What Makes a Virtual Office Work


 

 

It was not a smooth start for Heather Fitzpatrick when she opened the virtual doors of her marketing firm, MarketFitz, back in 1998. She wanted to build a staff of people who worked out of their own homes. It would encourage them, she figured, to leave their desks and go “connect with the community.”

But in those days, Fitzpatrick recalls, the technology available to help bind a geographically dispersed group — such as a phone system that provides everyone with the same three-digit exchange or a common internet domain for email addresses — was hard to come by, especially for a small firm. Meanwhile, potential clients wondered if MarketFitz was really a team. “We tried to assure people by talking about our how this was cutting edge,” she says. But even after the firm won some awards for the progressive arrangement, clients couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the idea. “I used to get a lot of questions like, ‘How do you know people are working?'” says Fitzpatrick, who eventually grew the business to around 100 employees before deciding to scale back and focus on market research. In retrospect, she says, “I wish we hadn’t talked about it as much because it compounded the problem. It made people question even more.”

Today, companies are less hesitant about highlighting their virtual virtues — but it took some 30 years for the “virtual office” to gain respectability, as both technology and conventional wisdom finally caught up to the concept. A whole host of web-based communications and project sharing tools have emerged to streamline the practical side of managing such an operation. And the economic benefits have become increasingly clear-cut: “You save money. Productivity goes up. And it’s easier to recruit people,” says management consultant Jack Nilles, who actually coined the term “telecommuting,” the predecessor to “virtual office,” in 1974.

But for all the advances in communications, consultants and business owners say that technology isn’t the hard part about building an effective virtual company. It cannot, after all, create a company culture, keep employees engaged and pulling in the same direction, or even ensure that employees are doing their job. Technology is not, in other words, a substitute for management. What’s more, traditional management techniques need to be adapted to a virtual office environment.

Choosing the Right Technology — Or None
One of the most important factors, says Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant based in Monmouth Junction, N.J., is knowing what communications technologies to use when — and when to avoid it altogether. The options range from conventional e-mail to online project sharing software to extremely lifelike video conferencing systems known as “telepresence.” But they shouldn’t be used interchangeably.The trick, says Gordon, is to pick the right medium for the message. If the conversation is straightforward — say a meeting to iron out the details of a product launch — then a telephone or web conference will suffice. But when the stakes are higher and emotions may come into play, he says, “there’s no substitute for getting people around the table.”

In fact, Gordon recommends to clients that virtual companies be systematic about scheduling real face time — a semi-annual meeting followed by a company picnic, say — to solidify both professional and personal ties between employees. Rick Galbreath, a human resources consultant who runs his seven-employee virtual company, Performance Growth Partners from his home in Bloomington, Illinois, agrees that “you have to schedule friendship,” so he plans getaways a couple times a year that are purely social, in addition to quarterly business gatherings.

Measuring Productivity From Afar
One of the biggest hurdles faced by managers of remote employees is a nagging worry that their employees aren’t working, or at least not working hard. The first step, of course, is to hire people who can thrive in an unstructured environment. Hiring managers have to judge from work history and preferences whether a prospective employee can be self-sufficient and self-motivating.

Then it’s a matter of setting clear expectations and systematically following up to reaffirm them. At Gurnet Consulting, an IT project management firm, founder Marty King believes the best way to monitor the productivity of his 30 employees, mostly scattered around New England, is to have them broadcast it. Employees post brief but regular updates on their work to Yammer, an internal social network, while project managers post regular status reports that are available for all to see. And once a week, a manager is tapped to present a webinar on his project to the whole consulting staff. “We’re really into enterprise social networking, and using these tools to really pull the collective intelligence of the office together,” King says.

Creating Corporate Culture — Without A Water Cooler
Gurnet also attempted to fill the function of the water cooler with Yammer, complete with profile pages, status updates and discussions. The network mixes the personal and the professional. “I’ve posted pictures from my 4th of July, and people post industry-related content that really helps the business,” says King. “If an employee has a challenge, they can post a question on it on the enterprise s network, and the whole group can work on it.”

Galbreath, the consultant who runs a virtual company, argues that virtual companies may actually have an advantage when it comes to measuring productivity. “In an office environment, we kid ourselves that someone looks busy working over there, but you don’t really know what they’re doing,” he says. “But when you’re at a distance, the conversations are much more candid about what you’re doing and what the result expectations are. That’s the only thing there is to talk about.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2094921_2094923_2101557,00.html #ixzz1iDZ4jg9z

Best Blogs of 2010


Why the Internet Isn’t Making Us Stupid | V.I.A read! ;)

Nick Bilton lives in the future. But he knows the rest of us aren’t there yet, so he offers up I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works — a book from his world on what we all might be in store for down the road. It’s a world The New York Times reporter and lead Bits blogger inhabits so fully it has gotten him in trouble at work (when he admitted publicly in 2009 that he doesn’t read the print edition of the newspaper) and into public spats, defending Twitter’s honor against New Yorker writer, George Packer. Bilton talks to TIME about what the media industry can learn from the porn industry, why you should let your kids play video games and why the Internet isn’t making us dumb.

Your book is called I Live in the Future…, so why print a paper book?
These analog models — they still work, for the most part. The perfect example of that is the fact that The New York Times sells a million copies of the print paper every day. So when I thought about what the best way was to get my message across a book format was the best way to do that. But I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a book — that it was a fully interactive experience — on nickbilton.com you can watch videos that I’ve created, you can comment on chapters, things like that.

You provide a lot of counter-arguments to those things people always say about the Internet and technology. For one, why should you let your kids play video games?
They are incredibly good for our brains. They increase hand-eye coordination, they increase working memory, kids that play video games in a balanced way perform better on certain test scores. And to tell kids that they cannot have access to these technologies is essentially like telling a kid that they couldn’t read a book when the printing press came out. Not giving kids access to this stuff is going to hurt them in the long run.

That was quite a kerfuffle between you and George Packer [of the New Yorker] over Twitter. What are the takeaways?
This happened at the time when everyone was still defending Twitter or lambasting it. When I first started engaging with Packer I was a bit abrasive. I was fed up with the ‘Twitter is a waste of time’ line because it’s the complete opposite for many of us who use it. What happened after, as we started to discuss online, I came to understand completely where he was coming from. He was coming from a place where he is comfortable with his newspaper, the quiet car on the train, all of these things, and the idea of those things being taken away just didn’t make him feel good. What I really tried to do with that chapter in my book was to try and explain that, if you use it in the right way, Twitter can actually be extremely beneficial to the way you navigate content on the web. It’s understandable that people are afraid of it because it’s new, it’s different and it looks like this uncontrolled anarchy is taking place, but in reality it’s actually extremely useful.

You say you use Twitter as your own personal newspaper?


Nick Bilton lives in the future. But he knows the rest of us aren’t there yet, so he offers up I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works — a book from his world on what we all might be in store for down the road. It’s a world The New York Times reporter and lead Bits blogger inhabits so fully it has gotten him in trouble at work (when he admitted publicly in 2009 that he doesn’t read the print edition of the newspaper) and into public spats, defending Twitter‘s honor against New Yorker writer, George Packer. Bilton talks to TIME about what the media industry can learn from the porn industry, why you should let your kids play video games and why the Internet isn’t making us dumb.

Your book is called I Live in the Future…, so why print a paper book?
These analog models — they still work, for the most part. The perfect example of that is the fact that The New York Times sells a million copies of the print paper every day. So when I thought about what the best way was to get my message across a book format was the best way to do that. But I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a book — that it was a fully interactive experience — on nickbilton.com you can watch videos that I’ve created, you can comment on chapters, things like that.

You provide a lot of counter-arguments to those things people always say about the Internet and technology. For one, why should you let your kids play video games?
They are incredibly good for our brains. They increase hand-eye coordination, they increase working memory, kids that play video games in a balanced way perform better on certain test scores. And to tell kids that they cannot have access to these technologies is essentially like telling a kid that they couldn’t read a book when the printing press came out. Not giving kids access to this stuff is going to hurt them in the long run.

That was quite a kerfuffle between you and George Packer [of the New Yorker] over Twitter. What are the takeaways?
This happened at the time when everyone was still defending Twitter or lambasting it. When I first started engaging with Packer I was a bit abrasive. I was fed up with the ‘Twitter is a waste of time’ line because it’s the complete opposite for many of us who use it. What happened after, as we started to discuss online, I came to understand completely where he was coming from. He was coming from a place where he is comfortable with his newspaper, the quiet car on the train, all of these things, and the idea of those things being taken away just didn’t make him feel good. What I really tried to do with that chapter in my book was to try and explain that, if you use it in the right way, Twitter can actually be extremely beneficial to the way you navigate content on the web. It’s understandable that people are afraid of it because it’s new, it’s different and it looks like this uncontrolled anarchy is taking place, but in reality it’s actually extremely useful.

You say you use Twitter as your own personal newspaper? Leer más “Why the Internet Isn’t Making Us Stupid | V.I.A read! ;)”

Finally, a 21st Century Browser from Microsoft

For the first time, Internet Explorer now sports cutting-edge support for HTML5, the collection of emerging standards that permit sites to deliver slicker graphics and typography, richer interfaces that feel more like traditional software and video that doesn’t require a plug-in such as Adobe Flash. Like an eye-popping 3-D game, the software takes full advantage of your PC’s graphics hardware, enabling glitzy animation at high speeds. (See pictures of vintage computers.)

This browser is so on top of next-generation Web technologies, in fact, that it has zipped ahead of most of the Web itself. For now, the most impressive evidence of its capabilities are demos that Microsoft and its partners have ginned up. But when better sites are built, IE9 will be ready.

Not being ready for the new Web wasn’t really an option for Microsoft. Research firm Net Applications says that Internet Explorer retains 60% of the browser market, but it long ago lost the confidence and attention of most of the people who care enough about browsers to make a considered choice. (On my site, Technologizer, it’s only the third most popular browser — Firefox and Chrome are No. 1 and No. 2.) IE9 is the first version in eons that gives browser enthusiasts something to be enthusiastic about.

Still, I don’t see Internet Explorer ever again crushing the competition like it once did. Too many excellent options are just a free download away: Firefox, Chrome, Apple’s Safari (available for Windows as well as Macs) and Norwegian underdog Opera. I also like Flock, which is based on the same underpinnings as Chrome, but with built-in features relating to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of online socializing. (See the best social-networking applications.)


By Harry McCracken | //time.com

Like many of us, Microsoft does its best work when it’s running scared. Back in the mid-1990s, when Bill Gates & Co. thought that pioneering Web browser Netscape Navigator posed an existential threat to Windows, they responded by bundling their own new browser, Internet Explorer, with Windows 95. That led to the little legal kerfuffle known as United States v. Microsoft. But the truth is that Internet Explorer got so good so quickly that things would have been dicey for Netscape no matter what.

Microsoft’s share of the browser market passed 90% early in this century. With Netscape vanquished, the Internet Explorer team went into hibernation, ignoring the software until it was an embarrassing, archaic mess. Even versions 7 and 8 — released after an army of volunteer geeks resuscitated Navigator as Firefox in 2004 and began chipping away at Explorer’s monopoly — weren’t exactly scintillating. (See the 50 best websites of 2010.)

Last week, Microsoft unveiled the first beta release of Internet Explorer 9, or IE9 for short. It’s easily the most impressive browser upgrade to hail from Redmond, Wash., since the original skirmishes with Netscape. And I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that it’s the first one the company has hatched since its scariest current competitor, Google, got into the browser business by launching Chrome two years ago this month.

As beta software, IE9 is by definition a somewhat glitchy work in progress. Past Internet Explorer upgrade schedules suggest that the final version will show up sometime in 2011. If you’re curious — and not overly cautious — go ahead and download the beta here.

(One new Internet Explorer feature shuts out a sizable percentage of its potential user base: it now works only with Windows 7 and Windows Vista. Sorry, XP holdouts — Microsoft isn’t about to reward you for refusing to upgrade your nine-year-old operating system.) Leer más “Finally, a 21st Century Browser from Microsoft”

50 Best Websites 2010


How Much Money Do We Need to Be Happy? Just $75,000?

People say money doesn’t buy happiness. Except, according to a new study from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, it sort of does — up to about $75,000 a year. The lower a person’s income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness.

But before employers rush to hold — or raise — everyone’s salary to $75,000, the study points out that there are actually two types of happiness. There’s your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you’re stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there’s the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75K cutoff doesn’t seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people’s Robbins-like life satisfaction. In other words, the more people make above $75K, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole. But it doesn’t make them any more jovial in the mornings.

The study, by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has won a Nobel prize in economics, analyzed the responses of 450,000 Americans polled by Gallup and Healthways in 2008 and 2009. Participants were asked how they had felt the previous day and whether they were living the best possible life for them. They were also asked about their income.


Priscilla Gragg / Blend Images / Corbis

People say money doesn’t buy happiness. Except, according to a new study from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, it sort of does — up to about $75,000 a year. The lower a person’s income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness.

But before employers rush to hold — or raise — everyone’s salary to $75,000, the study points out that there are actually two types of happiness. There’s your changeable, day-to-day mood: whether you’re stressed or blue or feeling emotionally sound. Then there’s the deeper satisfaction you feel about the way your life is going — the kind of thing Tony Robbins tries to teach you. While having an income above the magic $75K cutoff doesn’t seem to have an impact on the former (emotional well-being), it definitely improves people’s Robbins-like life satisfaction. In other words, the more people make above $75K, the more they feel their life is working out on the whole. But it doesn’t make them any more jovial in the mornings.

The study, by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has won a Nobel prize in economics, analyzed the responses of 450,000 Americans polled by Gallup and Healthways in 2008 and 2009. Participants were asked how they had felt the previous day and whether they were living the best possible life for them. They were also asked about their income. Leer más “How Much Money Do We Need to Be Happy? Just $75,000?”

Can the Brazilians Rescue Burger King?

“I’ve been to this movie a few times.” Such was the response of one prominent Burger King franchisee, when asked his reaction to the $4 billion leveraged buyout that will take the country’s no. 2 hamburger chain private for the second time in the past decade. In 2002, investment firms TPG Capital, Bain Capital, and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners bought Burger King from Diageo, the U.K.-based spirits maker, for $1.5 billion. The company tapped the public markets in 2006, but now 3G Capital Management, a New York investment firm backed by prominent Brazilian businessmen, has agreed to acquire the chain for $24 a share, a 46% premium on Burger King’s August 31 closing price.

To this skeptical franchisee, these ownership shuffles threaten to mask the more crucial issues facing the company: lousy sales — down 1.4% for the fiscal year ending on June 30, lousy profits down 6.6% during the period and lousy relations between the company and its franchisees last November, the local owners sued Burger King over its insistence that franchises sell Double Cheeseburgers for just $1.


A meal at a Burger King restaurant.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

“I’ve been to this movie a few times.” Such was the response of one prominent Burger King franchisee, when asked his reaction to the $4 billion leveraged buyout that will take the country’s no. 2 hamburger chain private for the second time in the past decade. In 2002, investment firms TPG Capital, Bain Capital, and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners bought Burger King from Diageo, the U.K.-based spirits maker, for $1.5 billion. The company tapped the public markets in 2006, but now 3G Capital Management, a New York investment firm backed by prominent Brazilian businessmen, has agreed to acquire the chain for $24 a share, a 46% premium on Burger King’s August 31 closing price.

To this skeptical franchisee, these ownership shuffles threaten to mask the more crucial issues facing the company: lousy sales — down 1.4% for the fiscal year ending on June 30, lousy profits down 6.6% during the period and lousy relations between the company and its franchisees last November, the local owners sued Burger King over its insistence that franchises sell Double Cheeseburgers for just $1. Leer más “Can the Brazilians Rescue Burger King?”