Create and manage a virtual team using tech tools

Cloud-based services, Internet communications make it easier to manage these relationships

by Susan Solovic

You’ve been reading about virtual teams, long-distance employees, and Internet freelancers. But are any of these right for your small business today?

Even without knowing the particulars of your situation, I’m going to answer “yes.” I will explain by describing two scenarios at the extremes.

In our first scenario, you’re a one-person company, and you’re starting to run into situations where you either don’t have enough time to get something done, or you don’t quite have the skills to accomplish a task in a timely manner or at the highest level of quality.

In this case, your first “employee” might not be an actual warm body you bring on board, but a freelancer who can get a project done or give you the few extra hours of help you need each week to keep up with your growing workload.

In our second scenario, you have a good-sized team of experienced professionals propelling your growth. Occasionally, however, an odd job or project arises that would cut into their time and take them away from valuable work that they’re doing. Perhaps it’s time to open a second “office” across the country or even overseas.

In these cases you can bring in specialized talent or contract with a “virtual” employee at an offsite location. You minimize your financial commitment and maintain your flexibility.

In both of these scenarios, however, it’s important that you clearly define what you want your distance workers to do and equally critical that you frequently communicate with these people. You need to make sure they’re going down the right path and they also need to hear from you to maintain their involvement. Remember, with distance workers, especially contractors, they are serving other clients and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

It wasn’t long ago that these kinds of work relationships would have been difficult at best and impossible at worst. Cloud-based services and Internet communications have made effectively managing these relationships possible. Here are some of the tools you have available.

“This movement is really defining the new face of work and employment. And as it becomes more widespread, we will continue to see more apps and services launched.”

The technology tools you need

  • Freelancing services
    Sites such as Upwork and Elance connect you with freelancers. These sites provide the payment and accounting infrastructure. For example, they will handle 1099 forms for U.S.-based workers. They have escrow accounts that help contractors protect their funds until work is satisfactorily completed.
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN)
    If you’re setting up a satellite office across the country, having a VPN can be a tremendous asset. AT&T has a solution called AccessMyLAN® that provides almost unlimited mobility; it’s compatible with most Apple® iPhone® and iPad® versions, most Android phones and tablets, and several feature phones.
  • Cloud-based applications
    Microsoft® Office 365® makes all of the go-to Microsoft Office programs accessible via the cloud. Professionals everywhere are accustomed to using this software. With the addition of cloud storage, your team has what it needs no matter where it is located.
  • Project management Software as a Service (SaaS)
    SaaS providers such as Basecamp can be used as a project management and communication hub for more involved projects. If you’re that one-person operation I mentioned at the top of this article, Dropbox, Google Docs™, and Google Drive will prove handy.
  • Online meetings
    Video conferencing with services like AT&T Connect® can really help keep your long-distance workers on the same page. When working with virtual employees, some small-business owners like to keep a Skype® messaging window open all the time for quick questions and comments throughout the work day. It takes the place of the casual comment made over the cubicle divider in a typical office environment. A more specialized service is HipChat, which allows for private chat groups, file sharing, and more. The screen sharing feature in these chat/messaging programs can be very useful.

I started this saying that you’ve probably read a lot about virtual workers in recent months. This movement is really defining the new face of work and employment. And as it becomes more widespread, we will continue to see more apps and services launched.