I have been working with online businesses now for 12 years, and I have to say out of all the business types out there, I find this one the most rewarding. There is so much potential to create and build unique models and systems, share your gifts with the world in ways you never thought possible, provide a space for your team and employees to be truly empowered in their work, and overall make a meaningful impact in the world.
However, in order to reach all of that, it is crucial to have the right foundation and structure in place. With that you can create a business that is scalable, profitable, and a unique space to showcase and nurture your own talents and that of your team.
There are three key systems I have found that make up this foundation, no matter what type of virtual business you have.
System #1 – Communications System
This is probably the single most important system to get right when it comes to creating a successful virtual business. In the virtual world you don’t have your team within close proximity, and 9 times out of 10 their work schedules are spread out across the entire day and night. Virtual work is highly autonomous, and that makes clear communication all that much more important. Connection with your team is key in order to have your business function, never mind thrive, therefore your communication system needs to be solid and have clearly outlined expectations and processes.
There are generally 2 steps to creating a good communication system in your virtual business. Selecting the main communication platform you will be using, and then clearly communicating how and when that system will be used.
Step 1: Selecting your communication platform
Most virtual businesses have one main communication platform they use to communicate internally with their employees, and in some cases also open that up to external contractors. This is considered the main communication hub for your company and a one of the key drivers for getting work done. Which one you choose will really depend on how you and your team communicate and what communication needs come up the most within your business.
There are different options out there such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Here is a quick checklist with action items to help you select a platform that will work for you:
- It fits the needs of your company and your team
Some companies just need a platform that will enable them to chat. Others need one that incorporates video chat, voice messages, meeting options etc. You want to select one that makes sense for your business and how people communicate in it.Action Item: Sit down with your team and determine a) what it is they would like to see in communication options and b) what your business tends to use the most. Then make a list of the top forms of communication needed and when they are used. Then use that list to begin selecting a platform that works for you.
The cost associated with a communication platform goes beyond the monthly subscription cost. Although that is obviously important too. You also want to be looking at the cost of training your staff on this new platform. How long will it take your team to learn how to use this platform? Is it easy to learn?
On the flip side of costs, you also want to look at what the benefits are to using this platform. Will it make communication faster and easier within your company? Is it easy to use? Will it allow you to measure how well your teams are using it? Which elements are used more than others? Measurement can often be overlooked, but it is extremely important to be able to improve your business and its systems.
- Does it have good support?
There is nothing more annoying than signing on for a new program only to find out that it is next to impossible to get any tech or customer service support when you need it. Double checking this before making your final decision will save you a lot of grief and frustration later on down the road.
As a virtual company you will have what is referred to as a “teck stack”, which is a list of all the tech platforms your company uses to function. It is important that all of these “talk” to each other. Many of these platforms integrate with each other (talk to each other) and make work and communication infinitely easier. Your communication tool should work well with the other platforms you are using so that you do not have to repeat work or messages in other areas.Action Item: Create a chart in google sheets (or whichever spreadsheet tool you use) to help you with 2-5 above. This will help you keep track of the information for each platform during your selection process and get your options down to 2 or 3.
Once you have decided on a few communication platforms you think will work for you, try them out and see how they fit. Get feedback from your team and then you can whittle down to one option that will help you create a business that will enable you to thrive online.
Define how your communication system will be used
Selecting your platform was the easy part. This second part is where the rubber really meets the road, and one that is often overlooked.
As more and more businesses go virtual, they are encountering issues with employees spending too much time on the company communication tool and seeing productivity levels go down. It is an interesting situation. Within the virtual world, online communication tools are a necessity to get work done, and hold the potential to get it done faster than in a traditional structure. However, if the tool is not used properly, we can run into trouble. The source of the problem is not the tool itself, but lack of clear processes on how and when to use it.
I worked with a client who had a lot of issues with employees spending too much time on Slack throughout the day, and it began to profoundly affect productivity. Once we dove into it we realized that people were using it for all of their communications, including task/project oriented conversations which can be quite long. In many cases hopping on a quick 5 minute zoom meeting would have been more efficient. There was also this feeling of “needing” to check it constantly throughout the day. These issues were not the employees fault though, there were simply never any processes set in place as to when to use Slack vs other tools the company was using. In the end, we solved it by:
- Setting rules around when slack was to be used and when other communication tools would be more efficient for both urgent and non-urgent issues.
- Asked that the team block off certain time periods during the day to look at slack (team members would have visibility into these time blocks too) and then spend the rest of the day getting work done.
Ensuring that you have even a basic process outlined for how and when to use your communication system can save you deep dives in productivity and efficiency later on. Here are some basic steps to help you get started:
The 3 W’s
Within most businesses, and particularly with virtual businesses, there are usually more than one type of communication tool. For your new communication tool to be successful, it is very important that you outline:
- That the new communication hub will be the main form of internal communication
- Outline what other communication tools you have and then determine when they should be used, with whom and what information would be communicated for each one.
Here is an example:
The reason this is important is to avoid information overload. One team member might prefer using email to communicate, and another Slack, and another puts everything into the main project management system. The team will end up having to go everywhere to find the info they are looking for. In some cases the information is repeated across all communication channels. It is inefficient and a waste of time. With clear expectations and guidelines from the beginning you can avoid hours of confusion, and unnecessary team tension.
Action Item: Sit down with your team and go through the list of other communication tools you use.
- Outline when they are to be used, with whom, and what type of information would be communicated in them. At the top of the list would be your new communication hub as it is now the central go-to place.
- Then take that list and descriptions and post it somewhere where your team can reference regularly.
Give permission to say no
Company communication tools can be similar to social media platforms. As humans we feel a need to be on there all the time in order to stay connected. Time however is our most precious resource, therefore as team members we need to ensure we use it wisely in order to make our best contributions to both the team, and the organization as a whole. Giving your team members permission to set out when they will use the tool, and when they will not, helps shift this mindset of wanting to be always “on”. This has to come from you, the business owner, otherwise it may not be fully 100% accepted from a psychological standpoint. Tactics such as calendar blocking and sharing are great for this. Setting aside times throughout the day when you will be on there and then other time blocks for doing deep work has helped many businesses increase their team productivity tenfold.
Easy to find and improve
Have a central place where they can easily access this new “how to” as well as someone who owns these processes. Easy access will help them reference it when they need to and help mitigate problems. Ownership of the communication system is also important, people then have someone to ask questions of, provide feedback to and there is also someone responsible for constant improvement of the system along the way.
Communicate expectations clearly
Once you have your basic processes in place, and someone owning their regular improvement, communicate them out to your team clearly and reiterate often. What you are really doing in setting out these processes is helping your team create healthy work habits that benefit both themselves and the company. As with all habits though, it is easy to fall off the bandwagon, therefore ensuring expectations are clear and providing reminders often are important.
Having these basic processes in place will help you avoid some of the common pitfalls in online team and business communication and help propel you forward in creating a fantastic virtual environment for your organization.
#2- A Central Work Operating System
This is your company’s main work hub, an all encompassing system for managing your own work as well as the rest of the company’s work. Traditionally this was referred to as your project management system, however it has evolved into so much more than that. It is an extensive, but easy-to-use software platform, that integrates work automation with communication and collaboration tools.
As a virtual business owner it is where all your management clutter becomes streamlined, where workflow innovation happens, where deliverables are tracked, and most importantly enables you to free up your time to become the leader your company needs you to be.
In one sentence? Your central work operating system is where s**t gets done.
Every company is unique in terms of its needs and what system would work best for it. It is important to try out different systems (free trials are usually available) and see which one would work best for your company. Nevertheless there are some basic things every system should have and to keep in mind when you are doing your search:
- Usability: all users within your company should be able to use it, regardless of what team they are on or what role they function in.
- Building Blocks: The system should consist of functional building blocks that different teams can customize. This allows workers to break apart and reassemble any workflow or application offered.
- Data Store: the system should capture all data from both user actions and integrations. It provides the data in complete or digestible chunks. It also allows users to consume the data either as-is or through the window of the building blocks.
- Integrations: the system should be able to integrate with tools/apps that you use so that you are not spending a lot of time transferring data.
- Automation: allows you to automate and streamline any repetitive activities. This way you are not having to reinvent the wheel every time.
- Visual Data and Analytics: Provides charts, graphs etc that enable you to visualize important analytics as well as your team’s progress.
- Communication: the system should have a solid communication feature that allows users to comment on tasks, add files and images etc. This reduces the need for meetings, email communications etc. around the work, as well as well keeps all work oriented communication in one place.
- Tracking progress: the system should provide transparency into the project, workflows and progression.
- Autonomous work: allows teams to work autonomously.
Do some research on what is currently out there and see what fits best for you and your team. Some top ones right now: Asana, Airtable, and Monday.com.
Setting yourself up for success
If you are a business owner looking to shift to 100% digital, partially digital, or beginning a brand new digital business, having these two systems in place will be key to ensuring its’ success. We are living in some very exciting times right now, and I believe that the future of work lies very much in this direction. Running an online business holds so much potential to empower your team and shift them into the best version of themselves, as well as create a business that is making a deep impact in the world. But to get there you need to start with solid ground. “The building is only as tall as the foundation is strong enough to build on”. Your business cannot reach the heights you want it to without a solid base. It will simply crumble and fall. So take the time now to create the foothold for your dreams.