Virtual Workforce

These days, it is entirely possible to run a thriving business with no central office.

IT is just after lunchtime on a Monday, and Yasmin Rasyid walks into her office in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, carrying not just her laptop and work stuff but also with her eight-month-old baby and her eight-year-old daughter in tow. Perhaps in the previous millennium, this would have been quite a sight. But in today’s world, work, home and family could well occupy the same space.

As we enter her room after she leaves her kids outside, she looks lost in her own space, amused by her own unfamiliarity with what is supposed to be her working space. ‘As you can tell, I haven’t been in here for quite a while now,’ she says rather sheepishly.

Yet, this is how it is today with a growing trend of virtual offices and work-from-home preferences. Yasmin, one of the founders of non-profit environmental organisation Ecoknights, works mostly from home or anywhere else she is required to be. She is only in the office maybe once a week, and mostly for meetings with her staff. And her office space is shared with two other companies. Ecoknights’ office is almost threadbare, save for a large conference table, some shelves and a whiteboard.

This burgeoning trend of having a virtual office, or virtually no office, is widely recognised by economists and thinkers who are seeing a change not only in the way economies work, but also a shift in the nature of how we work. Amusingly, some have even perceived this as a return-to-basics as human beings all began with working from home as farmers and hunter-gatherers. Then the Industrial Age came and changed everything, and the concept of leaving home to go to work began to take shape. So in a way, the human race has come full circle.

Today, with available technology such as portable computers, mobile devices that function as phone, mini-computer and much more, and wifi available almost anywhere, people have a choice of where they want to work and how they want to work. In some countries, even the buses are wifi-ready and you can get a job done while commuting. The brick-and-mortar way is not the only option anymore.

A virtual office can also mean office spaces that are rented out on-demand. The Economic Times in an article last year featured a young entrepreneur in Mumbai, India, who rents a plush office space only when he needs to have meetings with clients, but otherwise, he said, he works out of his bedroom.

These ‘instant offices’ are what probably can be described as the byproducts of a generation that has taken to working out of a virtual environment. And especially for start-ups, it can be the most cost-effective way of running a new business. As Bloomberg Businessweekwrote in 2007, ‘the idea of the office as a static thing is crumbling.’

But in the form that is perhaps truest to its name, a virtual office simply means an office inside a computer or a mobile device such as a smartphone. Business people with virtual offices can be on the go with their ‘offices’ moving along with them, or at home and still be within a network of clients, staff and colleagues.

The green edge

There is, of course, a green advantage to all of this. Working from home or in a virtual office cuts down on travel, and therefore lessens pollution and the use of fuel. And doing away with physical space means utilities such as water and electricity are not wasted, and in most cases, not even used.

Working in a virtual environment can also mean that less paper is used. When the points of contact for the staff are online or in digital mode, then it is only logical that documents are in soft copy to facilitate easier and quicker sharing.

For Yasmin, all this fall nicely into place for Ecoknights.

‘The office is just a physical structure for meetings or once a year when the interns come, then they utilise the office space,’ she says. Only the administrative staff and programme manager need to use the office facilities daily.

‘The administrative staff keeps track of faxes and even e-mails should the rest have trouble accessing the server,’ says Yasmin. ‘We can actually have meetings outside of the office to our convenience. Sometimes we even have meetings in kopitiam, as long as the venue has wifi. When we have our meetings, our GMail chat is on as well as our Facebook.’

Going to the office only once a week, and eliminating much commuting has bigger environmental implications that can readily be perceived. Telework researchers Kate Lister and Tom Harnish found that 40% of the US workforce, or 50 million people, hold jobs that do not need them to be in an office.

Their research concluded that ‘telework could reduce Gulf oil imports by up to 75%, reduce greenhouse gases by up to 100 million tonnes, and save as much as 12 billion gallons (54 billion litres) of gasoline.’

Yasmin says that she is only in the office about 10% of the time. ‘Nowadays, even with letters, we try to e-mail or use PDF for documents,’ she says. ‘We also try to minimise going to the post-office.’

When Ecoknights started out in 2005, the entire staff were office-bound. But soon they realised that being out of the office was a large part of their job, and the situation soon led them to where they are today.

But for Wild Asia, another environmental organisation, it was virtual office from day one, says its founder and executive director Dr Reza Azmi, as they did not need everyone to be in one place all the time.

‘We do need to stay in touch and Google is great for virtual offices,’ says Reza. ‘Very early on, we adopted this, and maintained it even as our numbers and contributors grew. We were ‘cloud computing’ way earlier than most.’

The edict that goes with a virtual office is that anyone can work from anywhere, and this widens an organisation’s talent pool. Skype technology has improved so much that Wild Asia often holds group chats or conference chats, more so as some of its contributors are overseas. Generally, Google applications have been most useful.

Muzaffar Shah Ahmad’s events management and consultancy company, Creative Talent Consortium, operates out of ‘a friend’s house.’

‘And we just need a phone, a fax machine and a laptop,’ he says. ‘All proposals and quotations are made verbally, or via phone, fax, or e-mail. And we reply the same way. Most of the time people would call me on my mobile phone and give me details of their event.’

This may sound like the perfect paper-saving exercise, and for most businesses and organisations, going virtual does mean less paper usage.

Says Reza: ‘One of our other practices is ‘hot desking’ at work so we don’t actually ‘own’ a space to work. This means we keep things on hard drives, in our bags and try not to collect clutter as we physically don’t have the space for it. It is cheaper to expand our hard drives than to keep buying more shelving and storage.’

Says Yasmin: ‘We’re probably printing 70% less now. Back then everyone seemed to print everything. But now since my staff work remotely, the idea is to save something in soft copy so that we can all refer to it.

‘All you need is to organise your laptop or PC so that you know where to retrieve what you need. Then there won’t be any wastage such as when, for example, you print in the wrong format or style and have to do it again.’

But for Muzaffar, paper-saving really depends on the nature of one’s operation. His business of events management requires him to have hard copies of proposals and documents, which he says he would ideally try to avoid if he could.

‘Some clients want us to fax the quotations and they will not accept the quotations via e-mail, and we cannot force them to,’ says Muzaffar.

‘Out of 10 clients, I would say probably only two or three would be OK with soft copies. But most would want to see a black-and-white copy with a signature to avoid any cheating.’

For Yasmin and Reza, their organisations maintain a reuse and recycle policy when it comes to paper use. But Reza sees that the lack of a physical office does not necessarily mean carbon footprints are eliminated.

‘If we don’t work at the office, we’ll still be at home or at Starbucks,’ he says. ‘So maybe we still leave footprints, just that they’re now harder to keep track of.

‘One big impact may be with reducing the need to commute or drive to work which will reduce traffic on our roads and reduce the need for building more highways and the loss of green spaces.’

Source:  The Star on July 6, 2010
Author:  Allan Koay