Should Your Office Go Virtual?

Earlier this month, Inc. Magazine published an article about its office’s experiment with going virtual for a month, meaning that for 30 days, the magazine’s employees went about their normal business activities from the comfort of their own homes. While the article discusses how the publication was eventually happy to go back to its normal routine, the writer also talks about how, for some companies, doing away with the offices and going virtual is a very real—and viable—option. So, what are the advantages of having a virtual office and how can you grow your company without having a conference room?

Why Go Virtual?

“We have been told by entrepreneurs, academics, and consultants that getting rid of the office and working remotely can make a company more productive, better for the planet, and cheaper to run,” Max Chafkin writes in the article.

In Inc.’s case, getting rid of an office would save the company $500,000 a year! Granted, the magazine’s office is in a swanky downtown Manhattan high-rise, but commercial space is fairly expensive no matter where your business is located. Crunch the numbers and see how much you could save in rent, utilities, Internet, and parking for your office.

Another advantage of telecommuting is the lack of part of that word: commuting. Sparing your employees (and yourself) from the hassles of commuting by car or train could save everyone money, time, and stress.

Some employees who telecommute discuss how their home life actually improves when they work from home because it allows them to see their family more. Other employees cite that an advantage of working from home is the opportunity to take care of personal things during breaks, like working out, laundry or grocery shopping. How many times have you tried to go grocery shopping after a long day of going to the office and then commuting home? It can get pretty tiring.

If your employees do a lot of creative work, such as designing or writing, it can also be beneficial for them to work in an environment free of distractions. A lot of offices are not conducive to focusing.

Many business owners think that the specific technology they use at their office is irreplaceable. As you’ll note below, going virtual doesn’t mean you’ll be sent back to the Stone Age. In fact, most virtual employees can do their jobs easily with a laptop, an Internet connection, a cell phone and some nifty software programs. A lot of the traditional office hardware such as a server, fax machine and telephone switchboard can be switched out for alternative, low-cost services that have been available for years.

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Tools for Going Virtual

  1. Virtual PBX: When using a virtual PBX service, your calls get forwarded to your current phone at any location, even your cell phone.
  2. Online fax: Online fax services convert incoming faxes to email attachments that are sent to your email address.
  3. Collaboration tools:
  • Dropbox: this virtual hard drive gives you 2GB of storage space on its servers, which you can access from any computer.
  • Basecamp or Active Collab: these project management tools help users keep track of tasks, due dates and time spent working.
  • Yammer: think of this collaboration tool as a “virtual water cooler.” This Twitter-esque tool is a private way to let your coworkers know what you’re up to.
  • Google Docs or Zoho: free online office software that can be accessed by multiple people on any computer is helpful for any office worker.

Should You Go Virtual?

While we discussed the advantages of having a virtual office and tools to accomplish this goal above, we acknowledge that having a virtual office is not right for every business. Ask yourself these questions when considering getting rid of your offices.

  1. Do you see clients/customers in the office on a daily basis?  Going virtual might work best for companies with minimal customer interaction, such as software companies, publishing companies, e-commerce companies, design/development, etc.
  2. Are you comfortable with outsourcing?
  3. Is your location worth every penny of its rent? Does it provide you with many advantages?
  4. Are your processes and practices efficient and effective? If you don’t have most of your day-to-day processes and goals well-documented and executed a virtual office would be hard to manage.
  5. Is your turnover rate low or high? New hires would be difficult to train without a physical office.
  6. Are your employees’ goals specifically measured? Without clear cut goals and metrics, it can be difficult to keep your employees on track.
  7. How high is morale? While telecommuting can sometimes create higher morale, it can also have the opposite effect on employees that are already disgruntled.
  8. How effective is the communication in your office?
  9. Do you NEED to be around people? Virtual leadership can be lonely for those who thrive on the stimulus of an office. For others, it may make them more productive without constant office pop-ins.

The answers to these questions will help you figure out if your company is ready to go virtual. While it can save a lot of money, telecommuting is definitely not for everyone. Some of Inc.‘s employees had a hard time balancing their children while working from home, and others really missed some of their office habits, such as walking to lunch or chatting with coworkers.

Even if your office isn’t ready to make the virtual leap, you can still take advantage of the small business tools virtual offices use every day: online fax service and virtual PBX.

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