Are you considering adopting a virtual office model for your small business? While offering flexible and remote work opportunities will certainly expand your options when it comes to recruiting potential employees, it may take more than an occasional ZOOM meeting to keep your operations running. In this episode, Gene Marks and Frank Cottle, CEO of Alliance Virtual Offices, advise small business owners on how to create a virtual environment that supports its remote employees.
Key Podcast Highlights
- Why Should Small Business Owners Offer Flexible and Remote Work Options?
- A lot of smaller companies have chosen to use a virtual office as a growth model because so many people in today’s workforce prefer to work from home or near home.
- Offering flexible and remote work options enables you to “win the war on talent” and hire the most qualified candidates possible, regardless of their location or physical limitations.
- When you resist change, you are essentially giving up. Choosing not to offer flexible work options will cause you to lose a lot of great talent and customers.
- Small business owners can save a lot of money in overhead by foregoing larger physical offices in favor of virtual ones.
- Who are the “Digital Nomads” that Make Up My Remote Workforce?
- “Slowmads” are individuals who choose to work remotely because their additional jobs or personal obligations require them to travel for months at a time.
- “Lomads” are individuals who work primarily from home for personal reasons, but may also work remotely from other locations near their home as well.
- What are the Disadvantages of Operating a Virtual Business and How Do I Deal with Them?
- To make your customers feel more comfortable, try to set up virtual office outposts near your client base that are also in proximity to your team or the team members that interface directly with those customers.
- Even if you decide to make your business 100% remote, it’s still a good idea to have your employees connect with each other in person once in a while to foster a sense of trust and collaboration among them. (Remember, being remote is not the same as being distant.)
- How Do I Set Up a Successful Remote Environment for My Employees?
- Instead of trying to establish an entirely physical or virtual business, strive for a hybrid model that is inclusive of all talent regardless of where they choose to work.
- Prior to hiring a remote employee, find out whether they are on the same page as your small business, in terms of values and expectations. You should also check to see if their lifestyle and physical accommodations are conducive to remote work.
- Provide your remote workers with a supportive corporate system as well as all the training and technology they’ll need to do their job properly. Don’t shoulder them with the burden of figuring this out on their own.
The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.
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Gene: Welcome to the Small Biz Ahead Podcast. We interview great experts that offer advice and tips to help you run your business better.
Gene: Hey everybody and welcome back to the Hartford Small Biz Ahead Podcast. My name is Gene Marks and thank you so much for joining us for this episode. I’ve got Frank Cottle here, who is the CEO at Alliance Virtual Offices, that is joining me.
Gene: Frank, first of all, thank you so much for joining me. We have a lot to talk about regarding remote working, so thanks for being here.
Frank: Oh, my pleasure. Absolutely.
Gene: So first of all, tell us a little bit about Alliance Virtual Offices. Where are you located right now? Is this your company? How did you get involved? What does the company do? Give us the pitch.
Frank: Well, we’ve actually been involved in the flexible workspace industry since 1979, so we have a long history of business centers, co-working centers, the technology behind that industry.
Frank: And today, the Alliance Virtual Company, we service well over 150,000 companies across 54 countries. So we’ve been a specialist at virtual office, or remote work in many respects, and actually coined the name virtual office back in the early nineties. So, we own all the trademarks to the future of work. We sort of are in the middle of the stream, you might say.
Gene: So what we’re talking about virtual offices, are we talking about actual physical space where offices are or some other type of structure?
Frank: Well, what we’re talking about the combination of the two, actually. When you talk about remote work, you have to think of the person is sitting somewhere.
Frank: It’s just not where you thought they were going to be in a centralized office environment. And what we found is that people like to work from home. They also like to work near home. And a lot of smaller companies, in particular as a growth model, have chosen to use a virtual office as a foundation to grow their companies.
Frank: And they’ll start off by using a physical address, but instead of just having it being a PO box or something, they want to have all of the clerical, secretarial, administrative support, telephony support, live receptionists, network and bandwidth management, everything you would have in a major corporate office, accessed in on-demand instead of aid on bulk.
Frank: So we created a model that combines people, place and technology and delivers that bundled product with a highly flexible service agreement that you can use by the day, week, month, year, multiple years, etc.
Gene: How does that work in with or dovetail in with people working from home? How does that work into your model?
Frank: Let’s take a sales manager. Let’s assume that you’re a sales manager and you’re working from home.
Frank: Emphasis on manager. You need to meet your team. Your team is regionally, if you’re a sales manager, oftentimes in proximity to you, so you need a place to meet. You might have a virtual office at a business or co-working center near the nexus of where everybody’s activities are and utilize that address as your address to service customers, but also as a physical place for everybody who is working from home to meet. Because working remotely doesn’t necessarily just mean you’re stuck at your kitchen table. It means you’re working as a digital nomad, if you will, but you’re not moving from country to country.
Frank: In fact, with a digital nomad, definitionally, you might think for a moment, image of me with a surfboard and a guitar and a laptop living in Bali. That’s a great image for me, by the way.
Frank: You might also, they think, well, wait a second, I’ve met a lot of these people and so we redefined that. We said, well, there’s digital slowmads, and these are people with real jobs that maybe live in Portugal for six months and then seasonally move up to Berlin and then move down somewhere else; six months, 12 months at a time. That’s a slowmad.
Frank: Well, while you really have the greatest population are lowmads, local digital nomads, and I’ll use yourself as an example. I don’t know you, but I can guarantee you do business every once in a while from Starbucks or a coffee shop or a cafe. You do business every once in a while from your home. You do business from a corporate office. You do business from some other office. It could be a hotel. It could be a business center, etc. You’re a local nomad, that maybe has a 10 or 15 or 20 mile radius around where you’re working in a variety of remote formats, not just…
Gene: So interesting that you say this. So I know you say that you don’t know me, which is true because we’ve just met as part of this conversation. But let me give you a little bit more context because I’m curious to hear how you would address my situation because it’s not that different than a lot of other businesses.
Gene: So, I’m a CPA. I have a company that… I don’t work for The Hartford, but I do a lot of writing and I have a company outside of Philadelphia, and we are a technology services company, so we implement different types of softwares. I have 10 employees and about a dozen contractors. Most of them are local, although a few of them are out of the area.
Gene: We have been completely virtual, Frank, since 2005, so it’s been a long time. Our overhead is not. Everybody works from their homes. We used to have offices, but nobody was coming into the office on a daily basis. And as you remember, 2005, it was a different environment where remote working, what you were doing, you were a pioneer in this. I mean, it wasn’t that known back then.
Gene: So we would have an office and I was sitting in there by myself and ultimately closed down the office because it wasn’t worth it. So, we’ve been working virtually. The overhead has been great. I mean, I have a post office box and that’s all fine.
Gene: However, Frank, I am pretty much running the world’s most dysfunctional company. We never see each other as a group. We have very little culture. We’re serving our clients, all that kind of stuff, but we don’t have any one space to meet. We don’t have anything to gather around. We used to have Christmas parties and I gave up on them because half the people would show up not even knowing who the other people were. They were just strange.
Gene: And that’s been the essence of my business over the past 20 years. And I’ve thought about maybe I should have a virtual office. Now, there are a lot of companies out there that are either virtual like mine or thinking of going virtual, maybe not completely to my extent. But I’m just wondering, if I was talking to you when you were going to pitch me on Alliance virtual offices, I’m not sure if you guys have locations in Philly or not, which is where I’m from.
Frank: We do.
Gene: Okay. Tell me, pitch me why taking advantage of your services would be a help to my business.
Frank: Well, I don’t want to make this sound like a company pitch.
Frank: I’ll try the high level.
Gene: And we will.
Frank: First, nothing in its purest form is generally good. So when you say you’re a hundred percent virtual, you’ve always been virtual. You’ve always been remote. That’s not necessarily good.
Gene: You’re right.
Frank: You mentioned culture. You have to have a culture. So there are certain things in the building of a company that you want to look at. You’ve mentioned a couple of times, “Hey, our overhead is great.” It is, but there’s a social overhead too, and maybe you have a burden there. So you want to think of all these things.
Frank: And what we like to do is we always start in our thought processes with the customer. So we would start with your customer and we’d say, “What’s the best way to service your customer?”
Frank: And we would say, “Well, your customers are here, here, and here, so you want them to feel comfortable. So maybe you should set outpost, virtual office outpost near your customers, that are also in proximity to your team or the team members that interface directly with the customer.” And that’s easy to do. Using our own company, I got 10 or 15 facilities in and around, right around Philly, so that’s easy to do in your particular case.
Frank: Then we would say, well, what do you do use Zoom for? What do you use teams for? Whatever technology you’re using and how do you do your creative side of the work? And so you would look at that and say, we really do need to rub elbows and shoulders occasionally. So, how are we going to do that? Well, once a week, once every other week, we’re going to bring the whole team together for X or Y. People need to know and trust. Trust who they’re working with.
Frank: And I love Zoom. We put our first video conferencing system into our first buildings that we were building for this purpose in 1982. So we’ve been Zoomed every imaginable way possible, for close to 40 years now. So this is nothing… None of this is new. And because we’re global, we’ve been global for 30 years. So, we have great practitioners of the use of technology.
Frank: But we still, even with all of our facilities, our centers, we still used to get everybody from all of our service providers together even. And we used to say, you know, don’t know the customer well, unless you know the name of their dog.
Frank: And it’s very much the same. Unless your people know who their coworkers kids are and how they’re doing in college and the name of their dog, unless you have some of that going on, they don’t trust each other.
Gene: To your point, what we’re missing is collaboration and innovation. We are not sitting amongst each other and two people saying like, “Oh, I’m having a problem with this project and this client.” And somebody else saying like, “Oh yeah. I had that same problem with another client six months ago. You guys should try this.”
Gene: I mean, we’re missing out on all of that and as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking to myself, man, I should get a virtual office and just require everybody to say, listen, twice a month, the second and last Wednesday of every month, everybody’s going to work from that office together. We’re all going to just be there together, around the same long conference table and just, we’re going to do the same thing that you’re doing at home, but I’m going to ask you to come in and we’re just going to hang out and do it all together. I can’t see how that can not have a beneficial impact on my business.
Gene: Does that right? I’m assuming you would agree.
Frank: It does, ’cause you’re right now we’re talking about culture and comfort and trust. The things that are necessary for people to work in a stressful environment at times for a specific purpose that’s common, serving your customer, to the optimum of their capabilities and that’s a tough thing to do. Most companies honestly don’t even do a very good job of that if they’re all together all the time. But being remote is not negative. Being distant emotionally, culturally, intellectually is negative.
Gene: I have more questions for you. So, we joked around before we actually started recording this session, and you and I were saying, we both read the same article. There was somebody out there that wrote about how the whole downfall of Silicon Valley Bank was because of the remote workers, which had absolutely nothing to do with their cash management or whether or not you invest in T-bills in an increasing interest rate environment. But putting that aside, it was the remote workers that brought them down.
Gene: So first of all, I’m sure you’ve got some thoughts on that. Well, more importantly as a second part to that, that answer is there are a lot of companies out there that they want to reduce their footprints, their real estate footprints. Their offices are too big, and they do want to embrace more remote working for their employees and I’m curious to hear, this is part two of my question, what advice that you have for those companies? What are you seeing companies do that is working for them when they set up a remote office environment for their employees?
Frank: Well, first I think too many companies look at it as an either or.
Frank: You are a remote worker now. Well, what does that mean? Okay. And I think if we were to look historically at all companies, all enterprises of some period ago, we would’ve said, in order to have a successful company, you need two things. You absolutely have to have two things. You have to have customers and for growth, you have to have access to capital. If you don’t have those two things, you might have a nice lifestyle business, but you’re not going anywhere.
Frank: Today. And it’s not just today. I think this is always, but it’s forced on us today. You have to have access to capital, customers and flexibility. So I would say when you talk about remote work, that’s a specific thing. The office is here. The employee is there. Bring my fingers together so you can see it. That’s most people’s thought about remote work and that’s really what the company needs to do is say, “I need to create a flexible workplace program, which is inclusive of in-office, at home, near home, remote from office home, and near home into a distant place. I need to have a lot of flexibility because I only want to do one thing. I want to win the war for talent and have the talent that I bring on board, have the most tools possible to service my customers and our corporate need.”
Frank: Flexibility, flexible workplace is much more important. Remote is just a singular part of it. It’s one of the tools in the box. And all these CEOs say, “Oh, we got to bring people back to the office. Oh, we got to send them a hundred percent remote.” The old thing, as they say, if the only tool you have in your box is a hammer, you’re going to treat every problem like a nail and that’s exactly what they’re doing. And it’s very small-minded thinking, in my view.
Gene: It’s funny, I was just actually speaking to a group of these are independent bankers that were in Louisiana. And actually this wasn’t, think about it was about six months ago, and it was right in the midst of where people were thinking about bringing people back to the office and not bringing people back to the office. And there were a few people in the room, Frank, that were like, “Everybody’s got to come back to the office. That’s our culture. That’s just the way it’s got to be.”
Gene: And I remember thinking, these guys are going to, they’re going to miss out on talent. To recruit people nowadays, I mean, half of the workforce are millennials and Gen Zers. Getting back to what you said earlier, I mean, there’s health insurance, there’s retirement benefits and flexibility. I mean, there’s like the three hot things you’ve got to offer to all employees, right?
Frank: Well, yeah. And I think more important than that is you have to pay them with a certain amount of social capital, not just economic capital. People want to grow as individuals, and you don’t grow as individuals by saying, “Well, you’re a remote worker, you can be here.” You have to have a structure that’s inclusive and I’ll come back to the winning the war for talent and cost is an issue there as well.
Frank: We made the decision, back in the nineties, that we would hire the best people we could find for the project purpose, regardless of where they were. We didn’t care where they were. So we had people based in Europe, based in the U.K., scattered all over the U.S., based in Latin America and the Middle East. We found the best person for something and then we thought to ourselves, we can move everybody to our corporate headquarters, which is in Las Vegas. We can move everybody to our corporate headquarters, Las Vegas. Then we thought, that’s cheap marketing officer and happens to like horse ranches and he happens to live in Kentucky. What’s it going to cost me to move him and his family to Las Vegas? A lot. And how happy is going to be, ’cause he’s got all of his family and his parents are aging. He’s probably not going to take the job. If he does, how happy is he going to be?
So we came up with the, and I won’t say the theory, but with the decision to not disrupt people’s lives and that work, intellect, technology doesn’t have borders. And so wherever the best person is in the world for a particular responsibility that we have, we’re more than happy to hire them.
Frank: Now, what’s your culture? Well, our culture is to have the best. Okay. Our culture, because we have the best, has been successful, but we do bring people together several times a year from all over the world because we say, well, what would it have cost us to move everybody to Vegas versus what does it cost us to meet somewhere as an executive team, as a management team, as different parts of teams in our company, to meet somewhere for two or three or four days? Nothing. It’s no cost at all. And everybody looks at it as they get a break. There’s a little bit of a party atmosphere, and we all get together. Everybody’s excited instead of, “Well, we’re going to the office.” It’s a big deal.
Frank: So, you have to manage differently and change is difficult, particularly for big companies, or for people that were brought up a certain way. I’m not a young guy. I’m in my mid-seventies, so I’ve seen every iteration of most people have seen in business structures, so my career has been over 50 years now. So what I look at is change is hard, but it’s also good and it’s inevitable. When you fight change, you’ve said you’ve started to say I’ve given up. So, Jamie Diamond, you’ve given up baby.
Gene: Frank, we have a few minutes left. But you know, bring up the point. I mean, you said you were in your seventies. You’ve been running this business now for a hundred years.
Frank: Two hundred, I think.
Gene: You started this business up virtual offices in the time of dial up. You are. You’ve done great and you’ve learned a lot. I have to ask some of the lessons that you’ve learned. If you were going to use your facilities, if you were going to hire a remote executive and you were going to, and they were not in Vegas, but they were in Philly, and you were going to set them up and say, we have a remote office there. We have a virtual office that you’re going to be going to. For companies looking to do that, what kind of practices have you seen that work the best for them? Do they make them go in every day? Is there a certain type of technologies they should be having? Is there a certain expectation of them? How have you just seen good companies manage these remote employees that some advice that you can share with the rest of us?
Frank: First, a lot of impact from the employee themselves. What do they need? What you’re asking a little bit is you’re saying, as a marriage counselor, what would you advise people that are having problems with their marriage?
Frank: Okay. And I would say-
Gene: It depends, right?
Frank: Well, I would say very simply, did you really get to know each other before you got married?
Frank: If you did, you’re probably going to have a better shot at it. So, I would say really make sure when you’re putting the program together, hiring someone, that you’re all on the same page, for the same reasons, with the same values and that would be part of a successful marriage too, overall.
Frank: And I’ll use an example. You say somebody hires a remote executive. We just hired a remote marketing executive.
Frank: She’s in Kenya.
Frank: Okay. That’s a long ways from Vegas.
Gene: It is.
Frank: Okay. But we have the tools, technologically, for communications. We have the tools, technologically, for workflow management. We have the processes of procedures that everybody contributes to, and we don’t see that as anything disruptive or hiring someone. And she’s the only person in Kenya. She’s by herself, but she’s part of about a five person team that is very project-related and she has a particular skill set that after interviews, which we did extensively, we felt that this young lady was just exceptional and thought, you know what? We don’t care where she is. And she doesn’t care where we are. She’s a career-driven individual and wants to prove her capabilities. And so we’re doing that.
Frank: It’s not hard. It’s only hard when you put roadblocks in front of it.
Gene: But this woman that’s in Kenya, for example, so I’m assuming you’ve got a location where she is.
Frank: We have the capability for her to work from her home, or from a remote office that is in Kenya. She’s in Nairobi.
Gene: Okay. Are you saying to her, we want you to be in that remote office?
Gene: Twice a week or so. You’re not even giving her-
Frank: We’re giving her the capacity to work from her home, or that office, at her preference, at her need. So, let’s assume she has two small children. Let’s assume that she needs to have quiet time away from the house. She happens to. And this is important with work too, remote work.
Frank: When you sent someone home for the pandemic and they had a family of four, they lived in a small apartment in Long Island, there was no place for remote work to occur. One or two people sat at the kitchen table and tried to work. That doesn’t work well.
Frank: So you have to make sure when you send someone to remote work, you’re just saying you don’t have to physically be here, but you still have to have a proper working environment and that may be, oh, I have a spare bedroom that I’ll turn into an office. Okay, that works. But the kids all come home at two o’clock and they all start pulling on dad or mom. That doesn’t work, so you’ve got to deal with that.
Frank: Whenever you give someone a remote work from home option, you have to make sure there’s also a work near home. Walk, bike is preferable, not have to be in the car. That’s preferable. Where they can say, “Hey, think.” Because a lot of times people’s work lifestyle, once they’ve been remote working for a while is different.
Frank: They pop home for lunch or they’re used to eating home at lunch or the kids come home from school. They take a 15-minute break to deal with the kids and things differ. Their work productivity is equal or better. We have found it’s better when you have this flexibility, but you have to make sure you’ve given them the tools and don’t just say, “Oh, work for home.”
Frank: Well, what’s their home like? Have you given them the right equipment for that? Do you have your corporate system set up to support it? And if you don’t do those things, then you’re pushing a burden onto your team, which culturally and productivity-wise, is not going to benefit you.
So be prepared, do a good job. And people are sloppy about this right now.
Gene: Frank Cottle is the CEO at Alliance Virtual Offices.
Frank, how many locations again, and what is your website?
Frank: We have about 1,500 locations right now. We’re servicing over 150, almost 160,000 customers, across 54 countries. And our website is alliancevirtualoffices.com. Our website is our name, so it’s very simple. And we’ve been at this for decades and decades. So before remote work was remote work, we were working remotely.
Gene: It makes me laugh because I got to imagine, never in your life did you expect, you know this to happen. I mean, you are in the right place at the right time for this business, which is, it’s a great opportunity for you, I’m sure.
Frank: Well, it has been. But they say every overnight success takes 20 or 30 years.
Gene: Perfect example of this.
Frank: And so right place at right time is because we stuck to it.
Gene: Good for you.
Frank: And the vision of what we were doing, and we understood the dynamics, and we just built the foundation one brick at a time.
Gene: Well, thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate it. And everybody you have been watching and listening to the Hartford Small Biz Ahead Podcast, my name is Gene Marks. If you need any tips or advice or help in running your business, please visit us at smallbizahead.com or SBA.thehartford.com.
Gene: Again, thanks for watching and/or listening. We will see you again with another episode very soon. Take care.
Frank Cottle: Take care.
Gene: Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Hartford Small Biz Ahead Podcast. You like what you hear, please give us a shout-out on your favorite podcast platform. Your reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast, so thank you so much. It’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.
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