A Virtual Office: The New Normal? – Part 1, Exploring the Challenges

Five years ago at one of our AlwaysOn Symposiums, I introduced four mega-trends—social, data, mobile and cloud—that are challenging C-suite executives across all verticals. Mobility, a trend that is just as pressing today as it was half a decade ago, is something we contend with every day, particularly as it continues to radically alter our work environment.

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For instance, the concept that work is no longer a place but, rather, just an activity is not a novel idea for most of us. But I’d like to take that sentiment a step further and argue that we also no longer have work weeks or working hours; instead, we have working moments. That’s because the brick-and-mortar office is quickly being replaced by the virtual office. The virtual office can truly be defined as the entire world, as long as you have the appropriate technologies connecting you and your associates, enabling you to communicate, collaborate and produce in the same manner that you would if you were physically together.

Although there is little doubt that deploying a virtual office offers companies a host of benefits—namely greater flexibility when it comes to CAPEX/OPEX considerations and heightened productivity when constructed effectively—it comes with a number of challenges as well. Let’s take a look at some of those chief challenges:

  • The Work/Life Balance: This balance can become really problematic for your employees because the line between personal and professional spaces becomes blurred. In essence, you’re carrying a virtual office around at all times thanks to the handiness of your smartphone. Your virtual office is also in your recliner in the form of a laptop, WebExes, videoconferences, and instant messaging. As a result, there’s no longer this notion of “leave your work at the office,” as your office is ubiquitous and the expectation for real-time responses 24/7/365 is growing. So, how do you portion personal time?
  • Productivity Management: In a traditional sense, we assess people’s work based upon the time and effort they put into a task and the fact that we can observe them working. As long as an employee physically came into the office, punched in, sat at his or her desk for X amount of time and then went home, that was proof enough for most managers. What we need to move to is more outcomes-based assessment. The challenge is to manage people who are not physically present. How do I make sure that I am getting the level of productivity that I need? The reality is that if I appropriately delegate the work—so that the outcome I am looking for is properly aligned with the skill set, time and effort necessary to accomplish it—then if someone gets that task done quicker than expected, at an appropriate level of quality, I shouldn’t care if they have to run out for an hour to take their daughter to the doctor.
  • Communication Flow: Without being able to stumble into one another at the water cooler or walk down the hall to have a chat, we are more challenged to keep the speed of business at the same levels. If I need to get a quick answer from Tim, our CEO, and I am not in the office and have no clue where Tim is, the only thing I can do is to call him—which could slow down my ability to take action. And that’s just one-to-one communication. The notion of having multiparty meetings and communication becomes all but non-existent unless you have appropriate enabling technologies.
  • Culture Gaps: If we look at what the “office” traditionally represents, it serves as a centralized hub for all of a business’s cross-organizational functions. The people involved in these cross-organizational elements report there, providing companies with a tremendous opportunity to develop culture, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This culture is reinforced and propagated by virtue of the ongoing presence of these workers. When people are no longer directly engaged with one another in that way, the culture doesn’t propagate organically. So companies need to be more intentional about creating, promoting and infusing culture if their employees do not report to the same physical spaces.

In many ways, the world has become your office. As such, creating a highly functioning virtual office has become your biggest task. Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, as I walk through considerations for developing an outcomes-driven virtual office.


 

Editor’s note: Chris Poe is the Chief Innovation Officer at Atrion, an IT services firm. His post originally appeared on the Atrion Blog and was reposted here with the author’s permission.

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