[su_dropcap style=”flat”]C[/su_dropcap]ONGRATULATIONS! If you are reading this, you have made it to the year 2016. As such, you are in a very strange and technologically-advanced time. The time that is so strange and technologically-advanced that something like virtual offices can now exist.
But wait, what’s a virtual office? No, it’s not an office you’ve built in The Sims or Second Life. You could try to conduct business that way, but we can’t guarantee much success.
The virtual office refers to the practise of multiple people working for a home business across several locations. Let’s say you’ve just started a home business. But the business isn’t just you at home; you have several employees, all working from their homes or other remote locations. How do you make these disparate workplaces feel like one workplace? In other words, how do you create a virtual office?
Location and hardware
You can conduct business from almost anywhere. At home, at a coffee shop, at an airport, on a place, in the mountains. All it really takes is a strong Internet connection. That and a device that can access the Internet, of course. Let’s say, to be sensible, that you and your employees will be working mostly from your homes.
But if you’re all conducting business from home, or all over the world, then where does corporate mail get sent to? You could play rock-paper-scissors and have the loser give out their home address to customers and clients. Or you could get a virtual business address. Not only does this centralise the mail your company receives; it also keeps all your home addresses private.
You need to make sure all of your employees have an adequate Internet speed at their home. Preferably, they should be free of download limits as well. They also need to have a computer that can handle the tasks you’re throwing at them. They should also have work phones, scanners and portable storage devices. Another thing: they need to have webcams and microphones. This will make communication much easier.
You need software that several users can use simultaneously, all working on the same thing. The right project management and communication software is a must. You need to coordinate information between members of a team. Client interactions will also be imperative. File-sharing with coworkers is a must!
If you want something basic, free and functional, you should get a Google Mail account. This will allow you all to work on word documents and spreadsheets together, with Google Docs and Google Sheets. There’s also instant messaging functions, but our recommendation is that you use specific instant messaging software.
Google Hangouts is also an invaluable tool. This will allow you to hold video conferences with one another. Do be sure to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices from time to time!
There are more business-oriented alternatives offering similar services. Afteroffice is an example. These won’t necessarily all be free, however (Afteroffice does charge a monthly subscription fee).
Of course, you can’t always rely on cyberspace. When you meet with clients, you really need to do so on their terms. Some may be okay communicating over webcam, but more likely they’ll want a face to face. This doesn’t mean you should invite them to your home! You should probably look into hotels with available space for rent. There’s also restaurants. If you want to seem really swanky, take them golfing! Meeting clients on a golf course never seems to go amiss.
Setting up the rules of your virtual office
One of the benefits of having all your employees in the same physical space is that you can keep an eye on them!
You will need to establish some rules, but how do you monitor the following of those rules? The key is to make sure the rules are as relevant as possible to the actual work you’re doing. As long as an employee produces good work on time, they’re probably not doing anything you’ll be that bothered by.
That being said, there are standards you should set. Make sure all employees know the protocol when it comes to interacting with client, customers, and each other. As long as there’s a record of all communications, you’ll be able to access them and see for yourself if they’re following procedure. If you want, you can also get some time management software to help you keep track of when employees are at their computers and working. Because you’re all working from home, the likelihood of you all working odd hours is increased. You want the synchronicity of your virtual office to be strong. Try to set some standard working hours, or outline times at which employees should make sure they’re available to contact.
What if I want an assistant?
You could easily hire another employee to work as your assistant remotely. As long as you know what you want, this shouldn’t be too difficult. But there are specialised virtual assistant services available online! And no, by virtual assistant I’m not referring to a robot. You’ll have to build your own one, I’m afraid.
You can get virtual assistants to provide services on an as-needed basis. You can also contract a specific amount of time each day, week or month. One of the benefits of a virtual assistant is that you generally only end up paying for the time you use. No-one will be sitting idly at their desk during slow hours! Many virtual assistants are freelancers who can deal with everything from data entry to web design to bookkeeping. Make sure to speak to any references they provide. If possible, check out a sample of their previous work!
Are there negatives?
Everyone working from home sounds like a dream, right? Well, there are risks you need to be aware of. Without face to face communication, miscommunication may be more likely. Technical difficulties can be more difficult to deal with. Employees may feel disassociated, affecting motivation. There’s also the stress of separating your free time from your work time – your work is always right there at home, after all. But if you follow the above steps carefully, you can assuage or even avoid these problems altogether!