The Virtual Office & You. Belong together?

netconnect The 100% Virtual Office has been part of the promise of the Internet. Why is it then, that we do not see more of them being adopted by either/both established companies and start-ups? Simply put, the 100% Virtual Office is not for everyone.

What is a Virtual Office?

Remote developers and other remote employees. Outsourcing tasks to another company. Virtual Office can be used to describe these scenarios and various other forms and functions of a geographically diverse office environment. Of particular interest for this discussion, is the Internet idealized model, where the Virtual Office serves as the “core” (most important, strategic, etc.) operations and brains of the company. This ideal also describes a scenario where …

  • No significant number of employees work under the same roof,
  • The participants within the virtual office are full-time employees of the real company, and
  • In-person meetings are a rarity.

Not every company would or could be able to benefit from the Virtual Office, whether it is simply through the non-alignment of the company’s process and time sensitive goals with the capabilities of the Virtual Office, or the mismatched skill set of the manager charged with creating and running the Virtual Office.

A Virtual Office can be most successful in settings that meet the following characteristics…

  • Tight budget. The company simply cannot afford the number of people needed to accomplish the goals of the company within the geographically local market. Very typical scenario for start-ups.
  • Time flexible. Timelines are flexible and some time flexibility can be sacrificed if it can lead to large near-term budget savings.
  • Super-organized management. The type of process and planning-organization management is not typically something learned on the job, but brought to the table by the individual(s) creating and running the Virtual Office. If they don’t have this ability in their core, then this is a challenge they should consider passing on or seeking an individual with that built-in set of skills to serve in that capacity.
  • Creative and dynamic management. The processes and the overall Virtual Office machine need to be optimally organized and structured by the leader of that Virtual Office. However, that same leader must also be able to be flexible and adapt to new technologies and ideas as well as the teams and people that make up the Virtual Office. The Virtual Office is a living organism where many of its traits and features are not readily evident (especially since, due to the geographic dispersion of its participants, the normal in-office senses of sight and sound are dulled) and require a creative individual to comprehend, analyze, and modulate, to tune the environment within which the Virtual Office will best thrive. The challenge here is that the creative and dynamic individual is rarely simultaneously the super-organized one — finding the right person with both abilities further raises the bar in the challenge associated with creating a successfully functioning Virtual Office.
  • Employees. Those that are seeking the benefits of and adaptable to the company’s functioning Virtual Office mechanisms. (I will save a more detailed discussion of personnel management for a future blog post.)

As a matter of fact, there are many companies that can benefit from having a Virtual Office, including a few start-ups with which I have worked. Many more established companies often do not have the types of processes in place that easily extend to address the direct needs of a Virtual Office. Some can adapt, most can’t. Typically, it will be easier to establish a Virtual Office for a specific sub-task or sub-group, not the company core, for example, through outsourcing.

If the management is not capable of the above referenced traits and able to not just communicate, but to over-communicate with the dispersed team, then it won’t work. Time spent on budgets will balloon, teams will become frustrated with management and with each other; it may hold together for a while due to some strong players, but in the end, will … end.

Additional Variables.

Recruiting and Hiring. After having the right and appropriately compatible management in place and expectations aligned with the reality of the Virtual Office, the next most important key to the success of the Virtual Office lies within the recruitment process and the individuals / teams brought on board. I will discuss Virtual Office recruitment and the types and trends being seen in future The Product Guy blog posts.

Decentralization. Organizational structure of the Virtual Office directly impacts the processes and the level and type of communication and planning that will best suit it. The more decentralized, the more work that can get done; but, creating a largely decentralized work environment from scratch, where many of your employees may be new and still learning where everything is located, while an ideal to strive toward, is not necessarily the right first few steps to take. Decentralize as growth occurs, as the team foundation solidifies, and the more experienced, higher-skilled employees reveal themselves and can be leveraged in the gradual decentralization of the various processes.

Organic v. Manufactured. I have seen quite a few organically grown Virtual Offices, with a great example being the Automattic people behind WordPress. By organic, I am referring to the recruitment and building of a virtual office from individuals that have had a long standing work relationship with the company in some facility that are, more out of formality, dubbed with a full-time position. For an organically growth entity, there are no new processes or acclamation, they have been working as an informal (or formal) Virtual Office for some time — a very ideal scenario. Note, there continue to be very few manufactured, 100% Virtual Offices out there, recruiting and training newly discovered team members. For the right variables to line up …the right management and team, with the additional alignment of expectations that is required remains uncommon… the right ingredients really (typically) have to be there from day one.

As the skills of people, that make use of the evolving products and tools of the Internet that facilitate the Virtual Office, evolve and become more complex, we can expect to see more 100% Virtual Offices at the core of real companies become reality. But, for now, the skill set and necessary alignment of all of the variables in the 100% Virtual Office model, the manufactured (not organic) model of the virtual company continues to be rare.

Promises.

The Virtual Office holds, for many, the promise of many efficiencies. Nonetheless, it is important to understand and align your expectations of what you will be able to achieve through the creation of a Virtual Office before you dive-in.

The prevalence and adoption of the Virtual Office as the primary organizational unit of the modern company, at this stage of the Internet, is neither a function of the current state of evolution of Internet products that are being created by these companies, nor the tools for the facilitation of the success of the Virtual Office, but is, in reality, a function of 2 parts…

  1. Time. Can the company support the efforts of the Virtual Office? Stand behind the individual responsible for running it? Accept the burden of extra time overhead, greater flexibility of deadlines, and some of the newer uncertainty introduced into the timelines through a distributed office where when miscommunications occur, their impact is magnified?
  2. Multi-skilled leader. Do you have the right person to successfully lead the Virtual Office? Does that person have the expertise with operations and their processes, as well as possess the hyper-organizational skills required to keep everything working like clock-work? Is that person highly communicative and able to convey complex information easily and with rare misunderstandings? Is that person also both flexible and creative, able to adapt/modify the processes and tools needed as goals and situations change?

Those companies that are not able to honestly answer ‘YES’ to both parts, are not right for the Virtual Office. Companies that can honestly answer ‘yes’ to both are rare, indeed. Remember, this is not a put-down to those incompatible companies. Every company has different needs and different groups of employees with different skill sets. It is rare to find all of the necessary skills in a single Virtual Office leader (often these skills are found amongst multiple individuals – not the ideal for a Virtual Office) where the time flexibility exists AND all of the good and not-so-good expectations are simultaneously aligned.

The Virtual Office is often misunderstood as the promise of the Internet, the idealization of the inherent empowerment of the Internet, but, in reality, the 100% Virtual Office, is just another tool, that, when it’s the right fit, can really produce positive and concrete results.

Good luck!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

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About Jeremy Horn

Jeremy Horn is an award-winning, product management veteran with thirteen years of experience leading and managing product teams. Jeremy has held various executive and advisory roles, from founder of several start-ups to driving diverse organizations in online services, consumer products, and social media. As founder of The Product Group, he has created the largest product management meetup in the world and hosts the annual awarding of The Best Product Person. Jeremy can currently be found pioneering the next generation of content management and sharing at Viacom, acting as creator and instructor of the 10-week product management course at General Assembly, and mentoring at Women 2.0 and Lean Startup Machine. Follow Jeremy on twitter @theproductguy or his blog at http://tpgblog.com.

10 thoughts on “The Virtual Office & You. Belong together?

  1. Interesting post Jeremy.

    My experience leans more toward the aspect of trust being the main factor toward a lack of motivation in establishing a virtual office. Managers want to ensure that their employees are “on the job” and productive. Your example of Automattic included employees that had an existing work relationship. Without prior experience with a worker, the manager has not built up the trust that he can be depended on to put the full day at home without the Starbuck’s runs, soap operas, etc. I think this may be part of what you mean by requiring excellent management techniques. Managers want to be hands-on, meaning they can reach out and touch you or look over your shoulder onto your screen. The ability you mention of not just communicating, but over-communicating not only ensures the individuals know what they need but will also provide the manager the oversight they desire. This requires a balance, just like in a classic office setting, of managers not micro-managing but working to ensure the project is on track and the employees are provided what they need.

    Communication will also have to relay a sense of team so that all individuals know they are part of a larger scheme. Their input is important to the final goal. This of course is another factor that crosses both into the virtual and classic office. It becomes more important virtually as individuals will lose the sense of team and project goals as they work alone in their space on their assignments.

    Another demotivating factor may be that “working from home” has historically been a perk granted to an exceptional employee or someone that requires it due to illness, home care, new child or some other issue. Granting this perk to a whole workforce is not something most managers or business owners are inclined to do.

    The technology is here to support virtual offices. Management will need to overcome their instincts and years of instilled processes to make it work. I welcome the day when we can get beyond this and see more virtual office examples. It will be a learning experience for sure.

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  2. question. If an individual has an opportunity to establish a VA service AND they are hyper-organized and highly communicative, should they? I have been approached by a nationwide company to offer particular services to them as a virtual office. This commitment would require resigning my current full-time position and launching into self-employment, something I’ve never aspired to do. The challenge for me is this – risk versus reward. I don’t have enough information to properly assess either. Can you help with pointers in this evaluation process?

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  3. Debbie –

    Red flag for me is that it does not appear you are looking forward to self-employment.

    If you are not fully motivated and welcoming of self-employment then the virtual office does not sound like the right fit for you. You are better to do work you both enjoy, are comfortable with, and easily motivated to succeed.

    Feel free to bounce further questions off of me either through the blog or directly. I am more than happy to help you think through your decision.

    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy

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  4. Pingback: The Benefits of Being Virtually There « The Product Guy

  5. hi

    Interesting discussion.

    This reminds me of the ‘bedouin’ style of working, widely covered last year. See my blog post at http://howwework.blogspot.com/2006/05/going-bedouin-thoughts.html for a recap.

    More recently, the company I work for has just been merged with 2 other companies. My department now has some extra people in it, but we are now dispersed over different locations (the extra offices of the merge-partners). I set up an IRC channel to serve as a central place for everyone ni our department to join (during and even after work hours).

    IRC is in my opinion a great way to create a sense of together-ness (for lack of a better term). It is NOT the same as instant messaging, which is primarily a 1-on-1 tool. An IRC “channel” is more like a _place_ where you log on to and where others are visibly present. You say good morning when you come in, and goodbye when you leave. It’s not enough in itself, but it has proven to be a great help in our process of ‘joining forces’ while at different locations.

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  6. Pingback: http://tpgblog.com/2007/11/14/the-virtual-office-you-belong-together/ | sanver.info

  7. …as you stated ‘when it is the right fit, it can produce positive and concrete results’…it is not for everyone, but it might be beneficial to a company to look into setting up core areas of an operation like this…the home”virtual” office may actually be the real operations of the office, and the physical bodies seen are the actual virtual office…

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  8. nice stuff!
    actually i wanted to hire virtual employees for web designing and SEO. Actually i am looking for whole virtual team. Because now it’s become very expensive for our organization to recruit employees :( And we need reliable and quality virtual employees.
    We were prepared to post our requisite on freelancers’ site. But we have observed that it’s very time as well as money consuming process. And also I heard that “The bigger problem on Elance, in my experience, is dummy projects. Some buyers post projects simply to get an idea of the cost or to try to find free work” So, what next?
    Our team comes out with conclusion to directly contact companies who are providing virtual employee services. But the question is “RELIABILITY and Hiring charges”.
    We have got replies from some forums and communities. So, now we have one option company marketraise corp. it’s nice.
    But we want best service provider with better package.

    Thanks in advance
    Sophia

    Like

  9. Great post on how to tell if switching to a virtual office is right for your business or not. I think they are a great way for small businesses to save money and weather this economic storm.

    Like

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