Making the case for workers and companies to rethink their work structures beyond the current health pandemic and embrace virtual offices.
To work from home… or remotely in a coffee shop… or a shared workstation… or hit the office. In today’s fast changing economy and in the center of a healthcare pandemic - why not have all as viable options?
It is amazing how many companies continue to struggle with striking the right balance between remote and office, as many professionals still hold on to very traditional models of working environments thinking there are no better options. Or even worse, they know better and are too comfortable and complicit to make the pivot.
The fear of working from home and remote for both workers and companies, having little to no prior experience, boils down to a misguided perceived notion of negative productivity. If not done properly I would agree that working outside of an office may be distracting and disorientating. This is not however a novel idea as many contractors, teams and entire companies now work virtually thanks to incredible advancements in technologies and processes.
Our definition of working from home and remotely must be expanded to define a growing group of ‘virtual office’ workers and teams.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is the fact that global organizations are not well prepared. This holds true for companies now experiencing one of the worst economic calamities since the great depression, not to mention the thousands of lives lost. Traditional businesses are scrambling to adopt e-commerce, outsourced business services, mandating work from home and moving entire operations, such as contact centers remotely.
How can we use this moment of self-quarantine and isolation to safe-guard our livelihoods and businesses for the future? The time has come for a much needed self audit to re-evaluate current work and organizational structures.
My Virtual Working Journey
Throughout my professional career I have worked in various office environments; cubicles, open concept and hybrids of both. In some cases, these structures worked well and in others they did not. Of course, there are many factors to the success of any business. As an example, if a company’s culture is toxic and anti-productive in the office moving operations virtually will not solve that problem. However, I am not here to criticize traditional office structures but rather suggest virtual offices as a viable complimentary option.
I have been a virtual office worker in three separate occasions for over eight combined years. From running a management consulting operation to becoming an entrepreneur, I have come to appreciate and utilize virtual work in various locations and cities.
My adventure into the virtual world started off as a lone worker landing in Central Europe to build a professional training & services company from scratch. The first year was spent working diligently out of my apartment making calls, sending emails and attending conferences to help grow the business. After a year it was time to invest in an office and work out of the office, home and in remote locations. This taught me a great deal about time management.
My second experience was running a management consulting operation completely virtually. This meant having to lead teams of contractors working on-site at client offices and on virtual engagements. Here the lesson was about operational efficiency and the need to build a strong corporate culture.
Finally, my third and current encounter is as an entrepreneur for almost 2 years. I have learned to utilize the benefits of a virtual office to build start-ups and teams. Taking advantage of digital channels, technologies and processes, today my businesses operate and deliver virtually.
As a worker setting up a virtual office for the first time, it not only means changing your outlook on work spaces, but your work habits as well. In addition to designating an office at home a more structured calendar and process is required in order to thrive. Just because you are rolling out of bed and into an office chair, does not mean that organization falls by the waist side. I would argue that it takes far more discipline and structure to be successful working virtually.
As a company, looking at virtual offices for the first time may seem a bit daunting. Best to start with baby steps before taking quantum leaps into re-organization. Approaching virtual is more than just changing the environment for workers, but rather shifting the mindset of leadership from being worker managed to project focused.
Move away from the clock in and out, micro-managing boiler room scenarios, to tracking results not hours and empowering each worker as their own project manager. The right leadership is essential in making this happen and hiring proper talent able to manage their own work is critical.
Think about it, why on earth would you hire amazing talent in order to micro-manage them? As Steve Jobs famously commented; “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Some large companies upon inn-acting more flexible options of working virtually a couple of days a week, quickly began to renege on this policy and force workers back into the office. Reasons stemmed from perceived lack of productivity, to a loss in culture and moral. Was this really a drop in productivity, or perhaps an inability of the company to leverage remote workers and teams to their fullest potential?
Processes are key to coalescing your people and teams virtually. Agile, Scrum and Kanban methodologies are incredibly useful in keeping everyone on task and helping teams prioritize work, rally around a shared purpose and track measurable KPIs.
Small teams are the way to go, even within larger departments. Leadership is tasked with making sure that whatever process and methodology is used, everyone must galvanize around the same vision. As a result, virtual workers will produce higher quality work with more time given back. Manage the work not the workers.
Remember for the last 2-5 years how everyone has been sounding the digital transformation alarm? Most companies are still not set up with their digital infrastructure able to handle today’s massive disruptions. Those companies with the proper tech set-up will flourish beyond this crisis, versus those late to the digital game will certainly suffer.
For virtual working, the right technology is essential to make strategy and process come to life. From communication applications, to project trackers and enterprise level agile software, make sure your company has the right digital suite to empower all teams and workers.
Win / Win
Below are some of the benefits of virtual offices for both workers and companies:
Have you ever been to the office with a few deadlines looming over your head, only to be interrupted repeatedly by colleagues hovering over your desk bombarding you with various requests? Although they may not admit it, many workers long for moments of privacy especially when work requires absolute focus and attention.
Yes, there are times when we need face to face interactions either for meetings, events and other gatherings, but these should not take up the majority of the day.
People have incredibly busy lives and they are only becoming more so. On top of a hectic schedule, driving for two hours back and forth to the office seems like an enormous waste of time, unless you enjoy the commute. Allowing workers to use virtual offices gives more time back.
As everyone works differently, some require privacy and different locations to come up with original ideas. Some of my best thinking is done listening to music and doing mundane tasks. You would be amazed at the creative ideas people come up with outside of a physical office.
Brain storming sessions can be done virtually and in office if need be. It all comes down to choice, variety and understanding which workers thrive best in each work environment.
For maximum results, turn your workers into project managers. Once a worker owns a project they will lead it to success. In turn, with a project lead in place it frees up time for managers otherwise focused on a worker’s performance. Again, it is far more practical for a manger to focus on the work instead of the worker.
A happy worker is a loyal worker. When people chose to work virtually it becomes more than just a job but rather a lifestyle. Employers that offer virtual office flexibility see an increase in worker satisfaction resulting in lower rates of churn. Who would want to give up their happy lifestyle?
Virtual offices give more time back to the worker helping them focus on projects, allowing for further creative thought, improving performance and corporate culture, hence raising over-all productivity.
I am not suggesting that every business and worker transition 100% into virtual offices. Both must assess what is possible given their business, vertical, what is appropriate and beneficial. This is not just to protect your vocation and business from the current or next inevitable pandemic, but to increase productivity and ensure viability into the future.
Zoltan Lorantffy, Founder @ We-ReL8
Advisor, Digital & Growth