H R Focus - February 1998

Successful virtual office arangements run on more than just technical equipment.


Avoiding a "Virtual" Disaster

The computer age of the 1990s has brought with it the "virtual office," a work environment that is appealing to millions of Americans who want to continue working, but who are interested in spending less time in a home office and more time at home or on the road. It is also popular with organizations that want to save on expensive real estate costs.

The virtual office basically defines the capability of functioning in a business environment without having to be physically located at the office. For example, employees could be in the field selling to, or servicing, customers, or stationed at home or another remote location, working as if they were in the home office. In today's virtual office environment, one is able to communicate with co-workers or customers via letter, fax, email and even the video-conferencing just by using his or her computer.

As a result of the growing popularity of the virtual office, many companies are investing heavily in people and computer resources to meet the needs of this new environment. Many of these organizations are already making operational plans for the new environment with special wiring, high power hardware and software, and employee training on computer operations.

Fewer, however, are addressing the human resources aspect of this new trend. While it is very likely that corporate America will be functionally ready to meet the challenges of the virtual office environment, there is valid concern that many organizations have not considered some of the very significant human relations implications of this new way of doing business.

Graph of Telecommuting Growth

The following key areas need to be addressed by human resources managers before they implement a virtual office of any kind:

1. Consider the lack of employee interaction. While some people will be comfortable working at home without any face-to-face contact with others, most human beings are social animals who need some type of interaction to maintain their morale and motivation. Whether this is obtained during coffee breaks, smoking breaks or lunch, or at the water cooler, is unimportant; however, it is one part of the work environment that is eliminated in the virtual office.

2. Be prepared for distractions affecting productivity. One of the most important benefits of the traditional office is the structure it provides, both in terms of the hours of operation and the expectations of the employees during the workday. For example, employees know the rules relative to non-productive time during the normal workday and, generally, have relatively few diversions that would stimulate them to deviate from their work. On the other hand, in a home environment, there are many distractions (including family and appliances) that can take people away from their work.

3. Develop methods for training and growth. In a fixed office situation, these methods are easy to implement. Supervisors are readily available to provide advice, and it is also possible to offer in-service training in a central location. However, this opportunity is lost in virtual office arrangement, and must be handled in order to encourage the same level of employee development as was realized in traditional office operations.

4. Create a work ethic encouraging teamwork and interaction among employees. In a home office environment, it is easy for employee to visit with a co-worker for a brief time to seek out opinions and feedback or ask for help. However, in the remote world, this is much more difficult to achieve and, therefore, can promote isolationism and individual thinking, which might not provide the same quality end product as would be anticipated in the traditional office arrangement.


These challenges have resulted in a need for organizations to adopt a different way of thinking about employees. It goes beyond simply providing the technical equipment and support for the hardware and software to promote the expansion of the virtual office. The following will outline some of the actions that organizations should consider to help improve the overall effectiveness of employees operating in a virtual office environment:
  • Utilize psychological testing. Make an effort to determine the profile of employees who can operate effectively in a virtual office. This enables organizations to better predict which employees are likely to succeed in this type of work situation before they are placed into an environment where there are destined to fail.
  • Try a transitional period. Develop a system requiring employees who choose to work in a virtual office environment to do so gradually. This gives the employee the opportunity to acclimate to the new work situation, and to determine whether he or she will be happy and productive, before committing to it as a permanent arrangement.
  • Be flexible. Provide the opportunity for employees to work part-time in a virtual office environment, so it does not have to be an all or nothing commitment. For example, if organizations had "remote worker" cubicles that could be reserved by employees who need to come to the main office, this could enable both the company and the employee to have the best of both worlds.
  • Implement meeting policies. Create policies and procedures for supervisors and employees to regularly meet to provide counsel for the purpose of training and development, and to review the performance of the employee so both parties are aware of the individual's progress. This can be done at the home office, in the field or at the virtual office, but regularity is important. Employees need to be managed to develop and to produce effectively for the benefit of themselves and their organizations.

It is very clear that remote working and the virtual office will continue to increase in popularity and importance as we approach the new millennium. The organizations that recognize the potential problems with this phenomenon will be those that develop solutions and programs enabling them to move ahead productivity into the next century.


The growing popularity of telecommuting, or virtual offices, stems from the following factors:

  • The desire to eliminate wasted time commuting, thus giving workers more free time for personal or business needs.
  • The interest in spending more time at home with the family by virtue of conducting business from a home office.
  • The significant cost savings for companies over time, as fewer employees require expensive office space and other support services.
  • The perceived increase in productivity when employees have more time to spend on their job without a commute to the workplace.
  • The ability of a field sales or service organization to function effectively as a team without having to come to the office to collect messages, attend meetings and interact with co-workers.

Thomas L. Greenbaum is president of Groups Plus
WebSite: http://www.groupsplus.com

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