Once upon a time, long ago -- let's say 25 years ago -- people who owned businesses actually worked in the same building as their employees. Their customers came to their stores or offices. There wasn't an Internet -- no e-mail or instant messaging. No faxes. Long distance phone calls were expensive.
What a different world today: outsourcing,telecommuting, virtual companies, independent contractors. Technology has made working with others across the country, even across the world, possible and affordable, with many advantages:
Greater options: Whether you're hiring an employee or a consultant, you can find someone with more experience in your industry or exactly the job skills you require when you can draw from a wider geographic area.
Expanded market: Just as you can choose your employees or service providers from a greater geographic area, you also have a bigger pool of potential customers. It's easier to specialize in a niche product or service and still find a large enough market.
Lower cost: You can save money when an employee, partner, or contractor works from their own space. The added cost of staying in touch is more than compensated by the money you save on rent and overhead.
Lifestyle options: Does your valued employee's spouse have a job offer in another city? Does your independent contractor want to be home with the kids? The kinds of lifestyle choices are driving the rapid growth in remote-location working relationships.
But for all these advantages, there are also pitfalls:
Lack of communication: You share a lot of information informally when you work right next to them. Once you're working with people from a distance, those informal information-sharing opportunities disappear, and it's much harder to give feedback, share company developments, and solve problems.
Loss of team spirit: It's much more difficult to pull together when you're not actually together. Working in a group, there's a sense of being part of a team working toward a common goal. When employees are remotely located, especially in a very small company, you can lose the critical mass necessary for that sense of shared common mission.
Increased isolation: One of the biggest challenges facing a person working independently is the sense of isolation. It's easy to feel alone when you're working alone.
Loss of synergy: Perhaps the most valuable thing lost when you don't work face-to-face are good ideas that never get thought up. Sometimes you've got to actually "put your heads together" to come up with new strategies and solutions.
Instead, enhance your distant relationships by following a few steps:
Set clear goals and standards: At the beginning of any project -- or phase of a project -- get together (preferably in person) and go over expectations and timelines. Remember, it's much harder to clear up misunderstandings when you're not working side-by-side, so get things as clear as possible from the start.
Set -- and keep -- a regular reporting routine: Don't just say you're going to keep in touch. Get out your appointment books and establish times to report in.
Use e-mail: E-mail is a quick and cheap way to share information. And, unlike phone calls, it leaves a written record. Send a weekly update of what's going on to all employees.
Use instant messaging: If you're not familiar with instant messaging, ask a teenager. They use this instantaneous (faster and even more informal than e-mail) web-based method to gossip back-and-forth. With remotely-located employees, "I.M." becomes your virtual water cooler.
Use the phone: It's much easier to be misunderstood in writing than over the phone. The phone is a more personal form of interaction and creates a stronger personal bond.
Get an express delivery service account: If you have a FedEx or UPS account, you're much more likely to use it. Inevitably, there's stuff you should share that can't be sent as an e-mail attachment.
Meet in person: Nothing beats "face time" for building and maintaining relationships. Get in the car or on a plane and spend some quality time together.
Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003
Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies and the president of The Planning Shop, publisher of books and tools for business planning. Register for her free business planning newsletter at www.PlanningShop.com.