Why Virtual Office Might Be Right for You

The following was originally posted on the Avaya site here and then again at the CIO Collaboration site here.

After having breakfast with my three children on Friday, we were sitting in our front room and happened to see one of the neighborhood fathers get in his car and drive off. My three-year-old twin boys paused, contemplated the sight, and then asked me “Why did he have to drive somewhere to go to work?” Great question.

Nearly four years ago, the small Avaya office that I was a part of closed, sending the two dozen of us regular office attendees to our homes. While I do miss the morning coffee time, putting golf balls down the cubicle row while on calls, and the occasional group lunch, I have come to appreciate and enjoy my new work environment.

Work/life balance. Working from a virtual office (VO), combined with a relatively flexible work schedule often gives the employee a healthy work/life balance. Yes, I know that sounds cliché, but I get to wake up with my children, feed them breakfast, get them ready for school, and sometimes do pick-up or drop-off. Then up a flight of stairs and I’m at work. If my kids need something (and their mother isn’t available for some reason), they know they can knock at my office door and if I’m not on the phone, they can come in for a short interlude of family time. It is also much easier to skip out of work for the kids’ swim lessons on a Friday afternoon when I’m already home (and don’t be surprised if you see a tweet from me from the pool, thanks to my LifeProof case). In return, my employer gets me for 10+ hours a day. And not only am I putting in the hours, but I’m also wicked productive (more on that later).

Why are you still in a cube? So, why aren’t more people working from home? As Dave Michels wrote in a recent CIO Collaboration post, many employees and employers don’t even pause to think if virtual office might be right for their situation. I agree with Dave that many people are missing out on a great opportunity. Avaya has done quite well with VO employees and perhaps this is not just because they have an open mind about these things, but because Avaya sells many of the communications solutions that make VO successful, which brings us back to the productivity question.

Engagement. There was an excellent blog by Scott Edinger in theHarvard Business Review last month about how remote workers are as engaged if not more than those who work in the office. You should give it a read as I won’t reiterate his excellent points here, but suffice it to say that when the supervisor and employee are not in close proximity, they consciously work at their communication, resulting in more engagement. I have found regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings are crucial. I meet with all of my direct reports for at least 30 minutes every week. For the rest of my organization, I meet individually with them every other month. Sometimes we talk about work, other times about family or sports. What you talk about matters less than the fact that you are talking. Don’t make this your only opportunity to talk every week, but having time set aside makes sure you really connect.

Communication Tools. As Scott wrote in his HBR post, having the right tools are crucial to making that communication happen regularly. While you can get by with a solid audio connection, video is becoming a huge benefit for VO employees. I’m lucky in that Avaya has a variety of tools to make working remotely successful. Here is a list of what I use (in addition to my standard desktop software):

  • Avaya Desktop Video Device (ADVD) with the Flare Experience for audio and video calls
  • Plantronics CS351N headset with enough range to get to the kitchen for lunch
  • Use of a Scopia Video Conferencing server for video conferencing calls. This is relatively new, but is already becoming my favorite tool. More and more of my meetings are becoming video calls. My ADVD integrates flawlessly, allowing me to connect to those calls without using my laptop.
  • Use of an Avaya Aura Conferencing server for audio conference calls, which also allows me to see who is on a conference call and who is speaking
  • SFDC’s Chatter (internal social media tool that is becoming increasingly valuable to me)

Face Time. Another helpful tip that I’ll share is that whenever you stumble upon a colleague’s picture (LinkedInTwitter, internal sites, etc.), attach it to an Outlook Contact (see here). This way, whenever you receive an email from them, you will see their picture, making it feel more like a personal interaction. As an added bonus, when using an Avaya Flare client, those pictures transfer over, so you can see their pictures for phone calls as well.

Not for everyone. Don’t assume that a very productive employee in an office will remain so at home. VO is a great fit for experienced information workers that spend a good deal of time on the phone with others, especially if those others are geographically dispersed. If an employee is new to the role and/or need access to physical equipment or people, this won’t work. A certain discipline is needed in order to stay focused on work when there are increased distractions (family, television, video games, etc.) The individuals’ personality and work-type must match up to ensure the employee can continue to meet or exceed his/her objectives

The Office in Home Office. Yes, I know, you have a laptop, a smartphone, and a Bluetooth headset. That does not make you a one-woman-home-office. A coffee shop or your kitchen table while the kids play in the next room over will not be successful long term. Get yourself a quiet room with a door (ex. guest bedroom). The room doesn’t have to be office-only 24×7, but during work hours, nothing else should be taking place there. Besides, you don’t want to be the person on the conference call with the dog barking, or worse, “Daddy! I’m all done pooping and peeing!!” (Did I mention my Plantronics headset has a very handy mute button on it?)

Don’t forget your agents. While I have focused on my own experience as a knowledge worker using Unified Communications products, working from home is also a great option for Contact Center agents. I work with a customer of ours in retail and I know they value their home agents. Kay Phelps, one of my fellow bloggers here, has written a number of articles about these Home Agents, so please go give her a read.

In summary, if I were writing an online review of a product, I’d sum up Virtual Office as:

4OutOf5Stars Amazing, but not for everyonePros:

  • Great work/life balance
  • No commute transportation costs (gas, tolls, car, auto insurance/repairs, etc.)
  • Significantly reduced wardrobe expenses
  • No downtime needed between meetings
  • Positive environmental impact

Cons:

  • No after-work camaraderie over drinks
  • More self-reliance for IT and office supply needs
  • Discipline needed by the employee and those they live with

I know I’m not the only VO employee out there. So, let me know what you think. Living the dream? Did you try VO and it was a fail whale? Desperate to break out of your cube and into your sweatpants? Drop a note in the comments below.

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