“Yes Virginia, it is possible to run a small business and never meet the people working for you face-to-face (except for on a computer screen.)”
Small business owners looking for a high-tech way to lower costs often overlook an opportunity most would assign only to large corporations – i.e. Virtual Teams. If your knee jerk response is to think “That won’t work for me” and stop reading, consider this:
- According to a variety of online experts the cost of hiring and training an on-site employee averages around $4,000
- Opting to create virtual teams made up of online independent consultants and providers does not require the small business owner to pay payroll taxes, Workman Compensation, unemployment, local/state/federal fees, health insurance, vacation pay, sick leave, or meet insurance and other regulatory requirements associated with on-site hires
- Overhead costs are vastly reduced as virtual employees rarely require any equipment purchase on the part of the business owner; office space requirements are reduced; energy bills are reduced (heating, cooling, electricity)
But money isn’t everything. Virtual contracting often results in small business owners being able to bring on better quality team members who possess higher levels of expertise, skill, education, and training at a lower cost than if hiring on-site employees. There are a variety of reasons for this, however perhaps the most significant is that virtual contracting means the business owner has the ability to attract from a much wider pool of contractors now that geographical limitations have been removed from the hiring equation.
This can all sound “too good to be true” – and there are challenges to building effective and productive virtual teams. Just as there are challenges training, managing, and mentoring on-site employees, virtual teams present virtual challenges. The first step in assessing whether or not your business would benefit via virtual teams is to have a basic understanding of how to manage such teams successfully.
Take Steps to Integrate Virtual Team Members
Virtual Team members need to be oriented to your business’ vision, mission, values, and goals. On-site employees assimilate the culture of your business because they are physically present and therefore have the opportunity to learn by direct observation. Virtual Team Members don’t have this opportunity – therefore the business owner must create it for them.
Create Common Ground
Whether or not your small business is a “one man show” or you have multiple employees, when you bring a Virtual Team Member on they need to know and understand not only their personal roles and responsibilities – but where they fit in your organization’s scheme.
Make Clear Ground Rules – But Be Careful
Although your team works remotely, Virtual Teams work best together when expectations are clearly stated. For example, you will want to come to agreements as to what meetings you would expect them to be available to attend (virtual, and in-person.)
However, the issue of a business owner controlling the time of a consultant can be a slippery slope. In order not to be considered an employee and rather an independent contractor, Virtual Team Members must have ultimate control over when, where, and how their work is done. The IRS has strict requirements that must be met in order to consider someone working for your business to be considered an independent contractor – otherwise you will be expected to pay all regulatory fees as you would an on-site employee. There are other negative consequences for not being in compliance with these regulations. Consult with an attorney or human resource expert to ensure the ground rules your Virtual Team Members agree to meet these requirements.
Use the Right Technology
Depending on the degree of complexity, perhaps the first Virtual Team Member you contract with should be an IT expert specializing in technology that supports virtual teams. At the very least make sure that you, and any Virtual Team Member, has fast access to the Internet. There are also online services that host collaborative project management platforms and shared document directories, as well as companies that provide audio-conferencing services.
Make Consistent Communication a Priority
Because your Team Members work essentially alone it is easy for them to feel isolated, even excluded, unless business owners are very proactive when it comes to communication with – and among – team members. Make sure you provide consistent and steady communication. A particular challenge is email as messages can become garbled or misunderstood. Make it clear to Team Members that you, and each other, are just a phone call away.
Be Clear and Precise When Managing Projects and Deliverables
Make sure that Team Members understand exactly what tasks they are to perform and are clear as well on the requirements of any deliverables they are contracted to complete. In a virtual environment it is usually best to keep assignments short rather than long-term. For example, if you’ve got a project with a six-week deadline, assign milestones every two weeks. This way you are assured the project is on track.
Socialize as Much as Possible
Employee or Virtual Team Member, we are all social beings and, as such, tend to build strong collaborative relationships via social interaction.
It truly is possible for business owners to build Virtual Teams consisting of members who never meet face-to-face. However, if your team does live in a close enough proximity to each other, make it a point to offer time together for the purpose of team building activities. On the other hand, if this isn’t the case, get creative and engage in online team building activities.
For example, even something as simple as designating a “dress down” Friday where team members post photos of themselves and the one with the most original take on dressing down wins an inexpensive gift card. There are many print and online resources for team building activities that can be adapted to a virtual environment.
The rewards Virtual Teams can bring to your small business are virtually priceless.