A recent article in the New York Times highlights the growing trend of the virtual workplace. (Yes, I was a little miffed that they didn’t interview me, since I, too, live in Steamboat Springs and have for more than 10 years—all that time, working for one company or another in a virtual fashion. Does that make me a trendsetter? I like to think so!) Interestingly, the article details some of the effects this trend is having on the communities embracing these new workers, rather than the effect it’s having on the companies for which those employees work.
Certainly, as more small towns become populated with virtual workers, they should (and presumably will) deliver services that support those employees. High-speed Internet connections have been available here in Steamboat for many years now, but Staples opened only last year. Before we virtual workers came to town, there wasn’t much call for 10,000 square-feet of office supplies (ranchers and ski bums not being big users of the stuff); now, by all accounts, the store is doing great.
I hope other businesses to follow, including on-premises tech support (so that when my PC bonks, I don’t lose a day or two shipping the thing back for repair and awaiting a replacement). And I’d love to see a video conferencing center that would let me interface with colleagues and clients in other areas of the world, without having to drive to a corporate location to do so. (PC-based video could also work, but my company doesn’t yet support it—and sometimes, a big screen is really what you need.) FedEx Kinko’s does this, at select locations… but not in Steamboat (to be fair, we don’t actually have a FedEX Kinko’s here in any shape or form).
From a live, in-person social point of view, one point stood out for me: The notion that many of us virtual workers have no idea there are more of us out there, let alone who they are. Steamboat’s a pretty small town, but I’d never heard of any of the people mentioned in the Times article. And that’s too bad, because we could probably benefit from one another’s experience and knowledge.
It got me thinking that those of us living the dream could probably use some help, not just form our companies but from one another. We spend a lot of time on this site talking about the importance of keeping employees connected across geographies and time zones, but those tools can’t address one of the biggest complaints I hear from home-based workers: they can go days without seeing another person except their spouse and kids.
To that end, it makes sense for us virtual workers to occasionally band together, in person, and share experiences and best practices. The information we exchange may not be directly related to our individual businesses or job roles, but it could be very valuable for helping us get better at being at-home workers—and that has broader business benefits, as well.