If the trend toward using virtual employees continues to grow, someday going out for drinks after work and lunchtime pot lucks may be relegated to our fond memories.

First, I should clear up the term virtual employee a little.

The person isn’t virtual, the person’s location is virtual — or more simply: online. Your online marketing person could be in Peoria, while your graphic designer is located in Cape Town. Not having consistent personal contact with your virtual employee poses problems and risks, and somewhat changes the hiring process.

There are two general areas you need to consider carefully if you plan to grow your small business by entering the virtual employee marketplace.

Personal traits

There’s an old saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

While that may not be your intention as you hire a virtual employee, it will be true to some degree. You need to be sure the person you hire has the personality and temperament to function well when not being directly supervised.

During the interview and as you review previous employment history, look for clues that indicate the ability to work independently and be a self-starter. You are trusting this person with great freedom, so ethics and reliability must be high on your list of character traits. Flexibility is also required in a virtual employee.

You need to hedge your bets a little when you first take on a virtual employee. Don’t enter the relationship with a grandiose vision of this person taking over huge areas of responsibility. Progress incrementally. Your hiring process will ultimately extend through a process of on-the-job evaluation. And this leads to the next important consideration.

Well-defined responsibilities

Sometimes, for better or for worse, in a regular employment situation small business owners may know that they are swamped. So when they bring someone on board, it’s often they define responsibilities on the fly. This doesn’t work with virtual employees.

Know exactly what you need and what you expect from your virtual employee. Write it down. If you can’t write it down succinctly, a virtual employee can’t do it for you. Don’t rush this. Take your time and be certain it’s complete.

Writing down all your expectation will have the beneficial effect of helping you understand your business and your needs at the same time.

A word of caution

You can find very inexpensive virtual employees who are located in countries around the world with different standards of living. Sometimes their low rates are very appealing and I know many people who have had success engaging, for example, designers from India and other places. However, they tend to work out best for single, short-term freelance jobs.

Usually for positions that are closer to being actual employees you need to consider culture very carefully, and I’m mostly talking about the culture of your business. Be sure any prospective virtual employee is a good fit for your style of operating and for your customer base.

When you take all the right steps, virtual employees are a great way to grow a small business.

Have you had any success or any failures? Tell us in the comments below. 

About the Author: Susan Solovic is THE Small Business Expert. Sign up for Susan’s Success Tips Newsletter and get your free copy of “Smart Marketing Strategies for Small Biz” ebook.