What is a Virtual Office?
The concept of virtual offices emerged with the concept of Virtual Organizations. Office automation has led to the development of virtual office concept. A virtual office works just like a physical office but devoid of physical space and facilities.
Employees interact with others through portable communication tools such as electronic mail, cellular phone, thinkpad, voice mail system, laptop computer, fax machine, and audio/video conferencing system. Employees armed with these tools can perform their work from any place — their homes, cars, restaurants, airports, customers’ offices, and so on.
These electronic communication tools allow organizations to greatly reduce the office work needed for each employee, sometimes enabling them to replace dozens of desks with a single ‘productivity centre‘ that the employees can use for holding meetings and accomplishing other short-term tasks.
Advantages of Virtual Office
A virtual office offers several advantages over physical office because the former links employees through electronic means rather than the physical means. Some of the advantages of a virtual office are as follows:
1. Virtual Office Reduced Facility Cost: Virtual office enables an organization to reduce its cost that is required in setting up a physical office. Instead of having a large physical office, the organization can reduce its size considerably as many employees work for office without attending it physically. This helps in reducing real estate cost, maintenance cost, and cost of physical commuting of employees.
2. Virtual Office Reduced Equipment Cost: A physical office requires equipment to be used by employees while working in the office. In a virtual office, no such equipment is required. What is required is the development of local area network through which employees are connected. This arrangement is more relevant for information workers. For other categories of employees, other electronic communication tools are required.
3. Virtual Office Emphasis on Formal Communication: A virtual office places emphasis on formal network of communication which ensures the orderly flow of communication throughout the organization. This further ensures that only officially-relevant communication passes through the network unlike the physical offices in which much time is wasted in informal communication without much meaningful exchange of ideas and thoughts.
4. Virtual Office Reduces Work Stoppages: A virtual office can work even during some tolerable events which may hamper the work of physical offices such as storms, hurricanes, floods, etc. Since the employees are not required to attend the office physically, they can continue to work during such events.
5. Social Interaction and Social Contribution: A virtual office enables employees to engage in social interaction as they can save time because of absence of physical commuting which otherwise consumes lot of employees’ time. Similarly, a virtual office enables those persons to work who might not be in a position to attend office physically such as handicapped people, elderly people, parents with young children, and so on.
Disadvantages of Virtual Office
A virtual office has certain disadvantages though most of these are not related to technical aspects of work but are related to social aspects of work. These disadvantages are of following types:
1. Lack of Belongingness: In a virtual office system, employees are not able to develop sense of belongingness among each other as well as with the organization. They never treat themselves as members of the organization or members of a team for which they are working. Because of lack of belongingness, employee turnover rate tends to be higher. This is detrimental to the organization concerned.
2. Psychological Fear of Job Loss: Employees working in a virtual office generally develop a psychological fear of losing their job as a feeling is created in their mind that they are not indispensable for the organization. Persons having similar knowledge can replace them much more easily than is the case with a physical office. This psychological fear lowers their morale which ultimately leads to lower productivity.
3. Family Tension: Though it appears to be unconvincing but the fact is that a virtual office system creates family tension. Families which are accustomed of seeing elder members going office in the morning and coming in the evening, hardly reconcile with the view that these members remain in the home during office hours. This feeling starts creating family tension. Apart from this, family tension created by other factors leads to lower productivity among virtual office workers.
Many of the organizations that are using virtual office systems are aware about these disadvantages and problems. Therefore, in order to overcome these, they are taking suitable measures. For example, IBM of the USA conducts seminars on regular basis on the theme “how to promote team atmosphere among virtual office workers” and “how to remain in touch with peers, managers, and clients.”
Measures for Making Virtual Office Effective
For managing virtual offices in a better way, the following measures can be adopted:
1. Providing Computer Resources: Virtual office working revolves around computer resources. These resources must by provided by the employing organizations. While providing these computer resources, it must be ensured that these are commensurate with the requirements of the employees concerned.
2. Providing Access to Information: Adequate provisions must be made to enable employees to have easy access to information which they need. As the society is becoming increasingly information oriented, employees’ access to relevant information is a pre-requisite for successful operation of virtual offices.
3. Arrangement for Forwarding Phone Calls: Every virtual office requires some sort of help from a physical office. Making arrangement for forwarding phone calls to concerned employees is one of these helps. Therefore, there should be someone at the fixed office with the responsibility for forwarding phone calls to telecommuters. Organization can also make use of a voice messaging system that enables the telecommuters to access it from their own workplaces.
4. Arranging Conference Calls: A conference call enables more than two persons to participate in a telephonic conversation at the same time. This helps the telecommuters to exchange their views and ideas among themselves without meeting physically. Such views and ideas are quite helpful in solving those problems that cannot be solved individually. In order to take the advantage of this phenomenon, the organization should arrange conference calls at regular intervals.
5. Arranging Regular Meetings: Though in virtual office systems, face-to-face meeting among employees may not be required to do their work technically, it is better that they meet their fellow workers on certain pre-determined time at regular intervals. Such meetings help them in understanding each other in a much better way and develop belongingness and community feeling. Therefore, the organization should make arrangement for such meetings and informing all the concerned telecommuters.
6. Follow-up of Work Routine: Telecommuters should be encouraged to develop and follow their own work routine so that their attention is not distracted during their working hours. If the telecommuters develop and follow such a work routine, perhaps their family members, friends, and others may hesitate in disturbing them during their working hours even at home or any other place.
7. Objective Evaluation of Work Performance: The organization should develop some objective criteria for the evaluation of work performance of telecommuters. As far as possible, these criteria may be in quantitative form so that the work performance can be measured precisely against these criteria. Wherever work performance measurement criteria cannot be quantified, these may be developed in qualitative form with precise definition of each qualitative criterion. After finalizing work evaluation criteria, these should be communicated to telecommuters so that they are very clear about what the organization expects from them. This may infuse a kind of discipline among telecommuters that is beneficial to them as well as to the organization.