Virtual Office 


Contents 


Abstract 

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 success. 

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. 


Introduction 

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: 

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. 

Terminology 

The Glossary section defines these terms relevant to virtual offices: 


Advantages/Disadvantages 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 work 

Some disadvantages we see for centralized work 

Some advantages we see for distributed work 

Some disadvantages we see for distributed work 


Specific Tradeoffs 

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 and protocols. 

Legal 

Insurance 

Accounting 

Recruiting/Retention 

Personnel Policies 

Information Availability 

Information Security 

Facilities 

Task Related 

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. 

Backup Plan 

If the distributed work plan does not work effectively, we can still centralize, all at once or on an as needed basis. Costs would involve: 

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. 


Technology Needed 

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. 

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).

Improvements 

Technologies which improve the Virtual Office and make it competitive are described below. 

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). 


Experience 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 far: 

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 term view. 


Conclusion 

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. 


Appendices 


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 

Promoting 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. 

Nomadicity in the NII 
This paper lays out a conceptual framework for nomadic computing. 

AREVO (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. 

Gil 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 Conference

SOHO Central
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. 

Jala International, Inc. 
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. 

Successful 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 technical architecture. 

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 about telecommuting. 

"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, 1996. 
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: 

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: 

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. 

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. 


Glossary 

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. 

alternative 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. 

boundaries (our 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, 

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

business 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. 

business processes. The patterns, rules, and recipes that govern how a corporation, workgroup, or other enterprise operates, including but not limited to 

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. 

collaboration. 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. 

composition of 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. 

corporate memory. 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. 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 competitive cost. 

gratuitous 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. 

home workers. A broad swath of people from mothers who work part time to professionals locating full-time offices in their home. 

infrastructure. 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. 

Intranet. Refers 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. 

location-independence. 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. 

middleware. Monolithic "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). 

mobile workers. 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. 

mobile office. Tools, technologies, and workspace that a mobile worker needs to get his/her job done. 

MUD. In on-line game-playing, Multi-User Dungeons provide complex reconfigurable environments, roles, and habitats. 

nomadicity. As 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." 

personal environment. As 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 employmentremote 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. 

society 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, telelibraries,  

telecommuting. 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. 

telepresence. 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. 

telework centers. 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). 

videoconferencing. 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 classroom, virtual laboratory, virtual space, virtual clipping service, virtual meeting room, virtual 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 example

virtual enterprise. 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 organization. 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). 

virtual team. 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 Thompson.

Last updated: 2/10/97 sjf

Back to Internet Tool Survey -- Back to OBJS