The advance of home computers and the internet welcomed all sorts of speculations about everyone working from home instead of commuting into the office. Despite situations like Yahoo! axing their work-from-home program a few years ago, virtual workforces are growing rapidly. In the last ten years the number of employees telecommuting increased by 103%.
Potential employee benefits of working virtually are obvious: more flexible scheduling, taking a job across the country, no commute, more opportunity for a good work/life balance. Positive outcomes for employers include less overhead and casting a wider geographical net for hiring. The benefits of creating a virtual workforce have not escaped the attention of Silicon Valley companies, who now routinely run special project teams or even whole departments working virtually.
The big question for project managers, creative directors, and company owners managing a virtual workforce from Silicon Valley or elsewhere: how is this supposed to work? How can you track hours and productivity, communicate your company culture, and ensure each worker is a good representative of your brand when many of them live states or oceans away?
Clear Communication from Silicon Valley to New York
Let’s say you are a startup in Palo Alto looking for highly skilled graphic designers and web designers to join your crew. You know not all of the best tech creatives are right in Silicon Valley, nor are all of them able to pick up and move to a million dollar home in Cupertino, so you hire a staffing agency for creatives and conduct a nationwide search. You end up with an amazing team of designers, a couple not far from the Bay Area and several more from places as far flung as Atlanta and upstate New York.
You need to make communication clear and effective to keep your virtual workforce on task and in the loop. Recognize you will not understand the personalities of your virtual employees as quickly as you would an in-office team. Text is open to interpretation much more than an in-person conversation, so keep in mind how easily miscommunications can occur via email.
Fostering clear communication is easier with a platform designed to connect and create transparency between employers and their remote employees. UberConference facilitates video conferencing and screen sharing so you can still hold meetings with your web designer in New York and the graphics specialist in Atlanta.
Setting Up Clear Guidelines
Another example: you own a marketing firm in San Jose and need copywriters but cannot scale up your in-house workforce at the moment due to the overhead. You are confident talented writers can produce the work you need from anywhere and end up hiring copywriters from all over the country and even a couple expats living overseas.
The best case scenario is everyone immediately jumps on board with your company mission and self-monitors their hours while meeting all deadlines. In reality, you are off to a shaky start communicating your expectations as the company owner, tracking productivity, and syncing the efforts of a workforce spanning California to Dubai.
You decide to do yourself and your virtual employees a huge favor by setting up clear guidelines right away. Each remote employee is sent a tutorial and virtual tour of your company– you know your virtual workforce is just as much a part of your business as the employees in your office, and you want them to understand the company culture. You lay out guidelines for client relations, standards of business, and your ethics as a company. Now your virtual employees can positively represent your brand just like your in-house staff does.
Since you respect the scheduling freedom enjoyed by your at-home copywriters, you lay out just what you expect with regards to hours and deadlines, letting them work out the particulars of how they meet these goals. Virtual workforce managers will have to decide whether they want to track hourly progress (via a program like Hubstaff) or base productivity on the finished product. Whatever you choose be sure to inform your workers of your expectations upfront.
The Virtual Water Cooler
When employees contemplate, “What are ways to improve my career?” the water cooler probably never comes to mind. Yet Silicon Valley companies leading the industry in virtual workforce management always advise you create a virtual water cooler for the sake of everyone involved. Whether you use a remote employment platform like Slack or create your own simple intranet, find a way for your employees to connect with you and one another on a more personal level.
Working remotely can make a team feel fragmented. Even if you clearly communicate the company culture to each team member they may not feel an automatic connection with one another. One way to do this is when you lay out your guidelines upon hiring an employee, make it clear how coworkers should keep each informed. Remember the copywriter in Dubai? You don’t want her left out of conference calls and live chats because she lives in another time zone. The water cooler can serve as a way for team members to better understand each other’s circumstances.
You can implement a more formal team-building program for your remote employees or keep it casual by encouraging them to use your communication platform for social interactions, too. Chatting on Slack may not be the same as your employees enjoying lunch together at a trendy bistro on Santana Row in San Jose, but it still creates unity among your team members. Cohesiveness among your workers makes their job more enjoyable and less isolating while increasing productivity for you.
Virtual Workforces in Palo Alto and Beyond
The benefits of having a virtual workforce are clear and the potential pitfalls are simple to troubleshoot. It may not be for every company, but if you discern a team of remote employees is beneficial for your business you shouldn’t shy away from it. This is a practical option for anyone looking to expand their workforce without increasing overhead. Managing workers remotely is proving effective for countless companies in Silicon Valley, and there is no reason why it can’t work for you, too.