"Work" used to mean the place you went every day as much as it meant what you did there. "Going to work" meant dressing up, going out the door and taking a car or public transportation to a building where you spent the whole day inside except, maybe, coming out for lunch. Today, many people work from a table in their local coffee shop or their dining room, or a desk set up in what used to be a bedroom. But they're not freelance or self-employed. They connect with co-workers around the country or even the world as easily as walking into the next cubicle. Welcome to the virtual business.
Virtual Business Definition
The meaning of the phrase "virtual business" has changed dramatically through the years. As recently as 10 years ago, a company could be called virtual if they outsourced some of their work to people who worked in another city. Others allowed certain job positions to have "virtual teams" along with their in-house teams. Buzzwords of the times were "teleworking" and "telecommuting." More recently, the buzz has been about allowing some employees to "work remotely."
Today, more companies are becoming known as "100 percent virtual." This means there's no main office to go to, and everyone in the company works remotely, usually on their own rather than in groups. Employees are often spread out across the country, and even in other countries as well. Their location isn't important as long as they have a phone and consistent access to the internet.
Some can't imagine not having a brick-and-mortar place where everyone goes to work. But, it works so well for others that more and more businesses are starting to shoot to become 100 percent virtual, too.
How Does a Virtual Business Work?
Communication is the key to making virtual business work well. It's common today for people to check their email and make phone calls several times a day, from wherever they are. One of the main benefits of smartphone technology is being able to keep in touch easily when you're on the go. Virtual employees need to get in the habit of checking for messages numerous times each day. When a client, coworker or boss says, "I sent you an email," the answer can no longer be, "I haven't seen it; I'm out of the office." At the very least, the answer should be, "Let me check my email."
Previously, when an employee wanted to work from home, managers and even coworkers were suspicious of how much work was getting done. Daily communication removes that fear. Employees can easily tell each other what they're working on and how much they've accomplished as well as check in with their managers.
Files can be shared through email. Visuals such as charts, graphs and artwork can be scanned and sent in a file right from a smartphone. With documents in front of each person involved, they can hold a conference call to discuss it just as if they were all in a conference room together. It doesn't even need to be a formal conference call. Two people having a conversation can just patch in others that they want to talk with.
Just as coworkers and managers in a physical office would be concerned if someone's cubicle sat unused for the day without the employee calling in sick or letting someone know they were out at a client's, no one in a virtual business should be unaccounted for during the day.
There is a certain amount of trust required in virtual business, though. Management shouldn't spend all their time keeping track of people. The point is to be productive, wherever you are. And that's easy to discern. If work gets done on deadline, workers are productive. Many virtual business owners or managers say their firm's productivity increased once they became a virtual business.
Hiring the Right Employees
Not every person will do well in a virtual business environment. Some people need to walk through the door of their workplace to get into the mindset of being "at work." They like having the hum of busy people around them. They can't be as productive sitting by themselves, alone in a room and the local coffee shop isn't a viable substitute for them.
Certain personality traits indicate that a person could probably work well in a virtual business:
- Independent and confident working on their own.
- Self-directed, taking the initiative without being told.
- Passionate about the job, and want to work.
- Trustworthy, loyal and dedicated.
The question is, of course, how do you recognize these traits in applicants? Start with current employees. You know the ones who work well independently and those who come to you for approval on everything. The ones who have stayed at the job for years, and are productive rather than just putting in time, are loyal and dedicated. You can trust them to get work done, and there's no reason to expect they won't continue their work ethic when they work virtually.
When you're interviewing new applicants for virtual jobs, the traits of independence, self-direction, passion and trustworthiness are a good way to narrow your choices. Then you do what you've always done when hiring: Go with your gut.
Pros and Cons of Age
Many people say that younger workers who are used to doing as much as possible online are ideal for working in a virtual business. So-called Millennials, for example, which the Pew Research Center recently decided were born between 1981 and 1996, fit that description.
Labels can be dangerous, though. True, most people in that age range are technologically inclined. Not only do they know technology, but they also typically adapt to new technology easily. But, first of all, that's a large age range. Second, personality traits still must be considered.
Only you can determine how much experience is required for each job, and to a certain extent, experience comes with age. Someone who is 22 and fresh out of college probably won't have the maturity of a 35-year-old and certainly not the experience. However, a new grad may have a passion for the work and exuberance in general that can go a long way in any work environment.
It's risky to assume, though, that virtual employees need to be young. Older workers, for example, the so-called "baby boomers" born between 1946 and 1964, are often considered out of their element where technology is concerned. Of course, it's natural to cling to the familiar. But that doesn't mean all applicants of "a certain age" can't be excellent virtual employees.
First, some are very good with technology and love it. Those who aren't can learn whatever devices your company uses. Second, older workers tend to stay at jobs longer and may be more loyal and committed overall. Even those at or near retirement age are usually happy to be working. They're not looking for promotions or using the job as a stepping-stone.
If both younger and older workers can bring benefits to a virtual business, don't forget those in the middle either. The fact is, age is probably the least factor to consider when hiring for virtual jobs. Having employees of all ages offers significant benefits. Younger workers are usually happy to show how to use technology to anyone who needs help. Older workers have years of experience and knowledge that they can share to lend insight to many work situations.
Jobs that Work Well Virtually
While just about any job can be done virtually, some categories can be adapted more easily. Those that have successfully employed virtual workers, whether full-time or part-time, include:
Creative: Businesses centered around creative arts and writing, such as advertising and publishing, have always turned to specialists outside their company when the need arose. They couldn't afford to keep talented artists on staff, and working with them virtually allowed them to hire people with different specialties and talents for each assignment.
Finance: Jobs that are primarily number-based, like accountants and financial planners, can be done from anywhere. Simply email them files or financial documents with brief explanations, and they can take it from there. They're accustomed to working alone and typically aren't people who need to have others around them to be productive.
Sales: Outside salespeople have always been trusted to work while out of the office. That's where their clients and prospects are. It's easy to tell whether they're productive through their sales numbers.
Internet: The very essence of internet jobs makes them ideal for virtual business. Web designers, software developers or any job done for the internet can be done virtually.
Education: Colleges and even high schools have had online classes for some time, and some are now entirely online. Who hasn't taken a training class online? That's becoming the most popular way to train for anything, whether it's a new job, a new product or a new procedure. Numerous tutoring companies offer online tutoring, even when student and teacher are thousands of miles apart.
Customer service: Many companies have virtual customer service reps. The customer probably imagines they're calling into a physical department in the company, but there's no reason reps can't work from home. All that's needed is a phone, internet access to a customer service manual, phone extensions in case they need to transfer the call and the ability to use a headset where they are.
Helpdesk: Similar to customer service, the "help desk" answers questions for an IT company or any that may need to explain details to a confused customer. That desk can be anywhere you can put a laptop and a person.
Many jobs can be adapted to work virtually or a combination of getting together in person and working remotely. Of course, industries like manufacturing, where physical products are made at a facility, requires that work is done on the premises. But that doesn't mean the sales, administrative, financial and management for the facility can't be done virtually.
Virtual Business Address
If you want to give the impression of having a physical office or simply give your clients a place to send mail and packages, numerous companies provide this service. They typically charge monthly based on how much mail you receive. They'll give you a street address, the ability to view your mail online and decide what to do with each piece. Options range from shredding it to forwarding it physically to an address you provide.
Virtual Business Management
Managers and owners need to adjust their thinking, too, to operate a virtual business successfully. The best management style for everyone, including managers, is a mix of communication, flexibility and trust.
Many companies set up some kind of "all hands meeting" to occur on a regularly scheduled basis. Maybe it's a Monday morning conference call to discuss each person's goals for the week. Since you're not asking them to show up in person, everyone who isn't ill should be able to "attend" a conference call.
Decide how you want each employee to report in, and when, during the rest of the week. If you tell all employees to call you every day to tell you where they are and what they're accomplishing, your work will be disturbed by phone calls all day. Asking them to email you with the information allows you to read it at your convenience. A weekly checklist that includes all names will be easy to check off when each one reports that day.
But, there is an extra element of trust required of managers in a virtual business. You can't look out and see who's in their cubicles at any given moment. You have to be able to trust that employees are doing what they say they're doing. If productivity is the same or better than it was, your virtual business is working.
Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. She has written on business topics for afkinsider.com, smallbusiness.chron.com, Harbor Style Magazine, the Charlotte Sun and more, as well as advertising copy and materials. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards in B2B and B2C marketing.