Imagine having a job where you never have to drive to the office. Or think about what it would be like to work for a company where your closest colleague is in the next state. Such work situations are becoming commonplace as the virtual office becomes a vital part of many of today's corporations.
"We often refer to virtual offices as 'distributed teams,'" says Martha Haywood, senior consulting partner for Management Strategies Inc. (MSI), a Silicon Valley-based firm that assists businesses in using virtual offices effectively. "A distributed team is any team that has geographically separated members, people working different shifts or people who are culturally distributed."
CONCEPT OF VIRTUAL OFFICE NOT NEW
Although the idea of working over the Internet may seem new, Haywood advises it's really been around for a while. "Pretty much everybody in business today is using the virtual office concept, whether they're aware of it or not," Haywood says. "People might drive in to the office each day, but they also may work with people in other locations via technology. People have been telecommuting informally for years."
Technology such as e-mail makes it simple for a worker in California to compose a proposal and then shoot it off to someone as far away as Asia to get feedback. Companies such as Lockheed Martin have found virtual offices to be a boon to their operations. Although Lockheed still provides physical office space for its employees, the virtual office enhances their productivity. On the other hand, the California-based company Veriphone, which makes telephone headsets, is a completely virtual office setup.
Virtual offices have many advantages. "Both large and small companies benefit from using them," says Brent Guinn, director of distance learning for the College of Engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "Small companies cannot necessarily afford office space for the number of employees they need, and large businesses need to be cautious of how they spend their money to remain competitive. By providing employees with virtual office support and technologies, companies are able to reduce their office space overhead costs."
Haywood notes that businesses that use the virtual office concept can have access to technical experts, who often are in another city, state or country. Such working relationships enable companies and employees who might not have been able to work together before to become team members. The benefit is two-sided. Although the company benefits from having access to the experts, the experts themselves are not required to travel or relocate in order to work on projects. "Once virtual offices become even more common, people can select their jobs based on the skills rather than locality," she adds.
ADDITIONAL ADVANTAGES OF THE VIRTUAL OFFICE
Another reason many companies have begun using the virtual office is to reduce wear and tear on the environment from automobiles. The Clean Air Act in California has prompted businesses to change their work styles so that people don't have to drive to and from work. "Plus, it reduces the stress on employees of commuting on a daily basis," Guinn notes.
Disaster recovery is yet another reason some organizations have chosen to use the virtual office setup. When all employees are housed in the same vicinity, there is a greater risk of losing people or work if something happens to the site. Haywood notes that Oracle Corp. has its main sites in California and Colorado. Spreading out their expertise is wise because California is prone to earthquakes, and Colorado often suffers from snowstorms. If either location were to be struck by a disaster, the company would be able to continue operations in the other site.
Although it seems a simple solution to send back and forth written documents via e-mail, for example, such a setup is not without its problems. Many supervisors, for example, have difficulty adjusting to the concept of supervising people who are not in the next cubicle. Haywood notes that bosses need to learn different monitoring, mentoring and training methods to remain effective leaders in a virtual office.
WORKERS AND EMPLOYEES MUST ADAPT
Many workers thrive in an environment with less person-to-person contact, but the flipside of this independence is workers must be self-motivated to stay on task. In addition, the camaraderie people feel when they work side by side often is missing from virtual work relationships. "One advantage of a virtual office is being in a work environment where your supervisor is not constantly looking over your shoulder," Guinn explains. "Yet you may feel disconnected from the office and feel alone. When you primarily communicate with people via technology, you do not develop the 'water cooler' relationships you have with coworkers in an actual office."
Setting ground rules for communicating and work schedules is crucial to running a successful virtual office. When you're used to walking down the hall to hand a colleague a document to review, it's quite a shock to realize suddenly the person who reviews your work is halfway across the country. Different time zones and work schedules can be a source of frustration for employees who are used to having instant response. To combat this problem, it's wise for team members to decide what time of day and how often they will review their incoming e-mail and how quickly they will respond to requests. Companies such as Haywood's also offer classes and on-site training to help organizations streamline their virtual offices.
Advancing technology makes it easier for companies to put together teams of people in different locations. Although this idea of working from your home or being part of an organization in which your nearest co-worker is miles away may be appealing, it's not something that can happen overnight.
"The virtual office is becoming increasingly prevalent," Haywood says. "In the future, all teams will involve some type of virtual office setup. However, it must be part of the infrastructure of an organizationit's not something one person can do alone."
The world may be shrinking because of technology, but one thing is for certainvirtual offices are only getting bigger.