In a world where communication and commerce are fueled by technology, it’s no longer necessary—or sometimes even advisable—to operate in a brick-and-mortar environment. Virtual businesses are on the rise, offering benefits to business owners, employees and customers.
“Running a business virtually is becoming more and more common,” says Brandi Starr, president and brand strategist with Cassius Blue Consulting. “Technology has allowed entrepreneurs and freelancers to work with clients across the globe. However, working remotely is not without its challenges. It is vital that those who work remotely take advantages of opportunities to come from behind the computer screen and connect with others. Whether it’s meeting with nearby customers, attending association meetings, or networking; professional interactions with others helps to keep the entrepreneur fresh and sharp.”
There are both benefits and challenges to operating virtually. Chief among the challenges is communicating and connecting virtual teams and arming those teams with the right technology to aid both interaction and productivity.
Opportunities to leverage the benefits and overcome the challenges of a virtual environment abound according to those who have mastered the concept. And, while technology is obviously a big part of the process to making virtual businesses hum, there are other best practices that virtual business owners and operators have found effective in fueling their success.
Good Communication and Management Practices
“Our global study of 48 virtual teams found that many organizations simply recycle practices for co-located teams without really considering what makes virtual collaboration unique,” says Rick Lepsinger, president and brand strategist with OnPoint Consulting. “Technology is an enabler, but not a differentiator of effective virtual team performance.” In general, says Lepsinger, the best virtual leaders:
- Recognize the need to be deliberate and thoughtful in their interactions with virtual workers
- Leverage technology and change their behavior to replicate the characteristics of a co-located setting
There are, he says, three skills all virtual leaders must master: running effective meetings, building trust and managing accounting from a distance.
Another critical component for any successful business, virtual or otherwise, is effective communication. For virtual businesses working with remote staff, though, communication is even more critical. “Out of sight” should not mean “out of mind.” David Waring, editor-in-chief of FitsSmallBusiness.com, has found that to be important in his work. For the past three years Waring has operated a virtual business that includes more than a dozen freelancers and six full-time employees.
“When working remotely you don’t bump into people around the office, so it’s important to make sure you are meeting with everyone on a regular basis,” says Waring. For him, that means daily huddles. “I meet with each of our employees and my partner once a day at a set time,” he says.
Making good use of the phone and video conferencing is a must-do, he says. “There is way too much room to misinterpret things with email so, for all but the smallest follow-ups, use the phone or video conference.” Google Video for Business, he notes, “is free and allows you to have multiple people on the call.”
Finally, says Waring, “make sure expectations on what is to be accomplished are clear.” That’s true for any business, of course, but even more so he says for remote businesses where managers aren’t sitting right next to their employees.
Zenobia Godschalk, CEO of ZAG Communications, has also learned to focus on the critical communication issues that can impact performance. “I have been running a virtual team, ZAG Communications, for over seven years,” says Godschalk. “While there are many must-have technologies and gadgets to make your life easier, the single most important resource is a team that is more highly motivated and productive than the overall workforce in general.” For ZAG that means working mothers. “Their ability to get things done, and to effectively communicate their work over the preferred formats, has been critical to our success and double digit growth over each of the last seven years.”
“Trust and accountability are key,” says Louisa Levit, cofounder of Reliable. “Without these two things, gathering a team of people who will work for your business remotely and enable you to grow without problems is not possible.” That starts, she says, during the interview process. “We go through a thorough interview process to make sure employees are the right fit for our company, as well as look at many past examples of their work, and get references from previous employers. Aside from that, we always go with our gut feeling. You can usually tell if someone is being genuine or not.”
Levit strives to build long-lasting relationships. “The people we work with become like family,” she says. “We want them to be happy and enjoy what they are doing so that we can all grow and succeed together. Fostering these long term relationships has allowed our businesses to grow faster, because when everyone is accustomed to how everyone else works, projects get done faster and more efficiently.”
Technology, of course, is a must-have to operate effective virtually; fortunately, there are many technology options available for small businesses today.
“My best tip for keeping a virtual business running smoothly is automation,” says Adam Barnhart, director of marketing with AllProWebTools. “This does much more for your business than simply reduce busy work and free up time. There are two types of business activities a small business owner can engage in: upkeep and growth. By automating as many upkeep tasks as possible, you free up time, energy and creativity.”
That, says Barnhart, is important because growth requires time, energy and creativity. When virtual business owners are too consumed with administrative upkeep, they don’t have the time or energy required to fuel the growth of their company. “By automating upkeep tasks, you can switch to a more proactive, growth-oriented mindset. Instead of patching and fixing one problem at a time, you’re now planning several steps ahead.”
Finding software to help manage projects and processes can help boost productivity as well as aid communication. Jim Foley, founder of Synccentric.com, says: “We struggled originally with project management, but this was quickly conquered by the use of a project management system.”
“This type of software is a life-saver for any company—especially if you run your business virtually,” says Foley. “I can assign tasks or projects to certain people within my company, set a due date, and communicate with them on each task via the platform. It’s simple, yet highly effective because it organizes your projects, your employees, and allows you to track the progress of each ‘to-do’ you have set up.”
Virtual business owners also point to tools like Freedcamp.com and Basecamp.com as helpful ways to manage projects, and to keep everyone informed and on track. In addition, says Melissa St. Clair, with Paper Chaser, a virtual administrative services firm she has been running for eight years, “Cloud-sharing and communicating over email/text via computer or mobile devices are low-cost ways of communication.” These technology tools are must-haves for keeping overhead and operating expenses low, she says.
Additional Best Practices
Following are some additional insights from small businesses and others who have learned how to run a virtual business effectively:
“Every job has its challenges, but working remotely or running a virtual business is especially tricky because it has its own set of rules. Here are some things that my peers and I have found to be helpful:
- Isolation can be a real problem, especially for employees located in a different region in the world. Scheduling weekly catch-ups, or even just creating a Skype group for everyone to say hello in the morning, can help make the job more tangible.
- Since remote workers don’t have to spend time commuting to and from an office, they often find themselves working longer hours. The line between free time and work time tends to get blurred, making it easy to overwork. Set a schedule for yourself for the day, and only work at your designated office space for those set hours. With this kind of schedule, you will eventually fall into a pattern, differentiate between work and play, and get into the mindset of only working at your desk, not on your couch.
- Share your calendar with your coworkers. You don’t have the advantage of stopping by someone’s desk to see if they’re free, so sharing calendars within the company will make it easier to see when your coworkers are available.”
– Emily Culclasure
Digital Media Analyst
“Pick up the phone and call. In our digital age there is so much that we can accomplish in front of a computer screen without having to speak with another human, and that can be super convenient. But, it can also be very impersonal. Many marketing automation technologies have literally taken the human out of many virtual communications, and intentionally so. But, sadly, this has also taken the humanness out of the brand and customer experience as well, and that can certainly affect a virtual business overall in how they are perceived by the customer. Leverage the power of the phone, not just for the real-time aspect, but also for how both tone of voice and personality can be most effective in maintaining customer relationships.”
– Mitch Dowell
Founder and Creative Director
“The most successful virtual companies get one important thing right—communication. With staff across the country and the world, it is critical that everyone has a thorough understanding of the work they are doing and has an opportunity to connect and build relationships internally. The water cooler time in a traditional office is far more valuable than most leaders acknowledge. So, we use several different communication tools to mimic that relationship-building time and to communicate about client work too.”
– Christy Kirk
Director of Social Strategy
“Use system automation where possible. I offer many services and products; many of them require me to schedule calls with the client, have them send me documents, etc. I have a smart series of systems (some paid and some free) that work in seamless unison to take me out of the picture and do not require a person to manage. I often don’t have to do anything but show up for the call and send an email afterwards.”
– Kat Tepelyan
The Epic Brand
“To run a virtual business effectively you need to communicate more often with your team compared to owning a traditional company. It can be very easy for your workers to become disengaged if you don’t. Even a generic check-in to see how they’re doing every so often can be of help. On the other hand, you also need to allow them the freedom of getting their jobs done however they see fit. Avoid micromanaging whenever possible, and as long as your staff members are producing high quality work, then let them be. You should also schedule regular meetings using Skype or some other online communications method in order to keep everyone rowing in the same direction. And when hiring virtual employees, look for self-motivation and maturity. You want folks who can get their work done without a lot of supervision, because of the nature of a virtual business.”
– Andrew Schrage