A growing number of companies are allowing their team to work remotely from home, but still wonder what they can do to keep their virtual team productive. If you, like many small business owners, choose to run your company from the comfort of your home, we have some tips for you to keep your virtual office place productive.

The most important thing about running a virtual team is keeping the communication channels open and equal. To keep the communications that are most important flowing, you need to be organized and have a plan. Your virtual workplace needs structure to have good record keeping of communications that can be searched for later use, and so that you know what your team is doing.

Some of the various tools that you would utilize in a physical office to keep communications flowing and records up to date, may not be the best for tracking the productivity or to replicate the feeling of the casual interactions at the coffee machine. Your virtual office needs to have new ways to replicate the many ways of communicating in a traditional office.

One barrier to having a productive virtual office is the over-use of email. Often, we rely too heavily on email as a ‘dump zone’ for our communication. Email is an important tool for running a virtual office environment for your team, but follow-up is key. Some companies who have a team working in various locations will set guidelines for the quickness of replies and set rules that unanswered sent emails need to be followed up by a telephone call or another communication method. This works not only for ‘top-down’ communications, but also for communications between fellow team members.

Daily or weekly meetings are also a great way of keeping your virtual office team productive. While a daily or weekly meeting might not be possible in person because of geographic reasons, teleconferences can be done from anywhere. Besides teleconferences with your virtual office team, why not have video conferences? Even one team member to another communication can be more productive with the use of video and screen-sharing technology. Skype or Facetime may work for simple video chats, but may not be as productive as services like Gotomeeting.ca or join.me.com. These are professional tools that allow you to even monitor a meeting between team members – without having to be an active participant.

If possible, at least have monthly or quarterly in-person meetings (even if travel is required by some team members). Besides keeping you virtual team productive, it also helps with camaraderie. If you are utilizing an office business centre that provides serviced offices and virtual office services, you can have them route your business calls to the right person. You will find most business centres will also rent you a boardroom or meeting rooms for less than they charge non-virtual office tenants. Seeing people’s faces and body language while they talk makes the communication much easier – and you can see people reacting to each other.

A lot of companies are using Google Apps to solve many of their communication problems, and to facilitate the sharing of documents among virtual office team members for collaboration purposes. The creator of the document could put it in Google Drive and share it with other team members who need to see it or be able to make edits and changes. Documents, spreadsheets, slide presentations and calendar notices can be shared within the group or with outside parties.

Virtual teams can also find Google Messenger a great way to get a short IM (Instant Message) to a team member that does not require an email to be sent. This is also a great way to alert other virtual office members to expect an email or check their availability for a telephone call. Think of an IM as a way of also saying “hi, quick question, but if you’re busy, we can talk later.” The great thing about Google Messenger is that it can also be installed on a smart phone and quick communications can be done from almost anywhere.

While IM’s are great for one-to-one communications, having a group chat that is available to team members can also hold many benefits. Think of a private group chat as the coffee room or your virtual office water cooler. They are great for having impromptu meetings with a group of team members to converse and throw ideas around about a project or new product, while catching up with what others are doing. Even large companies whose employees work in the same building find that these types of group chats can increase productivity. People are not waiting around the water cooler or the coffee room waiting for a co-worker to come in. A quick alert can be sent out of a group-chat session, and those who are available and not busy can join at their leisure.

Instead of using instead of having team members who work from home use their personal cellphones number for work, consider getting a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) extension from your virtual office team. VoIP extensions can be used anywhere. They have an internet connection and can be used for group calling without having to pay for expensive teleconferencing services. With VoIP, even when you are not in your office, clients see your business number come up on their call display. Telsec, like other upscale business centres, offers VoIP services that offer an optional VoIP handset that acts like a regular office phone – and comes with an array of functions that you would expect from a modern office telephone system.

When trying to keep your virtual office team members productive, there are other things to consider such as having regular office hours, just like they were working in a traditional physical office. This is just as important as separating home from work life as it is for keeping your team focused. In keeping your virtual office productive, team members should remind friends, family and that chatty neighbour that they are indeed working at home, and should not be interrupted. Sometimes this can be tough for froends and family to understand, but it becomes easier the more they are reminded that it is just as if they themselves were working in a traditional office outside of the home.

Remind your virtual office workers that breaks are just as important when working at home as they are at a physical office. They need to step away for scheduled breaks and do something other than working, otherwise fatigue and burnout will occur. Again, this is another reason for setting up a group-chat room, so your virtual office staff can hang out like they would at the water cooler or in the coffee room of a physical office.