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

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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