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Near, Far...

Wherever they are, virtual employees can benefit your business.

When Susan Simpfenderfer started her publishing and consulting business, Triple SSS Press Media Development Inc., in 2002, she did it right from her Lexington, New York, home with an all-virtual staff. Why? She didn't need an office and all the overhead that comes along with it, and she could provide better pricing without one. She projects 2006 revenue of $1.2 million.

Entrepreneurs providing outside services, consulting and the like can benefit from a virtual staff, says Julia Loughran, president and co-founder of Vienna, Virginia-based ThoughtLink, which focuses on helping government and commercial organizations maximize the productivity of virtual teams.

Simpfenderfer's company has grown from two virtual freelancers to 12, and she finds "the ability to handle the highs and lows of the business are seamless--you're bringing on people as you need them, you can evaluate whether you want to work with them again, and you're better able to match projects to the talent pool." But along with the pros come some cons. Simpfenderfer, 43, notes that without the benefit of face-to-face interactions, you need to understand what virtual employees can handle and be ultraclear about your expectations.

Loughran, who also runs ThoughtLink as an all-virtual business, offers four important points for using virtual employees:

1. Selection: Hire employees who clearly understand what working virtually entails. Use technology like wireless collaboration tools to support your team.

2. Assimilation: Break any feelings of isolation by coming together in person every so often.

3. Ongoing team operations: Since you can't see if someone's confused, sometimes getting together to solve the problem is quicker. Consider other processes that can keep you on the same page, such as a weekly, virtual, work-related book club.

4. Other virtual team issues: Getting together for meetings also builds trust. And set boundaries between personal and work life, since it's easy for employees working in home offices to get sucked into work at all hours.

Using virtual employees "is much more acceptable and on the rise," says Loughran. "It's wonderful, but it can be a dangerous tool if you don't use it right."

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Near, Far....

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