The Virtual Office as a Versatile Business Tool

The Virtual Office as a Versatile Business Tool by Laura Stack #productivityWith nearly the entire world now accessible by instant, reliable communications, we can access the ideal specialists to fill out our workplace teams almost anywhere on the planet. The virtual office is no longer limited to the realm of science fiction. It has truly come into its own and can offer enormous time management benefits when built and managed properly.

Hiring With Purpose 

Your first challenge will be finding the right people to staff your virtual office; however, that’s an issue with any team, virtual or not. You usually won’t meet candidates face-to-face, which may make it difficult to get a feel for their personality, integrity, and skill-set before you hire them. Body language tells us a great deal—more than most people realize. But again, technology can come to your rescue here with web-cams and video conferencing. Even a simple application like Skype can give you a good idea of what a prospective employee looks and acts like.

On the other hand, you won’t be working with the employee as you would in a centralized office. In the end, results count, so who cares if your candidate for chief programmer doesn’t understand the concept of “indoor voice”? You really need to know if he can provide great work on time. Check his references carefully and keep digging until you’re satisfied with the results. If he stands up to scrutiny, hire him. If he can’t cut it later, replace him. It’s a pain but much easier to do than it would be if he was enmeshed in your company’s benefits net.

Take special care to align each candidate’s skill set with those of the rest of your team. Each should complement the others and fill gaps in your team’s existing complex of technical expertise. Given the wide variety of freelancers available on staffing sites like Guru, Elance, and Scriptlance, take the time to engineer the best fit possible. If you can, hire someone whose skills overlap an existing team member’s to some extent, so they can pinch hit if the other becomes ill, has family issues to deal with, or suddenly leaves the team.

Coordinating 

While a standard office can maintain a traditional schedule, this won’t work for a virtual office, especially one with team members on different continents. When it’s 3 PM in Chicago, where your tech writer lives, it’s 2 AM in Mumbai, home of your webmaster. And consider the fact that even in the continental U.S., you have to deal with three time zones. An 8 AM meeting in NYC works out to 5 AM in LA.

You’re better off letting your virtual crew keep their own hours and report in by email. Who cares if your guy in Mumbai opens your latest email at midnight your time? On the other hand, a strict schedule of availability can help you plan for those rare instances when everyone needs to attend a teleconference, or for when you happen to be in town and want to visit on a business matter. This holds especially true if they work for you full-time. Ask them to provide their daily schedule in GMT.

Scheduling an electronic get-together may be tricky if your team members are really scattered; some may have to participate much earlier or later than normal for them. If so, try to arrange things so one person doesn’t repeatedly have to bear the brunt—or else take the hit yourself. You may have to attend a virtual meeting at 10 PM or 5 AM to ensure the others can attend at times more reasonable to their schedules.

Scheduling software can help you keep track of everyone and their individual schedules; Microsoft Outlook works well, allowing you to block out availability hours for everyone on your team. There are also free services where you can input the time zones for everyone on your team to determine the best time overall to schedule a meeting: for example, http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html.

Communicating 

Good communication is critical in the modern business environment, and never more so than in the virtual office. As team lead, you act as not just the hub holding your widespread team together, but also as the communications hub through which directives, suggestions, and requests are channeled and tasks are parceled out to the right workers.

Fortunately, you have plenty of tools to help you manage your time, from Instant Messaging (which can be surprisingly useful to a distributed team) to online forums, email, Skype, and the good, old-fashioned telephone. All can help you manage and maintain the communications necessary for maximizing team productivity.

Now, just because you have access to excellent communications channels doesn’t mean you’ll achieve good communications. You must convey your instructions very clearly, especially if English is a second language for some of your team members. Request confirmation, let them ask questions until they understand what you want, and encourage them to work with you to set priorities. Ask for updates on a regular basis, but be careful here; if you ask for them too often, you’ll slow down completion of the actual task. After the worker has proved their trustworthiness, you can cut back on the updates.

Keep your lines of communication clean and wide open in all directions. While you needn’t make yourself available to everyone at all times, at least provide team members with multiple means of reaching you: email, phone, IM, etc. They’ll need some way to check in with you on points they don’t understand, a means to turn in work, a channel to notify you in the event of crises, etc. Collaborative software such as Share Point or Google Docs helps as well.

Wrapping It Up

Just a few decades ago, working with people in different time zones and overseas was a pain in the keister. Just making sure everyone could get together for a teleconference was expensive and difficult. But the communications and IT revolutions offer options we never dreamed of even when I was in college. No longer are human resources limited to the distance of a reasonable drive; with the virtual office, we can literally reach across the world for the very best people we can find.

Admittedly, implementing a virtual office has its problems. Suddenly, your candidate pool becomes huge, and you rarely have a chance to meet with candidates personally to get a feel for who they are and how they’ll fit into the team. Then, once you’re up and running, you have to head off tendencies to allow things to become too loose and freewheeling.

But these issues are easily surmounted, and to some extent, I believe it pays for everyone in business to implement at least a partially virtual office, whether your business is small or large. My office is about mostly virtual; my permanent staff consists of just three people, including myself, and we have 26 virtual contractors. Virtuality, if you will, allows you to exercise a much greater level of flexibility than a traditional 9-to-5 workplace; and in this ever-changing world we work in, flexibility is the name of the game.

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