Gini Dietrich

The Benefits, Challenges, and Solutions of a Virtual Office

By: Gini Dietrich | July 6, 2016 | 
19

The Benefits, Challenges, and Solutions of a Virtual OfficeIt’s no surprise that I love our virtual office.

I love the community we’ve built on Slack.

I love messaging Corina Manea with one word, “ZOOM!” and she jumps on immediately.

I love showing up for staff meetings in my cycling clothes…and then having my team do the same because they’re making fun of me (not because they’re going to ride a bicycle).

I love being able to go for a long bike ride in the middle of the day and no one cares, says anything, or thinks it’s unfair.

I love having one entire Slack channel dedicated to the hilarious thing Pete Salmon says.

I also love that, when I need to do deep work, I don’t have to close my door, which always make people panic. I can just block the time on my calendar and everyone assumes I’m in a meeting.

There was a time, before we had a virtual office, that I was venting to a close friend about how people were driving me crazy—complaining about their food being eaten, about the sink full of dirty dishes, about how cold/hot it was  in the office.

He said,

Are you sure you’re cut out for running a team of people? Because this comes with the territory.

Oh.

Fast forward to today where I don’t have to listen to any of that and the temperature of my office can be 85 degrees and NO ONE complains.

It’s pretty fantastic because it allows all of us to do our best work without the, shall I say, annoyances of putting a bunch of people together in one spot.

A Virtual Office Boosts Productivity

There is no commute (unless you count the 152 steps between my bed and Jack Bauer’s food bowls and back to my desk).

There aren’t any unnecessary meetings.

No one eats someone else’s lunch.

The dishes left in the sink are your own and you’re responsible for cleaning up after yourself.

In fact, I see my colleagues more now than I did when I was in the same office as them.

You almost take them for granted when they’re there and make time to see them when they’re not.

And not just that…

Today, we know that having the flexibility of a virtual office boosts worker success and leads to greater productivity by reducing stress.

Think about cutting that commute time out of your day, being able to work at the hours where your productivity and focus peak, and not have to worry about taking a half day off because you have to step away for a doctor’s appointment or meet the cable guy, whose window always seems to be somewhere between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

According to statistics from a 2014 American Community Survey, a virtual office makes up nearly three percent of the American work force, which was approximately 3.2 million workers two years ago.

What’s more, Fortune 1000 companies are revamping their office space to accommodate for a workforce that’s away from their desk 50-60 percent of the time.

The Benefits, Challenges, and Solutions of a Virtual Office

That said, there are special set of benefits and challenges of having a virtual office.

It’s up to you to recognize the challenges and put systems in place to overcome them.

For example, when do you expect your colleagues to be “online” and available?

On the flipside, when should they expect you to be available? Are there meetings or conferences you expect them to travel to? What’s your preferred communication style?

In addition to these questions, here are some of the benefits, challenges, and solutions of leading a virtual team.

Benefit: You can hire the right team members, regardless of their time zone. One of the biggest perks for having a virtual team is the ability to hire anyone you want based on their qualifications and culture fit, versus their proximity to your headquarters.

Challenge: If you have team members around the globe, there might not be much overlap for real-time communication. This can create a disconnected team that’s having trouble communicating and relating to one another.

Solution: Create a virtual water cooler for your team. With tools such SlackZoom, and Facebook Groups, there are plenty of options to figure out what works for you. When bringing on a new team member, make them feel welcome. This can be as simple as sending a company-wide welcome email, or even a video call to get everyone in the same ‘room’ for a face-to-face welcome. If possible, plan an annual, in-person team meeting to get everyone in one place. All of these tools are great, but nothing replaces the in-person experience.

Benefit: Your employees and contractors have the flexibility to get their work done at their optimal productive times—as long as they’re still attending necessary meetings and meeting deadlines.

Challenge: A lot of managers cite “trust” as a roadblock to building a virtual workforce. The biggest misconception about remote workers is they goof off on company time. If you’ve hired the right people, you’ll find that just isn’t the case.

Solution: Hire people you know you can trust. You can also build in a trial period where you’re checking in with your new employees once a week, and even hopping on a meeting to check on their progress of a project. This can be a slippery slope into micromanagement if it’s not handled properly. You want your employees to know you trust them, and you want to set a great precedent for remote work that does allow for laundry in the middle of the day or exercise at lunchtime.

Benefit: It’s all about bringing your own device (BYOD). Everyone has a personal computer these days, which makes the equipment overhead practically nonexistent for business owners.

Challenge: There’s no longer a central drive on the office network where all of the files can live, plus there can be security issues on personal computers.

Solution: Embrace the Cloud. With Dropbox and Google Drive, you no longer have to worry about a file getting lost because an employee’s computer crashed. Our IT professional services all computers and our team are required to install the software we use.

Before managing a virtual workforce, remember to also take stock of your own expectations and limitations as a leader. How you approach your virtual relationship will be an undeniable factor in the success of your team.

A very loose version of this first appeared on PRSay

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • A thorough discussion of the benefits, challenges and solutions. I’m not sure I could EVER go back to a traditional office setting (although I may have to). I agree although there are plenty of workarounds, it also makes a difference to be able to look people in the eyes. If I had to give one piece of advice to people managing virtual teams, it would be to facilitate an in person get together budget allowing. For my own benefit/challenge/solution breakdown: benefit – flexibility — although it has its extremely challenging moments, if I did not have this flexibility (with my current employer), our family would not be able to care for my father in law at home; challenge — hmmmm — I think there’s less informal information transfer with a virtual thing — the kind of things you hear in a brief coffee room mention or pick up in general conversation. They’re often nuances related to projects or office dynamics but they can matter; solution …. I think a big key (as with any office setting/team is being willing to assess/re-evaluate/improve. To keep finding ways to make it all work better. Virtual teamwork is only going to expand.

    • I’ve actually thought about getting office space for Chicago employees and for when other colleagues visit. But then I think, “What will I do when it’s wintertime and I have to ride on the trainer, which is in my basement and so easy to get to now?” Priorities, Paula. Priorities.

      • Ha! When will I learn about those pesky priorities? In our case, the CEO went from “in home solo” to “in home with a whole bunch of people (relatively considering it was also her home) to “office space” to “reduced size office space” when business needs changed. I think (not to put words in her mouth) it was a good fit for her to have the ability to work at home YET have a place where the bulk of the work got conducted.

    • I agree on it being a big help/team builder to have the occasional in-person all hands to help the team members get to know each other better and build the kinds of bonds that involve wine and baked treats.

      • You had me at wine. And baked treats. But definitely wine. 🙂

      • EXCEPT…there are only two of us on my team who drink! I feel like this should be an interview question. Jeez.

  • Great overview of some important points of a virtual office. I think it’s a fascinating topic, especially as technology improves and offers easier ways to work together. Do you have any pointers for someone thinking of joining a virtual office?

    • I have been part of one for two years (almost). The main lessons learned/pointers are: 1) ASK QUESTIONS. I let myself get woefully behind on a project that was managed through Basecamp because the tasks got sent to email also. I was archiving the emails but not clicking through to Basecamp. In retrospect a REALLY stupid move but I had not understood how the two things connected. Point being: I should have asked (or been told) what order to look at our various systems in order to coordinate my work 2) DON’T LET ISSUES FESTER. I had an issue with a co-worker that really needed to be communicated between us — it was impacting our public-facing work and causing me massive stress. I finally sent an email with very explicit instructions/commentary (whereas I had been dancing around the issue with someone on whom nuance is pretty much lost). It had to be done, our work is better for it, and I learned a lesson 3) It takes a lot of discipline. A LOT. You have to tune out many distractions. 4) APPRECIATE IT. It is truly a gift to be able to get up and take a 10 minute walk if you need air, to take a ten minute power nap if you need rest, etc. Good luck.

    • I agree with Paula. Along with her third tip: Make sure you have space where you can go. Having a door helps IMMENSELY because the walls in your home start to move in on you and you get claustrophobic. There can be days you never leave so be sure to manage that. And, having an office with a door makes it easier to shut down at the end of the day. I also completely shut my computer down at the end of every day. This means it has to be REALLY important for me to reboot and wait for everything to open back up if I’m going to do something later that night.

      You have to be really, really disciplined. Last week, I REALLY wanted to just go hang out by the pool and leave it all for later. I worked through it, but it’s a lot harder to do that when you don’t have “eyes” watching you in an office.

      • I think of your “door” requirement and refer to it OFTEN when discussing virtual teams with people. Although I haven’t personally implemented it yet (and can’t really because of the caregiving) it’s a critical point. So is the discipline, something I with which I am still trying to come to terms.

      • Corina Manea

        I have the worst possible “eyes” watching me all the time: My mind. And it’s not fun. It’s the same voice screaming at me when I was working in a brick and mortar office, only now is probably louder (there are no colleagues around me to distract me from listening to it).

        However, working from home it was and is the best decision I made…ever. Of course not all is roses. You need discipline (especially for working out, cough cough), you need to learn how to manage your time and be efficient, because you want to go for that walk, or movie, or shopping, etc. And most importantly, you need to learn to take breaks throughout the day (guilty).

        • AND YOU NEED TO SLEEP! I love that you Slack’d me at 3:30 this morning to apologize for not answering me last night because you were out.

          • Corina Manea

            😁

  • I love that you only have to behave for the duration of a Zoom or two with your boss, and then you can go screaming into the street (as long as you get your work done).

  • Corina Manea

    I said it before, but it’s worth repeating: I LOVE working with you and I love working from home, period.

    We are so different as human beings and we function differently. For me the best time to focus is in the morning. If I am not interrupted I can get more than half of the day’s work done only in the morning.

    At a brick and mortar office I had to adjust. People had their coffee in the morning (I don’t drink coffee), they had breakfast at work (at least in Spain), I had it at home. Basically all those super productive morning hours were wasted on eating, and chit-chat, every single morning!

    So, after a while I started to avoid my colleagues to be actually able to get work done.

    I get not everyone is the same, but for me, going to work meant I had to deliver things, otherwise I could have stayed home and spent time with my family.

    Even now that I work from home, when I get into the “working mode,” I don’t like to waste time (hence I forget to take breaks).

    That said, I don’t know why people go to brick and mortar offices anymore, when it’s so cool to work from home. It’s true you need the right leadership and team to do that.

  • I love this post! Working from home is awesome if you can overcome the challenges. For me, my biggest challenge is not having a door. There are days I work the entire day in my bedroom just because there’s a door. And some days I work from Panera or Starbucks so I’m not worried about the messy house (and to actually get out of the house).

    But, working from home is far more efficient. I can get more work work done plus my laundry rarely piles up for a Saturday marathon session anymore. Also, I can have three meals a day with my family if I want to and I can often do school drop off and pick up.

    As Corina mentioned, I, too, have the same “eyes” watching me though. I usually feel guilty taking time off during the day b/c I can hear the disapproving voices and see the annoyed faces of my past brick and mortar experience. Even if I work at night (when I am often more productive).

    There are instances, however, when questions may be answered faster in a brick and mortar setting and I miss in-person brainstorms, but overall, the good far outweighs the bad.

    I have a writer friend who does a lot of freelance work for one particular company. They want to hire a full-time content developer, but won’t offer her the job because they know she wants to work from home. It’s so short-sighted. She’s already doing the work for them, but in order for her to be full-time, they demand her full-time presence in the office.

    We have the best virtual team lead by a true leader and visionary. Without that, I’m sure it would be a much different experience. I think a company retreat in Spain sounds amazing. 🙂

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