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The Virtual Office: Making the World a Smaller, More Efficient Place

office photo worker 637x424 The Virtual Office: Making the World a Smaller, More Efficient Place

I’ve always believed that the most efficient office is one where everyone is there together. In most cases, communication is easier face to face. Eventually you become more comfortable with coworkers when you see them often and get to know their personalities. Most of the companies I’ve worked with, whether tiny startup or large multi-national corporation, inevitably attempt to put as many employees as possible into one office.

The realities of the modern-day workplace, however, don’t make it imperative for us to work in one place anymore. Hundreds of thousands of people are working and collaborating closely with each other while many miles apart. As of 2011, about 34 million Americans worked from their residence occasionally, reports Forrester Research, a technology and market research company. The firm also predicts that the number of people who work remotely will nearly double, to approximately 63 million people, by the year 2016. I once worked at a company that was made up of six people; me in San Francisco, two people in Southern California, two in Canada and one gentleman in Eastern Europe. We were actually a very tight knit team. The semi-annual in-person meetups certainly played a part in our closeness. Web collaboration tools also played a huge part in helping us build efficiency in our work.

Web Collaboration Tools

There are a lot of tools online that make work go more smoothly. With Google docs, we could edit the same documents at the same time, discussing the edits back and forth. Skype lets us not only talk to each other but see each other for important all-hands meetings twice a month. Tools like DropBox and Bitcasa let us store as many files online as possible for both business and personal reasons. Bitcasa’s “Infinite Drive” in particular, with its unlimited storage, lets me free up space on my laptop and phone by offloading large files, like videos, and then in turn, quickly share files with coworkers without care about size — I can literally share a 5GB file in 5 seconds. Tools like these have made working from home not only possible a good portion of the time, but many peoples’ preferred way to work. Here are some more reasons why.

Work From Anywhere

Take your typical freelancer, my friend Georgina in Seattle who is doing design and content creation work for a tech company in Los Angeles. With help from Google docs for editing and cloud services for storage, she can start a project in her home office and keep on working at it when she goes to a nearby coffee shop or makes a trip to Southern California. As long as you have an Internet connection, your office can be anywhere – regardless of what device you’re on. This is a great perk for employees with kids that they might need to stay home with on occasion. Freedom to work from multiple locations (and computers) can help keep inspiration high and productivity up as well.

 

Share Ongoing Projects

This is one of the more helpful features of the cloud. No more need to work on an outdated version of a document and email it all around. Have you ever worked for hours on a word document only to learn you’re working with an outdated version? I have and it’s beyond frustrating! With cloud collaboration tools you can be right in the middle of the project and receive feedback from coworkers or clients as you go. Real-time sharing allows for increased efficiency and productivity. We also don’t have to take the time to stop what we’re doing just to email someone the team about a project when we can just access it from wherever we are. Google Drive is one of the more popular services for this. It has strong integration with Gmail which makes it very convenient for collaboration. It’s also mobile compatible, having undergone Android and IOS integration.

Security & Backup

It’s happened to me before and it’s a nightmare. I have lost not only my flash drive, but also my phone. Hours of work, photos and contacts down the drain. Now I don’t need to worry anymore. With cloud services, you can retrieve any version of a file even if you delete it accidentally. Some of the services let you mirror your various files to other services, then when you lose or edit a file accidentally, you can go back in time and get any previous version. It’s always good to have a local backup for when your internet is down and a virtual backup that will securely store your items in the cloud. Bitcasa is one of the more secure of the options.  It’s the only one in the space that does client-side encryption. This means that not even the employees at Bitcasa can know what you’re storing. Carbonite is another solid online storage service known for its security.

 

Outsourcing

I’ve worked with companies who outsourced work to contractors in the same zip code, state, or pretty much any place in the world. Because we are able to interact via the cloud, the globe is full of potential co-workers. Our barriers to collaboration are getting smaller and that has helped companies pay less for the same quality of work. This kind of efficiency strengthens the bottom line. When it comes to finding some solid workers to help you on a project, you don’t have to put an ad on Craigslist anymore. Zendesk is an excellent platform for dealing with support tickets as they come in. If you’d like to outsource your support staff itself, there are many options. ODesk is one of the world’s largest online workplace job boards. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk  is a “crowdsourcing Internet marketplace” that enables companies to have people do things computers are currently not able to do, such as identifying performers on music CD’s or choosing the best among a group of photographs.

 

What’s the Catch?

OK there has to be *some* drawback to all this efficiency right? Turns out there is, but with just a few adjustments you can adapt. No need to let this sour your mood about working remotely. Just develop strategies to work around shortcomings that may arise from difficult communication. Usually such problems are related to context. I remember interacting with a co-worker, and finding it difficult to understand their intent or message, not only because we were new to each other, but because we had different communication styles. For a period of several months, I struggled to strike up a fluid, natural working relationship with a Romanian co-worker, not just because his English was a bit limited, but also because he didn’t like chat, and preferred not to say much overall there. Eventually, it became appropriate to interact more frequently with a British colleague, who eventually became my primary point person for certain projects. The Romanian co-worker became a backup.

The cloud makes communication so easy, that it also makes miscommunication, or negative communication easier too. Be ready for this by understanding the limitations of the technology, thinking carefully about how to divvy up work responsibilities, as well as scouting for future partners on an ongoing basis.

 The Virtual Office: Making the World a Smaller, More Efficient Place

John Boitnott

Digital Media Consultant
John is a writer and digital media consultant who has worked at FastCompany, Venturebeat, Village Voice Media, NBC as well as several startups in the San Francisco Bay Area. He advises entrepreneurs on growing their businesses and increasing community engagement.
 The Virtual Office: Making the World a Smaller, More Efficient Place