Remote Working and the Virtual Office

For me, July 17th, 2009 was an incredible day…it marked the last day that I would ever spend working in an office.

Yup, that’s correct. For almost a year I have been a remote worker, working quite literally from a virtual office (my office consists of an Acer netbook, a Sprint MiFi cellular router, an iPod Touch and my HTC Mogul). And, bar none, it has been the best year of my adult working life, not to mention the most productive!

Let’s begin with a story: Once upon a time, long long ago, there was this little thing called the industrial revolution. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It involved factories, lots and lots of workers, and brilliant leaps in efficiency. It completely transformed our country, our economy, and the world. Unfortunately, it had some negative side effects.

You see, along with the industrial revolution came the near universal concept of shifts, aka the evil 8+ hour day and the 40+ hour workweek. Who exactly decided that this was the way it should be? I don’t know, but whoever it was, I expect there is a particularly nasty corner of hell reserved just for them 🙂

This concept, the 8/40 deal, has remained essentially unchanged for the last 200 years or so. That’s right, despite the fact that technology has completely changed the working world, and despite the incredible efficiency that said technology has created, it still somehow magically takes 8 hours per day, 5 days per week to do your work. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?

Actually, not only is it odd, but it is a complete load of crap. Studies have actually shown that most employees only work, really work, between 3 and 5 hours per day (less on Monday and Friday). And, on top of that, very little of that time is actually spent efficiently, without meetings or interruptions, working on important work. As Pareto would put it, 80+ percent of the real work an employee is doing comes from 20 percent or less of their time. So that employee you think you are paying $20/hr may really be making closer to $100/hr in terms of time spent working effectively.

Enter the concept of remote working.

You see, despite what some employers may think, when you pay someone a salary, or by the project, you are paying for results, not hours. If it is possible to meet or even exceed your required goals and responsibilities in 1/10th the time expected, what’s wrong with that? In my mind, it is up to the company to determine what a fair amount of productivity would be from an employee compared to their salary, and then be happy with quality and productivity equal to or greater than expected, regardless of the time put into the project(s). Time isn’t money…results are money.

Oddly enough, there are many employers who agree! Best Buy, for example, has instituted a ROWE (results only work experience) for all of the employees at its corporate office. They can work whenever and wherever they want, so long as their output and quality meet or exceed a certain standard. Unlimited sick days, unlimited vacation days. No schedule, no office. Just good old fashioned work.

As a result, their productivity has increased, employee happiness and morale has increased exponentially, and the company is better off as a result. Less hours, less money spent, and more profit…isn’t that every company’s dream?

In our connected age, an office is usually a waste of money. Perhaps a few examples would be in order:

  1. Meetings – I can tell you from ample experience that there is rarely if ever a good reason to hold a meeting. A detailed email is almost always going to be more effective and efficient. If you absolutely need a face-to-face, you can use Skype. The video and audio are excellent, and Skype to Skype calls are totally free. No traveling, no building necessary, but a meeting all the same. Make sure to have an agenda to avoid wasting time.
  2. Project CoordinationGoogle Docs, Basecamp, and a private wiki are all excellent options. There are numerous tools to track billable hours spent on a project, such as Rescue Time. You can securely share files with co-workers and clients through Dropbox (2gb free). You of course also have email and Skype as additional options. If you are worried about productivity cutting into billable hours, assign tasks a set hour value, and bill accordingly. That way, efficiency=higher margins 🙂
  3. Phone Calls and Call Centers – Aside from numerous outsourcing options, you can use Google Voice to forward one or more virtual company numbers to any number of other phones. Skype does the same thing, and it’s either free or very cheap. Google Voice can record a call, transcribe a voicemail, and more. Both can forward to cell phones or landlines almost anywhere in the world.
  4. Security Issues – I take security very seriously, so my computer has a difficult password, all client data on my machine is encrypted, and a backup is stored in a secure online Dropbox. I never access the internet through public WiFi spots, instead opting to use my own Sprint Cellular Router, secured of course. I run the best firewall and anti-virus tools available (I highly recommend the Yoggie Gatekeeper Pico Pro), and use a virtual sandbox for any new programs and files just in case. My laptop never leaves my sight, at any time for any reason. I always work with my screen to a wall if I’m in a public place, to avoid prying eyes (you could also use a 3M privacy shield). My computer can even be remotely locked and wiped, should the need arise. Security really isn’t an issue.
  5. Corporate Address – Thank you UPS Box! You get a street address and a “suite” number, all for $20-$30 per month. Some office buildings charge more than that per square foot! If a client wants to meet at your office, let them know that your company is testing a virtual office in an effort to be more green and to increase both productivity and morale. Offer to meet at their office or a restaurant instead. Personally, I’ve never seen any backlash from this, and most clients absolutely love the idea! If you absolutely must have  a physical place to meet from time to time, of a more professional variety, try a Regus Virtual Office or a co-working space with a shared conference room.

The point is, there is really no reason to have an office. The ability to work fewer hours will motivate most employees to create more efficient methods of working, and in most instances to increase the quality of the work, all of which is excellent for the employer.

The employer no longer has to pay for a computer, an office, furniture, utilities, internet, phones, etc. All of that can be on the employee’s dime, which they are usually more than happy to pay for. IT, accounting, HR, sales, and most everything else can easily be outsourced, and any other employees have no real need for an office.

I’ve been doing this for almost a year, with no trouble whatsoever. My productivity has gone way up, the quality of my work is praised constantly, and I have the freedom to run errands and do what I need to do when I need to do it.

If I’m sick, I’m already at home, so no big deal. I see my wife more, which means a great deal to me. When we have children I will be able to spend more time with them, and actually watch them grow up. If I need a vacation I can get ahead on my work, and handle little things as needed from wherever I am or delegate the work to another employee.

I am of course available by phone and email during regular business hours, but that isn’t any inconvenience. I’ve still had 40-50 hour weeks when things were extra busy, but it usually takes much less than that to handle all my work and sometimes more. Clients are happy, I’m happy…honestly, from my perspective there are no negatives.

Save your company some money and do your employees a favor…offer remote working. There has never been a better time to do it, and your customers, employees (and shareholders if you have them) will thank you.

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