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The Invisible Office...

Companies are Turning to Virtual Office Solutions for Improved Image, Productivity & Functionality

By Heidi Schmidt

Startups and small businesses have long recognized the cost savings involved in working from a home office, delaying the lease of office space in favor of achieving break-even status more quickly. In recent years, larger and more established businesses from an ever-widening range of industries have also realized the value of reducing office overhead. Many companies are choosing to remain office-free, taking advantage of improved technology; avoiding long, gasoline-heavy commutes; and tapping into personnel resources that geography previously made unavailable.

While some companies have completely abandoned the traditional model of a physical, central office, most larger companies have instituted a compromise approach by allowing interested employees the option of telecommuting either full or part time. A 2002 study by the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, or ABC (www.abcdependentcare.com), reports that workers operating either from the road or from a customer site comprise about 25 percent of the workforce, while those who work from home at least two days a week make up another quarter.

The flexibility and other benefits of working virtually from home are desirable perks for current or prospective employees. A recent survey by Robert Half International found that 33 percent of CFOs surveyed listed telecommuting as the number one incentive for attracting top talent. An additional 46 percent ranked it second only to salary considerations.

Virtual offices do present some organizational challenges, and this type of work arrangement may not be for everyone or every company. Employees who require frequent or constant supervision would likely handle a work-from-home experience badly, and even independent, self-motivated employees may experience isolation and feel disconnected from the company and the team. There are, however, some strategies to compensate for these challenges, whether instituting a telecommuting option, or going completely office-free.

Pay careful attention to recruiting and hiring. Take your time in hiring employees who will be working remotely, and don't be afraid of multiple interviews. Investing extra time and resources into hiring the right person for the job will pay off down the road with increased productivity and lower turnover. Look for candidates who have worked away from a central office before, who are highly self-motivated, and can handle the freedom of working away from the day-to-day supervision of a manager. Some companies employ personality evaluation tools to predict how suitable a job candidate may be. Once you've hired someone, meet with him/her often, either in person or by phone, as they adjust to the scenario. After you both feel comfortable that it's working well, meeting frequency can be reduced.

Offer managers training in how to manage off-site workers. Micro-managers or managers who are new to this arrangement often want to keep tabs on off-site workers more than is necessary. The ABC study suggests that training managers of off-site workers could be the most important step any company could take to make telecommuting more successful. Focus on results. Make sure remote employees are delivering on their responsibilities and meeting any deadlines. Other than that, try to let go. The American Management Association (www.amanet.org), along with many other sources, offers courses on leadership within the virtual workforce.