The Benefits of Being Virtually There

netconnect A Virtual Office is just not the right fit for every company and every management team. Often, companies, when approaching the topic and considering a Virtual Office establishment for themselves tend to look at one half of the associated characteristics. Most frequently, I speak with companies that are either looking at only the positive, hopeful outcomes without consideration of the negatives and other elements that are red flags for incompatibility with respect to their current circumstances. Then, there are the other companies that only see the negatives and reasons to not move forward without seeing how the positives, for them, may actually outweigh the less than ideal accompaniments.

For now, I wish to briefly touch upon the benefits that can be gained through the successful implementation of a Virtual Office.

As with many large undertakings it is important to make sure your set of expectations are properly aligned with the reality of what a Virtual Office can deliver, and remember to…

…Expect good things.

There are clear cost savings to be had by…

  • Not having a physical need for office space. Large savings can be had, especially in a metropolitan area (e.g. NYC) where cost per square foot of space can get very, very expensive.
  • Not being limited to any specific geographic location for recruitment. Being able to recruit from places where the skills and the PRICE (employee salaries) align ideally with your own can also add up in the company’s favor.

One of the primary drivers, on the business-side, for a Virtual Office is cost savings. Through a Virtual Office you do not have to limit your recruiting search to a single geographic area, but can reach out to people, where ever you find those with the target matching skill-set. The cost savings benefit can often be best understood when evaluated in contrast to the non-virtual alternative. For example, in a city, or large metropolitan region, the business will assuredly pay a premium to hire local talent, where the cost of living is highest. Through the leveraging of a Virtual Office, the business can hire individuals with the same skills (or better) than the local candidates at a fraction of the price. The savings can add up fast; especially when hiring for high-skilled jobs like developers, where the salary difference between regions can be as great as $30k or more! Of course there are new and different costs associated with setting up a Virtual Office, phones, home Internet connections, etc., but they have negligible impact on the savings that will be gained through the cost savings of the reduced salary expenses, as well as the elimination of commercial office space fees.

Time and availability take on a unique meaning and provide special value through…

  • Flexibility of work hours and schedule that, with the right people hired, lead to significantly positive morale and dedication to the company’s work and goals.
  • Increased work hours resulting from the employees ability to optimally configure their work environment, as well as the aforementioned enhanced employee morale.
  • Expanded availability for the occasions where the critical deadline needs to be met or a critical emergency needs to be immediately addressed — it is much more convenient for the employee of a Virtual Office to have everything at their fingertips and work an extra hour or walk into the next room to address the immediate challenge at hand.

Engagement. Keeping employees engaged and focused is a challenge in any office setting. A typical employee situation that I have experienced and observed across multiple companies is that you will find the Virtual Office employee is a good deal more engaged with their work. There are no concerns about commute time or appearance. The employees are both more available to the company and, equally important, to their family. The Virtual Office employee can setup their office environment to suit their needs and optimize their environment to empower themselves to produce their best work. In start-ups the type of focus and extra hours generated from the more intense engagement are invaluable.

When structured and run well, a well connected Virtual Office further facilitates the engagement and the ensuing team spirit that develops; lowering the bar for putting in extra hours, when needed, or being available for support or emergencies. More time, more engagement, more accessibility — great things for all companies, even more valuable when resources are lean as is common in a start-up environment.

Sounds great. Let’s get started!

Remember, the Virtual Office isn’t for everyone. I have only painted about half of the picture so far. Becoming aligned with the rosier expectations associated with this model of a Virtual Office is the easier half of the equation to evaluate.

Today, take away from this part of the conversation…

  • The Virtual Office is not for everyone, and might not be the best thing for ‘us,’ the company,
  • And, the positive expectations may align well with the desired goals, but the need exists to equally weigh and honestly assess the negatives and challenges associated with the successfully executed Virtual Office.

Those downsides, and further guidance in assessing whether or not a Virtual Office is for you I reserve for separate, future The Product Guy blog posts.

So, for now, read, understand, internalize, and come back for to learn more about the experiences that I can share regarding Virtual Offices, many of the common challenges and their solutions. To make sure you don’t miss those posts, and other posts by The Product Guy, you can subscribe to The Product Guy by following this link: http://feeds.feedburner.com/tpgblog

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

About these ads

I made it out of clay…

painter Is every online product starting to look alike? Running low on product experience creativity?

Some Simple Advice

Break the mold of the average user experience. Think about the problem you are trying to solve from alternative design perspectives by introducing new methods of interacting with the product.

<YAWN>

Most people will design their web application, interface, user experience, in the same old way, every single time. Pencil, paper, Photoshop, pen, storyboard, wire diagram, etc. So boring!

Make it out of clay!

A super-simple way to get yourself started on a new thought path is to change how you interact with the product during the design process. For example, change the medium (water color, paper mache…clay) with which you are designing and / or approach the online product from the paradigm of common, handy real-world products, remote control, oven, umbrella, etc. Imagine those products imbued with some or all of the features of the online product you are trying to create. How would those features be manifested in these different forms? How would the different forms the features and interaction with them?

Come on…Touch it

Shifting the interaction of you (the product or experience designer) with the product, changing from a computer monitor oriented paradigm, will, by its very nature, cause you to think differently about the problem and, maybe, find some new metaphors that can be applied to the design or interaction of the final product itself.

To tackle interaction design challenges I have used post-it collages, clay, created 3d working models, charcoal, etc. It helps to keep the creativity flowing when different mediums (other than Photoshop and your browser) are employed to see and truly interact with your interface as well as the user experience you are trying to create.

Enter the Real World

Take an existing product, in the “real world”, a CD player, a remote control, and shift the paradigm of your interface to those models. Yes, the end result may not be what you are seeking, but the journey that entails facing the different limitations and constraints imposed by the objects you are using as a guide are an excellent way to keep your mind fresh while you approach the problem from a variety of angles. And, once in a while, such a shift will present a really cool way to present that user experience that you hadn’t thought of before.

A (Paper) Widget

On an interaction design challenge I tackled previously, I found myself having to design a very small widget that required a great deal of information conveyance and required an enjoyable consumer experience. The 2 paradigm shifts I introduced that eventually lead to solving the interaction design challenge were…

Shift 1: I wondered what the tiny module would look like if it popped open like a CD player

…then I decided that, instead of mocking it up in Photoshop or other digital design tools, I would further introduce a different way of interacting with this widget, by…

Shift 2: creating a working 3D model… out of paper. (see photo of the model I built to the right)

Shaping it, crafting it, interacting with it, playing with it, viewing it from different angles and perspectives, having other people poke at it, all of which, in the end, led to a very cool consumer experience that also presented the user with the needed information.

For Example … Exercise

Goal:

  • Re-design the opening and closing of a desktop window.

Consider:

  • What if that window opened and closed like a clamshell phone.
  • What interface elements are on the top, outside of the phone.
  • What elements are presented on the inside of the phone?
  • What similar elements would make sense in the realm of my desktop window that could be made to fit the model?
  • What real-world elements exist that open and close that are very different from a desktop window?

Solution: Dive in and give it a try. I would love to hear and see what ideas people come up with.

Keep Exercising

Now, pick a completely different object that you interact with in the world. Try it out on one of your older (more boring) interfaces. If anyone comes up with anything interesting that they would like to share I would love to see them and post them on the blog.

Simply Put

As some parts of the holiday season wind down and others are just beginning, why not make it a New Year’s resolution, the next time you feel like you are stuck in a rut or need to inject new ideas, to break the mold and try making it out of clay!

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Real Virtual Office Challenges

netconnect Today, I want to inject some increased reality and a clearer picture of the challenges of creating and managing a successful Virtual Office before I paint too rosy a picture of the great gains that can result in the areas of cost and time, especially since it is more typical that a Virtual Office at the core of a company is the exception. It is equally important to understand the positive aspects of a Virtual Office, as well as its challenges.

…And take careful measure of the downsides.

Most notably, the undesirable component that company management compatibility needs to be critically assessed against and typically leads to the failed Virtual Office exercise involves the additional overhead that impacts every one of the Virtual Office processes. If the individual or management team is not honestly up to the challenge or unwilling or incapable of addressing the issues of overhead then DO NOT PROCEDE — this is the primary reason for incompatibility and failure of either or both the Virtual Office experiment and the company, itself.

Over-communicate and plan.

With many companies, and especially start-ups, workflow is often highly fluid and dynamic; there is often, at best, an idea of what is wanted, no plan, but a process of iterate, iterate, iterate. This is not a very compatible approach within a Virtual Office environment where there is extra time required per iteration, sending-waiting, also resulting in more difficult course corrections due to the distances and time between the parties. Yes, there are many tools and other aides to assist in minimizing this shortcoming, but they will only minimize it; nothing beats face-to-face, in-person, working together, pointing, cycling, doing.

To be successful the management and employees of a Virtual Office must actually go beyond the normal same-office expectation of communications – they must over-communicate. Solid communication and information flow have to be there to minimize the misunderstanding or assumption that, in a real office situation, could have been noticed typically by walking by or in casual chatter around the water cooler. In this area, there are great tools to help from IM, to video, to phone, to chatroom (a personal favorite of mine being campfire) and more to minimize communication breakdowns and keep the processes moving smoothly. But, again, when used perfectly they are only asymptotic to some productivity level near, and short of, that of a non-Virtual Office.

Part of the over-communication picture is the need for clear and concise planning. Again, as just mentioned, it is the goal to minimize the chance for misunderstanding or other communication breakdowns that could send a project on a misdirected spiral. When people are heads down for any duration of time you want to maximize their chance of success by providing the best planning and direction that the time available will allow. If the communications and information flow between the same individuals working side-by-side is strained, or just on par with the non-Virtual Office needs, then, those individuals, that company, does not have the right people and management in place for a successful Virtual Office at the core of their operations.

As part of the planning process additional steps, additional overhead, can be put in place to further minimize the negative impact a misunderstood project or directive can have on the business. For example, after a project has been reviewed and assigned, have the individuals responsible for the project create a work plan, timeline, etc., sufficient to the point where you are certain they are on the right path.

Cutting corners on communication, or just not having the communication skills required for a highly distributed office environment, leads to mistakes, misunderstandings, and more time and resource investment to correct the resultant business / project problems. The organized process of planning and communication and creating a well lubricated machine that keeps everything running like clockwork requires a unique skill-set belonging to the individual creating and managing the Virtual Office, as well as a company compatible with the additional time overhead required to allow the machine to function smoothly.

To do. To hear. To see.

In the same line of understanding as the need for over-communication, there is also a part of the communication that is handicapped over the normal course of activities, namely the visual aspects of communication. Most importantly, when communicating with the employees of the Virtual Office, it is much easier to understand their perspectives, level of understanding, comfort with the discussions, emerging HR problems, and much, much more by seeing and reading their body language when communicating. But, it is a Virtual Office, and seeing everyone all of the time is a rarity, even if you do use some video conferencing software. When managing in this situation the manager needs to be extra sensitive to voice tones and further pursue the over-communication in both a working and friendship building manner, just like a real office, to know and understand and keep as open a comfortable channel of dialog as can be possible. If something is not right with the employee, they are losing motivation, they are having a problem with a person or the work, there is something at home that will impact the work, you don’t typically see that person, you don’t have the luxury of easily noticing they are avoiding people or other visual changes of manner or dress — you need to over-communicate, maintain a healthy work and non-work dialog, ask questions, and stay engaged and interested in the well-being of the team — a much greater challenge all around in a Virtual Office, but that much more important with the other senses of sight and sound greatly restricted.

Just because you have a Virtual Office doesn’t mean that you don’t have a “normal” employee training and acclamation process and routine. By “normal,” I am referring to the over-communicative, extra-trained, learning and setup involved within a Virtual Office setting, more intense and thorough than the other “normal” that would be normal for a non-Virtual Office. In a Virtual Office, training on procedures and clear establishment of processes are all that much more important than in a non-Virtual Office. There is no opportunity for looking over someone’s shoulder and identifying and fixing mistakes. Everything will take much longer if procedures are not clear and the skills of the manager and the employee are not up to the challenge.

Speedy is as speedy does.

Clearly, with all of the overhead involved in running a Virtual Office there is a significant hit to the overall productivity of the company. If the Virtual Office is the right fit for the company and the management is up to and willing to take on the challenge, then all the overhead can be optimally reduced. Typically I have observed the time impact on work, of course depending on the work, can add anywhere from 5%-30% overhead — attributed to a well run Virtual Office machine.

Sounds like a lot of work. Why do it?

Virtual Offices work where both sets of expectations, the positive as well as the inherent challenges, are perfectly aligned.

Virtual Offices are not for everyone. The positives need to be weighed against the challenges. The team needs to clearly understand what can be achieved from a Virtual Office as well as have the right person in place to successfully tackle its primary challenges.

Virtual Offices are just not as prevalent as many _other_ experts think they could or even should be, and, hopefully, you now have a better understanding of ‘why.’

To make sure you don’t miss future posts about the Virtual Office, and other cool and informative topics, you can subscribe to The Product Guy by following this link: http://feeds.feedburner.com/tpgblog

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Modular Innovation 101

bunch of modular innovation Modular Innovation (mŏjə-lər ĭn’ə-vāshən) [noun]

  1. Philosophy and style of modular products and services consisting of the following principles..
    • Relationships between people and modules and the user empowerment that comes from such relationships
    • User control of experience, from creation to storage to interaction
    • User’s unrestricted control of own content
  2. Of, relating to, or based on individualized modules that can be personalized to a variety of tasks and the interconnecting means by which these modules can interrelate
  3. The act of introducing, creating, connecting to, building upon, or working with modules, glue (aka platforms), and/or data that either exist as or enable Modular Innovation(s)

What is Modular Innovation? A trend. A product. An evolution. A market. A process or approach. Yes, to all of these methods of describing and thinking about Modular Innovation. I coined the term Modular Innovation (def. 1) to fill a descriptive and philosophical gap in the language, thoughts, and discussions regarding the present, evolving, and future nature of the products of the Internet.

I have been using Modular Innovation to describe and assess products for some time. More recently, driven by popularity and the public nature of The Product Guy blog, I have been receiving many requests for further elaboration on the meaning of Modular Innovation. So…here it is. Enjoy.

Modular Innovation …. The Next Inevitable Step

In Web 2.0 we had looks and feels and communities. Through Modular Innovation, we have RELATIONSHIPS, modular products and other services that facilitate the relational modules… all the components, and the Internet environment within which they, Modular Innovations, thrive.

A Modular Innovation (def. 2) can be small, a feature or mini-mini-product, or large, a module-connector service, a social network. But when the Modular Innovations are all combined, they lead to users’ information that is…

Portable
Shareable
Interoperable
Customizable
Redundant
Accessible

…and, basically, THEIR OWN, the users’, to do with as they wish, to control via the Modular Innovation(s) within their personally controlled online user environment — not a user experience restricted, like today, but truly open and dynamic.

Modular Innovation (def. 3) puts the people in control – of their content and their interaction with it. The people can easily share their data, export it, import it, customize privacy, across different social networks, products and other environments. Their data becomes modular, flexible, and portable. Users’ experience consists of many modules that make up their total user experience. Content and functionality are fully decentralized across these modules, each providing a single or small set of abilities or experiences, that together break down the walls (silos) that are the proprietary platforms, and empower the people, the users of the Internet, to be in charge of their data and their experience. As modules, leveraging open standards (OpenSocial maybe being one of them) people are increasingly able to publish their content to multiple destinations, manage their content across a variety of products (no longer needing to re-find friends, or re-re-re-publish one’s content), as well as port and integrate their personal, content creations with other services, other Modular Innovations. Modular Innovations should increasingly empower the user through the enablement of greater flexibility and control of interaction with the user’s own data. Data that, through more and more Modular Innovation, will become increasingly portable, increasingly integrated, increasingly customizable. Products that are or facilitate Modular Innovation will be the ones that are sustained and will gain increasing acceptance in the next, and already beginning, evolution of the social and interactive Internet.

E.G.

Modular Innovation is about ownership of content through the connectivity and relationships of modules and, through these modules, relationships amongst people with each other and the Modular Innovations with which they interact. These modules, or Modular Innovations, can represent a single or group of features and functionality, or a service or framework that augments or allows for new inter-module relationships to be established. Through combining and connecting and customizing modules, an owner, a user, is in control to customize their full experience and interaction with their own content as well as that of others.

A Modular Innovation that represents a feature set can be seen in a product like Flickr that allows for easy connectivity to AND FROM other resources as well as inclusion of the Flickr production functionality within other and between other Internet products.

Another Modular Innovation (of many) in the flavor of service or framework for the enablement of inter-module relationships can be seen in the Semantic Web framework that “allows data to be shared and reused across application, enterprise, and community boundaries.

A true environment of Modular Innovation is one wherein the user experience is defined by the modules and the relationships between the modules and the individuals using them, not the network or any single product (or feature).

Out There

Trends and other primordial indicators of the emergence of Modular Innovation can be found in many products that are out there, or in development, today on the Internet. I am constantly studying all forms of Internet products, at times, for fun, others for research or my consulting work.

I will be starting a weekly series wherein I will briefly highlight many of the products that at which I am looking. I will touch on the cool, summarize critical assessments / suggestions for improvement, and identify those products that are Modular Innovations, contain smaller Modular Innovations within, or may and/or can facilitate the proliferation and connectedness of other Modular Innovations. Some of the products touched on each week will also lend themselves to more detailed blogs or interviews with the people behind them. The ‘Modular Innovation Within’ series will act as a supplement, where everyone can quickly get a taste and overview of the latest breaking products on the Internet, from the perspective of The Product Guy and how they do or do not contribute to the emergence of an Internet world of Modular Innovation.

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy