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The idea of a virtual staff is great: Everyone puts in time on the project and works in their preferred environment, and everything goes perfectly.

But what happens when this ideal world has real-world problems such as servers crashing, network outages or end-user support issues? With staff scattered across the country, and possibly around the world, it may be difficult to get the hands-on fix to the right location fast.

For Joel Harper, finding the best way to manage his dispersed IT staff was trial and error. Because his company, Netifice Communications Inc., is a network service provider that builds the infrastructure to support remote workers, it was imperative to assemble an IT staff that would serve as an example to potential clients.

"We have to practice what we preach," Harper says. "We can tell our customers we've seen it here, dealt with it here and made it work here. That way we can help them make their remote workforce work as well."

From Netifice's Atlanta office, the MIS director leads a team of about 12 IT employees located in several sites.

Harper reports directly to Eric Nelson, the company's chief information officer, who spends most of his workdays in the Washington, D.C., area. The two touch base about 15 times each day via e-mail and voice mail.

"One of the things you lose by being a virtual team is all the information that is shared in casual conversation," Nelson says. "I can't go down the hall and ask people to come join us when a certain topic just comes up. So communication becomes significant. The information flow needs to be maintained, upward to my boss, on the same level with my colleagues and with my team."

Harper and Nelson often set up online meetings, and videoconferencing also helps the IT executives simulate the face-to-face discussions sometimes needed to keep a staff in sync. Moreover, Harper can tell who's logged on to the network and from where, limiting what could be an involved search for someone.

The company also uses network monitoring software that pings its servers about once per minute. If a problem occurs, the program sends an alert to a designated employee.

If that worker isn't available, the alerting software contacts the next person on the list. If the problem still hasn't been addressed after a set period of time, it gets escalated to certain staff.

Part of this system of technical accountability requires an IT employee to enter contact information into the company's phone system.

For example, an employee will have his direct line at the office connected to a cell phone, then a pager, then perhaps a phone number at home or even a laptop, and the system will continue to forward the call until it gets answered by a person or one of the devices.

Netifice has also created a "cookie-cutter" design to remote offices in which new IT employees can choose from a list of tools - hardware and software that is compatible with the company's systems. Servers are delivered to remote offices after being configured by Harper's on-site team. Nelson says the smoother you can make administrative chores for employees, the better the working environment you've created.

"Most administrative stuff, such as travel requests, vacation requests, IT enhancements and the like, can be done over our intranet," he says. "When these resources are always available, it makes the day-to-day stuff run smoother and easier, mitigating the fact that we are distributed and virtual."

Harper and his IT employees track trouble tickets to see what tools and services a specific employee or branch office may need. While Harper and Nelson think keeping company hardware and software consistent helps create a successful working environment, they also say that creating the ideal working relationship starts with selecting the right people to work remotely.

Harper and Nelson have learned a few tricks that have helped them manage staff in Netifice's Houston, New York, Phoenix and Miami offices.

The first is to introduce new employees to the corporate goals through a one-day orientation. "Certain persons lend themselves to being teleworkers," Nelson says. "But beyond that you need to have the staff in sync with the strategic goals of the company. This is critical to making it work."

The second is to require each employee, with the help of a direct manager, to set professional goals each quarter. At the end of that period, the employee and manager review what was accomplished, what worked for the employee and what worked for the company.

In addition to salary and stock options, Netifice offers cash bonuses as an incentive to reach preset goals. If the goals of the remote worker aren't met, the bonuses aren't doled out.

"No one stands behind you with a sharp stick to make you do your work," Harper says. "There's about 15% to 20% of your salary tied up in achieving those goals. If you want the money, you meet the goals."

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