This guest column is authored by Cathy Habas, freelance business writer with Regus Australia
Having a team of virtual employees can save you a lot of overhead. There’s no need to rent office space when everyone you work with is located hundreds of miles (if not thousands of miles) apart.
Technology makes it easy for projects to be hashed out on management apps, for meetings to take place via video conferencing, and for files to be effortlessly shared in the cloud.
But how do you really manage a virtual office? Everyone sets their own schedule and works at their own pace, so how do you keep track of progress and billable hours? When you don’t see your coworkers every day, how can you tell if there is a problem?
Here are some tips to help you learn how to manage a virtual office.
Hire Self-Starters and Committed People
You can put the ad out virtually anywhere online, from AngelList to LinkedIn, but when you’re looking through the candidates and interviewing people, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?
You have to be extremely picky from the get-go in order to save yourself headaches and frustrations down the road. Does a candidate’s cover letter leave you with the impression that they never read your job description? Trash it. Does a candidate suddenly stop responding to emails or fails to call you at a pre-determined time? Those are both red-flags that the candidate will be unreliable when it comes to deadlines.
You can mentor someone without experience who is nonetheless punctual and eager. On the other hand, experience really means nothing if it means pulling teeth to get any work done.
Communicate Well and Schedule Regular Meetings
If your virtual team is comprised of people who are actually somewhat local to you, you can schedule weekly or biweekly meetings at a ready-made office, in order to get to know one another better and to reinforce your cohesion as a team.
Otherwise, schedule regular phone meetings. These can be weekly calls that involve everyone on the team and serve as a way to stay updated on projects or to share company news. Or, these meetings can be one-on-one. You may find that the meetings aren’t needed on a regular basis after you get an idea of how much hand-holding or supervision each team member needs to do their best.
However, communication should still occur nearly every day through email or your preferred project management tool (which we’ll talk about in a second). You need to be able to see that your team members are working, what they are working on, and be able to step in to answer quick questions or to handle any problems.
Make your expectations very clear whenever you want to set a deadline. If you expect to receive something by the end of the day, make sure you reiterate it to your team. If something is less urgent but you need a progress report on it in two weeks, make that known as well. Self-starters should be proficient at managing and re-organizing their own schedules, but you can avoid mishaps and confusion by being clear about what you need and when you need it.
Use the Right Tools
There are numerous project management tools, client relationship management tools and tools for virtually any other purpose that you might need, including tools to better facilitate meetings.
If you’re not careful, you can quickly spend a fortune buying memberships or subscriptions to each of the tools you need, so pick and choose exactly what you need. However, the right tools will be worth their weight in gold when they help you and your team collaborate.
Popular communication tools include Slack and Basecamp, both of which are meant to un-clutter your email.
For workflows, Trello is a low-cost tool that can also prevent things from getting lost in email. The flexible design of the boards allows you to set up exactly the kind of workflows you need, tagging in other team members only when they are needed.
Virtual whiteboards make it easy to brainstorm, and time tracking tools make it easy to keep track of billable hours for multiple clients. Of course, every virtual team needs a cloud storage account, like Dropbox or Google Drive.
In short, if you ever find yourself wishing you had a tool to help you accomplish something with your virtual team … chances are it already exists. Virtual teams are surging in popularity due to the low overhead cost and the ability to find talented people regardless of location. And with the increasing popularity of virtual teams comes an increasing demand for tools that make it easier to collaborate.
Be a Manager Your Employees Can Trust
When an employee arrives at a traditional office looking downtrodden and sluggish, the manager can see right away that something is not right. But physical ailments or signs of excess stress can’t be seen in a virtual employee.
If your employees trust you, they will immediately notify you that they are ill or can’t work. Be upfront that you expect to be notified as soon as possible if “life happens” and an employee can’t work. Your team members will appreciate the fact that you are understanding and allow time off.
If you maintain open lines of communication and handle things in a professional manner, your employees will feel valued and they will also feel they can trust you, which will help them to be more communicative in return, even when things go wrong.