Virtual offices are becoming more and more common--which has led to a steep learning curve for many professionals with a more "traditional" office background. In lieu of cubicles and posh corner offices, entry-level workers and executives alike have traded in their business casual environment for truly casual at home or working on the go. Whether it's from the couch, in gym shorts, while on vacation and even en route to that boot camp class at 10am, Americans are re-defining what a "work space" means. A path like this can be riddled with obstacles.
After decades of "going to work," it can be a tough transition to make. Suddenly you might not have stringent "office hours" like you once did. The idea of a dress code has been thrown out the window. Your morning meeting might be via Skype with colleagues around the country or world. If you are an employer or manager, it's your job to make transitioning to telecommuting or a virtual office as easy as possible for all staff members. But how?
Here are some tools, hacks and tricks to make it simpler:
Hire telecommute-minded workers.
Not everybody is cut out for telecommuting, but it's a fantastic option for many (millennials and retirees alike). If you have a say in who gets hired for a virtual office, make sure to suss out which candidates will excel in this environment--and which won't. The more you review candidates, the more you can see who is a fit for this kind of work. Do they already communicate with friends via chat on Skype, Facebook or Gmail? Did they move to your geographic region from another part of the country and still communicate with friends there? These things help to indicate whether the person is comfortable with virtual interaction. A lot of people like the idea of telecommuting, but eventually discover that chat-room communication with people they've never met isn't their cup of tea. Look for candidates who have been successful in this environment before, who are Type-A, and offer a trial period just to make sure everyone's happy.
Get the best in cloud sharing tech.
When you're not sharing the same physical space as your colleagues, you need to make sure your document sharing is perfected. Google Drive offers a great option with the free tier providing more than enough space for startups and small companies. Dropbox, Box, Sugarsync and others provide solid products for sharing and storing images and other files. Being able to upload, download, share and edit on the fly is critical for virtual office workers, so make cloud sharing available and educate your workforce on how to use it effectively.
Choose the right conference call provider.
"Conference calls" are nothing new, but how you handle them can be. Waiting for every last invitee to join a group call can take up valuable time that can be better spent working, so search for conference call services that let you avoid such hassles. Choose a service that texts you when everyone's ready to come on or doesn't need any passwords. There are services like Webex or join.me that let you share your desktop to workstations around the world, if that's what you need. Then there are no-frills options that simply let several people talk on the phone with each other. Pick the option that best fits your needs and helps you stay efficient.
Play around with video conferencing.
Most of the time a conference call is all you'll need, but every now and then a video conference call might be in order. Skype remains a go-to option for many virtual offices, but there's also Google Hangouts and a slew of lesser known options. Pick the one that's most user-friendly (or that staff members have latched onto), is affordable, and easy to download/install. However, bear in mind that some attendees might be in a vastly different time zone or don't appreciate having their faces seen--so use these meetings only when appropriate.
Require "off time."
The upside of telecommuting is that you can often work whenever and wherever you want. The downside is that you can work whenever and wherever you want. Type-As can be attracted to telecommuting, but can go overboard. Require every employee to work no more than a certain number of hours and hold them accountable. This can be tough for fast-paced startup workers, but limiting their number of hours per week will help avoid burnout. Another way to ensure the health of employees is to allow for flexibility of work hours (sometimes employee A needs to work at 9am, other times it's at midnight).
It's tough to start a virtual office from scratch, but even tougher for more traditional workers to transform away from their ingrained habits. There will be growing pains and learning curves, especially if you have employees who have been living with a more classic system for years. Consider bringing in a consultant to help ease the transition. There will be new technology to learn and habits to form, but if you stick together, soon enough everyone will be enjoying their more casual work environment, without it affecting the bottom line.