Once upon a time, small business owners gathered their staff in one location from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They would dial all 10 digits on landline telephones and get charged a hefty price, await the latest batch of tasks once the mail arrived, and sometimes even meet at an actual watercooler to chat.
Remember those old days—you know, the early 1990s?
Today, technology has made it easier than ever to run a small business and manage employees from afar. Inexpensive Web tools, like Skype, GotoMeeting, and FaceTime have broken down the barriers in face-to-face contact, making even a virtual office seem much more, well, real. Laptops, wireless Internet, and smartphones make work possible pretty much from everywhere and every time zone. Adding to the appeal is the fact that telecommuting is favored as an eco-friendly alternative to millions of cars clogging our nation’s overcrowded highways. So how can a smallbusiness owner manage to be a good virtual boss no matter where their employees might be?
“Basically, you are your business,” says Rachel Newmark, who runs a swim school, SafeSplash, out of her home in Northern New Jersey. “As a business owner, your reputation is everything. You always have to be available to customers and staff for anything and everything to ensure that the business runs smoothly,” she explains. And because she partners with two public pools to hold her private lessons, she adds, “I always have my phone on to take calls day and night and have to do on-site monitoring as well. ”
“The idea of people working from home watching soap operas and sitting in their pajamas is a myth,” adds Jane Applegate, author of “201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business” and owner of The Applegate Group, a multimedia company that produces content aimed at small businesses. “People who work from home really do work harder now. With the economy, there’s no slacking off. The work has to get done. You can’t underperform.”
It’s an increasingly business-anywhere world that’s getting the work done. At this month’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival, an annual networking event for startups and entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, Applegate says she was stunned to see thousands of small business owners perched everywhere, plugged into all available outlets, doing business even while sitting on the floor.
Still, there are some do’s and don’ts that small business owners should pay careful attention to when venturing into the virtual work world:
- Look for staff you can trust: “It’s difficult to hire right if you’re hiring people you’re not familiar with, particularly those who have no virtual-organization experience,” says Jeff Zbar, creator of ChiefHomeOfficer.com, a website for home-based entrepreneurs, teleworkers, and the people who manage them. If you’re handling a virtual office, check out reputable sites like eLance, which has a huge bank of online talent, offers web-based monitoring tools, and can handle hiring paperwork for you.
- Check references. Many big companies’ managers may be reluctant to talk about a former employee because of legal restraints. Applegate’s workaround: Ask a potential employee for a reference from a colleague or vendor, or a consultant with whom they’ve worked, who should be able to speak freely. “You need to speak to live people,” she says. “You have to set a high bar. Even if they’re working remotely, they still represent your company.”
- Put your expectations in writing. Location may be increasingly irrelevant, but you can still set your rules down on paper. “You’ve got to be able to give a little on things like lunch breaks or quick errands, but when it comes to telework, things have to be laid out from the beginning,” Zbar says. Best practices include having everyone check in first thing in the morning, be available on Instant Messaging, and formally sign off at night. Some small business owners set a weekly or even daily conference call. Applegate’s recommendation: Write very detailed memos, which spell out exactly what you want accomplished, and by when.
- Start with the short term. Try a few test projects, or go on a weekly or monthly basis to get a sense of how an employee works. Watch their habits, responsiveness, and communication skills, along with participation on conference calls, and get feedback from clients.
- Pay attention to the clock. Just because you’re working all hours doesn’t mean everyone else should. Collaborate with your employees to set a schedule that makes sense for your needs and your customers’ needs. “I’m 24/7, but it’s my company,” says Applegate. “Being in a virtual office doesn’t mean employees have to work 24 hours a day.” She says she leaves messages or emails at all hours for her employees, but it’s just the nature of relaying information—not a demand for them to keep up with her.
- Be honest about the arrangement. If it’s not working, it could simply be that working from home isn’t meant for some people. “Right or wrong, chemistry is an issue,” says Zbar. “If it’s not working, you have to act on that.” And some managers may not be suited to handle employees at a distance. Having people working out of sight demands a certain amount of trust, and, Zbar adds, “an understanding manager who knows that expectations can be met even if there are issues that pop up for working parents.”
- Find a balance. Newmark says she relies on her managers and the training she’s given them to give her some flexibility for other important tasks, such as maintaining the back office, dealing with customers on the phone, organizing work appointments, growing the business, and managing her kids’ busy schedules. She trained as a lawyer and says she left the long hours in the office for a more family-friendly opportunity.
“Every business has its positives and negatives,” says Newmark says, who finds time at all hours to work around her kids’ busy schedules. “The alternative isn’t any easier, but this is the best idea for me., It is all manageable. No matter where you are.”
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