HR 15 September 2015

How to manage a virtual micro business

Improvements in technology mean you may be managing employees without seeing them face to face
Improvements in technology mean you may be managing employees without seeing them face to face

HR consultant Kay Heald discusses the things to consider as an employer with a dispersed workforce – from utilising the correct communication tools to ensuring everyone is operating with the same ground rules.

It’s an exciting time for the micro business in the UK. A recent darling of the general election, the micro business is now receiving increased political and media attention as it plays a key role in working towards the country’s economic recovery and growth.

Although frequently associated with innovation and technology, micro businesses encompass an increasingly wide spectrum of industries and sectors. No two micro firms look the same, but their small size, flexible headcount and lower overheads means they can be responsive to new markets and their increasingly discerning customers.

The freedoms associated with remote working, cloud based data storage and mobile communications, have reduced the need for a single business location and collaborative working is stretching the definition of “worker” and what it means to be associated with a particular organisation. This creates new challenges for micro business managers seeking to create a cohesive culture, exemplary customer service and a strong brand, when their workers rarely share the same physical space.

Although the challenges of managing a workforce are certainly amplified when they are spread across multiple locations or countries, forward planning, an investment of management time and a bit of human psychology can go a long way to combat many of the key problems associated with dispersed working.

Find the right people

Finding the right team players is a crucial first step. These people have to be self-motivated, results-driven, open and honest, and excellent communicators across different media. The business owner needs to look for a good mix of people, but if they have some shared experiences, backgrounds or interests, it will be easier and quicker to build trust and rapport.

Set the right ground rules

Successful early-stage firms often rely on a variety of different worker arrangements, only some of which will be employees. Therefore having a clear set of ground rules for common ways of working, interacting with clients and appropriate codes of conduct becomes extremely important. Setting an agreed roadmap for a team, or a team charter, is particularly helpful in times of difficulty or conflict, providing a common focus to keep projects and people on track.

Use the right communication tools

Human beings are social creatures and the tone of an organisation often comes from informal conversations around the ubiquitous coffee machine or water cooler. However, micro businesses can re-create this virtually using Yammer-esque type tools which allow people to post pictures, send messages and chat with co-workers.

The value of face-to-face contact should never be ignored and occasional physical meet-ups are a very important building block when developing trust and forming solid working relationships in any virtual grouping.

Company blogs, e-newsletters and intranets, if well organised and well maintained, can reinforce key messages and help create virtual communities that extend beyond a specific project.

High quality real-time video should not just be saved for client contact, but used widely for colleague and team interactions. However, virtual meeting etiquette needs to be agreed at the outset, to lessen misunderstandings, disagreements and upsets, so that professional working relationships can be developed between individuals.

Give the right feedback and reward

Good people management skills are even more important when working with virtual teams and current practice suggests managing virtual workforces can take at least twice as much time as managing those in a single location. Engendering a sense of fairness becomes more important in virtual environments, where people can easily feel isolated and perceive that other co-workers are dealt with more favourably. Technology can assist with creative solutions, such as setting individual feedback and one-to-one sessions, planning regular check-ins, organising virtual award ceremonies and posting project challenges or competitions.

And finally…

Managing virtual micro businesses is frequently about being observant and on-the-ball – being aware of the small and specific details which matter to individuals, that make a huge difference to the overall team or workforce dynamics. Being mindful of time zones, preferred working styles and development methods, understanding cultural sensitivities, recognising non-work commitments, valuing individual contributions and showing appreciation, all go a long way in helping create and manage effective virtual work teams in today’s micro business.

Image: Shutterstock

Kay Heald runs Kay Heald HR consultancy, specialising in working with small and micro organisations. 

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