Today’s workforce is growing to incorporate a large number of virtual employees. More small businesses are outsourcing work to home-based workers all across the country and even around the world. Hiring freelancers to handle tasks that you don’t have the time or the skill to accomplish on your own can help to cut costs and save time.
Technology has made it much easier to collaborate with teams of employees and virtual service providers. If you are considering hiring virtual employees of your own, or even if some of your current employees are eager to work remotely, here are some tips for keeping the collaboration engine running smoothly.
Start with the right tools
There are so many tools available that make it easy to stay on top of tasks and easily collaborate with your team even if they are not all in the same room. For instance, if you send documents through email, only one person can make changes to the file at a time, without anyone else seeing them. Instead, you can document and project management tools such as Basecamp, Central Desktop, GoogleDocs, and Dropbox to help keep everyone on the same page, and looking at the same presentation or status-tracking document.
Get clearer with the team using tools like GoToMeeting, MeetNow, Skype, or Google+ Hangouts. These let you set up virtual meetings that allow everyone to hear and see each other as well as the visuals needed to help add detail to a topic.
There’s something incredibly powerful about visual cues such as body language in helping people better communicate and understand.
Give clear direction
When you work at a distance, it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur. The last thing anyone wants is to have a team member work very hard on the wrong thing! Make sure that you describe each task and project in precise terms. Use simple phrasing in order to ensure easy understanding. When possible, have a face-to-face chat with the employee so that they can hear you give instructions in the correct context and ask clarifying questions. This prevents confusions and delays in progress.
Set short-term deadlines
Freelancers and contractors often work on multiple projects concurrently. If you are one of several clients, your virtual employee will be focused first on the projects with a looming deadline. Break down each portion of your assignment and set a turnaround time of about 24-48 hours to ensure that yours does not get stuck at the bottom of the pile.
This has another advantage: If the team member does get confused about a task (“oh, you wanted it in blue?”) or you change your mind (“that doesn’t look so good after all…”), you find out about the problem sooner, when it’s easy to make a course correction. (This practice of smaller projects with short-term milestones taken in fast iterations is a foundation of the Agile programming methodology.)
Get frequent updates
Don’t make the mistake of waiting until the project is complete before you evaluate the employee’s work. That only leads to more corrections and a longer wait time, when the team member has to go back and make changes. Ask him to send you his work after a few hours or a few pages (depending on the task) so you can make sure he understood what you wanted. That gives you the opportunity to note any changes you’d like, making it easier for the team member to tune upcoming work to your preferences.
Reward and praise
Even though an employee does not work in your office, that doesn’t mean you should overlook her hard work and offer a bit of praise and thanks for all she does. In fact, it matters more, since she isn’t in the office to see your smile, or to overhear you tell someone else how efficient she is.
Take time to pick up the phone and call the team member personally. Or write an email telling the contributor how much you appreciate all the work she did. The more specific the praise, the better. (Not just “thank you for all your hard work,” but “I noticed how quickly you responded to that problem – at 10pm! – and I really appreciated the extra attention you gave to this.”) A small bonus for work completed early may even be something to consider – though there are many ways to motivate people without money being a factor.
Connect in person, when you can
If your virtual employee lives in the same city, schedule a time to meet in person in order to get that connection that only comes from being in the same room. Set up casual meetings where you discuss the project and then have a little social time. Even though many chose to work a virtual position, they still crave the opportunity to be social with a person they work with.
If you can’t meet in person, at least set aside “in person” time. Many teleworkers value a regular one-on-one meeting with their managers or clients, such as a weekly telephone call. That enables both people to talk about burning work issues, but also encourages you to discuss process improvements and make social connections as well (“How about those Orioles?”).
Virtual employees are an excellent solution for many businesses. They work hard and in the end can cost you less than having someone doing the same job in-house. When you have a system in place, collaborating with one another through technology is an effective way to work.