To explore the things you’d need to take into account, I’ll use Desktop Solutions, a small web consulting firm I work with of about five employees, as a case study. Here are the many needs that we considered, and that you’ll want to mull over, if you’re thinking about going virtual:
Time tracking. When it comes to documenting your team’s hours for administrative and billing purposes, there are plenty of time tracking systems with a wide array of features available online. I recommend Harvest and Freckle – both are robust, well-designed, and reasonably priced.
also has a great rundown of online time trackers that range from free to reasonably-priced.
Project management. Keeping track of tasks, deadlines, and dependencies is crucial, and online project management is a big space with many options. You should budget significant time for investigating and testing as many of these services as possible to determine what best matches your business processes.
Phone system. Before going virtual, we had a dedicated phone line that clients could use to call us directly. To decentralize our office, we had to come up with a new solution. We did some research and signed up for a "virtual PBX" service, which sets up phone extensions that forward to your individual home phone lines. We chose Aptela, because it was affordable and gave us the options we needed, but there are a number of alternatives.
VPN. We bought special Linksys VPN routers to give us secure and easy-to-maintain access to our internal servers and shared files from our homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the setup required some substantial technical knowledge, so I’d suggest speaking with your IT director (or a freelance technical guru) to evaluate how best to affect this change.
Chat. To allow for real-time communication amongst the team, we signed everyone up for a chat service. We selected MSN Messenger because it has dependable group chat features, but most other chat services would work just as well. One of the things I liked about using MSN, however, was that it’s completely separate from the other chat services I use for personal correspondence – so there was no risk of the worlds overlapping.
Screen sharing. Screen sharing has been a huge part of what made it possible for us to go virtual. It allowed us to easily simulate looking over each others’ shoulders while collaborating on a project, as well as easily show a client what we’re working on without being in the same room together. We use GoToMeeting for walking clients through product demos and for collaborating on projects internally.
Mailing address. To handle mail, we chose HQ.com, which offers virtual office packages that include mail services and conference room space. One of our employees regularly drops into the local storefront to pick up mail.
Physical file & paper storage. Our company’s president built out a home office in his basement, and set up file storage for paper documents. Since we use very little physical paper, this is a simple and sufficient solution for us.
Three years later, we're still virtual and running more efficiently than ever, all while working from our respective homes, coworking spaces, or wherever we prefer.
Transitioning to virtual was relatively easy for us because so much of our critical management infrastructure was already online, but every company's situation is different. By evaluating every interaction and business process, and then identifying which ones needed new solutions, we were able to narrow down the changes necessary to go virtual to a manageable number. If you run through this exercise as well, you’ll be able to quickly isolate the sticking points and determine whether virtualization is feasible for you.
This article is adapted from the research and writing of Tony Bacigalupo, founder of New Work City, a co-working space in New York City. Tony’s fieldwork feeds into the knowledgebase of the Behance Team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develop knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.