The Office Gone Virtual

Taking a bite out of doorfront operations

by Bonnie Hilliard, ABM Associate Editor

Used to be an office was made of plate glass, walls and a door. Employees around the cooler. Meetings lasting for hours. Today, that's not always the case. Today's office can sometimes extend thousands of miles and be linked via a little modem. This is the virtual office, where invisible people prepare the work for you on office equipment you’ll never see ... or pay for.

In virtual mode, the business pieces fit together as voices on the phone, faxed deliveries and email communications. Sherry Huff, who operates Gal Fridays office services from her home in Kenmore, says a virtual office can run more efficiently, with better expertise and at less cost. "The virtual office isn’t limited to physical space," she explains. "It can go anywhere you go and be anywhere for you. I have a client in New Mexico that I do work for. When he traveled to Europe recently, he just emailed me the work from there. He loves the freedom, with no employee to worry about."

Huff provides bookkeeping, mailing, tax service and all sorts of tasks people hate, but have to do. The self-proclaimed "Paperwork Professional" gets paid only for hours worked. The coffee break and employee down times — which are considerable in most companies — aren’t billed. "They don’t pay me vacation, benefits, taxes, office space, equipment and utilities either, so it ends up just one simple monthly bill. It’s cheaper," she said.

Look no further than this magazine. ABM publisher Don Baker said his virtual staff includes writers, editors, graphic artists and photographers from all over the Akron area.

"We couldn’t do what we are doing ten years ago. Because of the advent of computers, e-mail, faxes and remote file access we can bring together the best creative staff from a much wider geographical area," Baker said.

Elaine Futrell of Crawford Graphics & Lithograph, located in Clinton, has pulled together a team of creatives much like an ad agency, but with a higher skill and service level. Each creative — the photographer, artist, writer, illustrator and printer — are owners of their own sole proprietor businesses. "When clients have a need for all of those services, it makes sense for people of like industries to group together," she said. "The benefit to the client is, they can get cream of the crop professionals adding to their company collaterals, but without any of the employee hassles involved."

In tapping industry experts, her virtual ad agency brings above-average talent to small and mid-size companies who want better marketing at a cheaper price.

"The perception in their mind is, they can’t afford a bigger ad agency. So they try to do all their promotional materials themselves. They’ve got to find a layout artist, a printer, a writer, someone to do their photography, and somebody to pull it all together so it works for them. That’s time consuming and probably almost as expensive as an agency. The value of a virtual agency is, they’re not spending all their time running from company to company, comparison shopping."

Virtually Limitless

Scroll the Internet and you’ll find virtual offices in virtually any profession. Virtual doctors, lawyers, post offices ... you name it, it’s there. There’s even a site for virtual office suites. No furniture necessary, no receptionist, no yutzy muzak ... no lines. When you dissect the reasoning behind the phenomenon, it’s clear why the virtual office is gaining ground.

As a contract writer/editor, my virtual office means I can work on a brochure for a Cleveland company, a feature article for Akron Business Magazine, an advertising campaign for a New Jersey company -- often without ever seeing the person who sends the paycheck. The possibilities are unlimited, no doubt. But there are some things lacking: those wonderful office squabbles, for instance, and gabbing around the office coffee pot, and finding out who just got promoted or demoted ... and hoping the latter wasn’t me.

If you’re considering operating, hiring or contracting virtually, you may want to take into account whether or not your personality requires a great deal of personal interfacing or not. When it gets down to it, much of your decision will depend on whether or not you enjoy working solo or contracting with someone who is for the most part faceless in your operations. The virtual office is ideal for many, but not for everyone.

Benefits of a virtual office

• Flexibile hours

• virtual assistants can offer top expertise

• cost savings, since virtual help work by the hour, not by the day

• Instantaneous contact by phone call, fax or email

• No office space needed

• No recruiting, hiring or training

• No additional benefits or insurance

• No equipment to buy

• Service beyond the confines of 9 to 5; On-call; 24-7 assistance is often the norm

Draw-backs of a virtual office

• Little personal contact

• No on-site presence for extended hours

• Harder to establish trust

• No hands-on, tactile contact (shoppers miss this one)

• No walk-in business since there’s no physical office front

• Can be hard to find on the Internet