A few years ago, the term “virtual office” was really just a synonym for “home office.” You packed up all the typical office machinery — computer, printer, scanner, modem — and plopped it in an extra bedroom or dining room. Your “virtual” employees or partners had a similar setup. But at least you didn’t have a commute or have the overhead of a stand-alone office, just a quick shuffle in your bunny slippers.
Since that time technology has made going virtual even easier — and yes, more virtual. Google Docs popularized the notion of using online office applications instead of software. Smartphones became even smarter, offering an array of productivity apps. Now your work can live in the “cloud” or on a USB drive, allowing you access to your data from any computer, whether from a desktop, laptop, a tiny netbook, or even a pay-per-minute box at an Internet cafe.
Even the conversation about why you would want to go virtual has changed. Previously, it all had to do with giving up the commute and overhead, about being an on-the-go rogue who didn’t need to be tethered to a concrete location. Today, it’s still about saving money, but it’s also about lessening your business’s ecological footprint. The gas saved by not telecommuting is enormous; there are also electricity and other utility savings found in working in your extra room versus an entire office.
Pros and Cons
The pros of going virtual are very easy to list, and we’ve already mentioned a couple of them. Some others are saving money on personal “office” expenses like business clothes and restaurant lunches; the ability to manage your time in the way that fits your life best, not just between the hours of 9 and 6; tax savings (see the IRS’s Claiming a Deduction for Your Home Office page); the ability to hire employees anywhere in the world, widening your net considerably; and last but not least, all that money saved on rent and other typical office expenses.
There are cons, too, of course. Otherwise, everyone would have already gone virtual. It can be difficult to let go of the idea that you must be present for employees to be productive and, in fact, you need to learn how to manage from afar and keep the lines of communication open. It can be lonely; you may also find it difficult to “close shop” and keep normal hours. Tech-wise, you’ll need to sort through a vast amount of options for both virtual services (everything from online office suites and project management apps to conferencing and other communication methods) and real-world services (mailbox services and shared office space available for short-term needs like meetings).
Tools for Moving Forward
If you do decide a virtual office is for you — perhaps you want to start a new business without laying out much cash or you want to tighten the purse strings on your current enterprise — your next step is developing your toolset for doing business. In addition to choosing a computer, peripherals, and mobile device (all of which you may already have), you need to determine which virtual services you want to run. Luckily, many have free “levels” you can begin with to see if they’re right for your company.
Some of the biggest names in the tech world have virtual office solutions: Microsoft offers OfficeLive, a document-storage, Web site-building, marketing, and office-suite solution. Google offers its Docs suite of products, and it recently launched real-time collaboration tool Google Wave (in limited invite-only release). Zoho is another contender for an end-all, be-all service: It offers 20 virtual productivity, collaboration, and business apps that are free for individuals and reasonably priced for small businesses.
Or, you can pick and choose your favorites from among multiple services. Other collaboration tools include Campfire, a collaborative chat environment; MediaWiki or DocuWiki for building your own wiki; Evernote, a note-taking app; drop.io for sharing files; Backpack for project management; Dimdim or Skype for Web conferencing and conference calls; and 5050Biz, a social networking site that allows your team to collaborate and network online with one another, as well as with other professionals.
These are just a handful of the solutions available. This space is expanding every day and, with a little research, you can find the perfect tools to take your business virtual.