Thanks to the digital revolution of the business world, the evolution of technology, and the relentless need for online support and engagement, the modern office place is no longer confined to a single physical location.
The Virtual Office is a very real thing these days.
Add in the soaring costs of renting real estate, and you can see the benefits mount up for restructuring collaborative processes across many connected satellite workstations, rather than drag everyone across town every day in rush hour traffic in the rain, sleet or snow.
With Desktop as a Service (DaaS) your virtual office can be virtually anywhere, the coffee shop, the local park, your back garden, anywhere with an internet connection and a laptop. Whether you’re a progressive, forward thinking business owner looking to offer your employees the opportunities to work remotely from home or a freelance start up, the same tips and advice below applies…
Let's cut straight to the chase, and start off with the positives…
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- URL URL URLs
- VIRTUAL OFFICE SOFTWARE
- COMMUNICATION TOOLS
- INTERNET CONNECTIVITY
- EMBRACE THE CLOUD
- MEETING ARRANGEMENTS
- VIRTUAL ASSISTANT
- CREATING VIRTUAL OFFICE POLICIES
ADVANTAGES OF A VIRTUAL OFFICE
- Flexible Hours: Everything in the world of business is open to compromise, with one exception, time. Nobody has any time to spare. People lead busy lives. Parents can be duty bound to their children at home. Having the flexibility to mould your work life around your personal life is a fantastic incentive for top talent recruitment.
- Eliminate the Commute: Time lost on ever busier daily commutes cannot be bought back for love nor money.
But if your office is downstairs from your bedroom, now there’s your answer. You’re going to save a lots of money too. That’s both time and money better spent on making your business a success.
- Lower Your Carbon Footprint: The less commuting you do, the less cars journeys, train rides or taxi cabs, the lower your carbon footprint and the happier the planet.
- Lower Overhead Costs: If your colleagues can collaborate over the internet, yet work from home, there may be no need for an office place at all. Think of the savings; rent, water, electricity, insurance, storage, heating…
- Higher Disposable Income: Over time the savings for each employee all add up. No travel or deli lunches. No need for corporate outfits. Just have a shirt ironed in case your get an impromptu conference video call request. More disposable income means more local trade and enterprise. Everybody benefits.
- Increases Productivity: The physical office place encourages a clock in, clock out mentality where people want to be seen to be working. But people working from home are only focused on productivity and getting their daily tasks done on time.
- Happier Employees: Providing employees with the freedom to work from home means happier employees, who feel empowered, independent, able to govern their own time. Furthermore, research has shown that virtual office companies are made up of employees who are much more active, stress-free, and healthier as they are no longer bound to an office desk for 9-11 stressful hours per day.
- Minimizes Turnover Rate: It stands to reason that happier, more motivated and empowered staff won’t look for other jobs any time soon.
- Global Talent Reach: Virtual Offices can be staffed by employees from every corner of the world. You’re no longer limited to a city-wide search, you can target the best in class talent that your budget can afford. Indeed multi national employee profiles & locations on your website can help you break into markets all over the world.
For every action there is a reaction. So here's the other side of the coin…
- Not All Business Can Function Remotely: Some companies thrive in a sense of togetherness from working shoulder to shoulder in the coalface. Other industries and job functions will have a strategic need for face to face operations or with high volumes of client service interaction at basecamp headquarters.
- Body Language: They do say that 90% of our communication comes through non-verbal cues, a lot of which even video conferencing can’t quite compensate for. Even with the best of intentions, this can occasionally lead to getting your wires crossed and misunderstandings.
- Technical Difficulties: Most physical office environments of small and medium sized companies have dedicated inhouse IT staff to oversee all technical issues. If you make the move to work from home, without having provisional remote IT support to call upon, then this can cause serious issues.
- Lack of Belonging: Part of the advantages of going to work is the camaraderie that often exists between employees. Individuals working in virtual office companies may feel isolated or disconnected from their fellow co-workers, which can lead to lack of motivation or cohesiveness.
- Maintaining a Balance: Employees working in a virtual office job may find it difficult to separate their work from their personal life due to the fact that there work is always ‘there’. Due to the absence of a traditional physical office set up and employee hierarchy, employees in a virtual office environment may feel that they lack the necessary managerial support and guidance. It’s definitely not a working environment that suits everyone.
SET UP TIPS1. Url, Url, Url…
Long term Virtual Offices are usually set up from home. It’s best if you have a room at home designated as the office and keep it off limits for everything else. When you need to dial into video conferences or meetings with your colleagues, you’ll need to have a professional looking setting, rather than have a big pile of dirty dishes in the background. Keep to a routine, keep the same hours as you would in any other office and be strict with yourself.
You can still of course give the impression of having a prime time business location. You can easily avoid registering your home address as your official business address, by either leasing a post office box, or making use of a Commercial Mail Receiving Agency (CMRA) that will provide you with a business-like address and suite number.
Benefits to making use of a CMRA include being able to receive packages from couriers (they don’t deliver to PO Boxes), 24 hour access, and the option to receive notifications when packages arrive.
Do you need a desktop or laptop? This probably depends on how mobile you need to be. If you’re heavily involved in client services and expect to meet clients in person, then it’s wise to invest in a portable laptop.
If the look and feel of a regular office layout helps put you in a working headspace, then just set up a docking station at your virtual office address. This includes a monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, scanner and any other equipment you may need. All you’ll need to do is connect your laptop to all of the above and it will feel like you are in the office.
If you decide on a desktop set up, make sure you take hard drive space, memory for having various programs open at the same time, and a fast processor if necessary. If you’re a designer, you’ll need a large amount of space, lots of RAM, and very fast processor.
And you'll more than likely also need:
- Land line telephone (complete with caller ID)
- laser printer (black and white 600-1200 dpi or colour) or inkjet printer
- removable media storage device (flash drive or external hard drive)
- internet connection (more on this below below)
- surge protector
The latter won’t only offer you extra outlets that may be required to connect your hardware, but will also protect your office equipment.
If space in your virtual office is limited, consider purchasing a multi-purpose scanner, fax machine, copier, and printer. It may work out more cost-effective and take up a lot less space.
Consider the ergonomic impact of your office space. You need to feel comfortable to be your most productive. Consider an L-shaped desk for example. Shelves, cabinets, and file cabinets are always useful to maintain organisation of unavoidable paperwork and equipment.
Lastly, a comfortable chair providing good back support is important if you are going to be sitting in it for a good portion of each day.
Also growing in popularity are desk stations that can be adapted to allow people to stand while working on them. If you are a health conscious professional and don't want to slouch or damage your back from a long term sitting posture, standing desks might be the way to go.
3. Virtual Office Software
The software requirements associated with your virtual office job will depend largely on whether you are working autonomously or will need to coordinate and collaborate with others.
In a group setting, an Intranet might need to be set up. Some of the basic virtual office software considerations are listed below:
You're going to need all the basic software packages to get up and running. In other words, e-mail, Word, Excel and all the usual apps are a basic necessity for most businesses. Of course you may also need some industry specific packages too e.g. the Adobe Suite for designers or animators or anyone in the visual communications industries.
It's also worth considering hosting all your business applications (whatever they be) in the Cloud.
You can make all your work accessible remotely, using tools like Microsoft Office 365 for example. The advantage of this is that it allows users to access their MS Office type files from anywhere with internet connectivity, whether working on a desktop, tablet or phone. Automatic updates will download to provide you with the latest versions of applications, including Word, Excel and Outlook ensuring that you, and your staff, are always up to date, without any disruption to their routine.
By moving your IT online, you reduce operational costs and capital expenses, saving you money and easing pressure on your cashflow. In fact moving your core business applications and processes to the cloud can shave nearly a fifth off your per-user IT operational spending.
- Online Management Services: These facilitate organisation of data between team members, client communications, or basic interactions and file sharing between colleagues. Usually, these services can be obtained by paying a reduced monthly fee or larger fixed rate for unlimited members. Popular choices include Virtual Office, Visto, and OfficeClip.
- Shareware: Even simpler to use than Online Management Services, Shareware may be enough for your business and more cost-effective too.Popular choices include Tucows and ZDNet.
(here is a great list of 41 other online collaboration tools worth the detour!)
4. Communication Tools
Business communications have evolved rapidly throughout the years. There is so much more to remote communication and collaboration tools than simply emails or phone calls.
- VoIP solutions: This is ideal for any size of business and is highly-effective for businesses that have more than one location that need to collaborate. Through the easy to use web interface, administrators can modify user settings to meet their day-day requirements. Like other hosted services there are no expensive maintenance or running costs. You only pay for what you use.
- Skype for Business: This one-size fits all platform solution enables calling, conferencing, video, collaboration and screen sharing. You can meet with up to 250 people online — even if they're not on Skype for Business. This all in one app integrates with Microsoft Office, so you can see your contacts' online statuses, schedule meetings in Outlook, and start conversations from apps like Word and PowerPoint.
- Get a good smartphone. It's basically your PA.
5. Internet Connectivity
This is very important as data is the new currency when it comes to information. The faster your online upload and download speeds determines how seamless your communications are with your colleagues or clients. Fibre optics or other super fast broadband options are worth considering, especially if your industry requires any kind of data heavy file sizes for example 3D architecture modelling.
Alternatively, if your needs a more modest, you could just make use of DSL, which uses your basic telephone line.
DSL does, however, require your virtual office address to be located near the provider’s central office, i.e.: approximately 3-4 miles. Contact your local service providers to enquire whether or not DSL is available in your area.
Should you be unable to make use of cable or DSL, you can always gain Internet access via satellite. This alternative provides a fast connection but requires a satellite dish, receivers, and a modem.
Should you access an “always on” broadband connection, you will also need to install a firewall to protect your information from potential hackers.
Despite the type of Internet connection you obtain, you will also need an ISP (Internet Service Provider). Basic ISP packages will most likely provide you with an email and 5-10 MB of additional free space.
6. Embrace the Cloud
Companies in every industry are enjoying the wide ranging benefits of moving their IT to the cloud, regardless of whether they work in a physical or virtual office. You can completely migrate your entire IT needs over to the Cloud, or get more bespoke solutions for your specific needs. By using hosted alternatives, much like consuming electricity, you only pay-as-you-go and therefore have no capital expenditure concerns. So for example, you can broaden your bandwidth and technical capacity for a given period of time to pitch for new business, before scaling it back down to normal operational levels again.
- Which supplier? There are many cloud service providers out there, but who should you choose? Before you make a decision, do your homework and only use companies who have proven their credential with years of experience adopting to an evolving landscape with and case studies to back up their claims.
- What measures are in place regarding security and privacy of data? With the growing prevalence of digital channels, this has resulted in a growing number and variety of threats to your IT security as cyber criminals become increasingly sophisticated. Ensure your supplier has data centres with highly restricted electronic access control, with advanced firewall configurations to provide multi-layer protection from attacks, worms, spyware, viruses and other forms of malware. Ideally look for a supplier with provide state of the art encryption technology, like Citrix.
- What is the plan regarding continuity? When signing a SLA (Service Level Agreement), ensure it includes a contingency plan in the event of a disaster / time spent offline.
- What is the extent of support offered? Ensure you determine the level of support on offer 24/7, 365 days of the year.
Advantages of migrating your IT to the Cloud:
- It makes you more available and responsive. Being always-on from anywhere means you can respond to queries from clients and colleagues wherever you are. If something crops up, you’re only a click away no matter where you are.
- It makes collaboration a breeze. By utilising tools like Citrix Sharefile, you can securely send or share files, you can easily check colleagues’ progress, add comments to documents or make edits in real time – giving you peace of mind without interrupting their workflow or waiting around for an update.
- It helps you to delegate. Hosting folders and shared calendars in the cloud, and making use of improved team communication tools, makes project management easier than ever. You can quickly assign tasks to colleagues or ask them to continue where you left off on a document without having to send attachments or worry about duplicated effort. Delegation becomes seamless – not a chore in itself. This is especially important when working remotely to keep you on top of project management.
- It improves your work-life balance. Using the power of the cloud to automate backups, outsource security, facilitate remote access, improve communications and work delegation all help to ensure that the hours you work are spent efficiently to help you finish on time, so that you have time to down tools and relax as well. Instead of winding up exhausted and burned out, you can stay sharp-minded, efficient and focused on growing the company.
- Save money! By shifting everything you do online, you avoid costly capital expenses and complex, space-hungry, in-house infrastructure. Instead, your technology outgoings are consolidated into single, manageable monthly subscriptions that can easily be scaled up and down according to the size of your team.
- Better Quality Recruitment of Staff: If you offer remote working practices in your business, then you are free to hire the best talent from around the world, rather than the best talent in the close vicinity of your office building. Staff from the other side of the world might also have lower wage demands due to lower cost of living, so it makes business sense to offer remote working practices.
- Disaster Recovery and Data Back Ups: We've all heard the horror stories of companies who have (literally) gone up in smoke due to some unforeseen catastrophic event like a fire or a flood. If your business critical files are all in one single physical location, this is a very real risk. If on the other hand you centralise all your data up in the Cloud, then you have peace of mind knowing that you are protected in these worst case scenarios.
7. Meeting Arrangements
You could lease a boardroom or executive suite complete with a receptionist, voice mail, email, and whatever else your budget, or your need to impress, stretches to.
A more affordable, basic alternative could be to hire an office space periodically at an hourly rate. A quick online search will highlight offices local to you. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have the whole team meet up from time to time.
8. Virtual Assistants
You may have thought that a disadvantage to a virtual office space would be the lack of a secretary, PA or admin assistant. But going online doesn’t mean going without.
Simply type ‘virtual office assistant’ into Google and you will find many options to platforms that are developed and maintained by admin-orientated individuals.
Typical tasks performed by virtual assistants may include:
- Administer contact lists and customer spreadsheets
- Maintain a calendar and arrange meetings
- Take notes and manage correspondence
- Handle travel arrangements
- Maintain billing and accounting
- Create and send out e-mail newsletters
- Create, assemble and deliver proposals and meeting materials
- Communicate requested information to customers
- Manage client queries by answering phone or e-mail
Another advantage of a virtual assistant is that you only pay for the time used. Depending on the nature of the business, you could also set up commission structures based on predefined targets. Furthermore, many virtual assistants are available after hours, particularly if they are based in different time zones.
Mature student graduates of Virtual Assistant Universities add more strategic skills, often experienced and subject matter experts in particular industries.
9. Creating Virtual Office Policies
With a virtual office, you are able to recruit from a truly global audience rather than from within a confined geographical vicinity. The talent and savings potential are obvious. You’ll need to employ self motivated individuals who are proactive in giving feedback. You’ll need to organise and prepare for success, documenting processes for every aspect of your growth, from collaborative CRM tools and database management to company policy documents.
Consider Virtual Office policies for the following:
- Virtual Office Hardware
- Virtual Office Software
- Processes for System Logins
- System Administration Rights
- Processes Around Time-Sheets
- Accessibility Requirements
- Protocols for Client Relations
- Back Up & Disaster Recovery
- File Share Security
- Email protocols (to minimise the threat of cyber attacks and system breaches)
VAT Tax Benefits
Separate all your home receipts from your business receipts. You can claim VAT back on all business expenses, so if you use it for work, even if it’s at home, then you can claim VAT back.
The Future of the Virtual Office
It is inevitable that Virtual Offices will grow in popularity as technology continues to evolve and real estate continues to sky rocket, and the talent pool continues to disperse out from over-populated cities.
From a cultural and behaviour perspective, our lives are increasingly shifting online. We spend more free time on social networks than we do catching up in real life. Some lament the growing distance of our interpersonal relationships. But there is another side to the story…
The internet connects us all, always and instantly. There are no geographical borders or horizons. We are all within a keystroke of each other. Family, friends, brands, businesses and opportunities are ever-present.
But be careful not to let it consume you. It’s important to regulate and maintain a healthy life/work/online/offline balance. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” as the saying goes. It’s important to have a cut off point, after which you only respond to emergencies or pressing deadlines.
After all, while you might share your ideas with your Virtual Office colleagues, you share your home with your family.