The world is quickly becoming your office, thanks to the rise of the virtual office, something I explored in Part 1 of this series. Increasingly, what we are going to see is more and more organizations expand the notion of the virtual office by creating a virtual brick-and-mortar presence where all business functions converge.
While the virtual office provides a number of inherent benefits—like the ability to hire no matter the geographic location, cut costs thanks to a smaller physical office and enhance productivity with enabling technologies—it also presents a myriad of challenges. In Part 1 we explored those challenges. So I’d like to focus today’s post on a few steps you can take to bring to life a highly functioning virtual office:
- Understand How Your Team Wants to Work: Make certain you have a solid understanding of how your people need and want to work together and put those pieces in place to enable them to do that wherever they happen to be located. For some organizations, maybe all they need to do is talk by phone. Other companies might want something more comprehensive, like a portal, in which every employee, no matter where they are located, starts their working activities from the same “work place.” This portal would grant them access to the same applications and systems, meeting facilities, videoconferencing and voice conferencing, instant messaging, presence technology and even socio-cultural connections. Every organization will require different virtual office conditions depending on the needs of its employees.
- Build Culture: To create a successful virtual office, you need to recognize that culture can actually live virtually. Here at Atrion, for example, we have a number of remote workers who are kept connected to our physical headquarters with enabling technologies. One of our innovation directors lives in New Hampshire, for instance, and we have installed high-definition videoconferencing in his house. Sometimes he will leave the unit on all day long so that anyone who happens to “walk by” can see if he is at his desk. This type of strategy fuels culture. One tactic we are exploring is installing an HD camera in our cafeteria and keeping it on all day so that our remote employees can take a peek at who’s at the water cooler and engage in conversation in real time.
- Establish Communication/Collaboration Methodologies: One of the biggest challenges that exists in the virtual office is the dozens of different ways there are to communicate. As a result, these methods are often misused and abused. For example, professionals will hide behind email when they should have reached out via telephone. Or they will send an email that gets lost in the inbox instead of fire off an IM for a quick answer. Companies need to create communication and collaboration guidelines that highlight the differences between real time and non-real time, one to one vs. one to many, and discrete vs. non-discrete communication. There are different ways at looking at these communication modes, something that has to remain top of mind for executives.
- Commitment to Sustain Your Environment: If you think of physical offices, many have an office manager who is not only responsible for business outcomes but also for being the steward for the culture. Virtual offices, when done well, are constantly cared for and nurtured; they need someone who is in charge and has his or her finger on the pulse of what’s changing and evolving in the organization. Companies that don’t remain committed to sustaining their business culture end up with an antiquated virtual environment.
Is the virtual environment poised to become the new normal? I think it very well may be, as long as we master the culture piece of it and remember that there is still something about connecting face to face.
The world may be becoming our office and, as a result, our definition of the term “office” has to expand. It’s not just about working side by side with your co-workers physically anymore. It’s also about navigating this virtual world so you can keep your true end goal in site—redefining standards of excellence for your customers, partners and key stakeholders to create a profitable, sustainable business.