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Managing and Motivating Virtual Employees

In today’s globalized, decentralized, wireless economy, more and more businesses are hiring “virtual employees” – employees who work remotely, often from home, and who may rarely or never come into the office. Needless to say, managing these employees from afar can be challenging. Effective virtual management begins with hiring the right people and continues with regular, frequent communication and recognition of success.

1) Hire the right people. The successful virtual employee is a disciplined self-starter who is productive in an isolated environment but is wise enough to maintain connections with other outside communities. The employee must also be trustworthy, self-reliant, organized, efficient, and dedicated to their own and the company’s success.

2) Get to know them. Hold one-on-one, 20-minute meetings (or longer) at least once every two weeks with direct reports. Let the employee set the agenda, and encourage him or her to discuss any questions or concerns. Assure him/her of your trust and respect, and ask questions about his/her aspirations, quality of work life, and sense of career advancement. Work to resolve any problems quickly, and keep the employee apprised of your progress.

3) Make them feel like a part of the team. Virtual employees should be included in all team meetings. Teleconferencing and web-enabled tools like GoToMeeting.com, webinars, live chats, etc. make team meetings among scattered employees easy.

Include some form of recognition in these meetings, such as acknowledging an insightful comment, remarking on small accomplishments that contributed to the end result, and praising those who honor their commitments. Organize employee retreats once a year so that virtual and traditional employees can interact with one another, to discuss success and/or make improvements, to create a sense of unity and teamwork, and to share information.

4) Communicate, communicate, communicate – in as many ways as possible, including newsletters, electronic message/discussion boards, the company intranet, etc. The level of communication should correlate directly to the distance of the employee.

5) Set realistic benchmarks and expect regular status reports. Establish criteria for measuring progress and success – for example total contacts made or products generated. Reserve a particular time of day or the week for check-in chats and/or web-enabled staff meetings. Set interim deadlines for projects to avoid surprises or gaps.

6) Reward and recognize. Reward virtual employees’ desirable behavior in ways that are meaningful to them. A virtual employee might like an upgraded computer, a Starbucks gift card (since many of them work from coffee shops from time to time), learning and development opportunities, or simply time off. Ask virtual employees to list two or three rewards that they would find motivating and then recognize them accordingly.

Managing virtual employees is challenging but gratifying, as these employees are among the most reliable and entrepreneurial. Give them room to innovate and grow, and you’ll be rewarded with success.