Automattic, the company that developed the WordPress blogging service, is among many businesses that have adopted virtual offices. What follows are some of the reasons companies give for going virtual—and why it's both an opportunity and a challenge for their workers.

Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Automattic, the company that developed the WordPress blogging service, is among many businesses that have adopted virtual offices. What follows are some of the reasons companies give for going virtual—and why it's both an opportunity and a challenge for their workers.

Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

The Tools and Trials of the Expanding Virtual Office

Going Virtual
Going Virtual

Automattic, the company that developed the WordPress blogging service, is among many businesses that have adopted virtual offices. What follows are some of the reasons companies give for going virtual—and why it's both an opportunity and a challenge for their workers.

Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Government Joins In
Government Joins In

Telecommuting is growing quickly. By 2016, 63 million U.S. information workers will telecommute at least part-time, according to Forrester, the technology consulting company. After a snowstorm shut down the federal government in 2010, Congress passed the Telework Enhancement Act to make sure that federal employees could work remotely in emergencies.

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Spreading the Work
Spreading the Work

Working remotely has its benefits. Ninety-two percent of mobile workers—people who log into their corporate network from a laptop or mobile device—said that flexibility is the best thing about their status, according to a 2012 survey by iPass, which helps customers with the technology required for a mobile workforce. Among the benefits of virtual offices that executives cite is the ability to recruit employees who live anywhere in the world.

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Time Challenged
Time Challenged

But being a mobile worker also has downsides. In listing the drawbacks, 22 percent of respondents in the iPass survey cited the lack of interaction with colleagues. If employees happen to be on different continents, scheduling virtual meetings can get complicated because of the time zone differences.

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Tech Leaders
Tech Leaders
Working away from the office, at least occasionally, is the norm among information workers. Sixty-two percent of them said they worked from multiple locations during the month, according to a 2011 Forrester survey.
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Virtual Help Wanted
Virtual Help Wanted

Virtual assistants who handle clerical duties, usually from home, are a growing part of the virtual workforce. Growth in the use of virtual assistants is difficult to quantify. But listings on oDesk, an online job board for remote workers, offer a clue. The number of postings in the category is expected to surpass 25,000 in 2012, up 10-fold over the past five years, according to oDesk.

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Virtual Tools
Virtual Tools

Video conferencing is an important tool for employees who work out of the office. Skype is used by 69 percent of mobile workers to collaborate with colleagues, while 29 percent use Apple's (AAPL) FaceTime, according to the iPass survey.

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Sharing
Sharing
Instant messaging, wikis, and meeting summaries also play an important role in sharing information in a virtual office.
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No Commute
No Commute
Virtual workers often cite the advantages of not having to commute to the office, avoiding copious meetings, and having greater flexibility in managing their time.
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Management Challenges
Management Challenges

Many managers have a negative view of working from home, with 41 percent saying that it hurts career advancement, according to a survey last year by Forrester, the technology consulting company. Managers of virtual workers must take extra steps to make sure their employees remain productive, such as tracking individual contributions to software coding projects.

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Saving on Real Estate
Saving on Real Estate

Companies that adopt a virtual workplace can save on real estate costs by downsizing their offices or eliminating them completely. JetBlue's (JBLU) customer service representatives work from home while their colleagues work from the office or airport.

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No Face Time
No Face Time
Telecommuting has its downsides. Some virtual workers say they get lonely working at home and feel they are at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving promotions.
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Shut-Ins
Shut-Ins

Another downside is the difficulty in building personal relationships with colleagues and bosses, an often overlooked but important factor inside offices. There's no going out for beers after work or schmoozing on the golf course. Nor are there impromptu discussions in areas of traditional offices where ideas often get hashed out, such as the water cooler, coffee room, or hallway.

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Virtual Work, Real Meetings
Virtual Work, Real Meetings
To create a more cohesive team, companies with large numbers of virtual workers often hold annual in-person meetings for individual teams or their entire staff. The practice can be expensive because of travel costs, however.
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