Principles and Tools for Success in a Virtual Business World

Marissa Mayer ruffled some feathers when she recently notified virtual workers that they would be required to move back into the office. Companies of all sizes have been utilizing virtual work setups, so does Mayer’s announcement signal that virtual work models are flawed and lead to unsuccessful businesses? Yahoo!’s situation is unique, and a successful turnaround may indeed require that all workers return to the office for a while — but plenty of firms are still thriving with virtual work arrangements.

Two virtual work success stories are GitHub and Automattic (makers of WordPress). Both businesses are seeing multimillion-dollar revenues with virtual teams exceeding 100 employees. These companies aren’t just getting by with a virtual setup; they are making a killing and doing so with extraordinarily low employee turnover. GitHub and Automattic are able to attract top talent because they provide extraordinary flexibility around when, where, and how employees work. Once they recruit top talent, both of these businesses utilize asynchronous forms of communication to facilitate working across time zones.

5 Keys to Virtual Success

To imitate the success of GitHub and Automattic, you will need to follow some key principles of virtual work arrangements.

1. Trust: Any successful business requires trust, but this is even more important in virtual work arrangements. Many workers join virtual companies specifically because they seek autonomy; attempting to micromanage them from a distance will not turn out well.

2.  Lead, Don’t Manage: Virtual companies fail when managers attempt to tell employees exactly how to work. The best virtual supervisors provide a vision for where the company needs to go, the steps that need to be taken to reach the ultimate goal, and daily reports that help employees grasp how they are helping the company reach its goal.

3. Set Expectations Early: It’s often difficult for new employees to get started with a virtual company if they aren’t provided with clear expectations of what their job entails. Managers can become frustrated if they don’t think their new hires are producing as expected, and employees can become equally frustrated if they don’t understand what is expected of them.

4. Focus on Results: The entire point of virtual business is to provide flexibility to the company and employees. Don’t worry about how the work is getting done; just make sure that the desired results are being produced. If you are seeing results, it shouldn’t matter if someone decides to work on a Sunday so he can spend time with his children on a Wednesday.

5. Utilize Passive Communication: It’s a bit difficult to walk through the office to check on the status of projects if an office doesn’t exist. Thus, tools that passively communicate progress by leaving a “paper” trail of employees’ work are necessary for managers to track the status of projects. Some businesses ask employees to write detailed time logs, but these are tedious and waste a lot of time for everyone involved. Passive communication provides more detail than spreadsheets and can aggregate information across departments in real time. Not only do these tools provide better information to managers, but they also allow employees to focus on their jobs instead of filling out unnecessary paperwork.

The Virtual Work Toolbox

You may attract top talent by advertising a flexible work arrangement, but without the right systems in place, your virtual workforce will be completely disconnected. Here are some of the best tools for virtual teams.

1. To connect, use Google Hangout and Phone.com. Hangout is a simple, free service from Google that allows users to easily video conference with each other and has screen sharing capabilities to make virtual meetings much more productive. When emails and instant messaging won’t cut it, Hangout is a great way to chat “face-to-face.”

Phone.com is a cloud-based phone system that provides voicemail, call routing, extensions, and fax capabilities. Traditional office phone systems don’t work with virtual businesses, but Phone.com provides an excellent “centralized” phone system in the cloud.

2. To share, use Dropbox. This is a must-have product for virtual companies. It’s your company’s virtual filing cabinet, giving you a way to share folders with your company and keep all the files updated on everyone’s computers. If you ever need to share files with other people in your company, Dropbox is the way to do it.

3. To collaborate, use my company’s product, Ginger. It provides private group discussion that is organized and archived. Since virtual workers are often working different schedules than their co-workers, Ginger provides value by giving team members a place to communicate with each other on their own time.

4. To bookkeep, use Xero. This is a great accounting alternative to QuickBooks because it provides business owners a way to manage their finances in the cloud, as well as give various employees web access to financial reports or expense reporting.

If you want to attract top talent, building a virtual workforce may be the way to go. Don’t be discouraged by others’ failures. By having the right tools and understanding how to manage your team, you can build a virtual team that finds real success.

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