Thanks to advances in technology, it’s easier than ever to run your company virtually. That means operating your business with many—or all—your employees scattered in remote locations.
The benefits: With fewer people in the office, you can substantially reduce the amount of space you need and, as a result, cut costs. “The idea that you have to spend $1,000 a month for a small office is no longer a consideration for many businesses,” says Donald DePalma, chief research officer of Lowell, Mass.-based Common Sense Advisory, a market research firm specializing in globalization issue. Its 18 employees are located everywhere from Turkey to Nashville.
But, more than that, running a virtual company also provides a way to hire far-flung employees you wouldn’t be able to have on staff otherwise. And, you can hold onto talented people if they have to move.
Still, running a business where even some of your employees are virtual can be complex. To be successful, consider these steps:
Decide why you want to go virtual—and how virtual you should be. If, for example, you’re looking to slash fixed expenses, then you might want to go all the way by having an entirely virtual workforce. On the other hand, if you’re looking to hang onto valuable employees who are relocating to other places, then you may want to confine your efforts to those people.
That’s what Clay Schossow did a year-and-a-half ago, when a key, long-time employee of his web development company, New Media Campaigns, announced his intention to move to Wisconsin. The company, started in 2006, is based in Carrborro, NC. Schossow decided to let the individual, who at that point was one of four employees, work remotely. (The company now has nine employees). “We realized we had a choice, to lose a really good employee or work out a new arrangement,” says Schossow. More recently, he also allowed another employee who moved to Oregon to stay on with the company as a virtual staffer
Hire people who’ll fit the culture. You can’t assume everyone has the makings of good virtual employee. For one thing, they need to be self-starters. “They can’t require a tremendous amount of babysitting,” says DePalma. Often, according to DePalma, people who have spent most of their careers working for large corporations aren’t the best fit. But, even in those cases, evidence that applicants, say, have worked on long projects without much supervision could indicate they have potential.
Make sure employees see each other—for real—at some point. Even the most virtually sophisticated companies need to get their employees together in the flesh once in a while. For example, at least once a year, the entire staff of Common Sense Advisory gathers at headquarters for a face-to-face week of planning and team building.
Get the technology right. For virtual companies, it’s all about advances in technology. For one thing, new cloud computing systems make it easy for employees to get access to information from just about anywhere.
Consider the experience at Common Sense Advisory. It was started in 2002 as a completely virtual company. Then, three years later, the founders decided the firm had out-grown the structure—it was too cumbersome for employees to get access to important data stored on a company server—and they located a handful of key people at an office in Lowell, Mass. More recently, however, the company introduced a remote cloud computing system that provides easy access to research and other information employees need to do their jobs. It’s proved so successful, in fact, “we probably wouldn’t have formed a physical office if the technology were at that point it is today,” says DePalma.
The right technology also allows remote employees to communicate easily and frequently—and to build a feeling of community. At Common Sense, for example, all employees are equipped with laptops and iPhones or Blackberries. During the day, there is frequent interaction over Skype. Once a week, using a teleconferencing service, the company holds a company-wide meeting. And, managers conduct quarterly performance reviews on the phone or using Skype, followed up by an email.
Similarly, at New Media Campaigns, Schossow uses a chat room called Campfire to create a feeling of camaraderie. Employees use it not only to discuss work, but to talk about other topics, as well. Example: Recently, according to Schossow, there was an active discussion about people’s fear of snakes.