be updated to include this information. Most of the policies in the handbook should be all inclusive for both virtual workers and in-house staff.”
Hassan Osman, a senior program manager at Cisco Systems, leads virtual teams working on multi-million-dollar projects from his home office in Boston. I strongly recommend the advice he gives in “5 Uncommon Tips for Managing Your Virtual Team.” His fourth tip is to “Get Personal.” I think this is one of the hardest parts of running a virtual company and if you’re on this path, I encourage you to carefully consider his advice:
“One of the fastest ways to build trust with your team is to get to know them personally. In fact, this is why some companies encourage office workers to decorate their cubicles with their own personal interests (such as pictures of their families or artifacts from their hobbies). Those little items end up starting conversations about common interests among colleagues, and that eventually leads to a more unified team environment. This is a lot harder to mimic in virtual teams, so you have to put in the extra effort to know more about your team members’ personal lives. One way to do so is to schedule separate one-on-one calls with your team to connect with them at an informal level.”