In the modern economic landscape, small to mid-sized businesses don’t have many advantages over their larger competitors. Aside from the personal touch a client might receive with smaller entities, speed and efficiency are really the only areas where smaller organisations can hope to match or even surpass the large corporations they are increasingly forced to compete with. The ability to quickly deliver goods and services to your client base has become an essential component for survival in the modern business jungle. By extension then, speed of communication, versatility, and flexibility within your organisation become paramount.
One of the primary ways businesses are attempting to meet the speedy demand of modern commerce is by shifting to a partially or entirely virtual office. The virtual office has become ever more appealing in recent years, especially amongst emerging leaders in the millennial and Y generations. A virtual office allows employees to access necessary information anytime, from nearly any place on Earth.
An intelligently virtualised office can mean lower costs of production, a seamless and inexpensive means of data storage and recovery, a drastically reduced need for travel, and can provide a healthier work/life balance for employees, making your business more appealing to top talent.
When considering office virtualisation, it is important to understand the specific needs of your business in order to determine what, if any aspects of the business should retain a more traditional platform. Additionally, there are a few potential risks associated with office virtualisation you will want to be aware of before beginning the process of creating a virtual office space. What follows is a general discussion on when, how, and why to virtualise your office space.
Determining What Level of Virtualisation is Right for your Business
Before taking steps to virtualise your office, it’s important to consider the benefits and drawbacks of having a more remote workforce. Inevitably your employees will have far fewer face-to-face interactions, which can be either positive or a negative depending on what your business model is and the individual personality types that make up your workforce.
First and most importantly, what kind of business are you running? If you’re operating a contracting company or similar venture for example, whose principle service is physical labour or construction, total virtualisation of your office doesn’t make much sense. While some steps like introducing a cloud based CRM (client relationship management program) might be well suited for your administrative and sales employees, obviously total virtualisation wouldn’t be plausible or beneficial.
Additionally it is important to understand the character of your employees. Working remotely can mean increased flexibility, happiness and productivity with the right type of individual, but telecommuting also requires a higher degree of self-discipline and focus. Your management staff will also face different challenges when trying to effectively supervise and motivate a largely off-site work force. Management and executive teams will need to be able to clearly define goals and productivity expectations, as well as become comfortable interacting remotely with those they supervise.
Getting Started – Cloud Based Database
Assuming you’ve considered these questions and feel the benefits of speed, flexibility, convenience and cost reduction created by virtualising your office are worthwhile for your particular venture, the next step is getting into the nuts and bolts of it.
A cloud-based CRM will be the first necessary investment in creating your virtual office space. Client management relationship tools are important for nearly any business model. A good cloud based CRM will allow everyone in the organisation to have access to a plethora of vital information. Contacts, email histories, notes, interaction history, schedules, meetings, appointments, all can be seen by anyone in the organisation, from anywhere in the world where an internet connection is possible. You can organize automated marketing campaigns, build sales pipelines, track consumer or client contacts if your organisation uses a call-center. The possibilities with a good CRM are virtually limitless.
Additionally, your risk and cost are mitigated with these cloud based platforms. There’s no need for expensive servers or data backup, as that is handled by the CRM provider, and information can always be accessed with the click of a button. There are a range of options for CRMs, and many of these services will even offer training on their programs as a part of their package. Cost for these programs depends on the particular service and provider you choose, as well as the size of your organisation but will usually range between ten and a few hundred pounds per user, per month. A wide array of billing options are also available with the major CRM companies, and there are pricing discounts for non-profits and other philanthropic organisations.
Can You Hear Me Now? – Keeping Phone Bills Manageable
If seamless remote interaction is the goal, phone communication will obviously play a huge role in your company’s day-to-day exchanges. Unlike a traditional brick and mortar organisation, employees might be scattered across a country, or even across the globe. The cost of phone communication can foreseeably become quite expensive, and while mobile phones are convenient and effective, they can also be cost prohibitive; especially when users may need to access their phones in different countries, and make regular international calls.
The most cost efficient method of overcoming this obstacle is the use of VoIP’s (or voice over internet protocols). VoIP’s make use of either a wired Ethernet connection or Wi-Fi to send video and audio information over the internet. Typically VoIP’s are formatted to work with traditional digital business telephones through an analog adaptor so that the server can talk to a traditional modular phone jack. There are a host of service providers that can install and operate the system for you, and while prices vary most are eminently affordable (especially when compared to standard long distance phone rates).
Modern providers also offer a host of helpful additions, including specific extension forwarding with voicemail, auto-receptionists that can be programed to follow specific answering rules, call forwarding, call screening, visual voicemail, internet faxing, and the list goes on. Mobile apps are also often available which allow users to connect to their office phone system on the road through their smart phone. After the initial set-up fee, most programs are available even with unlimited international minutes for a small cost per user, per month.
Circle the Wagons – Virtual Meetings
In any virtual office maintaining lines of regular and effective communication is vitally important. While phone and email interactions will suffice for most basic interaction, inevitably there will be times where group meetings are necessary. Conference calls will often be insufficient if a large volume of information needs to be shared, or a new policy or procedure needs to be explained. Purchasing a tool that will allow you to conduct in depth virtual meetings, giving employees access to a shared desktop display is an absolute necessity. This will allow meeting organisers to show employees what they’re working on rather than simply telling them about it. Much like a webinar, virtual meetings allow demonstration of information to disseminate visually and interactively.
By far the most well-known program for setting up virtual meetings is GoToMeeting, but they’re by no means the only option. These services make use of VoIP’s to connect visually and audibly to a hosted conference call. Calls are connected via a secure cloud based server, and require a meeting id number and passcode to gain access, which is usually created automatically when an organiser creates a new meeting. A meeting organiser can then allow meeting participants to get a direct visual link to his or her desktop. Virtual meeting services usually cost a modest amount per organiser, but usually one or two accounts is all that is needed, even for larger companies.
The 800 lb. Gorilla - Data Security
All this increased convenience, flexibility, and reduced cost is great. Yet without sufficient security protocols in place, you run the risk of data theft and will incur financial risk just like any traditionally operated organisation. The only difference is where the risks come from. With a virtual office, you’ll have no need for a massive server, and therefore no need for a database administrator or any of the traditional security protocols associated with protecting the information you store there. Most major cloud based programs have top of the line encryption and your information will be as safe there as any other place it can be stored (with the exception of a stand-alone system with no direct internet access).
While data breaches garner more and more headlines (costing companies a global average in the region of £100 per exposed record in 2012) if one looks at the numbers more closely, it is clear that employee error plays a huge role in the likelihood of having an information security incident. According to a 2013 study conducted by Symantec and the Ponemon Institute, 64% of all data breaches in 2012 were the result of human mistakes and system glitches. According to Robert Hamilton, the director of product marketing at Symantec, “the key to reducing data breaches for the vast majority of reasons is really to educate employees.”
With a virtual office space education in proper use becomes even more paramount. The likelihood of your CRM being hacked is exponentially less likely than one of your employees walking off and leaving their lap top open with their CRM portal page left wide open. A virtual office means that employees will be accessing the company’s shared information from a multitude of sources, usually using a wireless connection, often from very public sources like internet cafes, coffee shops, or airports. Educating your workforce on the risks they incur when accessing a shared system is imperative. Establishing a set of security protocols for all employees to follow right from the outset will save you time, money, and a whole heap of aggravation. This brings us to our next necessity in office virtualization…
VPN’s or “virtual private networks,” essentially create a private portal across a public network. If you plan on having employees regularly access the company’s shared information from a public network, especially when that network is wireless, VPN’s are a very worthwhile investment. A VPN will allow your employees to securely connect directly to the organisation, no matter where in the world the “principle office location” might be. In addition to the benefit of security, it also creates a singular cohesive network for all employees to access. VPN’s can also be used to connect to proxy servers for the purpose of protecting an individual’s (or business’s) personal identity and location, which might also have some value depending on what type of organisation you operate.
Even if your organisation is a large entity, or one not seeking a completely off-site work environment, most organisations can benefit from some aspect of office virtualization. In today’s business world, speed, efficiency, cost reduction and employee satisfaction are all things organisations could always use more of.
Cloud based platforms offer reduced risk of data and financial loss, lower operation costs, increased connectivity between individuals all across the globe, and an ability to share large amounts of information to anyone, any place, instantly. The key is developing a custom strategy for your organisation that takes into account your individual business model, budget, staff, and location in order to have a clear goal in mind before any major overhaul of is attempted.