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Gini Dietrich

How a Virtual Office Allows You to Stop and Smell the Roses

By: Gini Dietrich | July 15, 2013 | 
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How a Virtual Office Allows You to Stop and Smell the RosesBy Gini Dietrich

It’s hard to stop and smell the roses. Americans, particularly, live in a constant, 24/7, keeping up with the Jones’s society.  We’re so focused on what comes next, we forget to slow down – or even stop – to look back and see what we’ve accomplished.

In November 2011, we moved Arment Dietrich out of our 2,500 square foot office space in downtown Chicago. By that time, we’d already begun a transition to a more flexible work environment and had people working in Idaho, New York City, Colorado, Ohio, and California.

One day, after traveling for a few days, I went into the office and all that space was empty. Patti Knight was the only one in that day and she was sitting there all alone.

I just shook my head.

Virtual Office Space

Between that and how much we were spending in rent each month, we decided to go completely virtual for a year to see how we liked it.

It wasn’t until the movers were taking our furniture and boxes down the 66 stairs to the moving van that I stopped to look at what we’d built and it made me a little sad to be giving that up.

Fast forward to today and, while we don’t have the office space and fancy furniture to tell our story to those who don’t yet know us, we’re a stronger, more efficient, and more profitable organization.

Here’s the other thing we (society) do: We worry about what people think if we don’t do things the way everyone else does. For a long time, I didn’t want to admit we don’t have an office because I know how some prospects view that. Along the way, we decided those people aren’t our target audience.

Results-Oriented

We focus, instead, on attracting, hiring, and retaining the very best talent for the job. We don’t have to worry about moving those people to our headquarters in Chicago, we don’t have to  pay per square footage, we don’t even have to buy technology or cell phones anymore.

This allows us to compete with some of the larger communications firms because we don’t have all that overhead.

For clients, it reduces our fees. For the company, it increases our profitability. Employees see it as a huge benefit and it allows us to compete at a different level than before. For me, I can focus on what’s important and not on why someone’s lunch is missing from the fridge or why the air is down too low.

We do things such as Google Hangouts for our staff meetings, a steps contest using a Jawbone UP – which the company purchased for everyone -and even use video technology to brainstorm or collaborate nearly every day.

Some of us leave our desks at lunchtime to exercise, while others prefer to take their dogs on long walks at 9 a.m.

We have unlimited vacation and sick time because we’re focused on results and not whether or not people have their butts in their seats from 8:30-5:30 every day. No one is worried that so-and-so goes to the gym at 3:30 in the afternoon because they only see the person is accomplishing their goals.

Stop and Smell the Roses

Because we had a goal of doing this for only a year, we constantly reviewed what was working and what wasn’t working. When it came time to vote on getting office space again, the answer was a resounding no. Not one person voted yes (including me).

Sure, being a virtual organization has its cons – just like having office space does – but it allows us to stop and smell the roses every day.

We’re focused on business growth and on becoming a communications firm of the future, not on keeping up with the Jones’s.

P.S. We’re just a little more than a week away from our free webinar with email marketing genius, DJ Waldow. Join us on Thursday, July 25 at 11 a.m. CT. Register by clicking here.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

124 comments
Rod Philippines
Rod Philippines

Having a talented virtual staff bring cost savings to the company.  You never have to worry about not having enough office space because of new employees. Virtual Staffs are the future today.

Erik Archer Smith
Erik Archer Smith

I think the key is getting the technology that allows this.  Even if you don't plan on 100% remote work, getting the right tech now can keep you efficient in the event you need to work remote unexpectedly, and will set you up for a more flexible business model down the line, should you decide to change.


blfarris
blfarris

We have physical office space (mostly because I have more kids than bedrooms and they pushed me out of my home office) but I don't care where folks work. One of our team members likes to work in a co-working space once a week or so and that's worked out great.

In addition to giving her a fresh perspective she's meet some folks who could be resources on our extended team, she's gotten to see how a different group of folks works, and made some friends. It's been 100% positive.

I agree with @rdopping that humans have to connect -- so we'll find a way whether there is a physical office or not.

FelicityFields
FelicityFields

I've been office-free for 3 years now.  But I have 1 client for whom I make the trek out to their offices once a month, simply because they need the security blanket of my presence. (Which is a fabulous presence to have around, you understand - for them. ;))

Every month I'm more thankful than I can say that I never have to go back to the 9 - 5 office grind again.

dbvickery
dbvickery

As a person who has telecommuted since 1998, I greatly appreciate the work/life "blend" (new term I heard since there never seems to be balance if entrepreneurial) that a virtual office offers. There are some challenges:

- When leadership is old-school and assumes you are not working unless they can see you

- Clients that need to know you have physical space for development teams...because your competitors do

- Maintaining a company culture when individuals are so focused on their own work/life blend that there is no corporate culture of camaraderie. Harder to know how co-workers are doing on personal milestones, life events, etc...when you never see them face-to-face. Hard to take the relationship to the next level on an open conference call.

rdopping
rdopping

Interesting points. I have to reinforce your point that office space does not drive culture, productivity and profitability. People do. Once a culture is in place good office space "supports" that culture. There are certainly many other organizations that have a ROWE who also have space for people to get together in the same place to share ideas and interact. Mitch Joel interviewed Adam Alter recently who nailed something very well; humans will find a way to connect because we cannot, inherently, be alone. 

You have achieved that in a different way but i have to ask; do you miss the physical nature of interaction when someone is in the same room as you when you are working together?

I did also want to reinforce that the other factors; accountability, open-minded approach to business, maturity and the realization that your type of business didn't benefit from physical space is more important than the simple fact that rent can be applied in other ways to benefit your clients and your profitability. I am assuming your IT costs have compensated somewhat for the gain in overhead anyway.

JodiEchakowitz
JodiEchakowitz

Gini, as you know this is a topic that's close to my heart - especially since this July is 12 years since I started my virtual agency (bring out the champagne!!). While I agree that those who aren't willing to work with a virtual agency should not be our target audience, it's still disappointing when a large company you would love to have as a client (especially after they ask you to participate in an RFP) decides that the virtual approach is not for them (happened to us earlier this year). At the same, it's really rewarding when you secure new business with a company that's skeptical about the virtual model but is willing to make it work. For this new client, I know that it's a huge opportunity for us to demonstrate that location is irrelevant to the results that we can deliver.

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

Okie dokie I finally made it back! So yes, I was a virtual worker for over 10 years, before that I was in an office working in the political world, so one could technically say I've never really experienced office life (because politics is just different and I was traveling or on the hill most of the time, soooo....)

I have now completed one week and one day for a contract consulting position I'm in for several months and here is my perspective 'from the other side'

Summary (if you are busy and don't want to read further): BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Ick! Hiss! (Cue slime dump)

First let me remind you all that this is coming from a total extrovert! I love having people around me and as a virtual worker I needed to make sure I went out every night to see people, even if it just meant heading to my best friend's house for a doggy playdate, I needed to have social interaction. So I'll start by saying that the one thing I like about working in an office is having people around me all the time. 

Now, the cons:

-I'm much less productive because I'm not in my own space, I'm not comfortable, I'm worried about the fact that I'm freaking freezing and have 8 cardigans on vs. spending that time working. When at home I'm able to fly through so much, but office work is full of waiting and often being on other people's time schedules. I'd guess my productivity has dropped a good third and it drives me nuts because I thrive in a highly productive atmosphere. Oddly enough I'd also guess that my productivity level is higher than most of those around me because they have some how adapted to the drag...this drives me crazy too. Let's just get stuff done folks!

-The time drags. I'm not sure why because what I'm working on is very interesting. But when I'm at home working I'd often be clicking away in a creative manifesto and all the sudden it's 5pm and I had no idea where the day went, but I had a ton of awesome work done to show for it. Now an hour seems like a century. Here again, I think it has something to do with not being in my own space, not being comfortable, not being able to jump around like a lunatic for a few minutes when I just need to regroup, or go take 15 to walk my dog an then come back better for it. 

-The amount of time I waste prepping and packing food to take, dealing with actually changing out of my workout clothes, commuting and what not probably steals a good two hours from me each day...again valuable work time, or even more importantly valuable recharge time.

-For me personally,  a very important part of my day is connecting with others and being a connector for them to others. This is part of what I do and important across the board. In the office I'm totally disconnected (because of 'rules' on computer use and firewalls, because obviously I'm five). This is extremely problematic for me on multiple levels

So over all this experience has in fact confirmed that office work stinks and I was born to be free!

I'm a peacock! I've gotta fly! (and everyone who knows that reference instantly gets a petro gold star)

Liza Butcher
Liza Butcher

I spent over a year working from home and am so delighted to be working in an office environment now. I thrive off face-to-face interaction with co-workers and find working from home alone is a challenge for me, especially with a cute, energetic dog bouncing around the house. I do think working from home should be an option, since some people do very well in that environment. 

KristenDaukas
KristenDaukas

I think I always comment the same way when you talk about this topic.. when I need to get stuff done, I work from home. There are WAY too many distractions in an open-office environment. Being in an office environment again I find it takes me 40+ hours to do what used to take me 25.  That's a whole lot of lost time. 

briantudor
briantudor

Glad the mad experiment worked out! I know when I have to go into the traditional office setting I'm up earlier to get a few hour of work in before the morning commute. Now I am able to wake up and have a relaxing cup of tea to see what is happening in the world. I'm also way more creative at home, mainly because my kick-a$$ mission control is higher tech than anything most companies will provide. Work remote also gives me the opportunity to take field trips to inspire when getting stuck in a rut.

Congrats again on making time to smell the roses, to find that productivity and profit.

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

I love the virtual office for a million reasons beginning with productivity. I always got more done and found a higher quality of satisfaction.

Sure, sometimes you miss the interaction but it really cuts down on endless meetings and the chatter that sometimes made work harder.

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

Building on what @ClayMorgan said... Companies often won't budge. We recognize different learning styles in our schools but not necessarily different work styles in our offices. Freelancing is a great example of the fact that a company I work for doesn't care how many hours I put in on a project or when I work on it, as long as I accomplish it well and in the time they need it. Why can't more companies work this way with the employees who work best in that "structure"? Or at least be more flexible in offering certain days to work remotely?

ClayMorgan
ClayMorgan

What I find amazing is the number of companies that won't budge off rigid hours. 

Our newspaper is fairly traditional in the office sense. We even have cubicles. However, I'm about to go workout and will be gone for about 90 minutes. Nobody will say anything.

We have two reporters training for marathons (or half marathons, I forget which). I do not care that they come in a bit later in the morning. It keeps them happy and they do a great job.

At the same time, we've got some staff who need that 8-5, hour for lunch, two breaks rigidity. It is what they work best under, so I certainly don't hinder that if its what they are after.

At the end of the day getting the job done well and on deadline is what's important.

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RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Great post G! I've been on both sides of this equation in two comparable roles...there are benefits and drawbacks to each. 

While I respect what @bdorman264 and @Howie Goldfarb are saying about working from a remote office in sales means "you may doze, but never close" (that's GOLD, Bill!), it is really, really hard to maintain my travel schedule and be present and in clean clothes at the office. I often return from my road trips on a Saturday. To have to come home, clean my house, wash my clothes, repack my carry on, be in the office Monday and back on a plane Tuesday is nigh on impossible. If I could instead do my Monday catch-ups from my house while I do some laundry and open my mail, is it so terrible if I am also listening to my vinyl and drinking my Haitian Bleu? 

Conversely, I do love being in the office- especially after long road trips where I get so desperate for non-sales conversation- to see my colleagues and catch up with what is happening in their worlds, work or personal. 

Now that I am going to be on the road even more (somehow!) I am pushing for this flexibility, to split between my office and my kitchen table. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@dbvickery The first two we don't face. The last one I work really hard on, as the leader. Part of our "Get Up and Move" contest is to invite that kind of conversation into our meetings. While it's focused on fitness and health, we always find the conversation moves toward what might be keeping us from getting 10,000 or more steps.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@rdopping I don't miss the physical nature of interaction at all. But I wonder if that's because I travel so much? I've been on the road several days a week for the past few weeks so I think I get what I need that way and am happy to put my headphones on and work when I'm home.

As for the IT costs...that has gone down too. I've found people prefer BYOT (bring your own technology) and we just support what they already have. I don't have to worry about shipping them machines, getting them back if they leave, etc. We have a process for getting the files and that's that.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@LauraPetrolino I was at a meeting last week and we were trying to get access to my Keynote file. They wouldn't let me hook up my own laptop, they didn't have access to Dropbox so I could download it, and my Mac wouldn't talk to a flash drive. I said to the owner of the business, "I've never been somewhere that the security is so high I can't access anything. And you've invited me here to talk about social media!" 

So I really, really don't understand why organizations shut their employees off from the world. That might be one of my biggest pet peeves.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@LauraPetrolino I found in the office world anyone who had jobs that didn't have incentives to make more money whether it be sales or group bonus goals, the people who have no incentive walk around bugging those who do. I used to hate having people bug me non-stop to chit chat. The other side was when I had a home office in LA I had a sister company an hour drive away that had the Divisional Big Wigs. This meant the 2-4x er month I had to work from there I spent half my day schmoozing/building relationships.

What a waste of my time!

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lauraclick
lauraclick

@LauraPetrolino Um, I KNEW there was a reason I liked you! Man, I feel  you on this. I was the reverse....worked in an office my whole career until the past year. I definitely like being free MUCH better. I'm more productive and absolutely hated the bureaucracy, the firewalls (that was huge) and the drag, as you called it, in office culture. I hated the birthday parties and cake passing...it felt like Office Space. I hated looking out of my beautiful high-rise office and longing to be outside and take a break whenever I wanted. 

But, the downside is I definitely miss being around people. I get way more done now, but I definitely have to find ways to get out and be with people. Sometimes, my husband is the only person I'll see for DAYS and that's not good for either of us! ;) 

Anyway, thanks for the perspective. It sounds like we're in similar camps! One of these days we WILL meet!  

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

@LauraPetrolino The same thing happens to me when I'm working at home. The time flies, and I get so much done. I actually have to make myself stop. Luckily I have to eat...

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

Oh...and the second moral of this story is....I MISS YOU GUYS!!!!!!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Word Ninja I think it boils down to human beings do things the way they've always been done. To ask us to change is very hard...we don't like to do it. I was pretty stubborn about this at first (and a little scared) and now I can't imagine it any other way.

lauraclick
lauraclick

@ClayMorgan Good for you, Clay. There needs to be more bosses like you in the world. There are people who need rigid schedules and those who need freedom. If you give people an environment where both can thrive, you'll have happy, healthy and productive employees. Well done, sir!

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@ClayMorgan Great points Clay. We have a split in our office as well, for lack of better terms, between the "clerical" and "professional" staff. Some roles need the hourly mandate- some do not. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@RebeccaTodd I did your kind of travel in my 20s when I worked at FH. On the road T-Sa. I often landed at 10 p.m, ran home to shower, and met my friends out...just to have some semblance of a normal life. Then in the office (in a suit and heels) on Mondays and back at it on Tuesdays. Maybe that's why I love this setup so much. My travel isn't quite that bad, but I really love working from home after three or four days on the road (which is where I am right now).

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@ginidietrich It's mind boggling really. It took a whole week for me to even be able to access my own computer there. A week! And same situation, can't use my own laptop, pretty much every site is either blocked or 'a security risk' (aka, spin sucks is a security risk, so congrats!) 

Again, this brings up culture issues and the roadblock those cause, as I mentioned in my response to @Howie Goldfarb above. I could start quoting Viktor Frankl here, but long story short, when you treat your employees a certain way they will respond accordingly. Trust affects culture, if affects motivation, it affects the feeling of ownership in a job and an organization. In many ways it is the difference between setting up a culture where the employees are part of the organization vs. just 'working for it'. That distinction is HUGE!

When it comes down to it the deal is this: I don't need a proverbial time clock to check in and out of, or firewalls to prevent me from being on Facebook because I see what I do differently. It isn't a job I show up to, it is something I really love, something I feel I do that uniquely contributes to the world. When I don't do as well as I could in my work I let myself down because I don't live up to the goals and potential I aspire to. 

Not all, but many office cultures make 'work' a task, vs. a passion 

(sound the trumpets....you can tell I'm all worked up when I start making verbose speeches! Haha!) 

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@Howie Goldfarb Precisely! It is really interesting you bring that up, because the whole office 'culture' thing is something I'm really watching closely, partially because that is a big part of what I'm there to do (which is ironic in many ways). I think companies waaaaay, waaaay, waaaay under estimate the effect the cultural trends of an office space affect EVERYTHING (including their bottom line)

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@lauraclick YES we will! This year is going to be the year of the "Laura Bomb', I just hope the people are ready for so much amazing Laura-ness in one place!

Liza Butcher
Liza Butcher

@ginidietrich I am loving my new job at Kinark Child and Family Services. I am learning so many new things everyday and am teaching myself so much too. I am rocking the Adobe Creative Suite! 

Word Ninja
Word Ninja

@ginidietrich True, and I can understand feeling apprehensive, especially if things seem to be working OK 'as is.' But you stepped out, which takes some guts!

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

@ginidietrich @ClayMorgan ahem. In 99% of the cases you aren't CEO unless you are old Gini! Of course they have old thinking!

You wait 20 years when 40 year old punks make fun of your virtual office idea because they just plug a wire into their brain socket and download the work into the matrix, takes 10 secs...they disconnect, collect their pay and enjoy the rest of their day.

Latest blog post: The Three Things: Edition 39!

KateNolan
KateNolan

@RebeccaTodd @ClayMorgan Yup, that's pretty much how we're set up with a mix, but everyone is pretty much expected to be here for office hours (and then some). I tried, for a while, to make 8:30/45-6:00 with some at-home post-office hours for "my" projects work, but after enough snarky comments from the higher-ups I'm now 8:15-5:00 and I'm less inclined to work on projects at home. Now they get less time and I work on personal projects at night. Of course, we're in manufacturing, so the traditional time-clock is what rules. Someday, though...

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@LauraPetrolino I liked it for you! This reminds me of working in the ad agency and you had to check in with reception when you arrived at work. She had a spreadsheet and she'd put an X by your name with the time you arrived. But no one was looking to see what time you left each night and that drove me crazy. If I were 15 minutes late, I got in trouble, but I got no comment if I didn't leave until 9 p.m.

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

@ginidietrich Man, I wish Livefrye would let me like my own freaking comments because I just inspired the crap out of myself! Go me! Woo!

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@KateNolan @RebeccaTodd @ClayMorgan Excellent points! When I am too tied to regular office hours, I do the same thing- even when I feel inspired to work at home, I "leave it" for office hours! Why should I curb a desire to work when I feel like it, just because I am forced to be at the desk when I am not feeling it? Weird "logic". 

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