The VO- Virtual Office- Evangelist

What is keeping you or your clients from setting up a virtual office? Are you searching for the benefits and drawbacks? Here are some thoughts that I have gathered from a variety of sources and from my own experience to frame the conversation:

Work/life balance. Working from a virtual office (VO), combined with a relatively flexible work schedule often gives the employee a healthy work/life balance. Yes, I know that sounds cliché, but you get to wake up with your children, feed them breakfast, get them ready for school, and sometimes do pick-up or drop-off. Then up a flight of stairs and you’re at work. If your kids need something (and your spouse isn’t available for some reason), they know they can knock at your office door and if you’re not on the phone, they can come in for a short interlude of family time.

Why are you still in a cube? So, why aren’t more people working from home? As Dave Michels wrote in a recent CIO Collaboration post, many employees and employers don’t even pause to think if virtual office might be right for their situation. I agree with Dave that many people are missing out on a great opportunity. Many of our clients have done quite well with VO employees and perhaps this is not just because they have an open mind about these things, but because we sell many of the communications solutions that make VO successful, which brings us back to the productivity question.

Engagement. There was an excellent blog by Scott Edinger in the Harvard Business Review last month about how remote workers are as engaged if not more than those who work in the office. You should give it a read as I won’t reiterate his excellent points here, but suffice it to say that when the supervisor and employee are not in close proximity, they consciously work at their communication, resulting in more engagement. I have found regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings are crucial. I meet with all of my direct reports for at least 30 minutes every week. For the rest of my organization, I meet individually with them every other month. Sometimes we talk about work, other times about family or sports. What you talk about matters less than the fact that you are talking. Don’t make this your only opportunity to talk every week, but having time set aside makes sure you really connect.

Communication Tools. As Scott wrote in his HBR post, having the right tools are crucial to making that communication happen regularly. While you can get by with a solid audio connection, video is becoming a huge benefit for VO employees. I’m lucky in that at Prime we have a variety of tools to make working remotely successful. Here is a list of what I use (in addition to my standard desktop software):

  • iMeet video conferencing– a great tool for setting up your own personal meeting room for voice and video conferences -which also allows me to see who is on a conference call and who is speaking.
  • Plantronics CS351N headset with enough range to get to the kitchen for lunch
  • S-NET Glo-com software– for our hosted phones- we can chat securely, see who is on the phone and share one to one video.
  • Allworx Call Assistant– gives me virtual control of my office phones – just like a receptionist would have. I can see what anyone and everyone is doing.

Face Time. Another helpful tip that I’ll share is that whenever you stumble upon a colleague’s picture (LinkedInTwitter, internal sites, etc.), attach it to an Outlook Contact (see here). This way, whenever you receive an email from them, you will see their picture, making it feel more like a personal interaction. As an added bonus, when using an Avaya Flare client, those pictures transfer over, so you can see their pictures for phone calls as well.

Not for everyone. Don’t assume that a very productive employee in an office will remain so at home. VO is a great fit for experienced information workers that spend a good deal of time on the phone with others, especially if those others are geographically dispersed. If an employee is new to the role and/or need access to physical equipment or people, this won’t work. A certain discipline is needed in order to stay focused on work when there are increased distractions (family, television, video games, etc.) The individuals’ personality and work-type must match up to ensure the employee can continue to meet or exceed his/her objectives

The Office in Home Office. Yes, I know, you have a laptop, a smartphone, and a Bluetooth headset. That does not make you a one-woman-home-office. A coffee shop or your kitchen table while the kids play in the next room over will not be successful long term. Get yourself a quiet room with a door (ex. guest bedroom). The room doesn’t have to be office-only 24×7, but during work hours, nothing else should be taking place there. Besides, you don’t want to be the person on the conference call with the dog barking, or worse, “Daddy! I’m all done pooping and peeing!!” (Did I mention my Plantronics headset has a very handy mute button on it?)

Don’t forget your agents. While I have focused on my own experience as a knowledge worker using Unified Communications products, working from home is also a great option for Contact Center agents. I work with a telemarketing employee  of ours in Cleveland and I know that we value our home agents. She is more productive, works harder and better- which is the standard result for successfully deployed home agents. Kay Phelps,  has written a number of articles about these Home Agents, so please go give her a read.

In summary, if I were writing an online review of a product, I’d sum up Virtual Office as:

4OutOf5Stars Amazing, but not for everyonePros:

    • Great work/life balance
    • No commute transportation costs (gas, tolls, car, auto insurance/repairs, etc.)
    • Significantly reduced wardrobe expenses
    • No downtime needed between meetings
    • Positive environmental impact

 

Cons:

  • No after-work camaraderie over drinks
  • More self-reliance for IT and office supply needs
  • Discipline needed by the employee and those they live with

I know I’m not the only VO evangelist out there. So, let me know what you think. Living the dream? Did you try VO and it was a fail whale? Desperate to break out of your cube and into your sweatpants? Drop a note in the comments below.

 

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About Vic Levinson
Telecommunications and IT professional with over 20 years experience in Business Telecommunications. Specializing in voice over IP (VoIP) for business: hosted VoIP, business VoIP phone systems, SIP providers, carriers, T1's - the works. Founded Prime Telecommunications in 1993 and providing business communications solutions. Cloud Applications- everything from hosted network security, hosted Disaster Recovery, hosted printer management, data centers and colocation solutions for businesses.

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