There’s no question that this pandemic is a big challenge, possibly the greatest challenge humanity has faced since the last war, as it kills thousands and shuts down the economy of the entire world. It presents an incredible health issue, but also forces workers to find a way to stay productive from home. Until the situation ends, things will be hard, but I also believe there is a silver lining to it. Some of the changes that were forced on us will end up changing how we work and how we live for a long time to come.
One such change is the push for remote work. I’ve always thought that remote work makes a lot of sense in many industries, especially in tech, and in the past decade a lot more companies have embraced it. However many more remained stubborn, preferring to micro-manage employees even if it makes no sense financially to pay for large offices when the same work can be done from home. Now that these companies have no choice but to allow remote work, I think we’ll see a lot of them embracing it afterward.
Of course, in order to facilitate employees working from outside the office, you need a virtual office to keep everyone connected. Here I’ll go over a few popular options for any startup or freelancer looking at setting up the perfect virtual office.
For a productivity suite, it’s really easy. Everyone already uses either Microsoft Office or Google Docs. It’s very rare to see something different, and while MS Office has traditionally been delivered on physical media, the company has been pushing Office 365 for a while now. And of course, Google Docs is already 100% cloud-based. This means that you can remotely distribute the software, and control the settings and behaviors online through the web administration portal. This includes things like licensing, who has access to which products, malware protection, mobile device management, email and so on.
Because both options have a business offering, they can both accommodate pretty much every need that companies may have virtually, in the same way that traditional offices have done it in the past. The cost is also very comparable, with a per-user payment system.
Email is typically paired with the productivity suite you pick, so Live Mail for Office 365, and Gmail for Google Docs. It makes a lot of sense to stick to the same offering, because there’s so much integration done between the various products. For example, if you use Google, then someone can send you a link to a Google Spreadsheet in an email, and Gmail will automatically recognize it. You can also share a document to a specific colleague by using their name, and an email invitation will be sent automatically. Stuff like that is very powerful and helps productivity.
But communication is not just email. One big drawback of a virtual office is the lack of physical contact. A lot of time is spent in an office where people are at the cafeteria, around the coffee machine or the water fountain, talking about work or other things. Having real time communication is important, and for intra-office chat you need an instant messaging system. The most popular option by far on this end is Slack, which is used by most companies out there. If you don’t want to use a hosted solution, there’s also a self-hosted version called Mattermost. You could also use Discord, which is a free service mostly used by gamers, but many startups use it because of the fact that it’s very easy to use and free.
For client communication, or any time you want to speak to people face to face, you need a video conferencing solution. There are many popular options here. Both Google and Microsoft have their own offerings, Hangout and Skype, and they of course integrate with the rest of their products. But there are other options out there such as Zoom and WebEx.
No real office means nowhere to host a physical server. Running your own Active Directory Windows Server, for example, is still a core part of a corporate IT infrastructure to this day, but not every company has one. In fact, I’m convinced that this will go away in time. However, there is still a need to have a centralized users directory, along with other servers such as databases, web sites and so on.
The three popular options here are Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and Google Cloud. Both Azure and AWS have very similar features and services, while Google is a big behind the curve in my opinion. Regardless of which you pick, it’s a good idea to stick to one service, since there are so many ways to integrate things together, from users to virtual machines, security, firewalls and so on.
It may not seem obvious, but a virtual office needs a robust HR system just like a regular office, a place where employees can see their benefits, upcoming vacation days, take sick leave, track hardware assigned to them, and enter their worked hours in a timesheet. A popular solution here is BambooHR. There are of course other options, but regardless of which one you pick, you need to make sure it will integrate with your payment system.
One last item to consider is a single sign-on solution. If you centralized your services on a single provider, like everyone using nothing but Microsoft or Google services, having them log into the respective portal may not be a big deal. But the reality is that most companies end up using a lot of different services. You really don’t want people to have to log into Slack, Gmail, BambooHR, and Office 365 every single morning when they start their shift. This is why a single sign-on service like Okta is useful. It provides a single web site where people can sign in once, and then a list of all their web applications are listed. They can click on any of them, and they will be logged into that specific service automatically.
A properly setup virtual office is a great thing, because it allows people to be highly productive, work from wherever they want, and reduce costs by eliminating the need for a physical office. It’s a win-win for both the employer and the employee, and hopefully will become the norm as we come out of the pandemic.