Account Provisioning

Virtual Office Management

used with permission from the Microsoft Small Business website
by Jeff Wuorio

Website User Engagement 2/>Carole Martin has a marketing expert upon whom she relies for sharp ideas and provocative sales angles.

What’s interesting about this is that the two have never met face to face. Their business relationship is truly “virtual.”

“It takes many skills and personality types to run a business, even a small business. You really can’t do it alone,” says Martin, a Burlingame, Calif., writer and coach. “It’s a strange world we live in.”

Strange, but increasingly common. Yes, welcome to the burgeoning world of the virtual office, where businesses have a mission and focus — but have personnel as far flung as the planet allows.

On top of the usual challenges that businesses face, a successful virtual-office business requires a whole new set of strategies.

But here are seven ways to help make one work.

1. Make your team feel that they belong. Perhaps the biggest land mine that can sabotage any office where workers are connected by telephones and computers is isolation — an unnerving sense that you’re out there all by your lonesome with little support or interaction. Don’t let it happen. Set up regularly scheduled conferences, communiqués and other means of keeping people informed and in touch. (Check out Microsoft Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing services.) In particular, solicit feedback and suggestions as often as you would in a conventional office environment. “The interaction can be social or business focused, but it’s the connection back into the organization that’s necessary for organizational commitment,” says Vicki Whiting, associate professor at the Gore School of Business at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

2. Train them in both technology and work habits. Working away from a centralized office mandates a two-pronged training focus. First, make certain that your people are well versed in whatever tech tools — laptops, PDAs and the like — is intrinsic to doing their jobs in absentia. But make just as certain that they have an equally deep appreciation of the different work dynamics that hold sway away from the office. “Employees need to learn how to structure their unstructured time, to realize that child care, house cleaning and errands are not part of the workday,” Whiting says.

3. And train yourself to trust them. A virtual team absolutely requires an ongoing sense of trust between a supervisor and the people who are somewhere else trying to do their jobs. Since you rarely see them — if at all — it’s a tough nut to try to stay on their backs. But, more important, a virtual office implies a strong sense of faith in your employees to stay on track. “When operating from the virtual office, people should remember how important it is to build and reinforce perceptions of reliability and trust,” says Patricia Wallace, director of information systems and institutional technology at Johns Hopkins University. “They should over-communicate, and they should be very clear about what they are doing and when they will finish.”

4. Quantify as many goals as you can. One potential drawback to an office where most or all are telecommuters is the absence of that gut feeling that things are, in fact, getting done. Address this by instituting reliable tracking mechanisms for elements such as sales, contacts made, defects, returns and any other gauges that empirically demonstrate what’s getting done efficiently and what warrants improvement. “When you can’t look over an employee’s shoulder, you need some clear measurements to enable you to keep a finger on the pulse of the project,” says Jay Arthur, a Denver consultant.

5. Place emphasis on targets. Again, since there’s little face time between you and the folks with whom you’re working, motivation can often suffer. One effective way to keep employees focused and fired up is a regular lineup of specific goals and targets, be they sales, productivity or another measurable goal. Not only does that offer a tangible point of focus, a defined goal can hone off-site habits and discipline that can suffer without a physical supervisory presence. But don’t just put the fear of God into them. “Set targets, let them know you are watching, but make sure you let them know you’re appreciative of their efforts,” says Joe John Duran, author of “Start It, Sell It & Make a Mint: 20 Wealth-Creating Secrets for Business Owners.”

6. Make technology comprehensive and consistent. Since employees are located in disparate settings, a proper technology network is absolutely critical to an efficient virtual office. Cell phones, laptop computers, comprehensive office software such as Microsoft Office, Web conferencing software such as Live Meeting, and other portable tools need to complement and integrate with each other. That way, communication and data are both accessible and consistent — the last thing you want is telecommuters with a technological communications snafu.

7. Buddy up. No matter how diligently you try to address the challenges inherent in a virtual office network, there will inevitably be employees for whom solitude spells isolation. If that crops up, remember the buddy system. Pair up two employees who share like interests (if logistically possible, have them share the same office space). No matter if they’re across the room or across the country, knowing there’s a special someone to shoot the breeze can tame the isolation that some people just can’t handle. “Give them someone in the office that can keep them up to speed and chat about office stuff,” says Duran, “from the office football pool to the latest water cooler chat.”

To learn more, contact us today.



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