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An expert on running a virtual company explains what to look for in virtual staffing.
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It's virtual workers who make the virtual company go round. Herewith a guide to selecting the best

According to recent studies, virtual companies--companies that use technology to link a dispersed staff--are showing an increase of 8% to 15% in productivity. Key to that gain in productivity is the virtual company's workforce. But how do you go about hiring the best virtual workers? Are virtual workers born, or can they be trained? What are their characteristics? How do you recruit them? And how do you help your existing staff make the transition to remote employment?

VeriFone has been a virtual corporation for 15 years now. During that time I've identified several characteristics that seem to define the successful virtual worker. I've also learned that not every successful virtual worker has each characteristic, that most of the skills can be learned at least to some degree, and that a company's practices can compensate for shortfalls.

Virtual workers should have strong communication skills. Probably one of the most important skills virtual employees need is the ability to communicate effectively. But virtual workers don't have the luxury of communicating face-to-face--which means they miss out on nonverbal as well as verbal cues. It also means they have to communicate both their point of view and their personality through media like videoconferencing, E-mail, or the telephone. They need strong verbal and written skills--skills that you can assess early on in the hiring process by speaking to candidates on the phone or by communicating via E-mail. Candidates who come off poorly in telephone interviews or in E-mail exchanges probably aren't going to make great remote workers.

Remote workers also have to be good at initiating communication. Staff members who wait to be asked, who don't take the initiative to inform, are going to lower productivity. You want people who won't hesitate to make that phone call or send that E-mail. Ask references, especially past supervisors, about candidates' willingness to open the channels of communication.

Virtual workers should be good problem solvers. All employees need problem-solving skills, but those skills are even more critical for virtual workers. When workers are out of sight, managers may not know which people are thrashing around unproductively on a problem. Employees have to be able to tackle problems head-on, to generate and implement solutions independently, and to ask for help when they get stuck.

A good way to find out about candidates' problem-solving skills is to ask them to describe how they solved a difficult problem. Have them focus on specific things they said or did. Then ask if they felt comfortable tackling problems on their own.

Your company can help remote workers improve problem-solving skills--for example, by having them do short (10- to 15-minute) problem-solving exercises. And you can reinforce problem-solving capabilities by circulating success stories about individual employees or groups that have done a great job dealing with one problem or another.

Virtual workers should agree with the goals and values of your company. Because virtual workers don't have everyday face-to-face interaction with fellow employees, their personal and company ties can be weaker than those of workers in the traditional organization. Where company loyalty is lower, turnover rates tend to be higher--which reduces a company's productivity. To combat the problem, look for employees who have demonstrated their loyalty to a company (longevity, strong reasons for changing jobs) and who believe in the goals and values of your company. Testing for congruity with your company's goals and values can be as simple as asking candidates to describe their ideal company.

You can work with remote employees to increase their sense of company loyalty by sharing information (especially about how the company is meeting its goals) and by encouraging face-to-face get-togethers.

Virtual workers should have a strong work ethic. It goes without saying that remote workers should have a strong sense of self-discipline and be goal directed. Having said that, I've been amazed over the years at how often we've failed to assess those two characteristics during the recruitment process. Look for people who show a quick understanding of what needs to be done, who stay on task, and who deliver results, not excuses. Ask for examples from both the applicants and their references.

A good way to reinforce the work ethic in your workforce is to circulate stories about efforts above and beyond the call of duty, regardless of whether they were successful. Of course it's better to succeed, but what we learn from failure can be critical to our ultimate success.

Virtual workers should feel secure about their ability to do the job. When someone's working alone, it's easy to start second-guessing. Did my boss really like that report? Why haven't I had more feedback? Don't let workers spend time worrying about how they're perceived by others in the company. That's not productive. Instead, encourage isolated workers to pick up the phone and do a reality check. That almost always breaks the logjam.

A company can help reduce the feelings of isolation that spawn insecurity by setting up satellite offices and having workers report to those offices several times during the week. Be sure that information about what's going on in the company is always available on-line to all remote employees. And stay in frequent contact with workers via telephone or videoconference.

In new hires look for people who feel secure about their job skills and their personal lives. The best predictor of future success is often past success.

Virtual workers should have a good sense of humor. People with a good sense of humor--who consequently are slow to anger--tend to deal more effectively with the frustrations of the virtual workplace. They tend to be more productive. You can help workers keep their sense of humor by using yours to get them to relax.

Virtual workers should be able to cope with technology. The virtual workplace is defined by its technology. Workers have to master the laptop, the printer, the fax machine. Technophobia can drastically reduce their productivity. Hire people who have demonstrated that they're not afraid of technology. (Do they own a PC? How often do they use it? How do they solve a computer problem?) And then back up your folks with a corporate help desk to walk them through the problems they're certainly going to encounter.

Of all the skills your virtual workforce is going to need, how to use new technology is the easiest to teach. Most of the training will probably be done in-house, but there are courses that train workers in virtual skills.

What about the technophobes who are already working for you? Pair them with workers who aren't intimidated by E-mail or other technologies that are integral to the virtual workplace. Having a buddy to call when you're having a technical problem is essential support. (It's also a way to increase a virtual worker's sense of belonging.)

By carefully choosing and training the virtual workforce, and by structuring the organization to best use its virtual workers, most companies should be able to see that 8% to 15% improvement in productivity. Sometimes that's all the edge a struggling new company needs.

William R. Pape is cofounder of VeriFone Inc., with headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. He was VeriFone's first chief information officer.

Last updated: Dec 15, 1996




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