Going Virtual, Going Green: A Manifesto

A clarion call on behalf of all businesses that have transitioned from brick-and-mortar to virtual offices:

Board up your office windows!
Smash your fax machine to bits!
Send everyone home early and tell them not to come back!

We are being ironic, of course, but only mildly. If even a fraction of conventional offices switched their operations to the web, we would have a happier workforce, more efficient economy, and greener environment. Some background:

My associate and I, co-founders of Knightsbridge Strategies, worked at a top-10 communications firm together until early this year. We were continually surprised and troubled to find our firm (and dozens of peer agencies) in a state of arrested development vis-a-vis the digital age.

It was something akin to still using the Pony Express in the 1960s. Sure, the powers-that-be knew that the Internet existed. They even used it to check email and send funny videos to friends. But the real liberating power of digital technology was lost on these otherwise-savvy movers. We vowed to, if not reinvent the wheel, take a few steps back and give the industry a close look.

What we found was that 95% of what we were doing as an agency could be done from outside the office -- with much greater productivity and employee happiness (the two are, not surprisingly, inextricably intertwined). The remaining 5%? Face-to-face meetings. While vaunted for their supposed community-building power, we found these exercises to be largely time draining and ineffectual. They can be replaced by one of the abundant virtual meeting tools, and can happen via phone, online, or through web-based videoconferencing.

Now let's pause for a moment and offer a disclaimer. For some, there will never be a replacement for handshakes and "power lunches." And some people just really like wearing suits. For the rest of us, there is an understanding -- even an embrace -- that the digital realm has supplanted many aspects of the real one. While this may be worrisome when your little son is spending more time in Second Life than he is in First, it's positively refreshing when it comes to mitigating, or eliminating, hours spent in the American Workplace.

So that's what virtual firms can offer their employees -- cobble to pave their road to self-actualization. What can we offer our clients? As it turns out, quite a bit. First, a reduction of overhead (no office, no supplies) means we can pass the savings along to them. Second, quality. People perform better when they are outside the office, when they are judged on what they produce and not the manner in which they produce it. Third, we're not bounded by a talent pool that lives within a commuting radius. This allows virtual firms a level of diversity and employee caliber that is absolutely unparalleled. Our company, for example, has team members on four continents.

Fourth, in addition to providing outstanding traditional services, web-based firms fill the void that many conventional companies leave open: the digital realm. We understand interactive services and social media in a way that few traditional offices do. Clients now demand this expertise, and virtual firms deliver.

And what can we offer the environment? The results here are possibly most notable. In eliminating the physical office, virtual companies get rid of all the waste that goes along with it. Energy consumption is slashed--you only need enough power to run a computer and a desk lamp. Paper consumption becomes negligible. The least green virtual company bests even the greenest brick-and-mortar office any day of the week.

Then there is the commute. In synthesizing data from multiple government agencies, Kate Lister and Tom Harnish found that if companies made a collective push to encourage telecommuting whenever possible, the US would use 625 million fewer barrels of oil a year, cutting greenhouse emissions by 107 million tons of carbon dioxide. $43 billion would be saved on gas, and the average worker would have a full 26 extra days that would otherwise be spent commuting, not to mention $800 in his or her pocket.

Further, the health benefits -- individual and collective -- are enormous. Robust studies in Europe by the World Health Organization (WHO) shed some light on the extent of the pollution crisis. In 2005, WHO found that the average life expectancy of an EU resident is reduced by some 9 months due to airborne contaminants. In 2008 numbers, the associated health care costs are roughly 140 billion EUR, or $225 billion. The situation is arguably more dire stateside, and the harm and expense are both compounded by commuting-related stresses and highway accidents. Cutting highway miles by 154 billion in the US via virtual commuting would be a big step in the right direction.

Naysayers say that these costs are justified, that encouraging people to work from home discourages communal interaction and fraternization -- spontaneous water-cooler conversation and the like. They may be surprised to learn that many of the proponents of virtual offices are among the staunchest communitarians. We believe, however, in communities of choice -- that time spent in groups should take the form of leagues, book clubs, political and cultural organizations, and circles of friends. Perhaps most importantly, less time in the office means more time with family.

Coworkers will still naturally congregate in coffee shops, homes or even -- heaven forbid -- outdoors, where they can bang heads together in a pressure-free and comfortable environment where they make the rules.

For more of the many benefits on going virtual, check out this post:

We are, in short, hoping to document this trend as well as propagate it. Virtual offices are good for business owners, employees, clients, and -- not least of all -- the environment.