Planning Your Virtual Business: Operating a Company without an HQ

By Steven D. Peterson, Peter E. Jaret, Barbara Findlay Schenck

If you plan to operate a virtual business, you need to compensate for working without headquarters. A headquarters or home office is more than a bunch of rooms and corridors. The space also reflects the hierarchy of a business and how it operates.

For example, in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of a well-known magazine, one floor is devoted to editorial, another to photography, and another to art. One entire floor is devoted to captions that accompany the photographs. The top brass reside — you guessed it — on the top floor. The headquarters, in other words, reflects and reinforces the magazine’s operational structure and priorities.

A virtual business must find other ways to establish and convey its management structure and its way of doing business. Several of the foundations of solid business planning — creating a strong mission and vision statement, setting a clear strategic direction, and describing management and operations are especially important for virtual companies.

In our experience, successful virtual companies have the following in common:

  • The right leadership: Top managers are committed and even passionate about the benefits of a virtual structure.
  • A strong team spirit and shared sense of business culture: Everything the company does is aligned around common business vision, mission, values, goals, strategies, and brand.
  • The right team members: In the absence of face-to-face interaction, virtual companies succeed by developing detailed job descriptions and having systems and standards in place that cover everything from working hours and work quality to performance reviews. They hire people who work well with little supervision and who also have a clear sense of how they fit into the organization.
  • Good communications systems: Because people aren’t running into one another in the hallway or at the water cooler, successful virtual companies institute formal ways for people to stay in touch. They make smart use of a variety of online communication and document-sharing tools.

If operating as a virtual business is key to your competitive strategy, your plan should emphasize the benefits and challenges of operating virtually. Explain why a virtual organization is well suited to your goals and strategy, but also be up-front about the challenges of operating virtually, and detail how you plan to address them. If your business will combine some virtual operations with some traditional facility-based operations, describe how each will operate and interact.