How to Run a Business Remotely

Running a business remotely can have many rewards, but it also takes vigilance and constant communication.
February 02, 2012

Whether it's the ability to work from home or having a more flexible schedule, many business owners and CEOs find that managing a business remotely is a perfect fit for their company. But expecting a remote business to run anything like a traditional office is a big mistake.

Running a remote business takes almost an entirely different management approach, one that requires constant communication and vigilance.

“It’s frustrating that managers cannot see everything just by being able to walk around and be so immediate,” says John Seiffer, founder of Better CEO, a resource website for business owners. “Things have to be a little more planned. You can’t just walk over and see somebody at their cube. If you don’t plan, stuff falls through the cracks.”

Follow these four tips for better planning and management to start a successful remote business or improve the one you’re already running.

Communication is key

Just as it is in a traditional workplace, communication is the most essential tool in the remote workplace, but it must be more frequent and purposeful.

Meetings, then, will become the central events of everyone’s day when a business is run from afar. Seiffer says meetings need meaning for them to be most effective.

“When you have a business meeting, whether it’s face-to-face, on Skype or in a Google+ hangout, the meetings have to have a process, a reason,” Seiffer says. “Things like a regular weekly staff meeting should have the same exact format every time. It should be so predictable you can actually rotate who runs the meeting.”

Seiffer says quick daily huddles are a great way to come together and align goals for the rest of the workday, while weekly status meetings and other project meetings must happen for long-term goals.

Chris Jackson, director of marketing and branding for College Hunks Hauling Junk, a moving company with franchises across the country, says the company has five- to 10-minute daily huddles to set priorities each day, 30- to 45-minute “weekly action review” meetings and 15- to 30-minute one-on-one meetings each week.

While it may sound excessive, by checking in regularly, you can easily monitor employees so that even if you’re not in the office, you’re assured everyone is on the same page.

As a manager especially, Keri Pearlson, founder and president of KP Partners, an advisory services firm specializing in strategy, information systems and design that employs about 10 remote workers, says people must be more diligent about checking e-mails, voicemails and other modes of communication.

“I try to overcompensate for the choices people have in reaching me by checking often,” she says. “You have to know the person you’re talking to, their schedule and what they’ll respond fastest to.”

Use technology to your advantage

Working remotely is easier than ever thanks to software and applications that mimic the feel of an office without stepping foot in one.

Instead of conferencing just by phone, now managers can video chat nearly face-to-face using tools like Skype and Google+ hangouts, both of which Jackson says College Hunks Hauling Junk uses on a near daily basis.

It’s also especially important to have some sort of file sharing system in place that allows employees to keep documents in a place where everyone can access them, such as through Google Docs or other Internet-based document suites that allow multiple employees to use them simultaneously.

Keeping track of your employees through e-mail and phone calls is a given. But Seiffer says managers should also be tracking their progress on goals, which can easily be done using affordable web-based collaboration programs such as 37 Signals, or CRM software where employees can log all calls, sales and leads.

Internal communication can also be improved through internal chat programs or social networks, such as Yammer or Google+, which Jackson says College Hunks Hauling Junk relies on heavily.

“We can set up any number of private groups or public groups or whatever we need to do within the organization, so that we can communicate whether it’s about a project or a department,” he said. "It’s often easier than e-mail."

Make the right hires

Remote businesses are not the right workplaces for everyone, which is why hiring must be done with great care to ensure employees understand the demands of the workplace—and thrive in it.

Jackson says College Hunks Hauling Junk focuses first and foremost on hiring people that share the same values as the company.

“Hire people that are self-motivated and are willing to take initiative,” he says. “It’s always important that you hire for culture, especially if you’re hiring remotely. Now they’re not embedded in the physical culture every day, so the culture part has to be really clear.”

Look for employees who proved they can multitask, work without a lot of supervision and problem-solve when supervisors are not around.

Once you have the right team in place, put ground rules in place either for how the workplace will run with a remote leader or how employees will create a proper work environment—free from distractions and other obligations—at home, Pearlson says.

“The manager has an obligation to understand the work environment [his] employees are working in…so you know how to reach them and how they’re doing the work,” she says. “You need to set up the right expectations of the communication mediums and the timing, the turn around and the pace of work.”

Check in from time to time

There’s a joke that there’s nothing worse than a seagull manager—one who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps all over everything and flies away.

To be a good remote manager, this is exactly what you should not do. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t drop in and visit your employees from time to time, sometimes unexpectedly. Seiffer says that is a valuable way to ensure everything is running smoothly.

Just as you do with meetings though, make sure any visits to employees or a central workplace have a purpose and a plan for what will be accomplished and how a visit will run.  Visits should almost always be scheduled, Seiffer says, so as not to bombard or overwhelm employees.

“You need to be sensitive to whether you’re interrupting the workflow of everybody else,” he says. “Schedule your time with people so that they know to be prepared and you know that they’re going to be ready, so you’re not interrupting things.”

Jackson says his employees meet in person at retreats to get to know each other. Such retreats, he says, make the team feel more like a family, which in turn helps keeping in touch and moving forward easier. If your company can’t afford retreats, try to at least use planned visits for activities that get you out of the workplace and getting to know each other.

Unlike managers with close proximity to their employees, being a remote supervisor takes tremendous discipline, a likely unhealthy attachment to e-mail and phone and constant problem solving. But often, all of this forces supervisors to run their companies more efficiently and productively.

Seiffer says the best thing to do in a remote business, like any other business, is to determine what you, as a manager, want to have happen with the company, then make it as easy as possible for your employees to reach that outcome.

“Your job is to help other people do their job better,” he says. “So you have to define what better means.”

Photo credit: iStock