I work at a virtual office. What this means in a nutshell is that my employer doesn’t have a an office for me; I work at home. It has never crossed my mind that working in this environment anyone would view me less of a professional. Yet this week at meeting of folks, who I consider professionals in their fields, voiced over and over that employees who worked in virtual offices were less professional than those who were required to show up at an office daily. It really got my dander up.
Working virtually is not for all positions, nor all employees. In fact it takes an exceptional kind of person to go virtual. Virtual employees must be extremely self-driven and disciplined. They must understand their organization’s mission and how their job relates to that mission. They must not be afraid of being held fully accountable for their time, and transparent in their activities. No need for micromanagement. Good virtual employees support a kind of invisible almost automatic supervision that happens between them and their managers without effort.
Many of these folks who were critical of virtual employees work for government and university employers, with huge overhead and infrastructure. Virtual employees don’t eliminate all of this, but they do eliminate the the need for a unmanageable piece of overhead, the cost of a building. You pay for the building 365 days a year. Every office has lights, heat, cooling, cleaning and more that all cost money…you get the idea. Not all employees can work from home, but I would argue that many more employees could work from home than do, but it would mean that some supervisors and managers would need to let go of their iron grip of constant oversight. In my case the elimination of the overhead associated with a building allows the non-profit I work for to direct more money to programs that people want.
Elimination of a building does not eliminate an office. I have an office filled with office furniture purchased at a surplus auction…a desk…file cabinets…phone…computer. My circa 1950’s desk has piles of work on it and post-its are on my computer to remind me of things yet to do. It looks like so many other people’s work space, though I can tell you I am not likely to be wasting money upgrading my office because someone decides it looks dated. My office look is not competing with another company, department or agency. Functionality is all that counts in the home office.
The use of virtual employees also allows organizations to widen the pool of candidates when looking for a employee. In places like California, Washington, NYC and DC there are millions of people to choose from, all within commuting distance. In Montana we still don’t have a million people. As a result many times qualified employees are geographically unfit for a job. Many employers settle when they try to fill skilled positions. The use of virtual employees allows for better matches and more productivity for the company or organization. I worked for Fortune 500 companies for 18 years and without the benefit of a virtual position, I would be existing at a job, instead of having a career that makes a difference.
I think what I got my dander up about this attitude towards virtual employees as this week, is that I was very sick. If I had been a traditional employee, I would have been force to stay home. Work would have piled up; 100% productivity loss. Instead I was able to check my email two or three times daily, to prevent backups. As I started to improve, I was able to spend an hour here and there working a little, and not contaminate my co-workers with my nasty virus. A huge benefit to my organization, but not possible with traditional employees.
Though I work virtually 90% of the time, I am called to make appearances in person. Sometimes I put on a business suit other times a pair of jeans will do. I still have to pull out those skills I honed in business meetings the first 18 years of my career in the city, communication, organization, team player, professional demeanor, and consensus building.
Business is all about supporting the mission. Business is business no matter the big city or rural. If employees all head to the same building or an office at home it is still business; traditional or virtual. Contrary to apparent popular belief employees who work from home are not professionals, virtual employees are very special employees. Virtual employees are professionals who are driven, self-starters, highly skilled, and highly committed to their employer’s mission. If you think that showing up at an office building makes you more special that those of us whose office behind a closed-door in their home, you are deluding yourself