Is a virtual office right for your business?

Four words for you: productivity, cost, employee morale.

The appeal of going to work in your fuzzy slippers and having a 30-second commute to your downstairs office may seem like a dream come true. For a growing number of people, this scenario is no longer just a dream; it’s reality. FlexJobs, a site dedicated to those seeking telecommuting, flexible or virtual jobs, reports a 36 percent rise in work-from-home jobs being posted by companies in 2016 and a 103 percent increase over the last decade. Beware, though: working from home isn’t for everyone and may not work for all types of businesses.

If your team thrives on impromptu gatherings in the break room, face-to-face meetings in the conference room, or socializing around the water cooler, then the virtual office may not be a good fit for your business. And, of course, if your business requires in-person interaction with customers/clients, switching to a virtual office is unlikely to be a viable option. Even in this type of business setting, though, it may be possible to rotate schedules so that your employees are able to work from home once a week or once every two weeks.

The question you may be asking yourself right now is, “Why should I care if having a virtual office would work for my business?” In other words, it’s the proverbial WIIFM: What’s in it for me? I have four words for you:  productivity, cost, employee morale.

Productivity:  Think of how much time is spent every business day just on commuting! At Project Sanctuary, we have discovered that our employees feel they are far more productive on the days they are able to work from home without the commute, the social interruptions, and the general distractions that are inherent in many traditional office environments.

Cost:  Having a virtual office can be a tremendous cost cutter for your business. No rent, no office utilities, no water cooler, no coffee fund… It adds up quickly! Plus, it may be possible to reduce IT costs dramatically as well by switching from having servers and other physical hardware for your network to cloud-based solutions. As we all know, any savings to the bottom line is generally welcome! That holds true whether you have a for-profit business or you are running a national nonprofit organization like Project Sanctuary. For us, every dollar we save on the costs of a traditional office is another dollar we can apply to our mission of serving military families.

Employee Morale:  Our employees also appreciate the trust that the business has placed in them by giving them the freedom to choose their own work environments and to manage their own schedules in the way that works best for each of them as individuals for getting things done. Trust me, happy, empowered employees are the best employees!

Many businesses with virtual offices say their employees work longer hours because their work isn’t tied to official office hours. The virtual office also opens the door to a much larger talent pool not tied to a specific location. Businesses open to hiring team members who work remotely are tapping into a very talented pool of workers who need the flexibility a virtual office provides because they are parents, are going to college or are people who want to work as contractors.

Everything I’ve said so far sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There are, of course, also challenges and drawbacks to having a virtual office as opposed to a traditional one. With planning, though, they can be overcome.

The most obvious downside of the virtual office is simply the lack of face-to-face time for your employees and other team members. A business using the virtual office model can still have a strong team:  the key is to utilize the technologies of virtual meetings and schedule regular, in-person meetings. Project Sanctuary has twice-monthly, face-to-face meetings of its executive staff and administrative team members. Knowing that we only have a set amount of time twice a month to be physically together to discuss projects, issues, and solutions helps keep us on task and focused, making the most of our time together.

Another potential risk of going virtual is having employees take advantage of or abuse the flexibility they are given. Fortunately, in most cases, it is easy to spot the person who’s not putting in the hours. It’s also relatively easy to avoid hiring someone who is unable to be an effective employee in the virtual office environment. Be sure to take the remote working aspect into consideration in all hiring decisions. Explore what it means in depth during the interview process with all prospective hires.

Other challenges exist as well, just as they do in every business environment, whether operating in a traditional office setting or a virtual one. The overall success of a virtual office depends entirely on the business being open to new ways for their employees to work and to embracing the possibility of being just as successful a business without a physical office full of cubicles. And yes, sometimes the best part of running a business that operates primarily from a virtual office is that the CEO gets to go to work in fuzzy slippers.

Heather Ehle

Heather Ehle, founder and chief executive officer of Project Sanctuary, is a Registered Nurse (RN) with more than 20 years of experience in the health care industry as a nurse, manager, volunteer and entrepreneur. She has extensive experience in the nonprofit health care system. Heather founded Project Sanctuary in 2007, pulling from her background as an RN to establish an evidence-based program that encompasses spiritual, physical and emotional healing for service members, veterans and their families. In 2010, Heather was a finalist for People Magazine’s All Stars Among Us, and won the 2011 Aurora Chamber of Commerce award for “Women Making a Difference.”

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