As a term, the ‘Virtual Office’ first emerged in the 1980s. Even so, there is still some confusion over what it actually means.
Here, we offer a brief explanation of the Virtual Office to help you get to grips with the business model, how it works, and how it is used in business.
What is a Virtual Office?
A virtual office is a combination of people, a place, technologies, and processes that come together to help businesses and individuals work more efficiently, often in a remote way. — The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Offices
For any business, renting office space is a costly business — especially when you’re just starting out. That’s why a lot of entrepreneurs and new business owners lean towards working from home or a local cafe. It’s cheaper and easier.
However, it doesn’t provide the same support network as you’ll find in a business community, nor does it carry the same prestige as working from an office. For some businesses — such as law firms and consultancies — having a private place to meet clients along with a corporate business address is incredibly important, even if the office itself is rarely used.
That’s where a Virtual Office comes in.
To understand the meaning of a Virtual Office, it helps to know its background and how this sub-sector of the commercial property industry first came about.
A Brief History — Where Did the Virtual Office Come From?
Back in the early 1970s, a U.S. office rental company called Attorneys Office Management, Inc. (formerly known as Fegen Suites) began providing an ‘off-site tenant program’ to small law firms that rented its office space. The idea was to provide all the regular office services those firms needed — such as a place to meet clients and secretarial support — but without the physical office space.
Why? Because those law firms spent most of their day in court or out meeting clients, so their expensive office suite sat empty. They simply didn’t need it — but they did need an address, occasional access to meeting rooms, a receptionist to answer calls, and somewhere to receive and store mail.
This ‘off-site tenant program’ was successful, but it was ahead of its time. The model began to enjoy a resurgence in the early 1990s when advances in technology allowed more companies to work remotely, and Virtual Office companies began providing telephony services (such as VoIP phone systems) to support the growing trend for remote working.
This evolved into the ‘Virtual Office’ we know today.
What Makes Up a Virtual Office?
One of the biggest draws of a Virtual Office is its flexibility in allowing its users to rent only the services they need. This means the infrastructure can be shared across individuals and businesses, allowing resources to be allocated more efficiently and at lower cost.
Virtual Offices are a combination of services, including (but not limited to) the following:
Physical Locations and Services:
- A business address in an office building
- A place to receive, pick up and/or forward mail
- Conference rooms to host in-person meetings
- Hot desks or private offices for as-needed use
- Copy and printing services
- Receptionist to answer the phone and greet visitors for meetings
Digital or Virtual Services:
- An online (VoIP) phone system
- Voicemail, extensions, caller menus and other phone features
- A business phone number
- A remote live receptionist service or virtual assistant
- Various cloud internet services
How Do Businesses use Virtual Offices?
Although it started out as a popular service for small businesses and independent consultants, the Virtual Office model has grown to accommodate larger firms, too.
Here are some examples of how different sized businesses use a Virtual Office:
- Freelancers: Working independently, freelancers don’t necessarily have the budget for their own private office space, so they often work from home. However, they want to protect their home address and they also want the prestige of having a corporate address, which can help them land larger clients. For this reason, freelancers often choose a basic Virtual Office, which includes a business address, mail receipt and storage, and ad hoc access to meeting rooms (payable by the hour).
- Small Businesses and Startups: Any entrepreneur who’s growing a business will frequently find themself short on time, multi-tasking, and working long days. This type of bootstrapping growth-oriented business will often choose a Virtual Office with additional receptionist support, to take care of calls, appointment scheduling, bookings, and general customer service.
- Large Firms and Multinationals: In recent years there has been an uptick in large firms using Virtual Offices to spread their network. Often, they will buy multiple business addresses in different locations with mailing services and access to meeting rooms. This allows the company to create an immediate presence in new markets without paying over the odds for long-term office leases.
Does a Virtual Office Have Anything to do with VR (Virtual Reality)?
In this sense, a Virtual Office has nothing to do with simulation or virtual reality.
A Virtual Office is a collection of services (such as receptionist support) and physical amenities (such as meeting rooms) that are situated inside a real office building.
The adjective ‘virtual’ is used in the same context as ‘virtually speaking’, as per this dictionary definition:
However, it’s worth noting that developments in VR in recent years has created fresh confusion, as some publications now refer to the ‘Virtual Office’ as a simulated workplace environment complete with life-like avatars, that can be accessed with a VR headset.
This is not to be confused with the Virtual Office defined above.
Think of it this way: a Virtual Office is ‘virtually an office’.
It has most of the physical elements and support services you will find in any workplace. The main difference is that the occupier rarely uses the physical office, and will only visit the building to pick up mail or to conduct a meeting.
The rest of the time, the Virtual Office client works from home, on the road, from a cafe or ‘third place’ location, or from a coworking space.
To dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of the Virtual Office, check out this in-depth business resource: The Ultimate Guide to Virtual Offices