Small businesses face enough challenges in the pursuit of success, and those that operate a mobile office have it even tougher. Why make avoidable missteps? Here are 10 mistakes to avoid in the virtual and mobile worlds:
Failing to back up your data: This is a sure-fire way to destroy your business. It doesn't seem to matter how often people like me say to back up your files--most people just don't do it. But when you're working in a mobile office setting or by yourself from home, you risk losing everything you've built if you lose your data.
Solution : Back up your data daily, using an external drive or an online service such as one of those discussed here.
Skimping on connectivity: Connectivity with your team and with your customers is your lifeblood. If you cut costs here, you'll cut into your success.
Solution : Get the fastest broadband connection you can get--up and down.
Developing sloppy work habits: The virtual office is an office, even if you're dressed in your bathrobe.
Solution : Keep focused and remember that you are doing real work. If you forget that, so will others.
Isolating yourself: Not having a brick-and-mortar office doesn't mean you don't need to interact with your clients and teammates in a traditional manner--at least occasionally.
Solution : Face time with others is important, not just to stay current with your clients but to keep yourself from going stir crazy. If you're on the road for your company, you need to dock with the mother ship on occasion. It will help you remember why you're doing this together. If you're working from home, you need to get out and go to a professional conference or client meeting. You need to find ways to keep ideas coming in--and interacting with other people remains a powerful way to do that.
Working without an IT plan: In a virtual office, many people may come to the table with their own ideas about what information technologies they want to use. Some folks are Mac champions; others are PC lovers. Some love the BlackBerry; others the Palm Pre or iPhone. All this love, though, can lead to IT chaos.
Solution : If you're the boss, you need an IT plan. Trying to run a virtual office with technologies that don't work well together consumes time you could be devoting to doing real business. So set standards and expectations and be clear about why you've set them.
Micromanaging your virtual employees: One of the reasons people are drawn to a virtual office is flexibility. If you try to micromanage your employees' time, you'll run into difficulties.
Solution : In the mobile or virtual environment, you simply can't keep an eye on what everyone is doing at every moment--so don't even try. Mature mobile office workers--in contrast to immature slackers--will focus on getting the work done. They may do the work at 10 p.m., after a long day on a mountain bike, but they'll get it done. If you expect their attendance at a meeting or on a call, make sure they know that, but don't expect them to be at their desks working just because the clock says it's 10 a.m.
Failing to manage your virtual employees: While micromanagement is a problem, the absence of active management is equally bad. If you set unclear expectations, or none at all, you (and everyone who works for you) are bound to be disappointed.
Solution : Focus your mobile and virtual employees on goals, deliverables and milestones. Encourage them to ask for help if and when they need it, but otherwise leave them alone to do the work you expect them to do. They'll do it in the way that works best for them within the timeframe you've identified.
Insufficiently vetting your employees: You need to know that your virtual employees can get the job done in an environment that may have few, if any, of the traditional reminders that they're at the office. How can you know this when you hire them?
Solution : A track record of working virtually helps, but in the absence of that you'll have to go with your gut when you assess answers to questions like, "Why do you want to work in a nontraditional setting like this?" and "How do you structure your work life?" and "How do you deal with the competing demands of home while you're in the office?" If you don't vet your potential employees with due diligence, it's going to be harder on you and your business in the long run.
Forgetting your boundaries: Traditional offices--even really hip ones with video games and foosball tables--are still bounded spaces. You leave home to go to them. But if you're working from home, that boundary, like everything else, can be virtual.
Solution : You need to find a way to keep a healthy boundary between your work and home life. If you don't, both will suffer. A door you can close at the end of the day is a wonderful thing.
Failing to enjoy the virtual office: Ultimately, a virtual or mobile office can be the office you've always dreamed of, so don't miss the opportunity to enjoy it.
Solution : You have a unique opportunity to choose the tools and technologies you use to get your work done, and to shape and control the environment in which you work. If you don't take advantage of that opportunity and build the world that works best for you, your employees, and your customers, you'll miss out on one of the best aspects of working in the virtual office.
Mark A.R. Mitchell is an avid technology buff and reporter covering small-business products and the Consumer Electronics Show. He holds a master's degree in English literature from Harvard and has worked with leading technology companies and research universities.