After many years of having bosses, worrying about vacation days, and commuting up to 90 minutes each way, my work-life balance improved considerably since striking out on my own and opening my own marketing agency. Along the way I've added employees, a payroll, a fancy telephone system, and an awesome sit-stand desk.
One thing I haven't added: an office.
We have clients in every US time zone (except Hawaii), and team members throughout the United States as well as in Canada and the Philippines. And everyone on my team works at home.
Admittedly, I initially decided to forsake an office or coworking space for selfish reasons. The commute was one reason; now I only descend 15 steps to my lower-level office. I have more time for my family and friends, I rarely have to wear business attire, and I'm never late for work. But beyond the savings on rent, furniture, and the commute, a huge advantage of going virtual is the ability to hire the best people, regardless of their physical location.
While there are many benefits to going virtual, there are some challenges as well. Here are a few tips I have to ensure your virtual team stays productive:
Hire the right people
When hiring virtual team members, it's important to determine whether they're self-starting and can work in some isolation. If not, remote working is probably not for them. One way to ensure that your candidate is a good fit is to hire someone who has experience working remotely- full-time or even a couple days a week. When you check references, ask about their focus and motivation. If you can't hire someone with virtual team experience, consider giving your top candidate a trial project before you hire them full-time, so you can see how well they manage tasks and communicate when they don't have a boss down the hall.
Communication is key
Collaborating on files, deadlines, processes, and marketing is nearly the same virtually as it is when working in an office. A shared file server is easy to set up- we use Dropbox- and Google Docs work the same whether you're in an office or not. It's communication that's the most difficult.
When the company was just me and my first contractor, it was easy for the two of us to touch base daily by phone. As our company grew, the daily calls got longer, and it became more time consuming and complex for me to interact individually with each team member regularly. The "water cooler" chat was completely missing, and I often felt like I didn't know what was happening in my teammates' daily lives.
Skype chat helped at first, but what really opened up our communication was Slack. With Slack, we can keep a channel of random chit-chat, as well as share cool tools we've found and interesting articles (Slack channels Random, Cool Tools, and Good Reads). We now have all-company calls only weekly, and we try to start each call by sharing something good that's happened to us recently or a fun fact about ourselves. This helps us feel like we're staying in touch with everyone's evolving personalities and interests.
Don't miss the big picture
Anything you've learned from business applies to your virtual company as well, even if you're not sharing a location. Be sure to develop, and communicate, your company's overarching plans as you would with a physical company. Create a strategic plan and share it with everyone appropriate. Develop a shared company calendar (we use a Google calendar) so you can plan ahead for company events, marketing campaigns, and vacations. And don't ignore other human resources functions either: perform employee reviews, and consider implementing an employee recognition program, to ensure that people feel connected and motivated as part of the team.
For business owners starting up a new business, consider forgoing the physical space in favor of top-notch collaboration tools, a decentralized phone system, and a commitment to over communicating. If you're already in an office, try allowing some of your team to work from home a day or two a week. Over time, you might find that you don't need to be together in the same space; all you need is the right attitude and motivations.
About the Author
Stephanie Schwab is the CEO of Crackerjack Marketing, a digital marketing agency specializing in social media, content marketing, and influence marketing. She has worked with well-known brands including Target, Graco Baby, Citizen Watch, and Pernod Ricard.
Stephanie is a well-respected teacher and trainer on digital and social media, and a member of the marketing faculty at Loyola University Chicago, The New School, and Harbour.Space. Stephanie blogs about social media on the Crackerjack Marketing blog; you can also follow her on Twitter @stephanies.