Friday, 10 January 2014

How To Setup and Successfully Run an International Virtual Office

The challenges are greater now than ever for startups and growing businesses to stay competitive, and more and more of these companies are leveraging available technology such as Virtual Offices to scale-back on cost, complexity, and liability, in order to access better economies of scale and have competitive advantage. 

Virtual Offices are a leading way in which new and growing businesses access lower costs – and this article goes in-depth to explain how you can setup and (successfully) run your own international virtual office.

Our goal is introduce you to the world of international virtual offices – how to set them up, and how to run them successfully. It’s a lot of information, so we’re going to break it down for you and approach it step-by-step.

Let’s start by discussing what a virtual office is and how it compares to a physical office.

The Virtual Office

Virtual technologies are based on computers and the Internet. Today we talk about virtual classrooms and virtual libraries. We even have virtual supermarkets and bookstores like eBay and Amazon.

In a similar way, a virtual office is an office based on computers and the Internet.
You still have people working together like in a physical office, but:

In a virtual office, people work remotely from different locations around the world while being connected by devices (computers, tablets, smartphones, VoIP phone systems, etc) and the Internet.

Advantages of a Virtual Office

Startups and growing businesses are focused on keeping costs low. This is because lower fixed and operating costs allow them to record higher profits – giving them the advantage they need to not only be competitive, but also to grow and be successful.

  •  With a virtual office, businesses avoid fixed costs like rent and maintenance because there is usually no physical building or equipment

  • Operating costs are also drastically reduced in virtual offices because of the reliance on software and hosted (cloud-based) services as opposed to actual office equipment

  • There is a leaner and more efficient operational and administrative model in a virtual office

  • Overhead costs can be avoided (such as travel or meeting costs)

  • There is greater automation of business processes as well as extensive access to performance data, analysis and reporting

Virtual offices essentially allow businesses to do away with the ‘middleman’ and focus on productivity and core work processes.

Setting up an International Virtual Office

All virtual offices are international by default because they can be accessed by people from different countries around the world (since they are based on the Internet).
How is a virtual office setup? Well, the first thing is to recall how a physical office works:
In a physical office, people come to work in a building. They have their own desks and equipment, and they have roles or job functions, which they perform for the agreed number of hours daily or as required. Employees follow laid-down administrative procedures (work hours, deadlines, reporting, meetings, etc) and there is operational hierarchy.

A virtual office is based on the same rules, but is designed differently:

  • In the first place, instead of having a building you have a collaboration platform or project management system, which is a kind of special website  that your staff can access on the Internet from anywhere in the world and work from accounts that have already been setup for them – ActiveCollab is a good example

  • The project management system will be client-facing as well as staff-facing, with full-service options for both sections

  • Each staff member can view assigned tasks and projects as well as record time, bill accordingly, or submit deliverables from their account, while clients can monitor the status of ordered projects, pay or take other actions

  • Dedicated Email is used to facilitate communication between staff, with each staff member having a dedicated email account like:

  • Email Notification Systems provide real-time updates on tasks, projects, and meetings, and are usually built into the collaboration platform or accessed as a cloud application (e.g. Google Calendar)

  • VoIP Softphones like Microsoft’s Skype and Cisco’s Webex are used for real-time meetings with full voice and multimedia support

  •  Cloud Apps are used for accounting and billing (e.g. Freshbooks), document creation, collaboration and sharing (e.g. Google Drive), online data backup (e.g. Backblaze or SugarSync), and other work functions

  •  Each staff member is expected to provide their own dedicated Internet connection, computers, and other work equipment

  • Where deliverables are non-digital and can’t be sent over the Internet (very rare), postal mail or courier mail is used, usually according to a special arrangement between the company and the provider

So, to summarize, you would need these seven things to setup your virtual office

1)      Project management platform
2)     Dedicated Email
3)     Email notification systems
4)     VoIP softphones
5)     Cloud apps
6)     Computers and devices
7)     Dedicated Internet connection

Tip: One of the best things about having a virtual office is you can set it up right at home using your existing Internet connection (Broadband and better) and your computers at home without ever buying new equipment!

With virtual offices, it’s entirely a software affair. Some of the software required can be purchased or activated online (e.g. the Project Management Platform, Skype or Webex). Others are cloud apps that are accessed as services (Software as a Service, SaaS) like Google Calendar, Freshbooks, and SugarSync.

Dedicated email can be obtained through a Google Apps account – this allows you to enjoy access to Google’s business services including Google Drive and Google Analytics at the same time.

At the end of the day, businesses gain tremendously by only having to commit a few hundred dollars annually for all of the online services they need to run their virtual office.  

How to Run Your International Virtual Office Successfully

We’ve seen how you can setup your virtual office using nothing but your home computers, Broadband Internet connection, and a set of online software.

Setting up your virtual office is only the beginning – running it successfully, like running a physical office successfully, depends on having the right business skills and the right people.

Being Tech-Savvy Helps

Like we’ve already seen, building a virtual office is a little on the technical side with the Internet and cloud apps – things you can get comfortable with if you’re willing to put in a bit more time online.

If you decide you don’t have the time to spend a couple of hours online a day getting used to these technologies, you can always get some help. Having an intern or recent college grad on your staff is always a good idea to get the hard work done affordably, or at least to get you acquainted with the technology.

Hire the Right People!

This point can’t be stressed enough – people drive business. You have to take the time to build an international team of people that are driven and talented, with the right outlook you need for your business.

In fact, qualities like honesty and reliability are more important than ever when setting up a virtual working environment – you need people you can trust and count on to get the job done.

Build Teamwork with Regular Communication

One thing you can’t afford to do without in an international virtual office is regular communication – you will typically have people working from different countries and time zones, with different things going on in their lives.

You need to touch base regularly to ensure that everyone is on the same page, and that you are aware of their particular circumstances at any time. This will provide a sense of engagement and commitment for your workers, fostering teamwork and better productivity.

Have a Great Work Strategy

Just like in a physical office, you need to have a great work strategy that makes the most of your available resources. You need to coordinate your remote staff properly to make sure that their skills are being put to the best use.

Come up with team schedules, brainstorming sessions, and even the occasional social event to keep your team motivated and engaged with your process. Organize workflow to make sure everyone is always engaged doing something – and always take care of your people!

Major Points

So there you have it – we’ve discussed how to setup and run a successful international virtual office.

Hopefully, we’ve been able to demystify the concept of a virtual office and establish the advantages for your businesses. 

  • We’ve learned that a virtual office is simply an office based on the Internet and computers, as opposed to a physical office with a building and equipment

  • We’ve also seen the advantages of virtual offices including lower fixed and operating costs, more scalability, and greater automation

  • We covered the seven things required to setup an international virtual office, and we mentioned: project management platform, dedicated Email, Email notification systems, VoIP softphones, cloud apps, computers and devices, and a dedicated Internet connection (Broadband or better)

  • We also gave some advice on specific software you might need when setting up your virtual office such as ActiveCollab for project management, Google Calendar for notifications, Skype or Webex for meetings, Google Drive for documents and collaboration, Freshbooks for accounting and billing, and SugarSync for online backup

  • Finally, we gave some advice on how to successfully run your virtual office using time-tested principles like hiring right, building teamwork and regular communication, and having a great all-inclusive work strategy

We hope you have enjoyed reading this article and that you have found it beneficial. 

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