Put your business in remote control

28 Jun 2007

Clever SME managers are using technology to create business opportunities while the rest of us are stuck in traffic. How do you make your remote office a virtual reality?

Martina Minogue successfully manages 25 employees in her role as a director of translation company eTeams, and Jimmy Costello (pictured), as leader of content provider and new media consultancy Grasp, regularly holds conferences with large multinationals.

This might not seem particularly remarkable but for the fact that Minogue just met many of her employees for the first time a few weeks ago and Costello’s conferences take place in a coffee shop, via a laptop and Wi-Fi connection.

Minogue and Costello are among a growing number of business people calling the shots from a distance and on the move, using technology to reshape the concept of the modern office space.

In fact the number of owner-managers and senior executives of SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) working from home at least one day a month has nearly doubled from 25pc two years ago to 46pc at present, according to a recent survey by O2.

Although the traditional view of remote working is that people want to adjust their work-life balance by decreasing their workload, the main reason most choose to work remotely, according to 31pc of those surveyed, is increased productivity.

Minogue believes that eTeams’ employees are willing to put in as much if not more effort because they have the flexibility of working remotely.

She also points out the opportunities that are created by going remote. Her Belfast-based employee would never have been able to work for eTeams had he to commute to Clare, and finding someone else with his equivalent skills would be near impossible for Minogue.

However, there is no substitute for human interaction. Building up business contacts through networking still requires face-to-face interaction and business deals can never be finalised via email.

“You have to create as interactive an environment as possible. You do have to meet staff at some point in time,” says Minogue.

Costello reflects on how broadband and mobile technology have changed the dynamics of business, letting small companies like his take on global clients without the cost, by working and conferencing remotely.

“Gone will be the day when you have a new start-up opening up big fancy offices all over the world. Your big fancy office is going to be your local coffee shop.”

Costello says taking personal responsibility and making sure employees are project or task driven and check in regularly is key to the success of a remote office.

“If you don’t have good time-management and organisational skills, the whole thing will fail.”

“If you’re responsible and you slack off, you’ve a responsibility to yourself, so making people responsible is essential.

The combination of broadband and collaborative online services is a boon to the virtual SME, says Costello.

“Social networking is a great tool for the remote office. If you’re a start-up you’ll want to keep your costs down. The future really is in companies using video and social networks to interact with their customers.”

Although Costello says he would never work from the couch in his pyjamas, he does business on a daily basis from home.

He uses voice over internet protocol (VoIP), password-protected bulletin boards and collaborative blogs to connect with clients at 8pm or 9pm, working around the international time differences.

According to figures from the Central Statistics Office, in 2002 8.9pc of those in employment worked in some capacity from home.

Billy D’Arcy, head of business sales and services, O2 Ireland, says he sees the trend is heading down this road, with SME managers completing projects from home while avoiding the rush-hour traffic.

He also notes the movement towards mobile working, with commuters catching up on emails on the train with PDAs and smart phones.

Ted Laverty, managing director of Onlinetradesmen.com, conducts his business in this fashion, spending most of his time visiting trades professionals, advertisers and suppliers.

“We carry out most of our business on the go. I have a virtual private network [VPN] installed on my XDA, so it’s like I’m sitting on my office network in the car.

“I track payments and sales, monitor tradesmen, activate new subscribers and check the web traffic of our advertisers while I’m in traffic.”

Stephen McCormack, veteran entrepreneur and co-founder of digital media company WildWave, said his concept of the remote office lies somewhere between “having a wireless internet connection and having an online place to store your content”.

This concept has been embraced from the beginning by Andrew Lovatt, managing director of RedMoon Media, a web design and brand identity company.

Lovatt, whose business is completely virtual, says it was “very remote” until recently when his son Michael, the creative director, moved back from Greece.

They still work remotely via a VPN that they created themselves, with Lovatt located in Newbridge, his son in Dublin city and the other employees scattered throughout Ireland.

Running a remote office was vital to getting his business up and running, recalls Lovatt, because it reduced the huge overheads that new companies struggle under.

Going remote may not be the perfect solution for large companies, or those outside the remit of knowledge transfer and services, but Lovatt says it is a perfect model for organisations selling skills or know-how because there isn’t a need to be location dependent.

Whether in a formal office environment or not, Lovatt says a professional attitude is always needed. He works the same hours, if not more, than he would in a traditional office space.

“Even though you’re working remotely there’s still a formality to it.”

Lovatt thinks that fear of reduced productivity is stopping a lot of companies from using the benefits of remote working, but that technology such as two-way camera systems can prevent this.

When asked if he would ever be persuaded to move to one central office, he isn’t convinced. “I’m not sure what the arguments would be for it.”

Remote working no longer seems like a remote possibility. It is virtual, dynamic and helping Irish businesses grow by kicking down the four walls of the traditional office space.

Case study: Advice from the far side

Professionalism is key. Martina Minogue, director of eTeams, says a dedicated office space needs to be put aside.

“It’s not as though people are working at home from the kitchen table,” she says.

Email, although important, is a dinosaur, says Jimmy Costello of content provider Grasp. He advises to exploit every available technology and broadband to full advantage.

VoIP, blogs, instant chat, bulletin boards, password-protected sites and teleconferencing are all good ways to communicate efficiently and work collaboratively.

RedMoon Media meets up every few weeks for a few hours at a time, to get up to speed and reaffirm the company’s collective identity.

“In a regular office there is a sense that we’re all here doing one business, a sense of identity with one central place. With going virtual you don’t have that sense of place,” says Lovatt.

Finally, Costello says the SME owner-manager should not worry about remote loss of control.

“There’s very little slack-off when people are made responsible for a project or an aspect of a project, because they know that they have to set the parameters themselves.

“What you actually find is that they tend to deliver stuff back to you even quicker.”

By Marie Boran