Object Services and Consulting, Inc. (OBJS) is structured
as a virtual office. At present it
has eight full-time employees and a ¾-time office manager spread
across six geographic regions of the U.S. and is executing two R&D
software contracts and providing some external consulting. There is no
central work location and employees report to work from their home offices.
The first version of this paper was written when
we were making the decision to adopt a virtual office. So most of the paper
is written from the perspective of the company in its early months when
we were collecting together thoughts, justifications, risks, costs,
and other considerations that were considered in choosing this non-traditional
path. The current version of this paper has been annotated with experience
we have gained after a little over a year of experience. So far, we report
The style of the paper is informal. If focuses
at least as much on business processes and social issues as it does on
technical requirements in a virtual office. For a review of some related
technologies needed to Internet-enable the virtual office, see our Internet
Tools Survey. One of our company's premises continues to be that Internet-based
collaboration technology is now adequate and is fast improving to make
this kind of work arrangement effective but there are many factors beyond
technology to consider. Another paper on Visions
covers other future directions made possible by Internet technology.
We believe the trend toward virtual enterprises
will rapidly increase as people learn how to collaborate-at-a-distance
crossing boundaries of time and space to solve information-based problems
"better, faster, cheaper" using best-of-breed resources not necessarily
available at a single location while gaining increased control over the
quality of their lives.
This paper describes considerations that led us
to constitute our new small business Object Services and Consulting, Inc.
as a virtual, or distributed, office.
When we formed OBJS in September 1995, we assumed
it would have a traditional centralized office setup. One of our guiding
principals was to innovate technically but not reinvent the wheel where
company administration was involved, instead just adopt traditional means
of doing business. Certainly, it is traditional to have a central office
and we mostly worked this way in the past with occasional telecommuting.
We did not initially question this-we just assumed we would have a central
office by default.
But it takes time to build out and furnish office
space, so we worked from our respective homes for the initial three months,
while we organized the business and searched for office space, and, in
that time, we found in many ways that this arrangement seemed to work as
well or better than a traditional office. Furthermore, our OBJS General
Counsel lives in Pittsburgh and one of our prospective first new hires
lived out of state and hoped to continue to do so. Finally, our company
focus is computer software R&D on distributed work, collaboration,
and information access. So, as the decision to sign a lease was approaching,
we questioned whether to do so or instead continue and scale the experiment
to future employees.
This was an important decision for us because
it represented risk, a deviation from the norm, and might affect the way
we work and interact, the kinds of employees we could hire, and ultimately
the kinds of work we do. There are some but not many models of this kind
of enterprise in our business so we needed to consciously assess this course,
including providing for a graceful fallback position if it became apparent
that the experiment was not working.
This paper, then, provided us a vehicle for assessing
whether to constitute OBJS as a virtual office, and, having made that decision,
for recording our justifications for this experiment and how to monitor
it as we moved forward. We are doing this for ourselves, for the benefit
of our government sponsors, and because distributed work is directly relevant
to our government contracts and our experience will provide scenarios and
demo testbeds for remote collaboration relevant to our contracts. Our government
sponsors initial reactions were:
- Dave Gunning, Dec 19, 1995. "This sounds
like an interesting experiment."
- Barry Leiner, Dec 30, 1995. "While I am
aware of a number of organizations that have satellite locations and people
who telecommute, I am not aware of anyone that has gone "fully distributed"
as you are suggesting. I agree that it is a worthwhile experiment. Let
me know if there is anything I can do that would help, and keep me informed
as you learn lessons (good and bad)."
At the time of this writing (January 1997), OBJS
has grown to eight full-time employees and a ¾-time office manager
spread across six geographic regions of the U.S. The experiment is working
very well but we are still learning as we put in place the technical and
administrative infrastructure needed to continue this style of work.
Type of Business We Are In
Not all businesses are amenable to becoming distributed
workplaces - in particular, businesses that depend on physical movement
(e.g., construction, fast foods) may not be though even some of these necessarily
are distributed (e.g., transportation and regional or customer-site sales).
But many information service businesses are (e.g., travel, real estate,
discount brokerages, regional sales, transportation, and military operations).
Some of these involve fixed satellite organizations and others involve
mobile teams that must be able to communicate effectively. Management consultant
Peter Drucker estimates that as many as 30-40 percent of today's workers
are knowledge workers.
In our case, we are developing research software
for distributed information management applications. Software is typically
developed in teams. A lot of effort goes into early evaluation of software
we might make use of and into collaborating together in design and later
in integration with others on a team where occasionally team members come
from other organizations. Software distribution and support is increasingly
via the Internet. Debugging is often remote. Reporting to our sponsors
is via the Internet and occasional in-person reviews. So the most critical
area where centralized work seems to be required is in insuring good communication
within and between teams. Physical proximity does not guarantee this but
may help enable it to an unknown extent. An abiding question is, when do
we need physical proximity if we can provide virtual proximity?
Finally, we are working on distributed collaboration
application scenarios in our contract. If we are successful and we document
and advertise our virtual office model, then this may become a template
for others in industry, including others in the DoD contractor community.
Most DoD contractors produce one-of-a-kind products and not open systems,
which we focus on. Still, it is important to separate our internal use
of collaboration technologies from any interest we may develop in delivering
a certain kind of collaboration solution as products.
Past and Related Experience
Our current team has a track record of remote,
collaborative work. Two team members worked off the main project site for
two years at one point. One worked for two years with a remote software
development team in another city and also in field service with teams across
the country. Another past team member worked for six months from India
while developing software using fax and email. Collaborators at other sites
have developed software related to our designs, and we have either integrated
it into our system or invited them to visit for periods of 1-3 months to
work with us to develop parts of the system. We have long used the Internet
to distribute software and to remotely debug customer software and email
for support. All of our work in the standards community is collaborative
with only occasional meetings and most work happening between meetings.
Our architecture work for the NIIIP Consortium
has involved developing the technology infrastructure for virtual enterprises.
The Glossary section defines
these terms relevant to virtual offices:
- alternative work arrangement, boundaries, business
processes, collaboration, corporate memory, encapsulation, gratuitous communication,
home office, home workers, infrastructure, Intranet, middleware, mobile
workers, mobile office, nomadicity, personal environment, remote employment,
remote work, tele, telecommuting, telepresence, telework, telework centers,
videoconferencing, virtual, virtual office, virtual company, virtual corporation,
virtual enterprise, virtual organization, virtual team
of Central/Distributed Work
It is clear that there are tradeoffs between fully
central and fully distributed organizations. Also, it is clear that central
and distributed are extremes and some hybrid in between may work best and
in fact describes most organizations. Finally, it clearly depends on the
kind of work one is doing. But what is not so clear is what factors dominate
the equation, especially if an organization is committed to breaking down
barriers to make a chosen approach work.
Some advantages we see for centralized
- Human Communication. People in a hallway
are collocated so they can easily interact one-on-one or in groups, just
by walking next door, down the hall, or going out to lunch together (gratuitous
communication). Sometimes, chance hallway interactions lead to main
directions. Still, proximity is no substitute for communicating directions
and deciding how to partition work. People on another floor, hallway, or
in the same office but in another project or division can all be too far
away to communicate with. Similarly, people are only one sort of information
source; journals and now the web are increasingly excellent links to others
with similar interests no matter the distance. There is no substitute for
excellent people, careful planning, and good communication, whether in
a centralized or virtual office.
- Facilities. Facilities are centralized
and shared so costs can be lower. This includes office space (offices,
meeting areas, computer network, local telephone access, access to secretarial
support, machine support, library, and supplies). But facilities themselves
cost money to configure and maintain and may be difficult to evolve or
scale as the organization evolves.
- Been Done. The obvious one. The centralized
office paradigm is what people have been assimilated into from kindergarten
on. Most management schemes assume a centralized environment. Of course,
occasional telecommuting today is tried and true, and management can adapt
traditional methods to new concerns. In fact, this is the subject of a
thesis by Bernie Kelley and Bruce McGraw. Kelley and McGraw surveyed
28 managers about how they have adopted their styles to facilitate telecommuting
within their centralized setting.
Some disadvantages we see for centralized
- Cost of Office Space. If distributed work
succeeds, we save around $40-50,000 a year in lease costs for a 10 person
office, which we can use in other ways, including to improve our communications/collaboration
support. This would not be a good enough reason to make the experiment
if we did not see other bigger advantages.
- Cost of Commuting. If an average commute
to work is 30 minutes one way, then there is a built-in, every day requirement
for wasting an hour a day. Also, there is a deterrent for returning to
the office on weeknights or weekends or to take care of small tasks. Not
to mention pollution.
- Cost of Attracting Talent. Experts by
definition have experience; they are often mature and have settled somewhere.
Relocating them and their established families is prohibitive in expense
and quality of life unless it can be amortized over many years of service.
- Flexibility of Office Space as the work
group grows and shrinks. Constantly upsizing and downsizing facilities
as the amount of work changes adds additional overhead.
Some advantages we see for distributed
- More time to work, easier access to work,
employee controlled quality of life. Telecommuting is becoming
more widely accepted. Department
of Commerce is actively experimenting.. A home office makes
it easy to get to work, meaning more work is done over a day since employees
can readily access their computing environment. A mobile office
extends this high availability to going where the person goes. In addition,
the annoyance and cost of the commute is eliminated. Generally, the money
saved by not commuting should cover the cost of extra utilities.
- Self-Management. Employees in a Virtual
Office are free to work without being intruded upon by management. Self-management
also cuts down on non-productive work such as repetitive memos, reports,
presentations, administrative meetings, etc. which can plague some corporations.
Also, employees now have a better opportunity to fully develop their ideas
as they envision them with less interference and micro-management.
- Potential to hire remote workers who do not
want to move to the home office region. It may be much easier to attract
talent if physical relocation is not a major issue. Depending on international
law and contract restrictions, it may also be possible to hire foreign
workers for some tasks.
- Part time workers. It might make sense
to hire some experts part time, especially university collaborators who
might retain their faculty position but team with us as industry partners
trading time for equity or salary and the chance to affect industry directions.
- Distributed collaboration might be our
best chance of competing with much larger corporations in the open systems
area. It uses electronics to break the space barrier, keeping us on the
leading edge, giving us an interesting competitive advantage. Looser bindings
to a single large corporation may provide us other innovative business
model opportunities: for instance, we could provide distributed R&D
to large companies who no longer maintain in-house R&D staffs along
the lines of a distributed MCC. Or we
could evolve a model of distributed ownership and micro/pyramid equity.
- Because infrastructure technology available
for virtual offices is now nearly comparable to enterprise infrastructure
technology. With home ISDN bandwidth and laptops, reasonable communications
can be in place for point-to-point and team communications that are beginning
to be comparable to those supplied in large centralized organizations.
In addition, at least as much communication occurs with those outside the
organization as with those inside so there is less special benefit to proprietary
internal communications since it is likely that standard versions will
become generally available a few years later.
- Home office income tax exemptions. While
many people maintain a home computer, they often do not qualify for home
office exemptions. A distributed, home-based work environment changes that.
- Maintaining just one and not two offices.
Many employees maintain a home office with equipment supplied by their
employer, meaning the employer is maintaining two officer per employee
and the employee is porting information back and forth between the two
on a daily basis. A single home office reduces the cost and "centralizes
- Preexisting Equipment. Many new hires
already own computers. This is a small bonus for the company because any
appropriate equipment that the employee already owns might be available
for free in the Virtual Office, perhaps at least reducing up front costs
and improving cash flow for new businesses. Next to the actual land and
building, the cost of workstations constitutes the greatest up-front cost
for a centralized office. Appropriate policies are needed to separate employee
and company owned equipment and software.
- Practicing what we preach, taking our own
medicine, eating our own dogfood. The virtual office encourages us
to use technologies we develop and be a test bed and early adopter for
collaborative technologies being developed by others. If we learn how to
work in a distributed environment and what the short-comings are, we will
be better equipped to develop technologies that will help our customers
do the same. Learning to work this way is what some of our customers, soldiers
in the field, experience. In addition, it is likely to be the wave of the
collaborative future, if we believe and champion the virtual enterprise
story that small distributed best-of-class teams will need to be able to
work together to develop best-of-class technologies.
- Prototype how DARPA
could rapidly assemble distributed high-performance teams.
The logistics systems for Desert Storm was successful but required relocating
a team for several weeks to build it. What if we can demonstrate a similar
capability but leave the people in place. We should consider a scenario
in which we demonstrate a capability including the organizational aspects
and deliver technology to make it work for a new team. Such an arrangement
might lead to distributed teams of armchair combat programmers including
remote expert observers that follow teams and provide them advice on an
as needed basis.
Some disadvantages we see for distributed
- Communications and Camaraderie. Communications
between employees is more difficult than walking down the hall. This is
a central concern since interactions and negotiation are important not
just in initial brainstorming but also at later stages of software development.
Building camaraderie from a distance is more difficult. It is not the same
as being with each other frequently -- the socializing aspect is missing.
If we could see and hear each other over the Internet, a large part of
this need for human interaction might be reduced.
- Physical Meetings. Finding occasional
meeting space on short notice or for short periods is not easy.
- There are only a few situations where we currently
depend on physical proximity - officers co-sign checks and local people
get together for interviewing new job candidates or for occastional discussions.
- Small internal business meetings of 2-4 can take
place at homes and restaurants. Scaling this to larger meetings of 10 or
20 requires preplanning for face-to-face interactions. But such meetings
are infrequent, are often information dissemination meetings, and may not
be required. Reviews with customers or sponsors can take place at remote
sites but there is occasional need to meet locally without much preplanning.
Hiring summer students means housing them and working with them closely.
We can rent space for occasional meetings and reviews, and seasonal junior
workers may use their living space without creating insurance problems.
- Also, if we hire employees across the country
or across the globe, we may need to meet occasionally. Actual meetings
require air travel and accommodations and per diems, must be preplanned
to be cost effective, and cannot happen with high frequency. Technology
alternatives are phone, teleconferencing for groups of three or more, and
Internet-based video conferencing. Today's video conferencing
solutions are either expensive and good quality only in a LAN but not WAN
or cheap and unacceptably low in quality; they are limited to one-on-one
situations with very little motion and scale poorly to team meetings. In
1997 we expect this to begin to change.
- "Seems unprofessional." Many
customers will not feel comfortable meeting in home offices for many reasons
(e.g., invading privacy, atmosphere not professional, distractions, locating
homes in neighborhoods). There is also a general impression that employees
are not really working when they are at home, that the business is not
real. This may not be as much an issue for us as for some other kinds of
businesses since most visitors are close collaborators who already have
an opinion of our work. Job candidates meeting in home offices have reported
the interview experience as unusual but not uncomfortable. DCAA auditors
are accepting of a professionally run home-office.
- Opportunity for abuse. Are employees really
working 100% when distracted by TV, family, perfect weather, etc.? Are
timesheets accurate? Although abuses can happen in central workplaces as
well, there might be an initial thought that abuse is less common with
management's close presence. Our experience is that trust is more tangible
in a Virtual Office than in a centralized setting. Ultimately, the company
needs to hire people it can trust. Reports on the web indicate that trust
in distributed offices appears to improve employee job satisfaction and
productivity. Still, mechanisms should be put in place to help combat defrauding
the company. One of these, required by our government customer, is timesheets
which can be filled out by the employee and logged weekly or monthly. Another
safeguard is two signatures on checks. Policies and Procedures are needed
to insure that employees are available in their work area during business
hours or leave a message telling when they will return or leave a forwarding
address; the use of an electronic whiteboard may also fulfill this function.
Monitoring machine activity is another possibility, but this would be unilaterally
unpopular and might require monitoring computers which may also contain
employee personal correspondence-this we deem unacceptable. Employees need
to know what we expect them to do, what the guidelines are, and need periodic
feedback. Ultimately, the best measure is to assess the quality and timeliness
of work to insure fair value is returned for competitive pay.
- Employees Work Environment. Not everyone
is cut out to work in a virtual office. A person must have self-discipline
and be self-motivated. Working from home day-after-day is not the same
as occasional telecommuting There is also the aspect of one's spouse having
you around all day when they are not used to it. It is very important to
separate ones work space from ones living space, e.g., having ones office
upstairs or in the back of the house so distractions are minimized. Some
employees may not have a work space that is conducive to remote work or
may not wish to work from home. Of course, these people may choose not
to work for the company. Or the company can rent individual office space
though that may not be cost-effective.
- Training. In a centralized office, training
is usually accomplished by bringing a group of employees to a meeting place.
This is a problem in the Virtual Office where such areas do not exist.
One solution is the use of seminars instead of on-campus training, but
this has the disadvantage of being expensive and inconvenient, requiring
that employees to travel from their workplace. Videoconferencing provides
a reasonable alternative. In our case, much "training' involves attending
conferences, which requires individuals to travel anyway.
- Updating Technology. With each employee
in the Virtual Office using his/her own machine, updating both hardware
and software across the company might appear to become harder. It can no
longer be a central or work group operation but instead every employee
must bear some responsibility for environment set up and maintenance. Actually,
large centralized organizations share this same support problem, especially
when the ration of support staff to technical staff gets high, and this
is driving technology toward zero-effort maintenance, incremental hands-off
upgrades, and Java, but these capabilities are by no means standardized
or universal at this point. In our case, we have a well-trained workforce
and this has not created a problem. Another factor is that employees living
in different regions may not have access to new communications infrastructures
like ISDN, especially in rural areas, and employees in other countries
may be subject to later release dates for software. We have not found this
to be a problem. A downside to distributed work it that employees currently
must maintain their own computer and its software. Also, we report some
problems with workgroup software interoperability, especially emailers
that process HTML tags incorrectly.
We considered issues related to the following
areas that could be affected by distributed work. A main metric is reducing
abstract distance, which includes not just the physical distance between
sites, but also visual communication, low cost, and effective office processes
- Overall. Nothing about the form of incorporation
or the company operation is affected. Nothing about approvals of contracts,
licenses, patents, etc. is affected except in so far as the corporation
obeys the laws of the states and jurisdictions it operates in. When we
first consulted our lawyer for potential pitfalls, he saw none and instead
asked how to configure his laptop to best connect to us.
- Approvals from Government sponsor. The
Government sponsor needs the assurance that the distributed office approach
does not (a) cost more, (b) risk our success, (c) expose our results to
those without approval.
- Jurisdiction. The company is required
to follow the state and local laws of the area in which an employee works,
independent of the state in which the company is incorporated.
- Legal postings. The company is obligated
to display posters informing employees of their legal rights. In a Virtual
Office, these can be scanned and made available via informational mailings
or corporate shared electronic bulletin boards.
- Employment papers. Some things need to
be witnessed, others need to have documents checked (I9). Notaries may
be required in the virtual office.
- Zoning Laws. Many cities restrict business
use of homes. Common ordinances preclude excessive noise, signs, excessive
traffic, employees other than those living in the residence.
- Taxes. Each employee is a source of revenue
so we will have to file tax returns in each state that we have people working.
We will also have to make sure that we know the taxing requirements of
each employee's locale. The decision was made to go with a Big Six accounting
firm since they have access to CPAs in the various localities and world-wide
if we need the help. If we have an employee doing the bulk of his/her work
out of Texas, we have to register as a corporation in that locality, withhold
appropriate taxes from the employee's income, pay any unemployment taxes
peculiar to that locale and the owners would have to file income tax with
that locale for the profit that was generated there. It does not help to
pay the employee through an account in a Texas bank. The criteria is where
is the bulk of the work actually performed.
- Paying Rent for Home-Office Space. Our
CPA advises us that we have no requirement to rent office space for an
employee or to rent their home-office. The working conditions are part
of the employment agreement which is up to us and can be worked out on
an individual basis though we should not follow any discriminatory patterns
in allowing some (non-owner) employees to have certain benefits or privileges
and others not.
- Non-U.S. Citizens. If an employee is not
a U.S. citizen and works outside the U.S., then what are the considerations?
(This is true for any multinational company.) Foreign employees present
an even more complex problem: if OBJS employs someone from Jamaica, are
there no taxes or FICA? Is OBJS legally or ethically bound to provide health
insurance and all the other protections U.S. workers get? These are bridges
we will have to cross if we come to them.
- Export of Technical Data and Software.
The U.S. Government restricts the export of encryption technology and some
other kinds of software. Any export or import of technology must consider
U.S. and other country's customs. This would be an issue in a virtual office
that is spread across national borders.
- Each state. The company needs to file
and get workmen's compensation and liability coverage in each state or
country where it has a permanent employee.
- Liability. Meetings now sometimes happen
in individuals homes or at remote sites. Full liability insurance (at least
in Texas) for the Virtual Office directly held by the company seems not
to exist since the state rates office buildings and designs its
insurance around that rating. OBJS has obtained computer/peripheral insurance
and is protected from being sued (as a company, not individually); however,
to cover furniture, books, etc. in the home office employees will have
to get riders on their homeowner's insurance, which OBJS should probably
- Pre-existing Policies. Several of OBJS's
insurance policies were granted while we were still planning to be a centralized
company, but the change in direction seems not to have much effect on preexisting
policies, although there is the possibility of problems with the individual
and group disability coverage.
- Accounting. Payroll becomes more complicated
as we have to keep track of various state unemployment insurance's and
state and/or local income taxes. We recently outsourced bookkeeping and
added direct deposit to provide (even more) timely payroll.
- Recruiting. As mentioned above, recruiting
for a virtual company may be much easier since it does not necessarily
involve a move to a central site. This has definitely proved to be true.
- Employee retention. The virtual office
may make it much harder to retain employees. They may see this as an interim
move, feel no company loyalty, not feel connected in human terms, see this
as playing at working (not real). Continuous productivity and reward, in
addition to semi-continuous communication via e-mail, phone, and videoconferencing
seem antidotes to this problem.
- Interim employees. Central businesses
hire subcontractors, contract labor, consultants, part-time, students,
etc. to fulfill needs for deep expertise, peak loads, and infusion of new
ideas. There may be a finer line in a virtual office, where this expertise
- Providing Office Space. Should we provide
central office facilities for employees who want that option? That is,
do we require the office to remain distributed or migrate to a semi-central,
semi-distributed office over time just as central business is experimenting
with allowing telecommuting? The best idea seems to be to initially only
hire employees who wish to work as a Virtual Office since OBJS is pursuing
a fully distributed environment at this point. Later, if the company semi-centralizes,
we would consider moving employees if financially able and wanted to move.
- Moving to the central site. Should the
company pay if employees want to move to a central site? Probably not,
if that is an employee requested move. This can be decided on on a case
by case basis.
- Virtual Office Policy. We adopted a virtual
office policy which we communicate to employees when they join the
company letting them know some of the effects of the virtual office. We
also give them a copy of this paper to help them know what to expect.
- Flex Time. Employees are expected to be
available for scheduled meetings, to be generally available during working
hours, and to indicate when they will return to their work area when absent.
Employees can trade off other hours from work day to evening or weekend.
Over time, availability is confirmed via weekly progress reports, contributions
and via interactions by phone, email, and video conferencing.
- Timekeeping Accountability. Employees
must follow normal timekeeping rules. They need to keep their timesheet
current on a daily basis and be prepared if an auditor visits their home
office, although an auditor would probably be more likely to contact an
- Auditability. We may need to have employees
sign a release stating they understand that Government auditors may visit
and will comply. Similarly, a release to allow work to be done in their
home when other employees or customers visit.
- Floor check. We have planned that the
virtual office would be implemented in such a way that if an auditor came
to one site, the auditor contact employees at any other site to be shown
copies of current records like timesheets.
- Who pays the rent? The company is not
required to pay for the home office if a commercial office is an option
or if it is a condition of employment.
- Who pays for equipment and supplies? Clearly,
the company does else the employee is bordering on being an independent
contractor by IRS and legal guidelines.
- Dress Code. This affects when employees
meet each other or customers in person but also via home video conferencing.
Attention to home office scenery, lighting, and other look and feel standards
(e.g., avoid plants directly behind your head) in video conferencing to
provide the image of a virtual office of professionals and not a pajama
party. Still, this could be emulated, however, as in a Dilbert cartoon
showing pajama-clad, unshaven Dilbert videoconferencing with his boss using
a hand puppet.
- Basis for Raises. Remains the same as
in a centralized office, namely contribution to the company. Care must
be taken in this area to fairly assess accomplishment often. This is not
so different in the central office, just that its effects could be magnified
via remote working situations. Several safeguards help alleviate this problem:
weekly progress reports, constant communication, planning results that
require collaboration and monitoring and reviewing progress often.
- Employee Agreements. What safeguards are
in place for insuring that employees do not freelance within areas that
are competing with the company. Same as any organization. Just be sure
employee knows that the IP they use and develop is company owned and have
them agree via an explicit Employee Intellectual Property Agreement,
making who owns what a matter of record. This might come up more and more
if the virtual office becomes a reality and individuals time share their
expertise with many companies. Then we see the Society
of Experts model, with a Trader Service that matchmakes needs and providers.
We are not there yet. But the half step of a virtual office makes it more
important to draw clear legal ownership lines.
- Online Information Access. Internet access,
the World Wide Web, email, phone, and fax provide much of the access we
need to the computing world outside the company. Inside the company, it
is easier to share information in an environment where electronic information
is easily copied. Our initial workable approach to the problem was to send
email and attach documents others want to see. In this approach, each individual
maintains a personal organized information space and explicitly pushes
information to others who may have requested it. A complementary approach
is to also establish and maintain shared information spaces, for instance,
a shared file system, newsgroups, and both internal and external web servers.
Then individuals can push or pull information from the shared
repository. An additional requirement is to keep the information space
secure (see below).
- Hardcopy Access. Books, periodicals, and
documents are harder to share in the distributed workplace than in the
central workplace. Even in the central workplace, many employees redundantly
order desk copies of periodicals and books. The issue then is, how much
cost is associated with additional redundant "library" copies
or in waiting to gain access via sneaker net or mail. Since information
is increasingly available on-line and since we cannot read most of what
we receive, the delta is likely to be only a few hundred dollars a year.
A solution is to set a limit on purchases via a company policy. A further
issue is, who owns the periodicals and books? A company policy makes this
explicit. A central repository in a city is reasonable. Heavily used items
should be replicated as desk copies. At the same time, this is becoming
less of a problem over time as publications increasingly go on-line. This
is especially a consideration in our particular profession (computing),
since many of the journals and documents that we most rely on are moving
fairly rapidly in that direction, and some of the most current documents
we need to access are available online before they are available elsewhere.
Also, having the coming ability to pay electronically per page downloaded
will provide the equivalent of physically Xeroxing the pages on-site.
- Office records. We need to maintain a
central and secure repository for at least some key office records.
- Software Access. The issue we foresaw
was how to share software when licenses do or don't comprehend remote work?
So far, this has not proved to be an issue, because we are mostly using
PCs, PC software is generally pretty inexpensive, and often multi-user
licensing isn't available, or is only available in much larger quantities
than we need. Also, multi-user licenses are generally per concurrent seat,
which best suits infrequently used or quickly-used packages. Most of the
software we've purchased is neither. Also, we'd need to maintain a server
to host multi-user licenses, which would be an additional expense. As we
are introducing Sun workstations into our mix then this situation is changing.
Software is more expensive for Unix, and the benefits of multi-user licensing
more pronounced. In this experiment, it will probably be more cost effective
to maintain a server. Our kind of distributed environment will not be a
significant obstacle to maintaining a Sun server (and we have the skills
in house to do so). In general, most Unix licensing appears to permit local
copies of the shared software; only the license server needs to be centrally
located. ISDN is probably too slow to be constantly downloading software
from a server, or to be running X-windows over, but it is certainly not
to slow to use for checking out licenses, or invoking non-graphical programs
on a server (e.g. compilation). So, its possible this won't really cost
any more at all, or there might be some additional expense if we really
need to use a package with a multi-user licensing scheme that won't work
in our environment, but our expectation is that that is not likely to be
the case. In fact, we expect that most of the research software we'll be
using under Unix, or for software development, will be free.
- Technical Data and Software. Our contract
requires that the Government sign off on technical papers and software
before releases. It cannot therefore be always visible outside the organization.
Initially, we have made it visible to Government sponsors via printed copies
(and we continue to do so since they are required for administrative purposes).
But we now have the capability to provide customer secure, password-controlled
views into our information space to allow Government customers to review
documents on-line and remotely (via the web) before wider release. Many
large organizations that use firewalls cannot yet provide this selective
access capability to their customers though it is available in commercial-off-the-shelf
- Malicious attack and safeguarding intellectual
property. This is an issue since all documents and code in progress
are continuously available to company members and potentially to Internet
providers and anyone on the net when they are continuously shared across
wide area networks.
- Security over the Internet. The most secure
network would be behind a firewall, but this may be unnecessary. With careful
security and an ISDN router OBJS can design a good security scheme. This
problem is common to the entire electronic commerce and C4I worlds. They
will use encryption and so will we. Security sections of the Internet
Tools Survey address this area.
- Unwanted Physical Access. Having physical
access to the machine may result in either deliberate or accidental damage
to files or to theft. While the possibility of industrial sabotage is reduced
in a home office, the chance that careless family members may unwittingly
destroy data is increased; however, all major operating systems come with
file locks and password protection.
- Backups in a distributed environment.
Preventative measures to insure against loss of technical data include
- regular, periodic backup of our shared electronic
information file system with archiving off site, and
- backup to tape or disk cartridge (e.g., Zip drives)
for each employee's machine with periodic reminders to employees to backup
- Virus scanning. Periodic or event-driven,
continuous virus scanning software is a necessity in an Internet world
to actively detect a virus when downloading files. Monthly update to virus
definitions is needed since there are now in excess of 10,000 viruses.
- Equipment. Instead of having company owned
equipment at a central site, it is distributed. Individuals homes may be
less secure than central office space. But there is less chance of a disaster
(fire, theft) that could affect the bulk of a site's equipment. Purchasing
an outlet/phone jack extender with electric shock protection is a wise
investment. Lightning storms can destroy hardware and electrified phone
lines are notorious for destroying modems.
- Office furniture. Employees are given
an allowance of a specific amount ($700) to spend on home office furniture.
- Electronic Office Equipment. Basic issue
for each employee is a PC or workstation, printer, fax/copier, and ISDN
with video conferencing to come. Color versus speed versus cost are tradeoffs
different people make with respect to printers. As a guideline, each employee
has an $8K equipment allowance but is issued equipment to do their job,
whether it is over or under the allowance.
- Office supplies. Employees purchase their
own supplies from a standard issue list with a reasonableness and oversight
- Phone lines. Two phone lines are needed
per employee, one for phone and one for computer connections. With ISDN,
both lines may be used for data streaming when the phone is not in use.
For the near term, ISDN is our standard. Are there bandwidth haves and
have-nots? The bandwidth disadvantaged may feel they do not have the same
opportunity to affect team directions as others. This has not proved to
be a problem yet but might be with video-conferencing.
- Travel Agent. The
Internet Travel Network is free, fairly comprehensive, always available,
and infinitely patient. The drawbacks are that it is less instantly helpful
and intuitive than a human agent, specials are not always obvious to the
uninitiated, and it requires the user to do the thinking and legwork. Some
human travel agents are a phone call away and deliver tickets to your home
for no fee. Travel planning is up to individuals though there are guidelines
for per diems and expense reporting.
- Means of Communication among team members.
If we don't routinely see each other physically in the virtual office,
we still must maintain comparably effective communications. There are several
obvious surrogate media: email, shared file systems, and the web are mainstays.
Email and document exchange works well for communications that require
composition and thought or that do not require immediate feedback. Also,
these media can be broadcast to many as easily as one. And can be ignored
or read later according to the consumers priorities. Voice mail
provides a second effective delayed communication technology. Fax
provides an immediate means of moving physical documents (if not too long)
and overnight delivery services do the same for long documents.
FTP and WWW do this online and immediately. Scanners can convert
documents from physical to electronic form. The phone is used less
than one might suppose since it is perceived as intrusive. The fact that
employees are distributed and so metered long distance rates come into
effect has not so far been a major consideration. So far, we have not made
much use of telephony programs and little use of teleconferencing
(multiple participants) though we have discovered it can replace travel
and that phone fatigue is a factor for long teleconferencing sessions.
Protocols are needed if many people participate in teleconferences, both
for technology and interaction. Large groups require more formal interaction
than small ones. Videoconferencing is coming soon.
- Distributed Collaboration. Collaborative
tasks in our line of work include brainstorming, planning, scheduling resources
and tasks, co-authoring documents, designing software in teams, testing,
debugging, delivering results to customers, and field service. Technology
support can make several of these tasks easier. But tasks are often chunks
of work that take hours to weeks to accomplish and so for many purposes
coarse grain support is sufficient and checkout-checkin and versioning
protocols often suffice to work well together. We have initial experience
with brainstorming, planning, and design in distributed environments, plus
we have some experience with distributed software support. Discussions
and brainstorming are needed when a lot of possibilities need to be
discussed quickly. Even here, it is often best if one participant does
initial thinking (makes a proposal or sketches the terrain) then gets directed
feedback from others. Topics that wander across the map are inefficient
to discuss. Advantages of face-to-face communication include insuring that
a group is on track and communicating, providing immediacy of give and
take, high bandwidth of "being there", and non-verbal cues. In
areas like brainstorming, we have evolved effective means of brainstorming
via email and annotations. For extended brainstorming sessions and discussions,
NNTP or Web-based conferencing allows long, threaded messages and replies
with the ability for anyone who's interested to participate. If the topics
are confidential, security technology will be needed. In areas like co-authoring
shared documents, we can do this effectively by dividing and conquering
compound documents. For documents requiring inspection before release,
revisions mode is useful so different reviewers can quickly spot changes
made by others. For cumulative progress reports, color-coding progress
by week makes seeing a month's progress very rapid. In the support area,
with remote login, a support person can do much or all support from the
desktop. Hardware problems require on-site access but we can hire this
done. In fact, third-party system administration support would probably
be facilitated by this arrangement to inspect documents and make decisions.
We still need to develop more experience with distributed design and with
workflow-oriented problems in a virtual office setting.
- Maintaining chemistry between team members.
This is a major intangible issue, since we all intuitively feel that communication
sparked by proximity is at least sometimes very useful if not necessary.
Also, there is the danger of isolation in the virtual office if employees
feel they are losing contact with others co-workers they never see. Some
measures can be used to insure we communicate with each other on a pretty
regular basis: shared tasks, asking questions, sending status reports.
Everyone being sensitive to this danger is one solution approach that seems
to work. The problem is temporarily solved by gathering together occasionally,
but that adds cost for remote employees. It is important to avoid making
anyone a second class citizens. This has not turned out to be a major problem
at year one but we need to continue to monitor this area. We do not know
the multi-year prolonged effects of physical isolation on a work team.
Scaling to 7, 20, 50 employees
As we grow, we need to periodically assess whether
distributed work is as effective as centralized work and whether to centralize
some or all of our operations, including whether to provide optional central
facilities or centralize some projects or job functions. Certainly, it
seems like is should be easier to double in size electronically easier
than in physical space, where there may be contracts that overlap, size
changes from one year to the next, where lease life-cycles are 3-5 years.
Scaling in a centralized setting is hard. Shrinking
is worse with long leases. Since we are likely to expand and contract as
contracts come and go, a distributed workforce with some contract programmers,
temporaries, and part timers may be useful. But then the issue of retaining
corporate expertise and loyalty becomes an issue.
Unless the corporate world becomes distributed
very quickly, which is increasingly possible technically but a big step
for corporate cultures, the company is going to be responsible for molding
new employees into the Virtual Office paradigm every time it hires a new
one. Of course, this is simply a reality of doing something new and bound
to get easier as time goes on.
If the distributed work plan does not work effectively,
we can still centralize, all at once or on an as needed basis. Costs would
- relocating employees or training replacements
for those who choose not to move
- locating a lease property with desirable features
(locations, term of lease, etc.).
- centralizing a once distributed computing facility.
Mostly, these involve actions we and our employees
have so far avoided taking that are part of the normal cost of doing centralized
business. The main financial effect would be to increase our overhead.
The dominant cost would be in replacing employee expertise.
Without the proper enabling technology, the Virtual
Office would not be possible. A Virtual Office needs, to some extent, to
assume in each node some of the responsibilities of a centralized office,
such as the ability to print or an Internet connection. The Virtual Office,
however, should do more than simply replicate a Spartan workplace.
Basic Technologies needed at each node
Fundamental technologies required to make a Virtual
Office functional are listed below.
- Computer and Monitor
- Phone/answering machine
- Fax/modem - create/send/receive/print fax
- Internet connection
- Web browser
- Web search engine
- Word processing including HTML editor
- Newsgroup reader
- Graphics Editor
- E-mail with MIME attachments
- Virus Scanner
What is key is that workgroup software interoperates.
Everyone does not have to use Microsoft Office v7 but must be able to view
and print Word documents (there is a growing preference for HTML formats
since they are smaller and based on a standard readable format).
Technologies which improve the Virtual Office
and make it competitive are described below.
- ISDN/cable modems
- Central file server
- Internal Newsgroups
- Security via encryption, passwords, certificates
- Virtual LAN
- cellular phone/beeper/toll free numbers
- Internet telephony
- CD-ROM Jukebox
- ORBs or other distributed object technology
- ORB services and facilities
- Java and JDK
- Web-enabled workflow
- Web-enabled DBMS
Of course, this list is just the beginning and
does not list programming environments, domain-specific software, administrative
software, and many other company-specific software requirements (e.g.,
project management, PIM, time tracking software to accurately time tasks).
For us, the question of software development is still up in the air (though
we have had some experience in this area), for example, how to handle revisions
control, making developed software work on UNIX and PC platforms, debugging
a distributed application, testing (how to tie our machines together to
simulate a distributed computing network), and performance analysis (improving
our application's performance).
Report after One Year
The bulk of this paper was written in December
1995 when OBJS was wrestling with the decision of whether to constitute
itself as a virtual office. Since making the decision to do so, we have
spent a year living the experience and this section briefly describes our
experience to date.
Overall, the experiment has been a success so
- There have been no show stoppers. In many ways,
the virtual office is similar to a central office. The work remains essentially
the same as do administrative tasks.
- The advantages and disadvantages we projected
for central and distributed work are close to what we expected. We do save
substantial money not renting office space. Our overhead is low. Having
no commute is great! We do individually control quality of life for our
individual offices. We have experienced only limited problems with office-home
interference while avoiding problems with bureaucracy in past employer's
central offices (though that may just be because our management style differs
and we are a smaller work group). We have a flex-work policy that accommodates
reasonable office hours and some alternative time. We have timesheets since
we work on Government contracts and need to track hours on specific projects.
Far be it from being distracted by home doings, we often work as hard or
harder and more productively than we did in past central offices, but clean
separation of home life and office life is more the issue. We do find some
times a year to get together or get away from the home-office to conferences,
though not always everyone meets together at once. Human communication
seems to go well and people do not currently report feeling isolated but
this is still an area we need to monitor. We need another year to know
if we will continue to enjoy working in relative physical isolation. So
far though, sharing new ideas seems as fun and exciting as ever.
- We used the Internet to search for employees,
found 40 excellent resumes, identified five candidates most matching our
needs, and invited them for job interviews which included a description
of the virtual office experience. All were excited by the prospect of the
work and also the work environment, and all accepted positions. See OBJS
Jobs and OBJS People on our homepage.
- We set up each employee's office, computing environment,
and Internet hookup in each respective home. Most setup and support is
an individual's responsibility though one of us acts as an expert consultant
when problems arise. Our current office environment includes an external
web site as well as a shared, secure internal file system and web server
that provides us an organized information space for company shared information.
Several employees have ISDN access though some are still ramping up. Most
communication is via email with MIME document attachments. We use the phone
less than might be expected and internal conference calls are so far rare.
To date, we have not invested in video conferencing since 1996 VC technology
was not cost-effective, improvements seem just around the corner, and we
have not felt a strong need to communicate this way but may find it invaluable
later (or may it intrusive)-still we are looking forward to the experiment.
Overall, technology for virtual offices is now close to comparable to that
for central offices. Both can still be improved and can benefit from improvements
to software infrastructure, which is what we are working on.
- We worked our way through developing policies
and procedures that match the virtual office. Mostly, these are extensions
of a central office but some are specific to the virtual office, e.g.,
the furniture allowance. We are working our way through office procedures
like distributed timesheets, weekly progress reports, accounting and taxes
with employees in several states and time zones, insurance issues, and
personnel policies. Policies and procedures and required legal postings
are placed on the internal web server bulletin board administration page,
convenient for all. All these P&P as well as legal notices we are required
to post are available on our shared internal web site's Admin hompage.
- Our work progresses well. We have a lot to show
for our first year's work in terms of technical accomplishments and have
made good progress on our contracts. The fact that we are a virtual office
has not seemed to be so very different than when some of us were centrally
housed. We have gathered some useful experiences in how to brainstorm over
email (an idea generation phase lasting days, an analysis and consolidation
phase). Also, we use various annotation technologies in decision making:
email threads to comment on comments; color-coded Microsoft Word or Netscape
documents in monthly individual progress report to show weekly progress
on individual tasks at a glance; Word revisions mode to inspect and comment
on documents from internal reviewers. See Electronic
Support for Collaboration & Decision Making in OBJS. Shared documents
are stored in the shared file space with access by all internally; restricted
access is provided for completed research products awaiting release approval
from Government sponsors; and released documents can be made available
to the public.
- While we have not yet installed video-conferencing,
we have gained some limited experience with commercial services. We recently
completed our first recruiting interview with a remote job candidate using
Kinko's commercial service. Quality was reasonable -- 1+ second delay in
transmission of picture and sound took a little getting used to, it wasn't
always easy to tell who was talking when several were in the room, but
pan and zoom controls worked well and lighting was reasonable. The use
of video-conferencing for our purpose was deemed a success, somewhat expensive
at $600 for 2 hours week-day rates but cheaper far than air travel and
hotel. Of course, this was not over the Internet.
But the experiment is not over yet. Several new
hires joined us in mid to late 1996 and we will need to report back around
a year from now with additional experiences from a larger team with a longer
This paper lays factors so far identified in a
decision to constitute our company as a virtual office. An effort has been
made to compare relative costs of central and distributed office space
and to identify barriers to this form of doing business and reduce these
risks by conscious preplanning. Nevertheless, it is still an experiment,
but one well worth trying initially on a small scale. As with any experiment,
it must be monitored-we must learn to identify our mistakes, correct them,
and improve. Still, continuous improvement is just one ingredient. So is
continuous innovation. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
For More Information
There are now millions of people with home-based
businesses and millions more that telecommute so our experience is far
from unique. But it is still not common for an entire organization to be
a virtual office. More and more information and experience reports are
available in this area. In this section, we list just some of the web sites
and a few of the articles on the topic.
World Wide Web Sites
Telecommuting: An Application of the National Information Infrastructure,
September 7, 1994.
This interesting report was prepared by the Committee on Applications
and Technology of the Information Infrastructure Task Force and covers
telecommuting, one of eight areas in which NII applications can
enhance the quality of life, including society benefits ranging from synergistic
benefits for traffic congestion, urban air pollution, national petroleum
dependence, increased worker productivity, improved quality of life and
benefits to the family, the Government's role in being an exemplar, industry's
role, issues of labor unions including monitoring leading the home-workplace
leading to invasion of workers' privacy, the benefits for employee morale
of increased employee trust, less micromanagement, and more.
in the NII
This paper lays out a conceptual framework for nomadic computing.
(Advocates for Remote Employment and the Virtual Office)
An good starting point for information
on Virtual Offices, AREVO quickly explains the basics of Remote Employment
and the Virtual Office, the benefits of both, and how to promote remote
work. This page also links to many other sites which provide more in-depth
analysis of telecommuting; however, AREVO and most of its links concentrate
on the human aspects of remote work and are light on technical insight.
Gordon Associates: FAQ on Telecommuting/Telework and Alternative Officing
This FAQ covers a broad range of issues with brief answers to basic questions,
although it is constructed from the viewpoint of a centralized corporation
considering telecommuting options. It covers who should telecommute, how
to manage telecommuting employees, how to equip telecommuters, getting
upper management buy-in, human/social issues, and the Telecommuting'96
SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) Central is the home page for the
Home Office Association of America (HOAA). The site contains advocacy information
about remote work and working at home, including legal and tax considerations.
HOAA itself is an organization which represents the interests of SOHOs,
both by lobbying and offering its members discounts with service providers.
Jack Nilles' coined the terms telework and telecommuting
in 1973. The homepages provides a cost-benefit analysis of telework centers
and home-based telecommuting, as well as references to many publications.
Management in the Virtual Office
This masters thesis by Bernie Kelley and Bruce McGraw researches how management
techniques are altered by telecommuting employees. Although the paper is
geared towards semi-distributed work models (employees are out only
so many days a week) as opposed to fully distributed Virtual Offices,
it still makes several interesting points about how one manages across
geographic separations. Kelley and McGraw surveyed 28 managers about the
qualities of a telecommuter and his manager. They concluded that the key
to successful management in a Virtual Office was a paradigm shift from
a "participatory style" to one which allowed independent work
and was results-based, de-emphasizing procedure.
OBJS Internet Tools Survey
The Internet Tools Survey describes a number of emerging technologies enterprises,
large and small, will need to be Internet-enabled. It is being completed
as part of the OBJS contract Scaling Object
Service Architectures to the Internet.
The National Industrial
Information Infrastructure Protocols Consortium (NIIIP)
NIIIP is a consortium of organizations which, in association with the U.S.
government, are developing open software protocols to allow rapid assembly
and operation of Virtual Enterprises. We are co-architects of the NIIIP
Articles from Magazines and Newspapers
"What to do if your home is your office,"
Laurent Belsie, Christian Science Monitor, March 28, 1996, p. B1.
Belsie reviews Alvin Rosenbaum's book The Complete Home Office: Planning
your Workspace for Maximum Efficiency, which suggests designing a workspace
that is good-looking, comfortable, and productive. The book covers zoning
restrictions, parking, getting a separate business line, furniture that
meets both office functionality and home decorative requirements.
"Net revolutionizing the way we work, live,"
Scott Burns, The Dallas Morning News, April 16, 1996, p. 1D, 4D.
Burns quotes statistics which show that telecommuting has exploded (16.7
million people work at home regularly). He then lists some personal observations
"Contract work satisfies choosy corporate
nomads," Diana Kunde, The Dallas Morning News, April 24, 1996,
p. 1D, 11D.
Kunde interviews contract employees and recruiting experts to explain why
contract employees have suddenly become a hot commodity in the computer
world. With telecommuting technology, contract employees could Virtual
Enterprise with companies across the country or even the world.
"Is your home office adequately insured?",
Grace Weinstein, Investors Business Daily, June 4, 1996.
At least 12 million Americans operate full-time home-based businesses and
millions more moonlight from home. Homeowner's insurance policies vary
but commonly on site equipment is covered to $2500, equipment away from
home is covered to $250, and the definition of "incidental" businesses
that some homeowner's policies do cover varies widely. Furthermore, you
may be on your own if a co-worker or client is injured in your home office
or you suffer lost income or assets from home emergencies (fire, water
damage e.g., from flood or water heater) since homeowner's policies do
not cover business-related liability. The Insurance Information Institute
offers a free booklet called "Insuring Your Home Business," 110
William St., New York, N.Y. 10038. Commercial policies tend to be overkill;
now some insurers like CAN, RLI, IBA write specialty policies for this
growing niche and the Insurance Services Office in New York is developing
a standard form for home-based businesses.
"A risky weigh to work." Scott Boeck
and Marcy Mullins, USA Today, USA Snapshots, date not recorded,
Of Americans who work from home or run home-based businesses, 32% gained
weight, 17% lost weight, and 51% remained the same. (C'mon, its right after
the Christmas holidays!)
Virtual Office P&P
Object Services and Consulting, Inc. has adopted
the following company policy governing the virtual office.
OBJS Policies and Procedures
OBJS as a Virtual Office
Object Services and Consulting, Inc. is constituted
as a virtual office. That means that employees are geographically distributed
and generally work from home-based offices.
History and Rationale. The decision to
be a virtual office was made in the first months of the company's history
and provisionally approved in our six month review with DARPA and ARL pending
continued successful execution of the contract work. Some of the considerations
used in making the decision were:
- Our company expertise involves research on large-scale
distributed software architectures that can be used for collaboration-at-a-distance,
e.g., by military planners or information analysts that are geographically
distributed or by command and control operations. There are also many industrial
- Our first large contract DAAL01-95-C-0112 is
funded under the DARPA Intelligent Collaboration and Visualization Program.
Our project's application involves demonstrating virtual office and virtual
enterprise scenarios and developing technology to enable remote collaboration.
- We believed staffing would be easier and this
has proven to be the case. In response to our initial position posting,
we received over 40 high quality resumes, selected the top five candidates,
interviewed them and hired all five! All viewed the virtual office as a
substantial plus and OBJS was able to recruit best-of-class experienced
- Other advantages: no dislocating move, no commute
time or air pollution, savings in office space rental, self-managed employees,
employee controls working conditions.
- Overall, we believe that distributed collaboration
might be our best chance of competing with much larger corporations in
the open systems area. It uses electronics to break the space barrier,
keeping us on the leading edge, giving us an interesting competitive advantage.
It is recognized that virtual offices may not
be for everyone (they require experienced and self-motivated professionals)
and OBJS has taken care to screen and also advise prospective employees
of the implications of this new way of working.
Implications for Policies and Procedures.
The decision to constitute OBJS as a virtual office affects some OBJS Policies
and Procedures to some extent:
- Office space rental - our accounting firm
Ernst and Young confirms that we are not required to reimburse employees
for rental of home office space and we have chosen not to do so. Employees
instead may, if they so choose and qualify, take Federal Income Tax home-office
- Furniture Allowance - our Home Office
Furniture Benefit (see separate policy) provides new OBJS employees upon
employment a one-time taxable compensation of $750 for improvements to
their home office.
It has some smaller operational effects on other
OBJS policies and procedures including Time Accounting, Weekly Reporting,
Benefits, Books and Subscriptions, Expense Statements, Drug Free Workforce,
Drug Free Workplace, Time Bank, Charge Numbers, Basic Office Supplies,
and Hardware and Software Purchasing. See each separate policy for details.
Implications for Back Office. The decision
to constitute OBJS as a virtual office affects some OBJS back office procedures.
We have developed internal procedures for dealing with these.
- state taxes for states employees live
- I-9 information is sent to us via mail
or fax and verified the first time a face-to-face meeting takes place after
acceptance of employment
- liability insurance for the distributed
- on-time reporting of time and expenses
for billing purposes.
Employee Notification. As with other OBJS
policies and procedures, the Virtual Office policies and procedures are
communicated to employees before hire and changes to these policies are
communicated in a timely way as they occur.
This glossary is not intended to be comprehensive
but is intended to cover several of the main terms people use in describing
virtual offices and related concepts.
work arrangement. Any flex-work arrangement where a worker works
part-time or compressed schedules (flex-time) or at a remote site
not owned by the company or a site of the worker's choosing (flex-place
or flex-space or personal harbor) or job-sharing.
own term). A logical abstraction of a division or distance metric that
separates two things. Often some technology or technologies can be used
to bridge the gap. For instance,
- physical distance may separate communicating
participants. Cars, airplanes, telephones and videoconferencing reduce
physical distance. For knowledge workers, it may no longer be necessary
to live in cities near co-workers and it may be possible to reduce time
and costs spent in transit, relocating, commuting and business traveling.
- a temporal distance in communication may be reduced,
e.g., by email. Versions may separate different views of an entity through
- an organization chart may partition the control
and information flow of knowledge in an enterprise.
- differing media, formats and information models
may require mediation technology to allow use or conversion of remotely
prepared information sources.
- security perimeters like firewalls partition
- legal boundaries like intellectual property rights
and international law similarly partition information or function. It may
be cheaper to create some forms of intellectual property in countries with
high education and lower costs of living, affecting the global economy.
There are many more kinds of boundaries. In general,
boundaries serve a purpose, to partition a space, but they also create
the need to dynamically cross boundaries as seamlessly as possible
to reduce costs of boundary transitions.
relationship. There are many kinds of business relationships between
business entities. An individual or a legal entity like a corporation can
participate in many of these in varying roles. Most of these roles
imply something about a shared though not necessarily legal contract
between the parties. Examples are: customer, supplier, director, owner,
partner, officer, employee, stock holder, consultant, program manager,
office manager, principal investigator, student, exempt, non-exempt, consortium
member, subcontractor, contract, grant, part-time, etc. There are IRS rules
guidelines for distinguishing employees from contractors. The Internet
provides a rich new way to identify, establish, and maintain business relationships.
The patterns, rules, and recipes that govern how a corporation, workgroup,
or other enterprise operates, including but not limited to
- internal communications (organization charts,
roles and responsibilities, policies and procedures, reporting, time accounting,
human relations, technical work),
- customer communications (information gathering
and market analysis, image creation, closing orders for goods and services),
- supplier communications (purchasing, accounts
receivable and payable, legal, accounting, forecasts),
Only some business processes are affected by employees
being distributed geographically. Many do not change at all. Many benefit
from automation, whether workers are centralized or distributed.
Working together to achieve some result. Goals of the DoD DARPA Intelligent
Collaboration and Visualization (IC&V)
research program include developing infrastructure for rapid assembly of
high performance teams and teams of teams to solve problems that arise
quickly in large-scale military command and control settings and even more
often in "operations other than war," e.g., disaster relief.
Often, collaboration is across organization boundaries, involves intelligence
gathering, secure communications, sharing diversely encoded information
models on a need-to-know basis, continuous planning and scheduling, and
coordinated action to fulfill a hierarchy of mission objectives while satisfying
a variety of constraints or business rules.
an organization. A virtual organization or virtual team
has a mission, resources, and members. Onto this basic structure is imposed
a collection of business relationships, business processes,
and boundaries that together are composed to form a description
of the detailed instance of a working organization at some point in time.
In any organization, evolution occurs and the organization over time can
be reconfigured. Static organizations undergo change infrequently; the
alternative is to provide for dynamic reconfiguration. Operations that
change an organization are called "moves". Some moves are welcome
and expected, e.g., giving out raises; others may not be, e.g., drug testing.
Moves must maintain company invariant constraints, often called
business rules, e.g., don't overspend your department budget. Virtual teams
are in some ways simpler than virtual offices in that they are an abstraction
that may ignore some of the possible rich set of choices in an organization,
e.g., preserving intellectual property boundaries, which they may do because
they are wholly within some context where that is a non-issue. That
is, they project out (ignore) some of the possible abstractions
that an organization might be composed of and invariants that it might
try to maintain.
The cumulative experience and intellectual property of an organization.
Corporate memory loss is the decay of that knowledge over time as
employees fail to record or maintain known information, the information
grows stale and loses currency, or employees leave taking expertise with
them. Not all such memory loss is bad; the term semantic garbage collection
refers to purposely removing old records and corporations usually have
policies for record retention for some kinds of records. A related command
and control notion is situation assessment, where a model of a problem
is created and maintained, often shared by many people with different kinds
of expertise, and used for recording the current state of a situation,
alternative courses of action, changes, and continuous planning.
Encapsulation is the logical hiding of these details that only affect the
functioning of the organization and not its results, products, or services.
The customer may not need to know or care if a supplier is organized as
a virtual office as long as high quality products and services result for
communication. Hallway conversations and socialization, coffee and
lunch breaks, all these interactions lead to a feeling of community and
may lead to the exchange of good ideas. This form of communication is often
missing from the virtual office, except via email levity.
home office. An
office located in a worker's home. May qualify for an IRS tax exemption.
A broad swath of people from mothers who work part time to professionals
locating full-time offices in their home.
Technology needed to support the information processing and communications
needs of an organization. Until recently, many organizations purchased
low level infrastructure (hardware) but created custom software systems
in-house. In recent years, more modular software with standard interfaces
is providing higher levels of interoperability, making it increasingly
possible to interoperate with customers and suppliers in environments other
than an employer's proprietary legacy environment.
to a company's private Internet or more loosely to the computing infrastructure
within an organization. For many centralized organizations, this usually
consists of high speed communication lines, local area nets, workstations,
PCs, or dumb terminals, all supporting TCP/IP and encapsulated in a physical
security firewall, which allows only some communication protocols like
email and also allowing modem-based dial-in password-based connections
from employee's homes. Intranets based on Internet technology are much
cheaper to maintain than proprietary corporate networks. Firewall-based
solutions make it very difficult to permit finer-gained or logical information
access in a controlled way, which would permit some customers to "see
inside" the organization but with limited access, for instance. Virtual
Private Networks and certificate-based security use encryption on top
of standard Internet and can be used to accomplish this. The
Intranet: A Corporate Revolution is a comprehensive list of the advantages
of intranets and links to other Intranet sources.
In this context, location-independence is the property permitting a
worker to move about freely from place to place while carrying or having
immediate access to his/her personal environment, including work environment.
"stovepipe" systems that do not interoperate or share information
well are increasingly being replaced by more modular, standards-based technology.
Middleware refers to a layer of communication-bus software that provides
standard communication data models, interchange formats, services, and
facilities that together constitute a standard framework for rapid assembly
of distributed applications (see Object Management
Group). Today, much middleware is domain generic but increasingly standard
middleware exists for interchanging domain-specific technical and business
data electronically (e.g., Electronic Data Interchange, PDES/STEP, OMG
business object facilities, standard interfaces to reduce accounts receivable
cycle to improve cash flow in supply chains).
Workers who travel and work at the same time. Includes field workers (e.g.,
insurance assessors), business travelers with laptops, and anyone who moves
to where the work is (e.g., home repairmen, soldiers in the field). This
may imply a need to carry tools and information to the work site and possibly
communicate sometimes in an untethered mode but often in a permanent remote
site (e.g., via ISDN), either continuously (e.g., using wireless connections
for email, for instance, from RadioMail or Datalink International) or discretely
(e.g., via dial-in lines or periodic sneakernet), possibly away from conventional
infrastructure (e.g., in a jungle) or connected to normal or abnormal infrastructure
(e.g., via foreign plug adapters and telephones) or connected only by long-distance
to an Internet provider (e.g., using satellite links like Hughes DirecPC
Turbo Internet Service (see www.direcpc.com - using a DirecPC Satellite
Dish, one gets 400 Kbps on download) unless you are an information provider
when uplink bandwidth is too low), and often in band-width constrained
circumstances where quality of service varies widely (<1Kbs, 2.8Kbps,
28.8Kbps, 128Kbps, higher). Infrastructure required includes wireless modems
(spread spectrum (2 Mbps) or infrared modems (3 Mbps)), routers to modem
banks, phone jacks, adapter plugs, telephone, ISDN, or high speed lines,
phone, fax, videoconferencing, white boarding, and palmtops or laptops.
Tools, technologies, and workspace that a mobile worker needs to get his/her
on-line game-playing, Multi-User Dungeons provide complex reconfigurable
environments, roles, and habitats.
defined by the Cross Industry Working Group (XIAT), nomadicity
is the "the ability of people to move easily from place to place,
retaining access to a rich set of services while they're moving, at intermediate
stops, and at their destination. A person is a nomad vis-á-vis the
NII if she moves as little as from one desk to an adjoining one or as far
away as across the continent."
defined by the Cross Industry Working Group (XIAT): "The many
parts of our lives -- our family life, business life, personal social life,
business social life, etc. - each frequently involves a different physical
location. People move between these places as they move between the different
aspects of their lives. Doing the appropriate thing in the appropriate
place is key to the way many people organize their lives."
remote employment, remote
work, telework. Any working arrangement where
the employee performs some significant portion of his/her work from some
work site other than the employer's central office-typically from the employee's
home, thereby substituting information technologies for commute time. Remote
workers include a wide variety of knowledge workers, e.g., accountants,
architects, attorneys, bookkeepers, claims adjusters, computer programmers,
engineers, estimators, graphics artists, journalists, technical researchers,
technical writers, telemarketers, transcriptionists, and many more. Depending
on the conditions of work, the business relationship between the company
and worker may be employer-employee or employer-contractor. Contractors
generally provide their own equipment, communication lines, have different
performance evaluations, and set their own hours.
of experts model. A step beyond a virtual office where individuals
provide expertise to many organizations and the line is blurred between
employee and contractor. Certainly, this model requires distributed work.
Agreements on compensation, statement of work, ownership of intellectual
property all must be made explicit in this model.
tele-. At a distance.
Examples: Television, telecommunications, and more recently telemedicine,
Communicating, collaborating, and working while geographically separated
from the central office via electronic devices such as faxes, videoconferencing,
or modems. The term was coined over twenty years ago. Telecommuting is
more relevant to periodic remote employment, where the employee
spends time in an central office and occasionally "telecommutes"
there, than Virtual Office. See Gil
Gordon Associates, a center for telecommuting information.
Just like being there. Several technologies enable varying degrees of telepresence,
from mail to phones, video conferencing, and virtual reality. Smellivision
is still a research area as are Star Trek holodecks.
When employees work remotely from a central site but not at their home,
instead at a satellite center. The center may be owned by one employer
or space rented to permanent, migrant, or occasional workers (called hoteling).
Executive office suites are a variant where businesses share secretaries,
meeting rooms, etc. Incubators are variants of these where new business
are provided additional services including business advice when getting
off the ground. Airlines provide a variant for nomadic workers via a membership
fee at airports (e.g., Admiral's Club).
When individuals or groups meet together at the same time but at different
sites and can see and hear each other. Two way, broadcast (as
in M-Bone), and multi-way conferences are supported but for differeing
technologies or costs. Videoconferening is related to audioconferencing
which only involves groups of people hearing each other and which is far
more pervasive today. See section of Internet Tool Survey on video-conferencing.
virtual. A logical
abstract surrogate or simulated function. Opposite of real or physical.
Examples include virtual memory, virtual reality, virtual
environment for training, virtual
laboratory, virtual space, virtual clipping service, virtual meeting
pet office building, virtual
tour of Ireland. In the case of a virtual organization, it almost always
involves physical distance between employees or operating teams, but sometimes
it involves security boundaries (e.g., firewalls) or legal boundaries (e.g.,
ownership of intellectual property co-produced by member organizations
in a virtual enterprise). Some virtual organizations are aggregate composites
of a number of real organizations.
virtual office, virtual
company, virtual corporation.
(1) A permanent corporation or partnership containing a significant number
of remote workers. The Virtual Office fulfills all of the roles of the
traditional, centralized office (e.g., it has corporate officers, owns
intellectual property, has employees, pays taxes) although the employees
work at home offices and collaborate for the most part electronically with
occasional to no physical contact with other employees. See Advocates for
Remote Employment and the Virtual Office (AREVO).Virtual
offices are typically corporations (legal, logical entities) and corporations
typically are not defined with respect to geographic locality of employees.
Virtual offices are a matter of degree since even in conventional offices,
many business relationships are necessarily maintained across distributed
environments, for instance, customers and suppliers are located at different
sites, project co-workers are often located in different divisions, and
the CEO's speech may be via videotape. In both traditional and virtual
office's the organization mission remains the same, but some business
procedures change in the latter to accommodate collaboration at
a distance. (2) A dynamic, interactive VRML model of an office where
drawers of filing cabinets pull out, the calendar or clock can be viewed,
and the phone rings. An
An assembly of best-of-class geographically distributed individuals and/or
organizations assembled an "enterprise" for the purpose of solving
a specific problem or creating a product. The Virtual Enterprise may disassemble
after completing its mission (but often does not). See NIIIP
definition of Virtual Enterprise. Anti-trust rules apply to limit unfair
competition and some virtual enterprises limit technology they produce
to pre-competitive technology or reference implementations leading to standards,
available to all member organizations. Generally, technology needed by
a virtual enterprise is similar to that needed by a large central enterprise
except in some respects:
- virtual enterprises are often virtual offices
- they face the added requirement of controlling
the sharing of intellectual property across organizational boundaries
- they may be ephemeral
Includes both virtual offices and virtual enterprises. This term could
also be applied to standard bodies, consortia, research projects like those
at MCC, contractual teaming arrangements (but usually is not).
By extension from the term virtual office, a virtual team is one that is
constructed for some mission where members are geographically distributed.
Both virtual office and virtual team are similar in that they both involve
distributed membership, will need similar infrastructure, and will involve
planning and executing a mission in a resource-constrained environment.
Where a virtual office is relatively permanent with a long-term mission,
relatively stable membership, relatively stable resources, and a shared
context (corporate culture) that may take months or years to put in place,
a virtual team may add of lose members fairly dynamically, the shared context
must be transmitted as quickly as possible, and the situation is subject
to rapid change. This might at first seem like it requires breaking down
communication barriers (boundaries) and putting in place a collaborative
environment quickly, but it more likely means having a fairly well understood
environment that is modular in structure, rapidly configurable to meet
widely differing needs, and evolvable as situations and priorities change
and available technologies become available.
This research is sponsored by the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and managed by the U.S. Army
Research Laboratory under contract DAAL01-95-C-0112. The views and conclusions
contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted
as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or
implied of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.S. Army Research
Laboratory, or the United States Government.
© Copyright 1996, 1997 Object
Services and Consulting, Inc. Permission is granted to copy this document
provided this copyright statement is retained in all copies. Disclaimer:
OBJS does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information
in this survey.
This page was written by Craig Thompson in December 1995
with updates supplied by summer student Shaun Joseph in June 1996 and some
additions made by Thompson to reflect our experience after one year of
operation in January 1997. Several people at OBJS contributed comments.
Send questions and comments about it to: Craig
Last updated: 2/10/97 sjf
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