Out of the box

Wendy Golenberke puts her daughter on the bus at 7:15 a.m and starts working at 7:16.

”I do my e-mails and start making client calls at 8,” she says. ”Between 8 and 5:30, whether I’m reactive or proactive depends upon what my customers want me to do that day.”

Golenberke has been working in a virtual office since 1994, long before it was considered a viable option. Today, Internet experts estimate that thousands of Northeast Ohio employees take advantage of the virtual option. The home office offers flexibility and convenience to workers and cost savings and increased productivity to businesses.

However, not every employee thrives away from the structure of the office, and not every business is equipped to have employees outside the corporate comfort zone.

Who’s jumping on the virtual bandwagon?

As a sales representative for Smartforce, a learning management corporation, Golenberke works with clients on Internet-based instruction modules. She is one of Smartforce’s 1,500 employees who choose a desk at home over an executive suite.

”When I first started (in the virtual setting), I would actually take a shower and get all dressed up, even if I didn’t have any appointments. … I felt like I had to do that,” says Golenberke.

She admits now that schedule only lasted about six months.

Thanks to advancements in telecommunications, Golenberke’s customers never know if she is in her pajamas or at an office as they discuss platform content for training.

Barney Dougher, president of Advance Lens Lab in Berea, is a wholesale manufacturer of custom-ground prescription eye lenses. Of his 55 employees, three work from home offices. Covering a five-state market, three virtual sales representatives work with clients in outlying areas.

”It’s not just a cost savings,” Dougher says. ”I think it is also the reality of having them closer to their own market place.”

Brian Moser, managing consultant at Microsoft Consulting Services, worked from his Huron home but now works from a newly opened office in Independence.

”First and foremost, it (working at home) saved the trouble of driving to Cleveland,” says Moser.

Even older, well-established companies are jumping on the bandwagon. Reynold Bookman, president of Forest Corp., employs half of his sales force for the national printer and manufacturer in virtual offices.

”We made a decision to hire people out in the territory mainly from a cost standpoint,” says Bookman. ”No. 1, they’d be out in the territory all the time, and No. 2, they wouldn’t have to travel back and forth from the home office.”

Taking the virtual company one step further

When John Stubbs started his company in 1999, he took advantage of the future of virtual offices. The Clevelander established Mac Productions, an Internet solutions provider focused on small- and medium-sized businesses. Its services include online customer service, check acceptance, credit card processing and Web design and Web hosting.

Stubbs started his company with virtual employees, and much of its infrastructure utilizes virtual services such as online customer billing, human resources, recruiting, customer relationship management programs, payroll processing and even postage purchases.

Stubbs also took advantage of online recruiting. His developers are Web recruits from across the United States. Sales reps are called V-reps, or virtual reps, and their primary contact with Stubbs is via the Web.

”We completely utilize the Internet to its fullest potential, whereby we can keep our operating costs as low as possible in comparison to our competition,” says Stubbs. ”We are a virtual company.”

Not for everyone

But a total virtual work situation is not without its own set of unique problems. Moser says that while Microsoft provides great software for communication and videoconferencing , his hometown has not caught up with the necessary bandwidth.

”We have the technology, but the basic infrastructure at the telecom level is not in place,” laments Moser.

Another pitfall is the lack of interaction with other creative people.

”You’re not getting other vantage points. That one was a big one for me because I have a really intelligent team,” he says.

When Moser moved into the Independence office last year, he noticed another benefit at the end of the day: ”I turn it off a little bit more,” he says.

While working at home allows for the effective use of time and the elimination of commutes, some employees find themselves working evenings and weekends.

”It’s because it’s there,” says Moser. ”It’s calling you.”

Golenberke finds herself in the same situation.

”I’ve not always been real good at trying to keep balance in my life because the work definitely overshadows the personal life,” she says. ”I don’t know what 5 o’clock on Friday means; I’ve totally lost what that means.”

Like the offices of many virtual employees, Golenberke’s is always set up and the computer is always running.

”I’ll walk by my office and I’ll check my e-mail and then I’ll remember I forgot to put something together. You know, 15 minutes here, 20 minutes there, sometimes hours,” says Golenberke.

Culture is still important

Creating a culture and maintaining the right attitude is the biggest problem Bookman says he encounters with his virtual salespeople. They feel like they are not part of the organization, not serviced, helped or appreciated like their counterparts working within the headquarters.

”To a degree, it is simply because they’re not here. … Communication is not as quick, efficient or as easy,” says Bookman. ”They tend to miss out on a lot of innuendo, interactions, discussions, problems and solutions.”

With that understanding, Bookman is not considering having other departments becoming virtual, even with the promise of savings on overhead.

Moser says another drawback is that virtual employees are held to a higher standard because they are truly their own bosses.

”There is an expectation that if you’re in the office, you must be doing work,” he says. ”When you work from home, you have to achieve a different level of effectiveness to make sure that you’re constantly showing the value of you working at home. It’s more of a perception issue.”

Golenberke feels the same pressure to perform, but the pressure is more self-inflicted.

”Do I have to work as many hours as I do? No, but I don’t think I’m getting a raw deal. … I’m the one determining whether or not I’m going to kill myself and work until 2 o’clock in the morning,” she says.

Once the decision is made to incorporate virtual offices, the question becomes: How does the business leader know who will be the self-motivated employee and who will be napping at noon?

William Hite, founder and president of W.A. Hite International Inc., a Cleveland-based executive search, outplacement and career counseling firm, says people with a history of achievement in outside sales usually possess the self-management skills necessary to work in a virtual office.

Self-discipline is best demonstrated by success, he says.

”Successful people are people who gained the habit of doing the things that failures don’t like to do,” he says.

Moser says employers and employees alike will be more successful in a virtual setting if expectations are clarified going in to the arrangement.

”Assume at least your current workload, if not more, depending on how you drive yourself,” he adds.

He suggests getting face-to-face with people within your organization as often as possible. Interacting and sharing ideas on a regular basis ensures you’re considering every aspect. It is especially important to keep your manager informed of the goals. With virtual employees, that responsibility usually falls on their shoulders.

Moser also recommends making sure your virtual office has a door. It will not only block off noise from the rest of the household, but ”at the end of the day, you can close the door and walk away from your business. I think that’s important.”

How to reach: W.A. Hite International Inc., (440) 461-1600