The New Virtual Office

The New Virtual Office

This article was first published on 8 May 2020 in Business Times

The New Virtual Office
John Bitteston, Terrific Mentors International

If you didn’t actually clock in at the office you were certainly checked in by the boss or one of his lieutenants. Beady eyes observed your arrival time, your journeys to and from the drinks cooler, your time out in the restroom, any gossiping you did, your lunch break and finally your departure time at the end of the day. Slip a bit on the expectations and there would be suggestive comments and possibly recriminations. Presence at work has always been seen as evidence of diligence.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Just as attendance at school indicates little about learning and attendance at a medical clinic, even less about health, so attendance at the office tells you nothing about the profitability or sustainability of the business. This will apply also at the New Virtual Office. But now, management of your workday will be yours. Your boss won’t be able to check up on your attendance nor will they try if they are sensible. You will know what you have to do, and by when. How you get it done is up to you.

Improve your time discipline
Your time discipline will certainly have to improve. Your meetings will be by Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp or one of the other internet media – and several people will be joining them. Tardy timekeeping will anger other participants. Meetings will have to start and end promptly if they are to be tolerable. A clear signal when you want to speak will be necessary. Wafflers are in for a lot of stick if they go on for too long. Agendas will have to be tighter and more specific.

Meetings always involve some information, some opinions and some orders. They will have to be structured more strictly along these lines if the balance between the three parts is to be intelligently maintained. Planning meetings in future will require more than an agenda with AOB at the end of it. Items will have to be time-allocated. Any virtual meeting that runs for more than ninety minutes will lose participants totally. Indeed, an hour is a long ‘virtual’. People won’t pay attention to this at first, thinking that they know how to run a virtual meeting. The truth will emerge.

The physical office won’t disappear but your exclusive niche in it will. It may already have done so. You will have space at a desk or table when you are in. It may be shared by other companies when you are not. If fortunate you will get a secure locker and / or filing cabinet for physical files and bits. Don’t depend on them to harbour anything of great value. They will be raided sooner or later. And don’t expect the home comforts of tea and coffee to be so easily available – at least not until there has been a vociferous demand for such service.

Review the rules
Review your system of authorising all but the biggest deals. Paperwork will have disappeared except for specific contracts and commitments. Copied replies to requests are sound enough for most small and medium transaction authorisations. Banks will be subject to more stringent rules than this, but exception reporting is now a well-established feature of the finance world. Time spent in physical handling of business paper is ripe for saving.

Rules about caring for suppliers will still be vital, as they always have been. Now, however, you must look at how your suppliers handled you during the pandemic. If their treatment was first class just check their vulnerability in case another disruption comes along. If necessary get yourself backup suppliers. But remember, your main supplier is your best supplier, as valuable as any client. Learn more about their financial and technical stability.

Put in place small, flexible, creative teams
Study your production teams, and that includes office as well as factory production. We have learnt a lesson from the pandemic – small teams are better than large ones. When you can make a decision about team size choose little over big. How these teams work is also changing. There will always be a need for several skills in a team and different skills tend to have different personalities associated with them. It has become clear, however, that agility is a requirement of today’s teams. That is both generally true and a certain requirement while business recovers from the pandemic.

An agile team has a level of intellectual and personality compatibility often missing from highly diverse teams. There is therefore a need to have small, flexible, creative teams adroit at handling changing data because they work instinctively well together. The need for this sort of team will, I think, extend beyond the recovery from the pandemic, though forecasting the needs that far ahead is a high risk business. Agility will still be important twenty years from now.

The way forward
Are we going to abandon group meetings in favour of virtual get-togethers? Certainly not. We are social animals with a long history of making judgments by looking the other person in the eye. Our need to congregate is something the lockdowns of the pandemic have made very clear. Physical contact is also something we are mostly used to. We miss a handshake or hug. Getting out and about is a treat we notice painfully by its absence. Virtual networking is not half as much fun as bumping into strangers. A virtual kindred spirit seems somehow to lack the lustre of a real one.

The New Virtual Office will have the occasional day of meeting up. It will be all the more exciting for being rare. But our daily bread will be increasingly earned on the internet.

We have to learn to enjoy that, too.