By Dave Pelland

Improved communications technologies and a growing acceptance of part-time or contract workers is increasing the use of virtual teams among many small businesses, and creating a related need for business owners to manage those teams remotely.

Whether it’s enlisting contractors for a specific projects or relying on team members in distant locations, a growing number of small business are forming virtual teams of workers that perform tasks alone or collaborate with other team members online. Using virtual teams gives small business owners tremendous flexibility in the makeup of their workforce, and can offer cost savings over relying on locally hired, full-time employees.

Staying Connected

One of the key considerations in managing remote workers effectively is establishing communications expectations and procedures. Although virtual team members are expected to be self-reliant, it’s a good idea to let them know how they are expected to collaborate with other team members when appropriate.

For some projects, for instance, progress milestones will be self-evident. Others may require periodic virtual meetings, instant messaging, video conferences, or even conference calls so team members know what’s going on, are aware of potential problems and upcoming tasks, and are able to share ideas with fellow team members.

Group chat sessions or virtual "hangouts" using tools such as Google® Plus can also be an effective way to bring people together online for a short period of time. Being able to see someone’s face and hear their voice brings an extra dimension that relying on text chatting alone cannot provide.

Regardless of the form, consistent communication can help reduce the feeling of distance inherent in a remote working relationship, and can help virtual team members feel connected to their colleagues and the larger organization.

It’s also a good idea to let virtual team members know how you prefer to be contacted. Some people would rather handle routine matters through email, while others may prefer a quick phone call or instant message as the need arises. Letting team members know your preferences in advance can streamline communications and reduce potential confusion.

Depending on the relationships among your virtual teams, it can also be a good idea to periodically take time to recognize successful projects or notable achievements. Such recognition can increase bonding within the team, and can help motivate individual contributions.

Tech Tools

As with other aspects of managing a successful small business, technology tools make working with remote workers easier than it would have been a few years ago. Video conferencing and chat applications available for smartphones and tablet devices enable small teams to hold virtual meetings or chat sessions without the need for specialized conferencing gear.

Companies with more sophisticated collaboration needs can use a variety of online conferencing suites that feature document sharing, whiteboard, text chat, and other features designed to improve collaboration and productivity during videoconferences.

Some organizations prefer to provide project updates and similar routine communications through private message boards, wikis or social networking platforms such as Yammer®. As with public social networks, posting short messages and photos can be an effective way for people to communicate and update each other when they are in different locations.

By spending time thinking about your virtual environment, you can gain the benefits of using remote team members without running into potential communication or project management shortcomings caused by geographic differences.

Dave Pelland has extensive experience covering the business use of technology, networking and communications tools by companies of all sizes. Dave's editorial and corporate experience includes more than 10 years editing an electronic technology and communications industry newsletter for a global professional services firm.

Google® is a registered trademark of Google Inc. and Yammer® is a registered trademark of Yammer, Inc. Nevada State Bank does not claim any ownership or exclusive right to the use of these trademarks.

The information provided is presented for general informational purposes only and does not constitute tax, legal or business advice. Any views expressed in this article may not necessarily be those of Nevada State Bank, a division of ZB, N.A.