The value of a virtual office

More and more, CEOs, Executives, and Entrepreneurs ask me about our virtual office and how it works. For the first 10 1/2 years of our business we had three different offices. For the past year and a half we’ve been virtual. It has been one of the best things we’ve done for the growth of the company. Here is what we have learned along the way:

The Fear of Virtual

It’s amazing the misconceptions people have, primarily that if they were to switch to a virtual office that they wouldn’t know what their employees are up and productivity would plummet. They wonder what their customers would think: one of our largest customers said that our experience with being virtual was a key point in choosing us as a partner – they are actively moving 70% of their workforce to virtual in the next few years: 33,000 employees spread out across Canada and three continents.

If I can’t see ’em, how do I know they’re workin’?

The reality of the knowledge economy is that even if you have everyone in the same business you can’t actually see what they are up to. Sitting at desk for eight hours is not a sign of productivity. Look out your office door right now: can you see what people are up to? Are they working, chatting on IM, updating their Facebook profile, playing online poker, beefing up their linkedin profile so they can leave because you don’t trust them? In a physical office setting it’s easy to confuse activity with results. In a virtual office, results are all we see.

What Will Really Happen

Our experience has been the complete opposite of what most CEOs and Entrepreneurs that are worried about going virtual think. It helps that we ascribe to the ROWE (results only work environment) espoused by Daniel Pink in his book Drive!. Here’s what our experience has been so far:

  • We’re collaborating better than ever before (we wouldn’t have invested in the collaboration tools above if we still had a physical office)
  • We’ve had a significant increase in productivity (no commute time means productive time)
  • We make less assumptions around what others “already know about” and this has led to improved communication
  • We’ve moved outside of the box and into the future of tools that are out there to hold meetings, communicate etc. (yammer, Webex, etc.)
  • We have ability and autonomy to work from anywhere and that is priceless: increased efficiency, work-life balance, and adaptablility
  • We realized that it’s not where we are, but what we’re doing and who we’re with that gets the job done (being in the office doesn’t actually mean I’m accomplishing anything)
  • We have increased our levels of trust and put an emphasis on results-based roles or “job descriptions,” which motivates us far more than being in the office 8am-6pm.
  • We’re able to take care of family at home when they’re in need.
  • We have increased productivity and efficiency in work and personal life – less time around the ‘water cooler’ for the wrong reasons.
  • We are able to travel and fulfill life dreams – and still work to pay for them!
  • We feel empowered by the autonomy that working alone provides.

Viva la Technologie

The key to making a virtual office work is hiring people you trust and having the right collaboration technology. Since we run on Macs we have no need for an IT support budget and everything just works “out of the box.” Here’s a list of software we use and why:

  • iDisk – virtual server (connects to our Macs, iPhones, iPads)
  • Yammer – like Twitter but just for ViRTUS (private)
  • Webex – group video conferencing, document review
  • Skype – video conferencing replacing phone calls and face-to-face meetings
  • WikiSpaces – our wiki (similar to wikipedia but just for ViRTUS)
  • TELUS IP Messaging Auto Attendant (virtual receptionist)

My Favourite Question

As you continue to grow ViRTUS will you get an office or offices around Canada? The answer: no. Going virtual was part of our growth plan. The larger we get, the more being virtual makes sense.

Two Important Behaviours

  • Meeting Rhythms – we have a weekly Operations Meeting over Webex, a Quarterly Creative Strategic Plan Update, a monthly Financial Transparency update (over Yammer), and a monthly Strategic Execution Review. This keeps everyone up-to-date on the key priorities in the business.
  • Clear Deadlines – this is important in bricks and mortar as well but in a virtual setting it’s critical to give deadlines with days and times as someone may work best in the mornings or evenings and that might not correspond well with the timeline you have to complete your project or task when it requires their support.

Closing Thought

If you’re not convinced yet: I wrote this post in Whistler, on a Friday, after a day of virtual meetings in the morning over Skype Video and then skiing in the afternoon with my wife, replying to calls and emails from my iPhone. Right now I’m staring out over the lake watching the sunset…

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6 responses to “The value of a virtual office

  1. Great points. THIS is the office of the future.
    C

  2. Agreed with everything you’ve said Mike 100%. To help with Rhythm, our company does eHuddles 3 days per week and found that helpful. We’ve also layered in a monthly optional team social for those that are still in the country. Oh and Google Docs is our backbone. ROWE all the way! (sent from Kuala Lumpur).

  3. You hit the nail on the head. We work at home or in our client’s offices. This is a very effective way to provide value in the professional services industry. Lower costs for us mean lower engagement fees for our clients.

  4. Fantastic post and right on the money! The reality is more and more companies are going to the virtual office. As long as employees get the work done, this is a great way to save money. Employers and employees both should keep in mind that customer service shouldn’t suffer as a result. This article (http://www.upyourservice.com/learning-library/customer-service-contact/how-not-to-build-with-bytes) offers some insight on what not to do.

  5. In the future, what might happen with all the millions of square feet of empty commercial properties? Condo conversions? Could that lead to a relative drop in overall real estate prices? Hmmmm.

    • That’s right: we’re doing our part to reduce the real estate prices in Vancouver… In all seriousness the reduction in travel time and car miles helps the environment.

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