August 23, 2014

Managing Employees and Co-Workers in Cyberspace

Managing your employees can be difficult enough when they’re right in your office and you’ve all got constant access to each other. You can meet face to face and connect with your workers right then and there, and you have a better grasp on the “people” side of your business.

virtual employees

Startups that have a physical location enjoy this personal aspect, too—you may be doing business internationally, but if your entire team is a paper ball toss away from each other, you’ll definitely feel more secure in your management needs.

If your company is online, your employees are scattered across the country, or you’re starting up and can’t secure a physical space for your business, employee management is even harder—that personal element can completely disappear when you aren’t actually in the same place at the same time.

Thankfully, the Internet has enabled these kinds of location-less businesses to not only start up, but thrive and succeed without additional physical overhead.  Managing your employees through virtual-only interaction can be tough to wrap your head around at first, but it can be done, and it can be done very well.

Here are some examples I’ve learned from years of experience using freelancers-as-employees to get my business off the ground.

Traditional Management Methods Still Work

You can set up training videos, corporate seminars, workbooks and manuals for your virtual business just as easily, if not more easily than you can in physical space. If you’ve spent a lot of time iterating and improving your training resources, they’ll effectively bring new hires and shifting employees into the fold quickly and easily.

Virtual training materials also drastically decrease production costs since everything is digital, so you can spend more time creating highly-valuable training material and pay for it with the savings you’re earning from not printing and publishing it all.

Communication is Key: Be Forward and Be Open

In a virtual work environment, your employees won’t have your constant supervision—no eyes peeking over their shoulders, no popping into a cubicle to see how things are going. You can still keep tabs on where your employees are in their workday, though, by adapting those supervision checks to your virtual space.

Use your communication outlets effectively and often, and message or email your employees regularly for a “mutual update,” where you’re not only checking in on what they’re up to, but you’re initiating an opportunity for them to get your attention and bring you up to speed on their own thoughts and concerns.

Communication is a two-way street, so keep your communication lines open.

Inspiring Trust Through Assignments and Mini-Deadlines

Happy employees are employees that feel like their responsibilities matter, and you can make every assignment count by simply trusting them with it rather than beating them over the head with constant checks and updates. You might be surprised at how differently your employees will interpret your assignments when you say “do this” as opposed to “I need this from you.”

Simple commands via text or email can make employees think you’re upset with them. Identifying your needs and implicitly trusting them to meet them makes your employees feel like they have your complete trust. That sense of trust is improved if you give a realistic, tangible deadline to the assignment to boot.

Setting your goalpost or deadline 24 or 48 hours in advance gives your employees the freedom to get it done on their own terms, whether it’s at 2pm or 2am.

Learn Your Employees’ Weaknesses, Help Them Turn Those Into Strengths

If you have a relatively small but growing base of employees, you can encourage personal growth as a part of growing your business by helping them learn how to do new things and reach outside their comfort zones. Give your employees an opportunity to identify their weaknesses and strengths, then let them build experience in those weak areas through their work for you.

Don’t just take advantage of what they’re already good at: give them an opportunity to impress you, and themselves as well. This is another great trust-building exercise that creates a sense of co-ownership of new achievements and successes between you and your employees. This is hard to scale to a large number of employees, but if you’re only dealing with a few individuals, you can create a tight-knit community within your virtual workplace this way.

Ultimately, your goals for building trust in a virtual workplace shouldn’t be to simply emulate physical workplace procedures and techniques. You should identify the strengths and weaknesses within your company at the individual and the team level.

Find interesting, unorthodox ways to address those with the online services and products you use for your everyday operations. Don’t ever hesitate to make your virtual workspace a personal space: instead of being stuffy and overly professional, be casual, easy to talk to, and understanding of others.

The Internet is a wild place, especially if it’s where you work. Don’t be afraid to embrace that: be unique, try new things, and let yourself and your employees enjoy the freedoms of working in a digital environment.

Team Management Photo via Shutterstock

7 Comments ▼

Amie Marse


Amie Marse Amie Marse is the founder of Content Equals Money, a small content generation firm based in Lexington, KY. She’s been a passionate freelance writer turned business owner for over 7 years. Her philosophy is that the essentials of content marketing do not change from the small business to the Fortune 500 level, and that creativity trumps budget every time.

7 Reactions

  1. We found that utilizing tools like Basecamp (www.basecamp.com) and Skype or Google Hangout really helped. Basecamp created team-based project tasks for people to know what to work on, and Skype/Google Hangout allows you to put a face to a name and you can screen share on both.

    If you can afford it, it’s worthwhile to get everyone physically together on a periodic basis so that your team members can do the social bonding that really creates a strong team, as opposed to a collection of workers.

    • Couldn’t agree more! Before I launched CEM I was working with another 100% virtual company. They had two “meetings” a year one on the west coast, one on the east coast. The company paid for the hotel and food (hello tax write off) and the contractors paid for transportation. It was an absolutely lovely way to connect in person!

  2. I use Basecamp and it is very helpful with deadlines and keeping everyone on the same page about task progress and completion. Also creates great records.

    However, I just wanted to add that the best way to have employees “feel like their responsibilities matter” is to give them tasks and responsibilities that actually DO matter. People can sense busy work and it’s a motivation killer.

    • Good call! That’s just another reason transparency is so vital to running an online business. Let your workers know the big picture so they don’t feel like just a cog in the machine :)

  3. The reality is that you will be managing people who previously were at the same level as you were so it is likely that your relationship with them will change in your new role. You’ll need to learn how to be firm without being bossy and you’ll need to recognize how to give (and accept) constructive feedback when required.

  4. Thanks for the article! I recently started an online company and am getting ready to hire my first employee. I will definitely put this article into practice. I also have to second what Jason said. I had a client who used basecamp. The client wanted to help with the project and it really did make it feel like we were doing it together.

  5. Basecamp, and others, are great for managing timelines and tasks. There is a new product, TransparentBusiness, that manages the people ensuring that the hours paid are for hours worked.

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