I recently had lunch with a friend who is still struggling to hire a new employee. He’d finally extended an offer to a candidate, after a month of research, interviews and a trial, only to be turned down by the candidate. She had received a better offer elsewhere. Naturally I asked him why not go virtual, and expand his employee search area. His response was  that his team needed face to face time. Company culture required sitting down together at a desk, generating ideas side by side and hammering out solutions to problems.

The virtual team. Does creativity and productivity really take a hit? More and more employees are seeking the opportunity to work from home, but what affect does this have on their performance and morale?

Cool office space is a big trend at the moment. Soothing lights, bean bag chairs, and cool chill out spots are the tip of the iceberg. TOMS  shoes incorporates a slide to get downstairs. Heineken has a full service bar.   All fantastic reasons to spend as many hours as possible at work, right?

Meanwhile, another trend is shaking up the corporate atmosphere. The virtual employee. Employees who are immune to the seduction of a cool office. Despite the fact that more companies are injecting the traditional grey cubicle with style, many workers would still rather avoid the office altogether. They cite a plethora of reasons. But the resounding truth is that some people just really don’t want to have to report to an office to do their job, no matter how swanky the office is.

Overall, it seems that general consensus is that remote employees can save the company cash, increase productivity, and produce happy employees. Yet there are a few folks out there that aren’t quite on board with the new WFH mentality. In 2013, when Marisa Meyer brought Yahoo’s 12,000 employees back into headquarters, it did give me pause. Are employees who work in the same space really more “collaborative and innovative?” It struck me that a technology company still needed employees to sit under one roof in order to get things done.

Yahoo has had some positive results, but they should. According to sources, remote employees were really slacking off. With someone peering over their shoulder at headquarters, desperate to make a point, you bet they’re going to start working harder. I certainly would. But I feel that Max Nissan at Business Insider sums up the real problem at Yahoo. It had nothing to do with whether Yahoo could succeed with a remote workforce. Rather, it sounds like “Yahoo was Truly Awful at Managing its Remote Employees.”

Don’t get me wrong, I suspect that managing a team of 12,000 remote workers can be daunting. Especially when managing a virtual team is fairly new and uncharted territory. But it is possible.

Here are a few tricks to get headed in the right direction.

1. Set the Ground Rules Early On

In most cases, employees should adhere to certain working hours. Within this time frame, they should be accessible by telephone or computer. Many employees also benefit from having a specific workspace. Figure out your policy and put it in writing.

2. Turn on the Video 

Face time is a necessary component to relating to someone. Facial expression can easily be lost in an email or a phone conversation. Check in with remote employees for at least ten minutes a day and turn the video on so you can see each other clearly.  No one is gathering around the water cooler so you need to make this visual connection.

3. Reporting

You won’t be able to stand behind your employee and peer over your shoulder. But there shouldn’t be any mystery about what they’re working on. This is where reporting comes in. Make it daily, weekly and monthly.

4. Solidify the team with technology

There is a growing selection of technology options to help your staff feel a creative cohesion so that they can work on projects collectively. WebEx, Adobe Connect Meetings and GoToMeeting enable people to share thoughts and documents in real time. Internet-based seminars and webinars allow presenters to use PowerPoint and other presentation tools.

Google documents is a helpful way for remote employees to share files with their manager.  Employees can just drop daily files into a folder which is immediately uploaded to the manager’s computer.

Basecamp is a superb way for a team to stay on the same page. Use newly launched Basecamp 3 to manage projects, work in groups, and grow together as a team. Basecamp brings you close to your teammates, even when they are across the world. Free trial here.

5. Trust

Is your employee not answering Skype? Don’t assume they’ve popped off to the beach. Just because they are virtual employees, doesn’t mean they don’t eat lunch or go to the bathroom. Trust that your employee is going to give you results and don’t worry if they are occasionally not answering on the first ring.

6. Communication

Traditional managers find communication with their virtual employees one of the toughest learning curves. A pat on the back gets a bit more complicated. Managers need to figure out how to use technology to connect with their staff members without the forced contact of an office. This requires more effort than popping by a desk. However, regular contact is key to a satisfied manager and a contented employee. Meaningful communication will be required, especially when expressing appreciation for a job well done.

Banter can be even more difficult than work talk, but chit chat is an important part of building camaraderie. I’ve heard of various techniques to improve the online relationship between virtual employees and their bosses. Round Robin questions and contests often help thaw the ice. Online games can be the perfect outlet for some friendly competition. A regularly scheduled virtual coffee break is a good time to catch up, too. I sometimes log on early for a meeting just to have a chat with employees while we’re waiting for everyone to join us.

Finally, as time goes by, make sure you’re checking in with employees to make sure they are happy. Sometimes it’s necessary to ask really pointed questions like, “What could I do to make your job easier?” and “What do you like least about my management style?” The feedback can prove invaluable.

Yes, you can score big going virtual. 

With a bit of effort and openness to trying new things, it can be done, and done well, whether we’re talking one virtual staff member or 20,000. Companies are binning their grey cubicles and replacing them with a creative workspace. Similarly, companies are respecting employees’ decisions to work from home. Setting up a remote workforce does require some thought, but hopefully the tips above will ease any fears you may be facing and encourage you to jump on board. Here’s to embracing change and progression. The best workforce is one that is contented and in the creative space that suits them best. I doubt that anyone will be pining for a grey cubicle though.

More tips and ideas? Email me directly at [email protected] or find out how we are helping great companies grow at AVirtual 

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