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

Microsoft’s Mistakes. You too can learn from them.

microsoft (Part 2 of 2) The other day I briefly highlighted what I saw as the ‘Good parts’ and ‘Good starts’ within Windows Live Events to clearly distinguish where I feel the product has missed a golden opportunity; and highlight some broader takeaways that should be applied to the current and next generation of online web products and services.

Not so good parts…

Overall, I found the user experience pretty good, as long as I didn’t have to interact with the page and its components and features. In some cases I found the negatives to be in the simple user interaction and experience design, in others it was the sense of being mislead by the user interface to expect bigger and better functionality from my click.

Where’s the pop?

The User Interface didn’t POP. By pop, I am not referring to those annoying ads that everyone loves to hate, but to the responsiveness and feeling that goes along with the interaction of the user interface. Here, with Windows Live Events, I found the interface experience, my user experience, to be slow, sluggish, and, at times, sleep inducing.

When I log into my account and select an event that I want to update or invite people to… let me do it QUICKLY and painlessly. I want to login (pop), click (pop), invite (pop), and go (pop). The interface rendering times, the additional pages that were being loaded again and again, can all benefit from a major overhaul. Empower me, your potential user, to do what I want to do with my event…efficiently, productively.

Microsoft, did you ever hear of Ajax or dynamic page elements? My advice to you is to make the event overview and its management a single page, a page that loads the ‘dashboard’ view once and dynamically allows me to enter new information or be updated while I am looking at my event. Don’t force me to navigate back and forth, again and again, to manipulate my details and invite people. All those extra pages, all that extra loading, all that interruption in my workflow of planning and managing and ENJOYING my event just slows me down, ruins any potential happiness I may get from some of the features, and makes me want to look elsewhere for a UI that will be fast, responsive, and fun to interact with.

The sluggishness I found to be present within the UI goes beyond the unnecessary extra page loading that occurs, but is also found in the initial page downloading and rendering. I am not, as of the posting of this article, sure what is going on under the hood or what sort of processes at Microsoft are resulting in this bloated feeling that appears to be all too common to Microsoft products, that causes such a slow and sluggish feeling (I used IE , FF, and Opera browsers). The sluggish interface is not unique to Windows Live Events. I also experienced excessive sluggishness in Microsoft’s (now discontinued) Live Product Search — a product I thought was head and shoulders above the competition out there. With Live Product Search, a product that I truly enjoyed and recommended to people, as with Windows Live Events, its big negative was that it was slow in how it responded to user interaction . Back then, I stopped using Live Product Search, and most likely many other people did too, because it was just sooo slow.

The ‘fun potential’ of the user interface is present, but quickly dissipates when the actual interaction portion of the user experience equation is taken into account. Correcting this portion of Windows Live Events will go far towards user adoption, but is also the lesser of the ‘Not so good parts.’

The future is in Modular Innovation.

Within Windows Live Events It is nice that I can blog about my event; even though it is not readily obvious that I can do so at first glance at the event’s dashboard view. It is nice that I can share pictures and discuss the events with friends and other attendees. It is nice that it is an experience integrated with the Windows Live suite of web products.

Wouldn’t it be NICER (or great, or awesome) if I could blog, not just on Windows Live Spaces, but on WordPress (The Product Guy’s platform) or other blog formats? Wouldn’t it be NICER if I could share or integrate with my pictures on Flickr or other photo sharing platforms? Wouldn’t it be NICER if I could communicate with other people, in real-time, or via Twitter or receive updates when there are new bits of information being shared?

Answer: Yep.

While the layout of the page presents the promise of a sharp user experience and alludes to the potential of a great, integrated, centralizing event planning application through some obvious and some hard to find features, it falls far short. So far short, it only is integrated with Microsoft – a very limited web product audience.

Windows Live Events, what could have been a nice module that combined and brought together information from other web products (modules) online, instead is only a repackaging of a proprietary Microsoft-only event planner.

Those tougher to find features on the Event’s homepage are the ones that drew my greatest attention for which I also carefully chose my words when describing. I purposely described “the good” with words like “promising” and the “layout encourages.” While there are hints of good ideas, hints of implementing (a) Modular Innovation(s), Windows Live Events, in my opinion, missed a great opportunity. (Of course, I am not saying they cannot make a reattempt at this opportunity through a future release.)

The (missed?) opportunity…

Event planning is not unique to the Internet. What I did like seeing was their eye towards greater integration with other services. However, without allowing for integration with third-parties (Via an API? perhaps.), what could possibly be the incentive for people to sign-up and use Windows Live Events? For people that are not Windows Live-only users, there isn’t any.

Integration is the key to any chance of broad-based success for Live Events. Have I mentioned this a few times already? Hmmm… it must mean it is IMPORTANT! What is unique here? Microsoft Events does present a nice, simplified UI, but with so many other product options out there, there is nothing making this new service stand out. This is where the opportunity lies.

Windows Live Events would be more interesting to the public at large if events could just simply integrate with other blog platforms and social networks to invite friends from your social network to your created Live Events. Don’t limit the users to the Microsoft blogging platform and picture sharing — let me choose and customize my user experience by connecting it with other online products (that aren’t Microsoft, if I choose).

‘missed?’ well, one can hope that the Windows Live Events team will heed my advice and make many of these improvements.

Learning parts…

There are many constructive lessons that can be learned by poking at and experiencing Windows Live Events that, when applied to other web products, will result in broader acceptance and adoption, and an overall better experience that your users will come back for time and time again.

To build a larger base, secondarily, Microsoft will have to clean-up and make enjoyable (interactive, responsive, not slow) the user experience; but, primarily, at the very core, empower its users through modularity by…

  • Allowing integration. Enabling people to connect their Live Events to their other online experiences (Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger, IM, etc.). For example, let me invite people that are my close friends in MySpace to my party being planned via Live Events.
  • Allowing portability. Enabling people to download or move all of their event information for editing or manipulating on other event or related platforms. This will allow more people to try it out, without worrying about losing their information and experiment with different methods of interacting with and using and leveraging Windows Live Events. Also, how neat-o would it be to be able to download all of the plans, pictures, and discussions surrounding an event and burn them to a DVD to watch with your friends next time you meet up?
  • Allowing modules. Enable people to interact with Windows Live Events as a module. As a module, you can place features, actions, or other types of updates within any other service. Also, as a module, other services can transmit information to the Live Events module (e.g. friend X has accepted the invitation to your party).

In the end, some nice User Experience (UX) and integration (barely), but the 2 big problems that I have found to be all too familiar to the majority of Microsoft’s web products (not unlike their desktop products) are:

  1. sluggish UI and UX really hurt any gains made by some of the good UI decisions, and
  2. openness — connect to and give the people a way to connect complementary services and other platforms (social networks, IM, blog, flickr, twitter, etc.)

It will be interesting to watch Windows Live Events and see what of my advice is eventually adopted and the resulting consumer responses (and their corresponding UX gains).

Enjoy!

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy

Looking for the good in Windows Live Events…

date (Part 1 of 2) So, clearly, Microsoft saw there was a huge need and demand for an online event planning utility — and Windows Live Events was born. (Sarcasm)

But, seriously, there are some positive, along with the negative, aspects of this new product offering.

Last Friday, Microsoft released Windows Live Events. After completing my review of this new web product, which is clearly aligned to compete with the likes of Evite, mypunchbowl, Renkoo, as well as many others, I came away with mixed feelings about its future, and some solid observations of user experience that I feel everyone can benefit from hearing and thinking about, as well as apply to other projects to create more successful web products.

Good parts…

The User Interfaces start out well. The initial visual presents a simple, cohesive overview, easy to find and click primary actions, summaries, all with just the right amount of detail.

image

An especially nice section of the interface, are the huge buttons, along the top, dedicated to the most frequent event related actions — nice and easy: inviting guests, tweaking event details, communicating and sharing — all relevant to the event.

image

The summary information is presented in fairly good balance to the event details on the same page. It is a very nice experience that allows the user to quickly login, take a peak at the event, and know the latest information — easy to take it all in ‘at a glance.’

Good starts…

I found it difficult to clearly classify the parts of the page that are for sharing and socializing entirely with the Good or Bad parts section of this post. My imagination (or was it my hopes?) got the best of me when I saw the parts for blogging, discussions, and picture sharing.

Before clicking on any of these ‘Good starts’, I was filled with all sorts of cool ideas and questions…

  • Is ‘Blog about this event’ going to really let me connect this to my blog (powered by WordPress) or other blogs out there?
  • Will I be able to ‘Share photos’ on Flickr?
  • ‘Discussion,’ that will be a fun way to quickly coordinate and keep track of everything.

The social and communication components of the page contain considerable promise. These components provide some nice, and fairly easy to access (blogging and calendar integration are somewhat buried) features. The _layout_ of the page definitely encourages the sharing of event related photos and group discussions.

While my findings did not live up to my expectations, one can hope that some day they do, and, at least, they are a good start to integrating with a social community, even if it is Microsoft-only, for now.

In Part 2 of my discussion of Windows Live Events I will delve into the negatives and other universally applicable product lessons. 

Jeremy Horn
The Product Guy