Many online marketers started out working from home as a way to escape the Dilbert-like cubicle farms of corporate life in favor of a flexible schedule. And while these home-based workers may have managed to avoid rush-hour traffic, endless meetings and the watchful eye of superiors, their work life is hardly about hanging out in pajamas.
According to 2000 U.S. Census data, more than 4.2 million people choose to work at home on a daily basis. And while the solitary work life can pose unique challenges for the self-employed, there are even more distinct technical, organizational and social skills needed to be successful (and remain sane) while working from home when you are part of a larger entity.
Online commerce has multiplied the opportunities for working as part of a virtual organization. Since technology (in the form of fast Internet access, file sharing and Web-based applications) has made it relatively easy to earn a living online, virtual office managers should focus on implementing strategies that often differ from what occurs in corporate America. You need to concentrate on sharing documents online, streamlining communications and organizing your time.
Put Your Work Online
In the corporate world of days gone by, workers kept their files on their PCs or on password-only accessible servers, protecting their documents as if they were the launch sequence for nuclear weapons. Now personal lives – through blogs, photo sharing and MySpace – are rapidly moving online, and work life should not be any different.
Making your relevant business documents and files available to peers will increase creativity and enhance productivity. From business strategy papers to spreadsheets to brainstorming notes, sharing documents online is essential to getting input from co-workers who aren’t in the same ZIP code.
Sharing your documents also eliminates the clutter of emailing documents back and forth and the frustration of sorting through folders to find out where you previously saved attachments. Maintaining a shared calendar through Google Calendar or Apple’s iCal can eliminate email strings that attempt to nail down an open time for a conference call.
Virtual office workers don’t usually have an IT department or top-heavy applications such as Lotus Notes to store and share their files, which many workers will consider a blessing. By organizing a common set of online folders, co-workers can quickly survey all aspects of a project and stay on top of progress.
Several secure online services simplify making files accessible to co-workers. Free services Google Docs and Spreadsheets and Microsoft’s Live Folders allow you to store up to 500 megabytes of content, while Apple’s iDrive permits 1 gigabyte of storage. The services enable you to specify the people (via their email addresses and passwords) with access. Subscription services such as Box.net offer additional security, storage capacity (up to 15 gigabytes) and workgroup features for around $20 per month.
“I feel like I know what my team is doing much more than I did when I was in an office,” says Sam Harrelson, general manager for the U.S. for search marketing firm Clicks2Customers. “I can access [what I need] at any time instead of having to go down the hall to ask someone for a document.” Getting into the habit of storing files online and using a Web-based email service also provides access to files when you are away from your virtual office.
Harrelson, who works from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, manages staff in other states and reports to management in South Africa. He recommends putting documents online through social network sites to save time. He and his peers use a private Facebook group to share files and store contact information, thus creating a public Rolodex. Clicks2Customers uses a private wiki to trade ideas, and it also enables individual contributions to be identified. Harrelson also recommends setting up an RSS feed to track a project’s evolution.
Basecamp, an online service developed by 37 Signals, provides extensive workgroup functionality including project management, file sharing and messaging, but at a much lower price than the corporate applications that often require IT interventions.
Bambi Francisco, the founder of Web startup Vator.tv, says her company uses filesharing service Basecamp to manage its software development effort, which is primarily done in Pakistan. The site includes to-do lists, milestone tracking and messaging/ comment threads that can automatically generate emails or RSS feeds. Centralizing all of the files and messages related to a project in a single location will keep everyone on task and makes the necessary information always available.
Francisco says written documents and messaging can simplify communications between people with accents and for whom English is not their primary language. Her peers were all born outside of the U.S., and reading an email or online status report can be easier than phone conversations. “Email has never been more important [for her business communications],” she says.
The isolation of the virtual office requires the most dramatic change in work routine and psychological adjustment. For a “people person,” having only the office furniture (and perhaps a pet) for company can create a yearning for the digital approximation of human contact. Virtual office workers need to become comfortable with cyber relationships and appropriately using instant messaging and telephone/videoconferencing.
In many cases, instant messaging is the most efficient method of getting questions answered or discussing a pressing matter. Making a phone call is a commitment – social convention dictates the exchange of salutations, and ending a conversation after just a few minutes can feel awkward. IM doesn’t have these limitations, and keeping an IM window to a peer open enables both parties to continue working in between messages.
Because of the usually immediate feedback, IM is replacing email as the most effective communications tool for virtual office dwellers. Email has become “more of a social application,” according to Harrelson, who uses it as a last resort if a peer isn’t online.
Shawn Collins, co-founder of the Affiliate Summit, who runs his company with partner Missy Ward, from New Jersey while she’s in Florida, also has another employee in Virginia, and some event staff in Colorado. He agrees that his biggest challenge is not having face-to-face interaction with his team. However, he estimates that he only speaks with Ward a few times a week, but emails her at least a dozen times per day. He also says they IM constantly and if one of them is on the road, the text messages are flying fast and furiously.
IM applications such as Skype, AOL’s AIM, and Yahoo or Windows Live Messenger can also be used for internal voice and videoconferencing, but the free services don’t take the place of an in-person client meeting. Vator.tv’s Francisco relies on Skype as her primary instant messaging and voice connection in her home office in San Francisco. Since her co-workers in Denver and Austria also use Skype, there is no need to pay for conference-calling features and the $35 annual fee for a business line enables her to call anyone.
A landline may not be necessary for virtual offices looking to keep costs down. Between Skype and a cell phone, Francisco is able to sufficiently stay in touch with peers and clients. However, virtual office workers cannot fully rely on instant messaging and voice communications. Meeting people in person or at least seeing their faces provides important but unspoken information about co-workers and business associates.
Videoconferencing, which can be done through inexpensive webcams, can provide a greater comfort level with peers whom you rarely or never meet in person. “It’s a visual world, and you want to see images of people,” says Francisco, whose company introduces entrepreneurs to venture capitalists through videos. She uses her webcam in conjunction with instant messaging chats and voice calls during many of her online discussions.
While videoconferencing suffices for many co-worker conversations, meeting in person is preferred when starting new business relationships, although she has signed one business deal without ever meeting someone from the company in person. “For partnerships I like to meet with people,” she says.
A New Approach
Communicating with affiliates who are accustomed to an independent work life can require a different approach. “Affiliates are not required to be good communicators; they just need to build a legitimate site or service that makes money, and they’re in,” says Mike Kansa, an affiliate from Arcata, Calif. Kansa is part of the FlamingoWorld.com team, which started as a one-woman affiliate venture. Connie Berg, the founder, has become a super-affiliate and her business has grown to such successful proportions that she now employs seven workers scattered all over the U.S.
Kansa, who has also worked as an outsourced program manager, says being effective can be more important than personal communication skills. “Today someone could probably grow to super-affiliate status and not talk with a single person along the way.”
Some affiliates who have never experienced cubicle life “may lack the organizational skills of working in a fast-paced, deadline-oriented office,” so the importance of deadlines must be reinforced, Kansa says. But he believes “individuals working from different environments help to add diversity to our industry.”
Organize the Day
Keeping focused on work despite the temptation of a sunny day or laundry that needs to be washed can be too great a challenge. “Some people have been a disaster; they can’t do what needs to be done because of distractions,” says Anne Fognano, the “Momma in Charge” at CleverMoms.com, who left the corporate world in 1999 to spend more time around her children. She finds it is easier to get work done outside of the corporate environment. “I used to have a lot of distractions … people would hang out in the cubicle to chat,” she says.
One of the biggest advantages of maintaining a virtual office from home is the convenience of being able to work at any time. That can also be a downside. The convenience of working at any hour can also be ruinous, and your co-workers may not share the same schedule.
Virtual office workers tend to work more of their hours outside of nine to five than the corporate set. This can be an advantage if you use technical people who live in different time zones, especially the growing number of qualified programmers and designers in Asia. Late night (U.S. time) can be prime time overseas, and planning ahead to work late and give yourself a break during the day will reduce the likelihood of burnout.
Recruiting technical help when you don’t have an office near an urban center can be a time drain, and since so much work is done remotely, there is no need to limit the geography of contract workers. Vator.tv’s Francisco posts available positions on her websites and asks candidates to submit video applications.
oDesk, a website for finding global technical talent, has an extensive database of local and international contractors. The site assigns “virtual team rooms” to coordinate project activities and takes care of international currency exchanges, according to CEO Gary Swart. The company manages the hourly billing, and oDesk customers provide ratings of the contractors. oDesk charges a 10 percent premium on top of the fees earned by the tech workers.
Scheduling regular videoconference or phone calls with team members will encourage people to meet their deadlines since no one likes to be caught unprepared at a meeting. Scheduling phone calls can reduce the number of spontaneous conversations that were meant to answer a single issue, but often turn into productivity-chewing marathons.
The biggest challenge for virtual workers is fighting the urge to check email or do “just a few things” during what is supposed to be leisure or family time. “I try not to be in my office unless I’m working,” says affiliate Kansa. “If I want to do personal stuff on my computer, I take it outside of my office.”
Collins says he’s very flexible about his schedule, but attempts to adhere to 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. “office hours.” He will only take calls during those hours and stops working at 6 o’clock to spend time with his family, which includes four young children. However, by 10:00 p.m., when the rest of the family is in bed, he starts his “second shift,” which typically lasts until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. It’s at that time that he answers emails and gets a lot of his busy work accomplished.
Collins says that time zones aren’t an issue for him, since he’s flexible and works with like-minded people. “Both Missy and I keep somewhat unconventional hours,” he says. “So if we need to have a call with someone in Australia at midnight our time, that’s fine.”
He also notes that for the Affiliate Summit in the U.K., he and Ward are partnering with Jess Luthi, who lives in the U.K., but that the five-hour time difference has yet to be a problem. “She’s in London, but she keeps odd hours. We see her online at all hours of the day and night, so there hasn’t been an issue with communicating.”
Clicks2Customers’ Harrelson says relying on a cell phone as your business line lets you answer questions as they arise, but makes getting away from work a challenge. “It’s all about balance,” he says. “Overdoing it doesn’t help. But then I find myself working some days until 2:00 a.m., and starting again at 6:00 a.m.”
The Trust Issue
Working in a virtual office involves a greater level of trust since you rarely, if ever, get together with co-workers. Home workers don’t have the hearty handshake or leisurely lunch to bond with peers or clients, so they must have faith that their digital communications provide an adequate representation of the people with whom they interact. Being skeptical when a person is out of touch is natural, and virtual workers have to fight the urge to assume the worst if an assignment is missed or someone goes missing for a few hours.
“When I first started my business, I was more trusting about whom I hired. Now I get non-compete and confidentiality agreements,” says CleverMom’s Fognano. Fognano has never met a woman she manages who lives hundreds of miles away but, “As long as she does her job, it works out well.” Fognano makes a point of attending several industry events each year to get the necessary face time with partners and peers.
Those who have successfully worked from home are attractive candidates for employers, should they choose to reenter the corporate life, according to Harrelson. Virtual office workers who perform can be trusted to work independently, a desirable trait, he says, “… If you are producing results in a remote environment, [that means] you are a flexible person who can get something done.”
John Gartner is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the editor of Matter-mag.com