Virtual offices were once simply a means for start-up and small businesses to secure a professional business address without the cost of investing in physical office space. But how we work is changing, and now even established businesses are using the virtual office model to drive down costs and increase employee loyalty and happiness. Those embracing the ‘work anywhere’ ethic as championed by Richard Branson are reaping the business benefits.
One such company is spray nozzle manufacturer Bete Limited whose operations model proves that, with modern technology, you no longer have to be physically present in the same office with other people in order to collaborate with them. The company has no office space whatsoever, making use of an entirely virtualised office to bring together its employees and customers. Every member of staff, aside from their warehouse team, works from home connecting through a secure VPN to a cloud-hosted office. Through use of a smart telephone system it appears to the outside world as if all Bete’s employees are based in the same office, regardless of where they actually are.
The advantages are clear: the cost savings are huge, on rental, utilities and rates. The IT infrastructure to support this operation is higher; but this is marginal in comparison to other savings made.
Bete’s employees are happier too – with no commute, they get to spend more time with their families for no reduction in working hours. It is well documented that homeworkers are generally more productive and loyal: they have less distractions and tend to be happier with the flexibility the arrangement offers them. Late last year the London School of Economics and Political Science published findings endorsing a general move towards more flexible working practices and suggesting employers offering flexible working arrangements are rated more highly by staff. The employer benefits too says LSE: flexible working hours can make the most of peoples’ individual strengths. Dr Alexandra Beauregard from LSE’s Department of Management explains:
“If people are night owls and their employer is happy for them to work at home from 10pm through to 5am, this can work to the company’s benefit. It just depends on the role and the level of personal interaction needed with their colleagues and the public.”
While the advantages may be clear, there are also oft-cited detriments of homeworking that need consideration – the difficulties of training, for example. Bete has found innovative ways to cope with this, even pairing new recruits in their home offices where necessary. Marketing Director Ivan Zytynski explains:
“Typically a new recruit would spend some time initially working from the home office of other staff. We have several home offices that can accommodate an extra chair if necessary. Depending on the nature of the role we would get a new recruit to spend some time working closely with a few colleagues in their home office environments until they are up to speed. Sometimes this means a few nights away from home in a B&B, but on other occasions the colleague hosting will put up the new recruit in their own home. We encourage this as it’s a very good way of increasing the social contact between staff which can be missing in our business model”.
Do Bete find supervision of their staff difficult or challenging? Ivan responds:
“In a word, no. Our philosophy is that if we can’t trust an employee to work without supervision then they should not be employed at all. With our contact management system, all customer facing activity can be monitored. The VOIP system lets us know how many calls are made and received by each person. Functions like credit control and sales are easy to measure on individual results. So we have a good idea of who is doing what, it’s all recorded and if necessary we could challenge under performing staff with activity stats but to be honest, this has never had to be done. We are careful in our selection process for staff so we only employ people we think we can trust to work off their own back, thus far that trust has not been abused”.
Training and monitoring can be further aided by modern phone systems which offer call recording and presence technology, allowing supervisors to listen to calls and offer feedback; and even to be aware of what staff are doing at any given time, from any location. Director of Evoke Telecom David Wardell is an expert in remote working solutions and has seen the impact of technology on the take up of alternative office structures:
“With advances in accessibility, speeds and security, we are seeing a marked increase in awareness and take up of cloud based business services. Cloud telephony is becoming feature rich such that device twinning, web and device based call management, employer billing redirection and flexible CLI presentation can now offer businesses affordable and reliable enterprise grade communication options. In addition, collaboration tools such as IM, desktop sharing, peer to peer video and webinar means virtual working need no longer impact employee experience, business productivity and of course business brand”.
Another oft-cited disadvantage of home working is that it is difficult to motivate staff. How does Bete cope with this challenge? Ivan responds:
“In the same way other businesses motivate their staff. I don’t see any huge differences in motivation techniques for remote or office based staff. Humans are humans regardless of where they sit. Different people are motivated by different things but that is not contingent on where they have their office space. So we motivate in the same way as other businesses by offering rewarding, fulfilling jobs that meet our employees’ needs and help them develop as humans beings. Some ‘motivational’ techniques not available to us are the so called ‘management by walking around’ or other ‘stick’ (as opposed to carrot) techniques of close personal supervision. My opinion on these stick motivation techniques is that if they have to be employed then one has failed as a manager. Fear can motivate in the short term but it generally motivates people to leave the company in my experience. Fear is thus a terrible technique to use so the loss of the ability to deploy certain ‘stick’ techniques is no loss at all because it goes against everything we stand for as a business anyway”.
Homeworkers are naturally more motivated anyway because they are happier with the homeworking arrangement. A study by a Stanford University team in 2012 compared the productivity of call-centre workers who worked from home four days a week with workers performing the same work from rows of office cubicles. The home workers answered more calls and worked more hours because they took shorter breaks and used less sick leave. These workers also reported being happier than the office workers, and fewer quit.
“Where motivation of home workers is easier is that their home lives are invariably better. If one looks at the classic theory of Maslow on motivation one understands that unless the more basic needs of an individual are met then the higher needs cannot be met. Home working helps meet more fully the lower order needs and thus the higher order needs can be realised more fully – it is these higher order needs that are most valuable to a business”.
Breaking geographic boundaries
Aside from the obvious cost benefits and the happiness factor, allowing staff to work remotely gives companies access to a wider recruitment market, since geography becomes irrelevant when hiring staff provided that they have a decent internet connection. An added benefit is that this allows you to increase your business hours by employing workers to operate remotely in different time zones, and the recruitment market is further widened by the ability for companies to hire those that need to work from home for reasons such as a disability, or because they are carers or stay-at-home parents.