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April 3, 2012

A Concrete Guide To Virtual Success: Strategic Tips For Creating and Maintaining a Profitable Virtual Business

By Georgette Pascale, Founder and CEO, Pascale Communications

Many public relations practitioners assume it would be a joy and a breeze to work from home, with no office politics to contend with, no distractions from chatty co-workers, and no commute. I certainly did. And office attire consisting of comfy sweats or pajamas was a lovely notion. But unless you, as a virtual CEO, can identify the experienced, disciplined, authentic self-starters from the wannabes, as you assemble your staff, your virtual office will be a literal mess. With so many companies deciding to go partially or entirely virtual, it's an ideal time to discuss the important differences between hiring staff for a traditional firm and hiring a disparate group of public relations practitioners who are spread all over the map, busily communicating with colleagues and clients alike, through the vastness of cyber space.

Seven years ago, after putting in my time at several brick and mortar public relations firms, I decided to open my own shop. I knew that I wanted to focus on healthcare. I also knew that I was not interested in a workplace where office politics were the norm and aggressive jockeying for a corner office was accepted behavior. I decided that a virtual shop was the answer and got to work assembling a community of senior level, self-starting colleagues who understood and embraced the virtual model I envisioned. At present, my company, Pascale Communications, has a staff of 14 women (and one lone man), hailing from coast to coast, ages 21 to 62, who all work at home and appreciate the flexibility of freelancing. My company accommodates the schedules of working mothers (seven) and busy freelancers. I was fortunate to locate a great group but I had some lessons to learn along the way — lessons that were specific to the virtual model.

When I started building my staff, I soon discovered that there's an art to conducting job interviews strictly by phone. If the candidate is not upbeat (awake), fluid and articulate on the phone with you, they most likely won't be with clients or the media either. Remember, these people will represent your company and if a virtual office had a front door, your name would be on it. Sight unseen, you have to make decisions as to whether the potential employee is truly self-motivated and comfortable working alone. Not always an easy task. Another piece of advice is to always hire grown-ups- especially those who've been referred to you by other grown-ups with whom they've worked. While these senior level pros might cost you a bit more, you will be most likely to find people who are accustomed to self-starting and, equally important, self finishing. And to make sure all work is being done to your satisfaction, it's fine to stay in close touch with your staff members- but try not to micromanage from afar. (This is not always easy, but is achievable when you've assembled the right team).

My goal was to create a company that was as near to a brick and mortar operation as possible. We have regularly scheduled staff meetings to catch up on office and personal items, and weekly one-on-one Skype or phone calls with each member of my staff to go over their current projects in depth. I'm always available to discuss strategy, or deal with unforeseen challenges. I put all their pictures and bios on the PC company website. I send out announcements about new hires. We're quite different from many other virtual companies, which are primarily made up of a loosely knit, interchangeable group of temporary freelancers. Instead, PC 's business model is much closer to that of a traditional office, one with a permanent, committed and capable staff to serve our growing roster of repeat and long term clients.

Once you have your group in place, find out not only what kinds of projects they're best at — but also what kinds they like best. If they enjoy and feel that they own their work, they're much more likely to excel and grow. That benefits everyone. This will go a long way to fostering a sense of commitment among your colleagues and to keeping clients on board for the long term. Of course, clients like to know that the pr person they worked with six-months ago will be there to service their next project several months from now. PC can offer that assurance.

Then there are the fees. When a project is beginning, I'm always open and transparent about the full project or retainer fee and the portion of that fee the employee working on that project will be getting. And finally, I give out holiday bonuses. I've heard that giving bonuses to freelancers is an unusual practice but I think it's a must for building a lasting community. I also think it's important to let my staff know they're appreciated greatly.

With the economy still volatile, many of you may opt to go virtual sometime in the very near future. With all the technology available, it makes complete sense. Why pay for the overhead of an office if you don't have to? Just imagine, no more jockeying for the corner office, no more uncomfortable office politics, no more business suits. It certainly takes a special kind of person to excel in the virtual space, one who's motivated, thoroughly responsible and comfortable being on their own. And a nice pair of pajamas couldn't hurt.

To recap, here are 10 timely tips for making the transition and succeeding in the virtual space:

1. Conducting job interviews by phone is an art — and necessary if you're hiring staff from other cities/states. If they're not fluid and articulate on the phone with you, chances are they won't be effective with the media either.

2. Confirm and then confirm again that the potential employee is self-motivated and comfortable working alone. While many PR folks think it'll be a breeze to work at home — it isn't always the case.

3. Hire senior level adults whenever possible.

4. Manage and retain a sizable virtual staff for the long term by identifying each colleague's professional strengths and preferences, matching them with appropriate clients and allowing them to work on projects they can own and grow.

5. Create a sense of community among your staff through daily contact and regular full-company conference calls during which each staff member has a chance to catch up and relate a recent professional and a personal "win."

6. Conduct weekly 1:1 phone or Skype calls to check in on all employees.

7. Transparency. Let an employee know what the full project or retainer fee is — and what percentage of it they will be earning.

8. Manage closely — but try not to micromanage from afar. (This is not always easy — but is achievable when you've assembled the right team.)

9. Find a dependable right-hand to provide office support for the whole team.

10. Let your team know their work is appreciated. Give year-end bonuses.

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