No Brick, No Mortar: Virtual Approaches to the Daily Grind

 
 
By Deborah Rothberg  |  Posted 2006-05-05
 
 
 

No Brick, No Mortar: Virtual Approaches to the Daily Grind


Today, just about everyone telecommutes from time to time, bouncing between the office cubicle and the dining room table. But what would work be like if you had no corporate office to go into?

A growing number of companies are taking this route, forgoing a stable office location—with its face-to-face interactions—for what some may see as the ultimate freedom in work environments: the virtual office. But that freedom brings a new set of challenges for employees, IT managers and technical support.

"The Internet, and now the cell phone, have made it happen," said Jeff Zbar, Coral Springs, Fla., an expert on telework and author of the book "Teleworking & Telecommuting: Strategies for Remote Workers & Their Managers."

"By cutting the landline and using a wireless card, you can be a virtual employee from any location: Starbucks, the beach, anywhere."

Yet, while the perception of telecommuting employees in the wireless age is a large latte, laptop and table space at the local coffee shop, full-time virtual employees and their bosses paint a different picture.

For one, not all companies feel they can do without a central office, whether it is regularly used or not.

"Physically, TCG has an office, with a secretary—that is there on occasion," said Daniel Turner, CEO of TCG, an IT management group out of Washington, D.C., with 18 virtual employees. "The office serves as a place to store the companys files, servers, and as an official address."

To read more about telecommuting trends, click here.

Likewise, Gaebler Ventures, a small business incubator with 12 full-time remote employees, has a similar set-up, renting an office in downtown Chicago. The location serves as company headquarters, a billing address. It also serves as the CEOs office three days each week.

"Theres desk space here, too, for client meetings or if an employee wants a place to work for a couple days," Ken Gaebler, Gaebler Ventures CEO, said.

However, other companies, such as PerkettPR, a public relations firm with 12 virtual employees across the country, do entirely without a central office.

Zbar suggests that employees home offices have nearly everything they would have at their companies headquarters.

"What you want to do is mimic the corporate office, including [Microsoft] Word and presentation software. The difference is that you need collaborative office software, too."

Next Page: Communication software.

Communication Software


The virtual company owes no shortage of debt to communication software, something each group employs a host of, from instant messaging software to e-mail and PDAs.

Gaeblers company sets each employee up with a Packet8 VOIP (voice over IP) phone, OpenAir professional services, e-mail address, and a Sure Payroll account, a Web-based online payment system.

TCG sets up each staffer with a VOIP phone and conference line services. Every 21 months, Turner buys his employees a new computer, which they buy back from him for $50, keeping the companys assets down.

Each company handles supplies differently: Some put the full onus for such purchases on the employee, while others make sure an employees home office wants for nothing.

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"Anything we need to run our home offices is provided by the company, from chairs, desks, back-up hard drives, PDAs. Anything and everything," said Heather Mosley, executive vice president of PerkettPR, working out of her home in Middle Valley, Calif.

TCG employees are responsible for buying their own computers, and any other equipment they need, a more common arrangement. Other companies insist their employees absorb their own home office expenses.

"But, I am able to claim most of them on my income taxes at the end of the year," said Tara Watson, an affiliate manager at Partner Centric, a marketing consulting team with 18 virtual employees.

Yet no company functions on technology alone. From large client meetings, professional conferences, or once or twice yearly all-company meetings, each organization ensures that its employees have at least occasional face time, the managers said.

"It really helps us communicate better," said Turner.

So, who handles the technical support and fixes a broken computer or faulty connection? This is where the companies vary the most in their approach.

Zbar feels that any individuals technical breakdown is everyones problem.

"If its affecting the company, they should try to remedy it as soon as they are able. Youve got to have contingency plans for everything, such as back up dial-up. If you are not tech-savvy, it may help to engage an organization or an individual such as Geek Squad or Dial-a-Tech for when youre totally stymied. This is not so much a back-up plan, this is your IT. The individual must have his or her own; your boss in Denver cant send their guy over," Zbar said.

Mosley observed that a virtual employee needs more technical expertise than in-house employees. "Were a more tech-savvy group. If you need to get things done, youve got to be able to figure it out."

But when this fails, companies like PerkettPR provide a list of local vendors than can come to the home office and fix an employees computer. The expense is then absorbed by the company. Yet, they also take extra steps to reduce the number of break-downs.

"We dont have a central server. We use WebEx and their Web office product to store all of our files," Mosley said.

According to Mosley, the biggest problems employees run into are e-mail box overloads, spyware, spam and other issues that will keep a computer from running quickly.

"We encourage everyone to have a maintenance check-up on their computer every six months," she said.

Next Page: Distractions.

Distractions


Meanwhile, some of the most difficult parts of working full-time outside a company office are social disconnection, managing remote employees, and the difficulty maintaining the line between work and leisure time, said the managers.

"The hardest part is the lack of human interaction," said Watson. "While its easier to get things done during the day—like errands, or doctors appointments—from the home rather than a corporate office, I probably do more evening work than I otherwise would."

"As humans, we like to see each other. Its very easy to get annoyed at someone remotely. If theyre next to you, you can yell at them and get over it. On the phone, it takes longer," said Turner.

"You lose a little in the face-to-face oversight of people. Its common to have misinterpreted conversations because you are not in the same room. You miss the sensitivity you have in face-to-face interactions."

Bosses at virtual companies face their own set of challenges, too.

"Its hard to gauge how happy someone is. Someone might tell you theyre leaving for another company without you having noticed the signs they were unhappy," said Gaebler.

In addition, employees need to have sets of skills not required in corporate offices.

"You also hire people who you think might be productive in that environment and it turns out its not for them. Some have much higher social needs than others."

Working from a home environment, especially a home shared with children and pets entails no shortage of potential distractions, something each company addresses differently.

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Many expect their employees to address these distractions on their own, only concerned if the employee is not getting their work done on time.

"There are distractions from dogs to chores to kids, but you get used to it over time, and learn to adjust," Zbar said.

"We let them figure this stuff out on their own," said Gaebler of his more hands-off approach. "We expect people to work an eight-hour day, but we give them flexibility as to how they put that time in."

Yet other companies are fairly strict about employees use of their work hours. At PerkettPR, employees with children are expected to have full-time day care or a nanny.

They are also expected to have set work hours, choosing between an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule.

They also offer plenty of advice to their employees.

"We suggest a door to your office, a mute button on your phone, and a comfortable chair."

But despite the difficulties of virtual work, virtual employees all agreed that they feel they have a freedom in being able to work in a way that fits their lifestyle.

Mosley speaks about finding remote employees, some of the best in the field that may not have local opportunities.

"Weve got really talented, smart people who are the best at what they do from the Boston area to New Hampshire to San Francisco. There arent a lot of great PR opportunities in New Hampshire, so working virtually is an excellent opportunity for them."

"There are more fluffy perks, too, such as not having to dress up for a client meeting or day in the office. In addition, it satisfies your inner workaholic because you get back those hours youd spend commuting."

Mosley added, "I work with better people now than I did when I worked at an organization with more than 100 people."

Gaebler calls his virtual office "a superior way to do business."

"Its easier to set up a new employee, we have lower overhead, and it allows us to tap into talent in other geographies," he said.

"The best part is the freedom to make your own schedule. Nobody tells you how to structure your day. While you have to be really disciplined in the work you do, its easier because you also love your job more," said Samantha Morris, an affiliate program director at Partner Centric, who left her job at the Gap to work virtually.

Turner is probably the most idealistic about running his own company.

"Whenever we get someone who can work from home, I feel like were changing the world. Were giving them some of their time back to them, and to their families."

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