Will a Virtual Office Work for My Company?
By Ann MacDonald
Here’s a look at managing a virtual office with telecommuting employees, from someone with direct successful personal experience doing so.
When many people think of telecommuting, they don’t picture an entirely virtual office. Instead, they imagine working from home one day a week, or being able to check their email from home when they are ill. Even the term virtual office – which is oft used to describe a business without a physical office space – has been co-opted by shared office space firms who maintain you must have a physical place to meet clients and employees. Does your business really need office space for your employees or can you run a productive company with people who all telecommute? h3. Does Your Company Fit in Your Virtual Office? The answer to whether your company can have a virtual office with telecommuting employees (or contractors) depends largely on the type of business you are running. If you are considering a virtual office setup, ask yourself these critical questions:
- Do you have physical inventory? If so, it must be housed somewhere and you will need a fulfillment operation. While warehouse space and fulfillment services can be purchased, they are not without substantial costs, so you should compare these to what it would require to do them in-house.
- Do you regularly have clients visiting your workspace? If you run a business where clients expect to visit your offices regularly for performance updates, presentations or collaborative meetings, you might need physical space in order to accommodate their expectations. However, if your meetings are few and far between, you can probably either rent the occasional meeting space or hold informal gatherings in your local coffee shop.
- Do you embrace technology? To stay in touch with workers, clients and providers of goods and services without a physical meeting space, you will need to embrace virtual meeting spaces. These can include phone and conference calls, e-mail, instant messaging (including instant message conferences) and even web and video conferences. Worried you can’t work without showing Joe in design what’s on your computer screen? Services like GoToMeeting allow you have online conferences where each attendee can view the presenter’s screen including cursor actions. h3. Are Your Employees the Telecommuting Type? While nearly every employee would love to work from home, typically companies have been suspicious of telecommuters. Are they really working if you can’t watch them? Can they really get their jobs done without being in side-by-side cubes with their co-workers? Many studies have shown that people are actually quite productive working from home because they are happier and thrive on the flexibility a telecommuting opportunity affords. Traditionally, the people who have been allowed to telecommute are in roles that are somewhat solitary to begin with and common wisdom has suggested that one cannot manage remote employees. However, new trends show that one can manage a virtual office successfully. In addition, allowing employees to telecommute opens up your labor pool exponentially. With telecommuting employees and a virtual office, it doesn’t matter if they are in Cleveland and you are in Manhattan or vice versa. Of course, there are some roles where telecommuting just won’t work. These questions will help you determine whether it might work for you.
- Do your workers need specialized equipment? We’re not talking about phones and computers, since today most workers have their own, and these things are relatively easy to ship and install if needed. However, if your workers must interface with large, unwieldy or incredibly expensive equipment, you may need them on-site.
- What kind of collaboration is involved? While teams often collaborate on presentations, documents and spreadsheets, anything that is in digital format can be shared easily among remote team members. Documents can be sent back and forth, stored on shared servers or saved to something like Google’s shared spreadsheets area. On the other hand, if multiple workers need to work on a physical item, or are passing many goods back and forth, you may need them in close proximity.
- What kind of people do you need? Since many people who successfully telecommute are self-motivated, driven, independent types, businesses that need that sort of worker are best suited to staffing with telecommuters. If you require workers who are used to heavy supervision or micro-management, they may not be able to function with the freedom a virtual office provides. Certainly, an all telecommuting company is not for everyone, but if your business relies on professional individuals in a digital, data-driven marketplace you may be able to reduce overhead and expand your labor pool by embracing a virtual office. By Ann MacDonald, Managing Editor, LoveToKnow