Annual Meeting Reports

Is a Virtual Office Right for You?

Today’s work environment runs the gamut from a traditional office building where specific hours are mandatory to an organization that has no physical address and in which flex hours are the norm. The company or individual considering a move to a virtual environment should not assume success will automatically follow. In this session, sage advice from experienced industry leaders pro vided important information for those who are considering a virtual office (VO) for the first time or who desire to hone their existing telework policies.

To start, Sarah Tegen, of the American Chemical Society (ACS), gave an overview and demonstrated that there are many considerations to the VO discussion. On the positive side, organizations are often able to

  • Lower personnel costs by eliminating the need for office space.
  • Attract better talent by offering location flexibility.
  • Offer employees a better work–life balance by not being limited to a 9–5 workday.

However, both management and employees also need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Does either the manager or the employee (or both) crave face-to-face contact?
  • Does our organization provide the needed technical and human-resources support?
  • Is the employee motivated enough?

Charles Trowbridge, also of ACS, spoke from 12 years of experience in managing people in VO environments that spanned from California to Germany. He shared the idea that both company and individual need to consider whether they are right for a virtual environment. The consideration begins with a careful selection process and an additional focus: Does the candidate have a history of independent work? Is the candidate self-motivated and disciplined? Will the employer provide the needed information-technology support? Once the employee begins, a manager should check in regularly and irregularly and go beyond a business discussion to get a sense of how the person is handling the VO. Trowbridge also noted that if a company has a culture that is tight on control and micromanages, a VO is not a good idea, because managers and other staff will not see people regularly or have constant contact. A VO requires strong trust in both directions, a good work ethic, and the willingness to go above and beyond.

Julie Nash spoke from the vendor perspective and shared her experience at J&J Editorial, which has 40 editorial assistants and managing editors. Most are in Cary, NC, and work remotely about 3 days a week. Managers are careful to consider the employee’s and client’s personalities before making an assignment. She mentioned a few things that should be taken into account. Know your employees: are their work habits firmly in place? Know the publisher: what are its expectations? Know the editor-in-chief: what is his or her work style and attitude toward a VO environment? Nash said that it is important not to assume that all clients are the same and to adjust and change with their needs.

Kerry O’Rourke spoke from her experience with Kaufman Wills Fusting & Company–Editorial Services, which has had a VO from its inception. She said that the company performs job interviews in person to get a sense of applicants but that each person works remotely. People choose their own hours to accommodate their business and personal lives, including early morning, late night, and weekends. An online time-management tool is used to measure the hours that employees work. Each manager takes a different approach: some have a monthly call with each employee, and others expect an email at the end of each shift with a description of what the employees accomplished.

There are many models for success in a VO. If you set the right expectations at the beginning, are aware of the pitfalls, remain flexible, and exercise strong communication skills, success can be attained.