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The traditional office is set for dramatic paradigm shifts in the next 3 to 5 years as spiraling oil and energy costs force business to re-look at how they deploy their workforce in a virtual world.  Although the virtual office and hot-desking have been around for some time, particularly in Europe and the United States, these shifts in business delivery will take deeper root in South Africa, as technologies advance and become more accessible.  It is true that Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo recently cancelled all remote working within Yahoo, that doesn’t make the practice a bad strategy however.

The premise of the virtual office or virtual workforce is fairly simple but may be difficult to comprehend for traditionalists who believe that time, effort and control are the means of getting the most out of their workforce.  A virtual office leverages technology to create an extension of the physical office completely invisible to the customer.  Typically staff will work from a home office and authenticate via the internet with office devices, creating a virtual environment.  Although die-hard old-school managers may cringe at the thought, these shifts will be part of the norm in the future office.

Many will ask the question, why bother?  Surely the lack of control over employees far outweighs any benefits?  In reality, however as business continues to tackle the problems created by finite resource, this model will become a necessity.  A virtual workforce decreases carbon emissions by reducing travel and energy. Associated benefits include space reduction and lower running costs as well as an efficient and happier workforce.  Although drawbacks do exist in the form of management control and the lack of interaction with colleagues, these can be overcome.  Hot-desking (coming into the office and using a shared desk) at least once a week and  adopting outcomes based measurement systems (rather than those based on time or effort) are ways of overcoming virtual barriers.

The technology required in the virtual office is all available today and at heart relies upon a cost effective and efficient networking infrastructure.  The basic building blocks of the virtual office are as follows:

  • VOIP (voice over internet protocol): VOIP allows employees to log into their office extension through the internet and become an active extension on the office PBX.  Any incoming calls for the employee are routed via the internet to your employee seamlessly and without the knowledge of your customer.  External calls use the data infrastructure so there are no additional telephone costs.
  • Secure data exchange: This is facilitated through the creation of VPN’s (Virtual Private Networks). Data is encrypted between your user and the office, ensuring valuable business information is not exposed.
  • E-mail: E-mail infrastructures remain unchanged and these are well established technologies with which most are very comfortable.
  • Virtual data management: Further virtualization of the office can take the form of virtual servers, virtual storage and backup, using internet infrastructure that is procured as a service rather than having the physical machines in your own office.  This takes the headache out of managing infrastructure and provides further cost savings and efficiency in the business.

Already in the United States, the desire to look at new business models to reduce carbon emissions are taking on other traditional boundaries. The state of Utah has piloted a 4 day working-week for example.  Workers are required to work 10 hours for 4 days of the week and by shutting down 1,000 buildings statewide on Fridays, an estimated 3,000 metric tons in carbon emissions are cut.  This concept is also being investigated by a state school district in the state of Virginia in an effort to cut energy costs.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet to reducing carbon emissions and business must begin to adapt with exigency. In a recent publication by the London School of Economics, Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change, Nicholas Stern sets out the requirement that the average per capita emissions of COneed to reduce to no more than 2 tons by 2050 to ensure a leveling off of carbon emissions – this against a current average of 7 tons with the population of China averaging 5 tons per capita and increasing rapidly.

Adaption however brings challenges and requires innovative business models, pioneering leadership and organisations to embrace change.  It remains to be seen whether the South African enterprise can rise to this challenge and take up the virtual office as an operational model.  What is clear, is that the virtual workforce does offer business the opportunity of cost, energy and COreductions and in reality, with outcomes based measurement systems and an empowered workforce, the benefits to business and society at large dictate that soon this will be the norm rather than the exception.

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