Having a virtual company empowers you to hire talent anywhere in the world and manage a team of employees using the wonders of modern technology. I have personally worked this way since January and have been very happy with the results. My developers are very efficient and I believe they are actually more productive when working from a comfortable environment at home.
Working online with developers and designers has been streamlined with the help of FogBugz. Every single task gets tracked through it and it manages 99% of our project communication.
Now I'm hiring more of a creative person who will handle marketing, customer service, and manage web projects. I'm a little concerned about working with this person in a virtual environment because I'm sure more tools will be needed to manage them.
So, my question is, what are you tips for managing a virtual workforce, particularly with resources other than design & development labor? What are your favorite communication tools? Do you use skype + some form of online meeting service? Has anyone tried the new http://www.fuzemeeting.com?
I HATE IM. I find it terribly unproductive. Maybe I will get my wave invite soon and can try that out. I'm having a hard time planning how I'll work with this person online. Your suggestions, advice, and personal experience are greatly appreciated!
Running a virtual office is not that easy, believe me >_>.
Properly managing a virtual office depends on your scale. For instance, if you're only dealing with a group of two or three, its pretty easy to stay on the same page on a constant or almost basis using simple communication methods like IM, email, whiteboards/screensharing, and voice/video chat. You can critique your designer while your dev is coding away at some feature, then follow up with the dev while your designer is whipping out a mockup - its easy to pipeline on a small scale.
When you're approaching twenty people or more, it starts to get non-optimal using traditional methods. You can't reasonably organize everything in your head AND do your actual job. At that point, depending on whether your skills and time are best put elsewhere, you might consider hiring someone specifically to map out everyone's time to best pipeline tasks. Here, things like Google Wave, Basecamp, or any kind of pseudo-real-time threaded messaging helps a lot. Gantt charts, time management grids, bug tracking systems, etc are all a big help.
IMs & Email, in my opinion, are actually best suited when your workers are in close proximity. Interrupting someone in person often requires a 15 minute warm up period to get back on the original task due to context switches. So, being able to ignore messages for a short time can focus a lot of productivity.
That said, being separated means its easy to ignore messages completely. So, what we did was use text messages for extremely important and critical messaging, and email/IM for everything else. IMs/email clients would be turned off during focused time periods. Then, with someone solely responsible for organizing tasks and time, we could figure out who was slacking pretty easily.
All in all, its a fun experience, but I missed ignoring people in person.
We are running a virtual office, about 6 core people + 3 directors.
All you need:
This is the good bit, although I noticed that if the team member is not good at self discipline she's going to suck big time, and as the captain of the ship it's not easy to fix those problems.
I own a virtual marketing agency (I'm lead consultant and work with partners and small software company clients across North America) and collaborate with clients and partners via DeskAway project management software, and use Acrobat Connect for meetings involving screen sharing, whiteboard and audio conferencing. For quick meetings I use Skype or I have free long distance on my business phone plan so I'll just call.
Beyond the tools mentioned above to manage marketing activities, I highly recommend putting underlying tools in place to implement, measure, and report on those activities, follow up with prospects in a timely manner, and report on what marketing activities are effective (or not effective) for generating sales revenue, such as marketing automation software and a CRM solution.
I run a company with 45 staff in 9 different countries, so our office is completely virtual. Here is what I would recommend:
I've been a member of a virtual team (I'm a developer) for several months and I really like it. I am far more productive because the lack of distractions in the office. Of course, I have several buddies on my IM contact list that can help if I hit a problem. That goes in the reverse direction too. While I think IM can get distracting, I also think it is very helpful -- just discipline yourself and do not click those YouTube links people send your way.
We use Skype for quick calls and ooVoo for our daily Scrum meeting. It works really well.
I don't think you need tools to manage the marketing person; your marketing person needs tools to handle marketing. I'd look into an online CRM service.
If you don't like IM pick up the phone. I'm sure a marketing & customer service person should be pretty comfortable with that mode of communication. The only advantage to IM is when you're in an environment you can't talk outloud, long-distance phone calling is costly, or you need to have a conversation with 8 people at once. The other members may prefer something else if they have to work with this person. I'm sure they can work something out.
I've worked remotely, but with firms where everyone else was in the same office. Not an ideal situation. Your marketing person needs to make sure they are keeping in touch with everyone. Again, they should be better at this than most people or you don't have the right person.
As far the technology answer of your question I've used Acrobat Connect (non-pro) and it is far and away my favorite meeting tool. Our team isn't in IM by default. Skype discussions (or campfire) are treated like meetings: they need to be scheduled - and have a reason. This is for the reasons mentioned above: not interrupting people and just letting them work.
Most communication goes through email and Basecamp (occasional FogBugz use).
Moving away from technology, in my experience, there is a larger concern about trying to create a feeling of "team". And that is not an issue that is magically solved with technology. Using technology well is a good start, but bear in mind that you'll have a more productive team if they work together and understand each other. Work that creates that sense is well worth the time.
The most important virtual office tools are for communication Skype, for sharing documents Dropbox, for online meeting Go2Meeting and WebEx.