Planning Your Virtual Business: Using Technologies to Manage, Motivate, and Inspire

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

Planning for your virtual business means accounting for the technological necessities. At the heart of every successful virtual company is a flexible IT network that allows employees, clients, customers, and subcontractors to interact smoothly and efficiently.

Teleconferencing, videoconferencing, and groupchats allow participants from around the country or around the world to connect from far-flung locations. File-sharing programs allow group members to review and edit documents, passing them back and forth through digital transmissions instead of handing them off in person. Collaboration and project management apps provide a centralized place online where all project information is stored and accessible.

Supporting your virtual team with IT solutions

Technology is the key to virtual business success. If you’re a small virtual company, you may be able to assemble the IT components for group communication and collaboration by yourself. Or, you can turn to a long list of readily available and often free collaboration tools and software solutions that you can stay on top of by opening your browser and searching for “virtual team collaboration tools.” Among the many options, you can find the following tools:

  • Collaboration tools that direct group communications through a central hub, such as Slack, which is free, and Huddle
  • Project management tools for planning, scheduling, assigning, tracking, and managing tasks through a central hub, for example, Microsoft Project, Basecamp, JIRA, and Asana
  • Document creation, file storage, and sharing tools, such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box
  • Virtual meeting tools, for example, webEx Meetings and GoToMeeting
  • Videocall and conferencing tools, such as Skype and Google Hangouts
  • Realtime talk and chat tools, for example, Skype, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and HipChat, to name a few

Plus, you can turn to experts for customized solutions, including companies that help artists or craftspeople build and manage retail websites, software programs designed to enable lawyers or other professionals to work virtually, and tech wizards who help you put together your own IT network.

The bigger your enterprise is, the bigger your IT component is likely to be. The specific technology tools you’ll need will depend on the kind of virtual business you plan to run.

Whether you’re planning a one-person business or a sprawling international company with distributed workers around the world, your business plan should specifically address the kinds of technologies you’ll use to conduct your business virtually.

Using technology as a team-building resource

One of the most difficult challenges for a virtual company is creating a strong sense of teamwork among employees who never lay eyes on one another. The chief complaint we’ve heard from people who didn’t like working virtually is that they felt isolated and, well, remote. Successful virtual companies find clever ways to use technology to motivate and inspire employees.

One firm set up a group chat room, dubbed “The Water Cooler,” which allows remote employees to interact informally, sharing personal stories and funny videos. Another company asked employees to create online bios that combined both professional information and personal stuff like favorite hobbies and most embarrassing moments. Another encouraged remote employees to interact by creating a virtual book club and an intranet travel site that allows employees to post photos and descriptions of their vacation outings and take advantage of group discounts.

Other strategies to inspire and motivate remote employees and to foster teamwork include

  • Posting your mission statement and values statement prominently on your website and on key internal communications with employees
  • Creating an online newsletter or blog that includes vignettes of remote employees
  • Offering awards and contests that allow remote workers to compete against one another, either individually or in teams
  • Holding in-person or virtual annual retreats or summits where remote employees get together — in real-life if possible and in real-time if not.