The Virtual Office

Entrepreneurs, independent software/web developers, artists, freelancers, and other creative-types have been enjoying some form of remote- or mobile working arrangements since time immemorial. But now, even corporate types are increasingly enjoying what’s called a “virtual office.”

A growing number of companies are taking this route, forgoing a stable office locationâ??with its face-to-face interactionsâ??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.

Blame it on high costs of city life and living, and the burgeoning requirements of having to maintain a central office, all with its absurd hardware and logistical expenses. Companies are now exploring the prospect of setting up virtual offices instead of requiring their employees to be physically present at work every day. Thanks to dropping costs of broadband and wireless Internet, and increasingly cheaper laptops, mobile phones, and other mobile equipment, employees can now work from anywhere, at any time. Companies can now hire people from across the country, or even across the continents and around the globe.

So instead of leaving for work early, dealing with three hours of traffic, and battling with other commuters for precious parking space (or a subway seat) every morning, remote workers can start working at the comfort of their homes, in their pyjamas, right after brewing morning (or afternoon) coffee. No need to spend on gas, lunch, and even on work attire. It is generally viewed that productivity is at its peak when employees are happy and comfortable. And what’s best than letting people be, and leaving them at the comfort of their own environs?

But what does it take to set-up such work arrangements where reliable connectivity and mobility are called for? Arguably a lot.

Most companies and businesses would allow for mobility only to some extent, for instance, letting employees telecommute only some of the time, or allowing sales and marketing personnel time to work in the field to meet clients and possibly to do some market research. However, quite a number of firms nowadays are totally forgoing having a central office, and moving towards having a purely virtual office setting.

You can just imagine how it can tend to be a logistical nightmare, especially if you have dozens of employees or colleagues scattered around the globe. For one, since coordination and communication are of utmost importance, you’d need to be constantly in touch. Any glitches in the communication system, or any isolated problem experienced by one employee would sure to be a reason for delay in the workflow. It’s an issue whether to turn to outsourced technical services, or make sure one’s employees are technically adept to handle such situations themselves.

And it doesn’t come without costs. Some companies prefer to shoulder employees’ hardware and incidental expenses–from computers, phones, furniture, to Internet connectivity. Others, meanwhile, let their employees spend on their needs, and then subsequently reumburse these in partial or full (or impute the expenses into the compensation package).

For employees, meanwhile, there’s always the temptation to shirk–after all, no one is watching. So some form of output-based measurement of performance is needed. And there’s always the problem with having no social interaction with one’s peers. But this can be solved with regular meet-ups or meetings. Then there’s always the opportunity to go out and socialize and network with other contacts on one’s own time.

Whatever the new and upcoming trends, and notwithstanding growing pains, the virtual office is here to stay, and will greatly be supported by popular and upcoming communications infrastructures, such as VoIP, free wireless, and 3G (mobile video-conferencing, anyone?).

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