I’ve been lucky enough to primarily work from home for the last decade. I have offices that house employees for MFE Interactive in Guelph, Ontario:
But not all of my employees are in-house for my companies and I have no shame in admitting my primary office is the front porch of my house (weather permitting):
I also travel a lot, so sometimes, my “office” looks like this in an airport lounge:
Based on the above working conditions and on not all my employees/contractors being in-house, I’ve done a lot of virtual management over the years (either because I’m virtual or they are). And there are four tools aside from general Internet and email that I’ve found absolutely essential to my success in being able to do so.
Skype video chat is the one I absolutely couldn’t live without. A little buggy at times, but it gives me the ability to hold meetings in the office and video Skype in a virtual employee (or myself if I’m playing the role of the virtual boss with in-house employees) to be able to attend.
Sure, you could do this with a speakerphone and traditional phone line, but something about having them there on video allows not only them to feel more involved, but for me to feel they are more involved. Voice calls alone simply cannot compensate for face to face interaction with your employees (and partners).
Skype is free and all you need is a video cam, a mic (both usually built-in to most laptops) and headphones (to cut back on echos). My employees, both in house and virtual, all receive these as standard issue when being hired. If I was only allowed one tool to virtually manage employees and relationships with my partners, this would be it.
[*Note in the years since this post was written, I found Teamwork and ditched Basecamp for it. I've never regretted it.]
While I’ve never found a project management software that makes me 100 percent happy, Basecamp is the closest thing I’ve found to fit my needs (and not fit 2000 needs I don’t have making it ridiculously complicated to use).
Basecamp allows me to separate websites only giving employees and contractors access to those they need access too. With the ability to set milestones, track employee time on tasks, messaging functions allowing us to keep all conversation on a specific topic in an easily findable thread that everyone with access to the project can see and the ability to have virtual writeboards we can use for all sorts of things, it’s been the only PJM software I’ve found to be functional.
And also worth it because the cost is minimal. I have seperate Plus subscriptions for all of my companies. And every employee (and their sometimes virtual boss) can access it from any computer as long as they know their user and password.
BlackBerry Messenger (BBM)
My love of BlackBerry is what led me to start what is now one of the most trafficked Blackberry sites on the Internet, so if you use an Android, iPhone or other smartphone device, you’ll need to find your own solution that mimics BBM (and feel free to mention it in the comments below). That said, BBM is one of the sole reasons I remain a BlackBerry loyalist.
I don’t always have access to a computer and BBM allows me to get a hold of my employees (or they me) whether I’m on a tarmac waiting endlessly to take off or if they are in a cab on their way to lunch.
The addition of BBM Groups to the latest release of BBM means we can also have a way to communicate as a company – regardless of where everyone physically is – with or without a computer – when the conversation is one we all need to be in the loop on.
Though I’ve only recently become a user of Raven (you can see my Raven Tools review here), I’m quickly becoming an evangelist and already feel it is a tool that no SEO company or affiliate marketer should be without – especially if you and your employees are frequently virtual from one another.
Simply put, Raven allows you to know what is going on from an SEO, promotional and link development standpoint at all times for client sites and/or your own sites. When you have several employees working on link development for the same website, it allows you to easily organize your efforts so you’re not overlapping each other – especially when figuring out if someone has already requested a link from a site is not as simple as yelling across the room to the person at the desk next to you.
It also eliminates a lot of needless email threads and prevents promotional tasks from falling through the cracks – as I’ve found over the years they easily can (not due to anyone’s fault – sometimes it simply happens) especially when you or your employees are working virtually. The contact list also means that virtual employees can list their contacts and relationships they’ve developed while working for you for your own or client websites so that everyone can access them at any time.
Some extra tips
Managing employees virtually is definitely a task and one that can be a bit harder to do then managing employees you work in the same office with each and every day. But once you get a system, it is doable – and I’ve found – highly effective. Just as effective as me physically being with them in most situations.
Often times virtual employees are contractors that don’t receive sick days and paid vacations. Make sure if you aren’t giving them these perks that you are giving them bonuses (such as for Christmas or anniversaries of being with your company). Show your appreciation and let them know that being out of sight does not mean they are out of mind (my employees seem partial to Future Shop gift certificates and Yankee tickets).
If you have in-house employees, “pairing them up” to work as a team with an in-house employee makes it easier for them to stay in the office loop, without you constantly needing to bug them chat with them. In my opinion, it also makes them feel more a part of the office. Having them work in pairs mean that my virtual employees talk to and “know” my in-house employees as if they were actually sitting in the same room on a daily basis.
And lastly, never treat them like a “virtual employee”. They should be treated with the same respect and made to feel as included as in-house employees. Just my experience.
If you have any of your own tips for managing employees virtually, feel free to leave them in the comments below.