Photo credit (above): Jonathan | Flickr
By SU-ANN CHENG
The digital economy is revolutionising traditional business structures, redefining workplace dynamics and forming new corporate architectures.
One key component here is increased Internet accessibility. In 2012, there were an estimated 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide, equating to about 34% of the global population (Internet World Stats). And with the influx of laptops and smartphones, there is now the option for businesses to capitalise on the concept of virtuality.
The anytime, anywhere office
In the early 1990s in Colorado, venture capitalist and new father Ralph Gregory formulated a business concept that would allow him to work from home while still maintaining elements of an office to maintain a professional image. And so, the virtual office was born. The idea is simple; a company provides an office space often shared by multiple clients who work from home, wherever that may be. Services associated with the esteem of a physical office are also provided such as a business address, receptionists, mail services, fax machines and meeting rooms.
This has enabled people to choose where, when and how to work. Furthermore, virtual approaches to work naturally appeal to a wider range of people including working mothers, the disabled and the older generation. They are also attractive options to Generation Y professionals, who having grown up with technology, often favour flexible work arrangements.
Indeed, the virtual office has the potential to be a highly productive replacement for current work environments. However, there are two sides to every coin as we explore some of the pros and cons of the virtual office.
Perks of the virtual office
- A business in a box
Without having to fork out upfront capital, small business owners can minimise risks and save a lot of money on overhead costs like rent, utility and stationery supplies. Readily administrative support and services that come with a virtual office allow a business to take off right away, leaving business owners with much more capital for other investments.
- Boost work performance
Given that a worker does not have to spend time – sometimes hours – commuting, and that he/she is not required to adhere to any formal dresscodes, it will likely decrease stress, sickness and absenteeism levels.
People granted such autonomy have better use of their time and will tend to be more satisfied and motivated, which translates to better productivity. Parents, for instance, can juggle both childcare and work without having to sacrifice one or the other.
- Geographical advantage
Without geographical restrictions, there is the advantage of servicing clients or getting in touch with consultants and advisers from all over the world without the need or expense of travel. An employer also has a wider pool of talent to hire from and gets to prioritise skills.
- Improved interaction
Virtual connectivity allows people to be reachable anytime, anywhere. Clients can still be serviced from the comforts of the home. Email, online chats or telephone/video conferences allow meetings to be carried out immediately without the logistical hassle of setting up physical appointments.
- Go green
A virtual office means less paper wastage and less commuting, thus reducing a company’s carbon footprint.
Drawbacks of the virtual office
- Lack of direct interaction
Some clients still value personal contact and corporate chemistry. Face-to-face meetings and discussions are believed to enable better understanding and improve responsiveness. It is also easier to maintain team spirit, loyalty and positive group cohesion with physical proximity.
- Difficulty in managing a team remotely
The freedom, flexibility and isolation may result in decreased productivity if a person is easily distracted, not disciplined or unable to work independently. With minimal supervision, there is also the potential of deterioration of skills and quality of work that may go unnoticed.
- Increased technical costs
Because a virtual office relies heavily on technology, a considerable amount should be invested in technical aspects, especially telecommunications.
A virtual team has to be equipped with high-tech and advanced tools in order to be able to do their jobs efficiently, be it a laptop or more importantly, a stable and secure network.
- Security issues
Devices must be protected from viruses and malwares so that important information, especially sensitive corporate data, shared virtually is not leaked.
It is harder to manage confidentiality issues in a virtual setting with no physical boundaries to control.
- Non-exclusive assistants
Often, virtual assistants like receptionists look after more than one client. The lack of attention or in-depth knowledge may lead to a diluted service experience.
Is the virtual office for you?
The virtual office has reduced the need for physical offices or store fronts and the capital required to build or furnish them. This appeals especially to small entrepreneurships, B2B e-commerce and freelance agencies, where it is often a one-man show or involves very few stakeholders, to legitimise their businesses.
There may also be avenues for larger organisations to explore. The concept has also evolved into a work environment where people can work remotely and cooperatively from different locations.
Reuters’ 2012 survey revealed that about one in five workers worldwide telecommute. Moreover, with smartphone usage expected to hit 1.4 billion by the end of 2013 (ABI research), it is a clear indication that if the situation warrants it, we may very well be able to turn our devices into full-fledged virtual offices. The conventional notion of an office is no longer a precondition when it comes to the way we do business.
Originally posted online on 10 July, 2013.