Imagine having a job where you never have to drive to the
office. Or think about what it would be like to work for a
company where your closest colleague is in the next state.
Such work situations are becoming commonplace as the virtual
office becomes a vital part of many of today's corporations.
"We often refer to virtual offices as 'distributed teams,'"
says Martha Haywood, senior consulting partner for Management
Strategies Inc. (MSI), a Silicon Valley-based firm that assists
businesses in using virtual offices effectively. "A distributed
team is any team that has geographically separated members,
people working different shifts or people who are culturally
CONCEPT OF VIRTUAL OFFICE NOT NEW
Although the idea of working over the Internet may seem new,
Haywood advises it's really been around for a while. "Pretty
much everybody in business today is using the virtual office
concept, whether they're aware of it or not," Haywood
says. "People might drive in to the office each day,
but they also may work with people in other locations via
technology. People have been telecommuting informally for
Technology such as e-mail makes it simple for a worker in
California to compose a proposal and then shoot it off to
someone as far away as Asia to get feedback. Companies such
as Lockheed Martin have found virtual offices to be a boon
to their operations. Although Lockheed still provides physical
office space for its employees, the virtual office enhances
their productivity. On the other hand, the California-based
company Veriphone, which makes telephone headsets, is a completely
virtual office setup.
Virtual offices have many advantages. "Both large and
small companies benefit from using them," says Brent
Guinn, director of distance learning for the College of Engineering
at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. "Small companies
cannot necessarily afford office space for the number of employees
they need, and large businesses need to be cautious of how
they spend their money to remain competitive. By providing
employees with virtual office support and technologies, companies
are able to reduce their office space overhead costs."
Haywood notes that businesses that use the virtual office
concept can have access to technical experts, who often are
in another city, state or country. Such working relationships
enable companies and employees who might not have been able
to work together before to become team members. The benefit
Although the company benefits from having access to the experts,
the experts themselves are not required to travel or relocate
in order to work on projects. "Once virtual offices become
even more common, people can select their jobs based on the
skills rather than locality," she adds.
ADDITIONAL ADVANTAGES OF THE VIRTUAL OFFICE
Another reason many companies have begun using the virtual
office is to reduce wear and tear on the environment from
automobiles. The Clean Air Act in California has prompted
businesses to change their work styles so that people don't
have to drive to and from work. "Plus, it reduces the
stress on employees of commuting on a daily basis," Guinn
Disaster recovery is yet another reason some organizations
have chosen to use the virtual office setup. When all employees
are housed in the same vicinity, there is a greater risk of
losing people or work if something happens to the site. Haywood
notes that Oracle Corp. has its main sites in California and
Colorado. Spreading out their expertise is wise because California
is prone to earthquakes, and Colorado often suffers from snowstorms.
If either location were to be struck by a disaster, the company
would be able to continue operations in the other site.
Although it seems a simple solution to send back and forth
written documents via e-mail, for example, such a setup is
not without its problems. Many supervisors, for example, have
difficulty adjusting to the concept of supervising people
who are not in the next cubicle. Haywood notes that bosses
need to learn different monitoring, mentoring and training
methods to remain effective leaders in a virtual office.
WORKERS AND EMPLOYEES MUST ADAPT
Many workers thrive in an environment with less person-to-person
contact, but the flipside of this independence is workers
must be self-motivated to stay on task. In addition, the camaraderie
people feel when they work side by side often is missing from
virtual work relationships. "One advantage of a virtual
office is being in a work environment where your supervisor
is not constantly looking over your shoulder," Guinn
explains. "Yet you may feel disconnected from the office
and feel alone. When you primarily communicate with people
via technology, you do not develop the 'water cooler' relationships
you have with coworkers in an actual office."
Setting ground rules for communicating and work schedules
is crucial to running a successful virtual office. When you're
used to walking down the hall to hand a colleague a document
to review, it's quite a shock to realize suddenly the person
who reviews your work is halfway across the country. Different
time zones and work schedules can be a source of frustration
for employees who are used to having instant response. To
combat this problem, it's wise for team members to decide
what time of day and how often they will review their incoming
e-mail and how quickly they will respond to requests. Companies
such as Haywood's also offer classes and on-site training
to help organizations streamline their virtual offices.
Advancing technology makes it easier for companies to put
together teams of people in different locations. Although
this idea of working from your home or being part of an organization
in which your nearest co-worker is miles away may be appealing,
it's not something that can happen overnight.
"The virtual office is becoming increasingly prevalent,"
Haywood says. "In the future, all teams will involve
some type of virtual office setup. However, it must be part
of the infrastructure of an organization—it's not something
one person can do alone."
The world may be shrinking because of technology, but one
thing is for certain—virtual offices are only getting
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