Is it a good idea to hire staff and build a team of employees you never or rarely actually see?
For the last twenty years, I’ve run virtual companies and the answer is – it depends on two things:
First, your business needs to be one where showing up in person to work with clients isn’t a requirement. If you’re a carpenter, plumber, or hairdresser, remote or virtual employees aren’t going to cut it.
Second, you do need to understand that managing a virtual workforce isn’t less work, it’s more, and you need to love that part of your job or it’s going to be a disaster. If you run a business based on knowledge and information, you may want to consider a remote or virtual workforce.
My first experience with virtual employees was when I hired a Virtual Assistant to help manage my then growing website and coaching practice. Ros was my first employee. I live and work in Connecticut and Vermont; she was located near Austin,Texas.
I got lucky with Ros. She was smart, self-disciplined, and I couldn’t have been happier with her; that was until she fired me. Well actually, my business had grown so much, it was taking up all her time and she wanted more than one guerilla client. So, she helped me find a full time virtual employee.
With my current and much bigger business, when I went to hire on a virtual team, my beginner’s luck had run out. One of my early hires was a web programmer who I’ll call Jason. Jason seemed like a great guy and perfect for the job. That was until I noticed he was delegating all his work to our overseas team and never actually seemed to be available.
In order to understand how Jason was spending his time, I asked him to install Worksnaps on his computer, something everyone else on the team had agreed to do. It’s a program that takes a screen shot of your employees work every 15 minutes and allows you to sort by task, which is a great management tool. Jason refused to install Worksnaps. When pressed, he admitted that if he installed it, we’d see that he wasn’t doing work for us but for other freelance clients. This prompted his resignation.
Of course, if he’d been working in an actual office with a team, I would have noticed. But being a virtual employee, he had the scam going for a month or more before we figured out how to detect it.
Has that made me rethink using a virtual team?
Not at all. It just forced me to identify the key elements to making it work, to ensuring accountability and collaboration are the norm.
Here are the 5 key elements:
1. Hire people who are looking for a fair wage, flexibility in their schedule, want to be masters at their craft, and have a high degree of autonomy. Of course this isn’t for everyone and requires team members with very high levels of self-motivation, organization and self-discipline.
2. Test them out. When we hire someone, they start as independent contractors and we give them 3 months to prove that it’s a good fit. Then, if they are the rock stars we hope they are, after 3 months they become full time employees.
3. Pay people fairly. We have a simple system for determining pay. Before we hire someone we research salaries. Then if we want someone to join the team, we ask them what they think is fair compensation. If it’s within reason, we make them the following offer. We agree to pay them somewhat less than they’d asked, even $5k less for the first 3 months, then if we hire them full time, we’ll pay them more than they asked for. It’s a test to see if they really want the job.
4. Set goals. Our growing virtual team is up to 12 people and key to our success is having every employee be crystal clear on what their most valuable activities are, how they should be measuring their success, and their monthly, weekly and daily goals. Every week their manager reviews their monthly and weekly goals with them, making sure their priorities are aligned. And at the end of every day each employee updates their goals for the next day.
5. Monitor performance. The key here is to set aside time each week for each employee to report on how they’ve done with the simple idea of training them to take responsibility for their success. Sure, we still require everyone to use Worksnaps, but it’s primary use is to see where people are spending their time. This way we can eliminate switch-tasking and map out our staffing needs.
The biggest mistake that most business owners make is to confuse delegation with abdication. And it’s much easier to make this mistake when your employees aren’t actually in the same location as you. Imagine you assign a task and assume it’s going to be done. If the employee was in your office, you could walk by and check in periodically, answer questions, and keep them on track. When they are working virtually, you need systems in place to create a high performing work environment.
Managing a virtual organization takes conscious and continuous management. Of course if you do it right, you’ll have an inspired, motivated, highly productive, and happy team. One that gives your employees a life they never dreamed of, and dedication and commitment beyond what money can buy.