A virtual office is an online recreation of a traditional office. The need for physical office space is removed by using communication tools and software to enable staff to work via the internet. With the appropriate physical and digital tools, staff can work from any location with reliable internet access. A virtual office is an excellent solution for start-ups and companies that employ off-site or mobile workers.
Using a virtual office environment drastically reduces operational overheads and also improves employee satisfaction, thereby improving productivity. A study by Dell and Intel revealed that 30 percent of employees surveyed believed they were more productive when working remotely.
The virtual office would not be possible without mobile technology, fast internet connections and online collaboration tools. The virtual office set-up should be tailored to the specific conditions and constraints the business operates within. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution.
- The virtual office should emulate the physical office environment by providing employees with all the facilities, equipment, communication channels and tools they require to do their jobs effectively. The major advantage to businesses is productivity but there are several other advantages too.
The virtual office removes the need for staff to travel to a specific location for work. Employees who require flexible arrangements due to family commitments, disability or caring responsibilities may particularly appreciate the virtual office option.
Employees who work from home can control their own physical working environment. Staff will feel more empowered and in control of their own workflow, both of which have been proven to reduce stress levels.
- With a virtual office the physical workspace could be anywhere. It will still need to fit with each employee's job role and tasks. Some remote workers will be required to work in certain locations while other workers will be free to choose their own workspace according to their own preferences.
Some may choose a quiet location such as a home office, while others may choose to be more mobile. Assuming there is a good internet connection; staff could work from clients' premises or from public places like cafes, libraries, public transport or even truck stops.
An alternative is for the business to invest in co-working space. Co-working is essentially office sharing, allowing individuals or businesses to rent office facilities in the same building.
Co-working could involve renting individual workstations or rooms on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.Co-working is therefore a good option for occasional face-to-face meetings or for freelancers and small businesses who do not want to enter into long-term rental contracts. Co-working can also benefit people who flourish in a more traditional office environment.
- A prerequisite for working effectively in a virtual office is a laptop. Although smartphones and tablets perform many of the necessary functions, laptops generally have larger screens, more hard drive space, more RAM, and faster processors. There are also practical considerations. Lightweight laptops may be preferred by workers who travel, for example and some job roles will require a webcam for video conferencing.
It is important to ensure that remote workers keep their software updated in order to remain effectively connected with the virtual office. All the necessary software should be loaded onto the laptop, and synced with users' smartphones and/or tablets.
Additional items such as an external keyboard, mouse, printer, multi-functional device, card reader or mobile VPN are not essential for all businesses or employees but may be critical in some cases.
Essential Virtual Office Tools
- The rise of the virtual office is underpinned by a growing assortment of online productivity tools and apps that can be synced across devices. A reliable internet connection is vital for a virtual office to function successfully, because staff must remain connected in order to communicate, collaborate and access business critical systems.
Many of the apps described in this section can be integrated with others, and all of them promise state-of-the-art encryption. Business owners can therefore spend some time selecting an appropriate suite of apps for their organisation's specific needs.
Communication and Collaboration Tools
- Skype most famously provides a free Skype-to-Skype video calling service but that is not all. It’s also an array of other services including low-cost phone calls, file sharing, and screen sharing. Sqwiggle is similar but specifically aimed at businesses, offering video calling, file sharing, and integration with various other apps.
Google Apps for Work integrates Gmail, Google Drive, Hangouts (for video calls), Google Docs and Google Calendar, as part of a subscription service.Evernote is an online workspace within which remote workers can write documents, capture content, create shared presentations, and chat with colleagues.
Trello and Basecamp offer similar functions. Basecamp also offers a unique Clientside feature where businesses can communicate with clients, making it easy to share comments and feedback without clients gaining access to the entire virtual office.
File Storage and Sharing
Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive enable teams and individuals to store files in the cloud and thereby share them with colleagues, clients or vendors.
Storing and editing crucial documents on the cloud has several advantages: it frees up hard drive space, ensures data is backed up, and reduces version control problems. Syncing across mobile devices ensures that photographs, video and audio captured in the field can be shared almost instantly.
- PayPal may be the best known online payment solution and it is attractive to customers because it allows them to buy products or services online without sharing their card or bank details with the vendor. The virtual office can use PayPal to track cash flow and invoicing.
Mint allows users to view budgets, bills and cash flow in one place. Mint can be synced with bank accounts, showing upcoming bills and alerting users to unusual activity. KashFlow allows staff to create unlimited invoices and send them via email or traditional post. KashFlow can also generate recurring invoices, track overdue payments and store inventories.
Receipt Bank automatically extracts relevant information from electronic receipts, bills and invoices to make accounting easier. iZettle enables workers to accept card and cash payments wherever the point of sale. iZettle provides a card reader and optional cash drawer and paper receipt printer.
Organisation and Availability
- One potential danger of a virtual office is that staff could find it more difficult to stay organised and productive. Distractions may be more common when working at home, in public places, or in co-working spaces. Virtual office tools and apps can help significantly with time management, scheduling meetings and tracking progress against tasks and objectives.
It is vital that employees are contactable by clients or colleagues at all times. Managers should also build in face-to-face time – even if only occasionally – to plan, complete or review big tasks and to stave off feelings of isolation among their staff.
The popularity of virtual offices continues to grow, and there are a host of benefits to both businesses and employees. However, employers should not forget to address the potential disadvantages. Without careful planning and consideration, virtual offices can lead to workers feeling isolated, teams becoming fragmented, and employees feeling unsupported by managers and colleagues.
These potential dangers can be averted by intelligent deployment of the appropriate technology – equipment, online tools and apps – aimed at enhancing office communication as well as efficiency.
Overall, it seems to be widely accepted that virtual offices improve productivity in the workplace, as long as they are implemented effectively and appropriately to the tasks being performed.