How to profit from working virtually

Who remembers Tomorrow’s World? For those who don’t – it was a science-come-futurology programme on TV that ran for almost 40 years that practically every family in Britain watched once a week before teatime. Dreary 1980s Britain was treated to a weekly glimpse into a more exciting future, from more outlandish predictions such as bar codes replacing price tags on every single item to more eminently sensible innovations, such as hygienic disposable paper pants wiping out the lingerie industry within three years (ahem!) and so on.

When my school introduced computer classes on alternate Wednesday afternoons, the promise of robot hoovers and automated cars seemed very remote from inputting binary onto whirring Amstrads – this wasn’t exciting science at all.

But there was one computer-oriented prediction that caught everyone’s imagination: virtual communication.

The idea that we could speak to each other through watches, transmit live video links around the world, liberate ourselves from the shackles of physical place and space.

People loved the idea of instant connection and disconnection. At the bottom of this, I’d argue, was a grumbling, rumbling build towards consciousness of the ultimate golden dream – that man, or woman, would never again need to be chained to a desk.

Fast-forward to today and the genius of Eric Schmidt, Steve Jobs and others has translated coding into technology that’s woven into our daily lives. By 2016, 63 million Americans will be working virtually. The latest UK census shows that over 13 million people now work at part or full time from home. Humankind is liberating itself from office life.

Seven years ago, Caffeine boldly went where few, if any, business growth consultancies had been before – into the Cloud. When Caffeine was founded our totally virtual model was an anomaly. We were frequently asked, “But where’s your office?” Yet our belief was that the clients we wanted to work with when we set up the business would judge us on the quality of our work and not the size of our office.

Fast-forward to today and we continue to serve a raft of blue-chips and big name organizations none of which care that we don’t have an office. We therefore believe we have some insights into how to make virtual, viable.

Here’s our top five magic ingredients for making virtual working pay. Because, let’s face it, if it doesn’t pay it isn’t viable.

One: Offer a better service than your non-virtual competitors

We are a lean organization made up of people with years of experience. You hire us, you get us – a dedicated team, working at pace on your project. We built Caffeine on three principles:

1. We always act out of heart and conscience

2. We are “respectfully disrespectful” – we tell our clients what they need to hear not what they want to hear.

3. We aim to be quick and to the point. No long meetings, no doorstep documents. Just sharp, concise advice.

And as importantly as all of those, we like to think we are enjoyable to work with too.

Two: Have contacts and contact

These two are not to be confused. Contacts is what you have when you start out – most people are not going to be happy giving you business if they haven’t met you in the flesh. So, sorry, Trekkies, you’re going to have to spend some time on earth before rocketing off to Planet Virtual. David Kean and Andy Milligan, Caffeine’s founders, between them worked in some of the world’s largest marketing services agencies and both were extremely well connected to large companies before going virtual.

The other is contact – this covers two elements.

The first is actual physical contact. To avoid the dangers of becoming an unkempt, pyjama-wearing, fridge-raiding recluse make sure you have regular contact with other human beings in ‘real life’. For all the benefits of email and Skype, going out and getting it – meeting people in person – is still the most effective way to discover how what you offer can benefit another. Plus it forces you to leave the house and be stimulated by the world outside.

The second is virtual contact. Virtual working world requires more not less contact with clients. If you are a natural recluse and think that virtual working will therefore suit you – I’m afraid you’re mistaken. The old-fashioned office phone or face-to-face meeting system allowed us to hide. Now there is no excuse for not replying straight away, even if you see an email in the middle of the night. That’s why clients take on virtual companies. For a higher level of contact and an “always on” “can do” approach. Remember – you’ve managed to escape that commute – so you have to be prepared to send a work email in a theatre interval every now and then.

Three: Reputation

No one can hire your business unless they’ve heard of you. And no one will hire your organization unless they’ve “heard” good things about you and seen a little of what you’re about. In the old non-virtual age, if you had a large shiny office, a smart looking, visible, workforce, and sported TV or billboard advertising, people felt pretty safe in hiring you. The new safe is reputation. You’re good at what you do, so don’t be afraid to ask your clients to recommend you to others. Ask for a testimonial at the end of the project and keep in regular contact with clients past and present and not just when the pipeline is looking a bit thin.

Four: Stick to core business

When working virtually, it’s easy to get stingy. When working in a non-virtual corporation you don’t have the option to be the HR person, the business growth consultant, the designer, the brand advisor, the public relations department, the caterer, the stationary manager, the IT department, the cleaning staff. But when working virtually, you do. You find you can “just about” do everything. But resist the temptation. Otherwise you’ll find yourself distracted from core business and spending your work life doing things that aren’t in your area of expertise.

Of course, outsourcing costs. But think of it this way – non-virtual companies spend up to as much as 50 per cent of gross profit on office space. Aetna, the US insurance giant, reports that home working has saved it $78 million in real estate costs. Cisco Systems, the computing networking company calculated that it realized $195 million in productivity gains from its home worker switch in just one year. And that was in 1993. Remember, you’re saving money on travel and workspace. So be wise – outsource to other virtual companies, just as you want others to outsource to you. That way, you can put your energies into growing and doing what you’re good at.

Five: Virtual high-fives

Office banter can be the glue that bonds a brilliant team. Occasional hazy nights out are a brilliant excuse for bonding but day-to-day banter can be just as effective in social media walled gardens – with the added benefit of fewer sore heads.

There’s also an important point to bonding virtually. To be serious about virtual working – and we are very serious – we are ahead of the game when it comes to project management. We use cloud-based project management technology to identify – and fix – projects before they go off-piste, and make sure everyone doesn’t hesitate to share praise. Whilst being a creative company, we also have a very black and white process. And let’s face it, how many of us have worked in environments where the wrong people steal the glory?

Virtual working is the way of the future. But it is not, of itself, a magic formula.

Exactly the same amount of businesses will rise, fall, grow or fail as before, when non-virtual ruled the earth Good companies, however, will be empowered to be better. We’re confident that it will continue to transform how we do business, boost efficiency and harness some of the world’s most brilliant minds. The possibilities are truly endless…although expect some more disposable pants along the way.

Louisa Clarke

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