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The Virtual Revolution
If your bottom line isn’t where you’d like it to be, the problem might be lurking right under your feet…and over your head…and all around you. It’s your office, and it might just be what’s killing your business.
In today’s economic climate, efficiency is the number one rule of survival. One of the greatest efficiency drains for many companies is the burdensome overhead of maintaining physical offices and everything that goes along with them – landline phone systems, servers, utilities, furnishings, cleaning services…the list goes on and on.
In the Digital Age, the evolution of technology and communication has reshaped how companies operate and people work. The future of business is leaner, smarter and more responsive.
For many businesses, having all employees working the same hours under the same roof is a luxury of a bygone era. As a result, telecommuting is no longer just a nice perk for employees but a key element of a stronger and more competitive business model.
While shedding your physical office can significantly reduce your monthly operating expenses, the benefits don’t stop there. According to estimates from the Telework Research Network, if every American who could work from home did so even half the time, companies would see over $230 billion in added productivity.
Furthermore, going virtual can greatly strengthen the quality of your personnel, as it frees you to hire the best talent for the job – not just those who live within a reasonable commute of your office.
Even better news? As virtual companies become more and more prevalent, any stigma that might once have been attached to the lack of a centralized business operation is quickly disappearing. Today’s savvy clients don’t see value in lavish offices. Their budgets are tight, and they need to yield the most gain possible from every dollar. As a result, they want to be confident that they are investing in results, not taking the hit for your overhead, and that they are paying for talent and expertise, not footing the bill for your conference rooms and copiers.
Are you ready to join the revolution? Is your company primed to go virtual? There are a number of factors you need to examine before you relinquish the keys to your office in order to make sure it’s a good fit for you, your employees and your clients.
First, ask yourself how having a physical office directly benefits your customers. If the only answer is the perception or prestige attached to a bricks-and-mortar workplace, it’s a good time to consider taking your operation virtual. As long as you ease your customers through the transition without any lapse in performance or professionalism, they’ll be far more appreciative of your ability to offer more competitive pricing because you no longer have to pass along the burden of unneeded overhead expenses.
Second, take into account whether there are any advantages that your company gains from your specific location that could not be matched if your employees worked remotely. For example, do you get sales leads from walk-in traffic? Do you have a strong referral network established with neighboring firms? If not, chances are there’s little to lose by closing up shop.
Another consideration is how often your employees engage in meaningful face-to-face interactions. For many businesses, employees spend the majority of their day in front of a computer screen. Even cube farm inhabitants are likely more inclined to communicate via e-mail than to stop by a coworker’s desk. If this is the case, why have all your employees tethered to a single location?
Next, evaluate your internal systems for communication and collaboration. Have they been put through the ringer and proven to be effective? Are they so organic that they are now second-nature to your employees? If so, you can feel more confident that they will translate successfully to a virtual working environment, albeit with a bit of tweaking to allow smart technology to compensate for lack of physical proximity.
Likewise, take a look at how you gage employee performance. Do you have good methods for tracking accomplishments and measuring productivity? If your performance metrics are sound, you shouldn’t need the added security of seeing your worker bees present in the office for 40 hours a week.
Finally, explore the growth dynamics of your company. How quickly is your company expanding? If you’re unsure how many employees you will have at the end of this year or next, operating without a traditional office means you won’t be forced to roll the dice and be locked into a lease on a pricey facility that may ultimately be too large or too small to fit your needs.
If the results of your self-assessment weigh in favor of shedding your physical office, you should seriously consider transitioning to a virtual operating model and reaping the benefits of lower expenses, increased efficiency, higher employee satisfaction and – most importantly – greater profitability.
To help you get started on the right track, here’s a primer on what you need to know to launch and manage your virtual company:
Success begins and ends with trust: Discover why trust is the cornerstone of the virtual company.
Remote management: Evolve your practices and policies to foster a highly productive nontraditional work environment.
Let’s talk about communication: Ensure that internal communication – whether conducted via phone, e-mail, IM or video chat – always remains positive and productive.
Go, team, go!: Promote good collaboration among virtual teams by giving them the right tools for the job.
The virtual toolbox: Review the basic logistical necessities that will help keep your virtual company running smoothly.
The middle ground: Take advantage of virtual offices for a best-of-both-worlds solution that offers the perks of a traditional office without the crushing overhead.
Success begins and ends with trust
The virtual company exists today because the evolution of technology and communication have made it possible to conduct business anywhere at any time. However, what allows the virtual company to thrive is trust.
At the foundation is trust in your employees. It starts with hiring the right people – ones you can feel confident will thrive in the absence of daily supervision. Good virtual employees are self-motivated and self-disciplined, able to manage their own priorities and deadlines and open to collaborating with others in unconventional ways.
Once you have a strong team in place, set them up for success by establishing clear expectations. The absence of a shared workspace doesn’t mean there must or should be an absence of rules. You still need policies in place governing all the logistics that surround the work process, even though it is happening outside the confines of a traditional office. For example, what are the work hours, and are employees responsible for being accessible outside those hours? You should also set standard operating procedures for answering phones, responding to e-mails, reporting accomplishments and even backing up files.
The trust your employees have in each other is also an important piece of the pie. Each person should have faith that their colleagues are equally dedicated to furthering the success of the company, even when it’s harder to see the day-to-day results of their efforts. And while virtual companies benefit from the absence of office politics, it’s critically important to establish strong team dynamics. For this reason, it’s still a good idea to get together face-to-face from time to time. Whether it’s once a week, once a month or even once a quarter, opportunities for non-virtual interaction help to promote a spirit of camaraderie.
Last but far from least important, going virtual requires clients and prospects to invest a high level of trust in you and your company that they will receive the same or greater level of service and productivity as they would if everyone was working under the same roof. To this end, there are a number of things you can do to help them keep the faith.
First, you must ensure that professionalism is never compromised. While it shouldn’t be a secret that you run a virtual operation, employees should maintain discipline in the separation of their personal and professional lives. Even when working from home, phone calls should be conducted with the same level of formality as they would at the office, without background noise, interruptions from children or pets or excessive chatter about personal matters. Also, although you might allow some flexibility with work hours, it’s a good practice to make sure you and your employees are accessible and available to respond promptly by phone or e-mail to clients who keep a more traditional schedule.
Whenever you meet in person, you and your employees should always be exceptionally polished and choose a location for the meeting that is comfortable and conducive to work. While you might be right at home doing business at your local coffeehouse, your clients might find the noise, music and other patrons distracting. Instead, consider renting a meeting space in order to help put your clients at ease and make it easier for them to focus on your presentation. There are many firms, such as Regus and Davinci, that offer highly affordable hourly rates for virtual companies that need access to professional conference rooms.
Finally, when talking to your clients and prospects, always project confidence that you and your team mean business, and then make good on those promises by delivering great results in a timely manner.
With trust as your cornerstone, you’ll be well on your way to building a strong virtual company that is positioned to compete with any bricks-and-mortar operation.
Great companies make it easy for employees to perform, no matter if they are working under the same roof or in dozens of home offices spread throughout the city or even the country.
While the challenges of managing a virtual workforce are different from those of shepherding cube-dwellers, they are nevertheless conquerable. The key is starting with a foundation of trust and then building a solid project management infrastructure to keep your company’s production engine running smoothly.
First, take a critical look at the systems you currently have in place for directing workflow. Are they truly efficient and effective? Sometimes the convenience of having full-time oversight of employees who share a common workspace can compensate for or mask weaknesses in your project management systems. However, once the conventions of the bricks-and-mortar office are removed, these vulnerabilities can lead to a breakdown in production and cripple your ability to turn out high quality work in a timely manner.
To keep your projects and your people on track, approach every job as a series of milestones and set interim deadlines along the way. If each phase of the project progresses on track, you’ll be assured of avoiding unpleasant surprises when crunch time arrives. Conversely, if an employee misses a milestone, this problem can be identified right away, and the schedule can be adjusted to ensure that you still ultimately meet the expected delivery date.
Additionally, you will need to establish a regular rhythm for employees to check in and provide work status updates to you and their fellow team members. This process can be as informal as a weekly e-mail or phone conference or as structured as logging time spent on each project every day. Finding a system that works well with your leadership style and the nature of your business is critical to helping you enforce accountability, track accomplishments, evaluate productivity and ensure that tasks are being given the right level of priority based on the time and resources invested in them.
Because the dynamics of managing a remote workforce are so complex, good project management software is invaluable to the virtual company. One example of such a system is 37signals’ Basecamp. For a low monthly subscription fee, this web-based tool allows you to assign tasks and deadlines, track time, share files, develop documents collaboratively and centralize communication among team members.
Let’s talk about communication For the virtual company, communication among coworkers can take many shapes and forms, from phone calls and e-mails to instant messages and video chats. No matter the vehicle, ensuring that internal communication remains positive and productive is critically important to keeping your business and its people operating at peak performance.
Since the majority of the interactions that take place are not in person, the benefit of situational context and body language is absent. As a result, each person should be mindful of the language and format they choose when communicating with colleagues in order to guard against misinterpretation.
As a general rule of thumb, e-mail is a quick and efficient means of addressing straightforward, day-to-day matters regarding projects and work process. But for subjects of a more sensitive nature, such as addressing a problem with an employee who is underperforming or resolving a conflict between coworkers, taking the time to make a phone call or even arrange a face-to-face meeting will avoid damaging morale unnecessarily. By investing a little extra care and consideration in daily communication, everyone can work together to prevent misunderstandings and feelings of ill-will that can snowball into greater problems over time.
As the leader of a workforce that is scattered across many different locations, it is your responsibility to make sure that you devote time to reaching out to every member of your team. Just because you run a virtual company doesn’t mean anyone should feel invisible. Keep a healthy dialogue flowing by asking questions and soliciting feedback on a regular basis.
However, don’t fall into the trap of overcompensating for the lack of daily face-time with an overabundance of disruptive communication or meetings. Trust in your systems and your employees to get the job done without needing to constantly check in, and don’t let the administrative minutiae of progress reporting become so burdensome that you compromise productivity.
Depending on the size of your organization, holding all-hands or team-based meetings once a week can be a good opportunity to review accomplishments, touch base on projects and update attendees on company business. In the meantime, let quick phone calls, succinct e-mails and even brief instant message or video chat sessions suffice to answer questions that are crucial to keeping the work process flowing.
Go, team, go!
For colleagues who share an office, e-mail is typically the go-to means of communication. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it allows the recipients to read and respond at their convenience with minimal disruption.
However, for virtual workers, e-mail is an insufficient vehicle to facilitate collaboration among team members who are working in many different locations. For your employees to collaborate efficiently and effectively, they need more than just a one-dimensional means of communicating back and forth.
At a basic level, they need access to a shared knowledge base with the latest information pertaining to your customers and projects. More importantly, they need a way to work collectively on developing new documents as well as to brainstorm, bounce rough ideas off one another and get feedback from colleagues. In addition, they need a way to monitor workflow and keep tabs on the status of active projects. Lastly, they need tools that will help them stay connected on a personal level in order to promote a healthy spirit of camaraderie and minimize the occurrence of interpersonal conflicts.
The good news is that there are three simple and cost-effective solutions that will fulfill almost all of these needs and keep remote employees working together as seamlessly as if they were under the same roof:
Instant messaging Instant messaging is an easy, no-cost way to encourage real-time conversation and communication. With many IM clients such as Skype, iChat and Yahoo! Messenger, your employees can exchange instant messages one-on-one or with a group as well as engage in video chats for an even more personal experience. Like a virtual water cooler, instant message chats are a great vehicle for spontaneous brainstorming or problem-solving sessions.
Google Docs The latest version of this excellent cloud-based system allows multiple users to create and edit shared word processing documents, spreadsheets, diagrams, charts and presentations. The new document editor now allows up to 50 co-authors to contribute to and edit the same file simultaneously, with color-coded real-time updates. Additionally, inline comments and a shared interface for chat and co-writing eliminates the need for team members to switch back and forth between windows as they carry on conversation about the task at-hand.
Project management software Good project management software is a lifeline for virtual teams. For example, 37signals’ Basecamp is a low-cost web-based tool that allows your employees to manage tasks and deadlines, track time spent on projects, share files, develop documents collaboratively and centralize communication among team members.
The most important thing to remember is that the tools you choose have to fit your industry, your company and your employees, taking into account the strengths and weaknesses that currently exist within your work processes and the dynamics of your team. There’s no need to become a slave to technology; there are plenty of available options that will make it easier to get work done without creating more work to manage your chosen systems.
The virtual toolbox
As more and more companies make the leap to going virtual, more and more vendors are competing to deliver agile solutions to replace relics of the traditional office like landline phone systems, fax machines and file servers. Even better, most of these new services are far more affordable and versatile than their antiquated predecessors.
Here are just a few of the many available tools that will help the day-to-day operations of your virtual company run seamlessly:
Voice communication For voice communication, providing each of your employees with a cell phone is an obvious solution. But how do you give your customers a single access point to this network of mobile workers? Just because you are giving up your office doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your company phone line, thanks to virtual phone systems such as Grasshopper.
For as little as $9.99 per month, Grasshopper gives you a dedicated local or toll-free phone number with unlimited extensions, each with its own call forwarding, voicemail and message delivery settings. Better yet, your Grasshopper number can even double as a fax line and can deliver your incoming faxes straight to e-mail as PDFs.
File sharing and archiving There are many services that allow you to store and access files remotely. Dropbox is a user-friendly file-synchronization tool that offers two gigabytes of secure online storage for free or up to 100 gigabytes for a low monthly fee.
Dropbox works with files of any size or type as well as with Macs and PCs. Shared folders allow multiple people to work with the same set of files, and Dropbox automatically syncs when new files or changes are detected, so you don’t ever have to worry about losing data to a computer crash, accidentally deleting files or knowing who has the latest version of a document. You can even access and edit files from any computer or mobile device via Dropbox’s web interface.
Skype Skype is another indispensable multitasker for virtual companies. Skype is best known as the software application that allows users to make free voice calls over the Internet to other Skype users anywhere in the world, but it also offers many other helpful features.
Using Skype, employees can exchange instant messages, participate in group chats, hold phone and video conferences and engage in screen sharing for presentations or collaborative work sessions – all at no cost to you. You can even use Skype to conduct conference calls with customers who are on a landline or mobile phone for a nominal fee, and the audio quality is crystal-clear.
The middle ground
So you’re interested in taking your company virtual, but you’d still like the prestige of giving sales presentations in a corporate boardroom? Or perhaps you’d like the personal touch of a receptionist answering your company phone line?
Don’t let these desires stop you from shedding the burdensome overhead of your corporate office. There’s a better, more cost-effective way to enjoy the perks of an office without footing the bill to maintain a dedicated space 24/7.
With the growing popularity of virtual companies, a new concept has emerged called the “virtual office.”
For less than $100 a month, you can secure a business address in a preferred area of town to publish on your company stationery, business cards and website, and your mail and packages will be received and forwarded to you. For an additional fee, you can also have a few days of private office access each month and a dedicated phone line answered by a receptionist in your company’s name, with calls and messages handled per your exact instructions. You can even rent meeting rooms by the hour on an as-needed basis.
Virtual offices are an ideal solution if you want to take advantage of the operational efficiencies of a remote workforce but you serve a more conservative clientele that prefers to conduct business in a traditional office setting.
In addition, most virtual office services are offered la carte, so you can easily adjust your level of service and your monthly expenses as your business needs evolve.
For more information on virtual offices, a quick search on Google or Yahoo will yield a number of reputable firms, such as Regus and Davinci Virtual, that offer a wide array of highly flexible options to suit your specific needs.
Seize the day By and large, technology has evolved faster than corporate culture, which explains why a relatively small number of companies are currently taking advantage of telecommuting. However, today, with the advent of more specialized cloud-based project management and collaboration tools and clients that are savvy to the impact of high overhead on the value delivered for each dollar they spend, the momentum is building for a virtual revolution.
Shepherding your company through the transition from a traditional bricks-and-mortar office to a virtual operation is a complex process that requires buy-in on all fronts. It mandates that your managers adapt their thinking, practices and systems of communication in order to direct and coordinate teams remotely. It challenges your employees to practice the self-discipline and flexibility to work productively in a non-traditional environment. It asks your clients to make a leap of faith that your company can master the unique demands of a virtual operation and realize the benefits of greater productivity and more manageable expenses.
It may not be feasible to make the leap right away or all at once. However, even if you take it one step at a time, every outmoded system that you shed is like cutting away an anchor that’s weighing your business down. Similarly, every time you replace one of these systems with a technology-based solution that helps your company and its people work smarter, you’ll be making significant strides toward building a highly evolved business model that is armed to compete aggressively in today’s marketplace.
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