Business is going virtual: what does that mean for productivity?

Business is going virtual: what does that mean for productivity?
Credit: Farzad Nazifi

Can technology really make us better at our jobs?

Productivity is a word that’s thrown around a lot. Everyone I know is desperately trying to be more productive, but what does that actually mean? In technical terms, it’s the rate of output per unit of input, measured by the number of hours worked or simply, how much effort you put in compared to the results. In business – where time means money – productivity is everything, but so is the quality of the work so you can’t afford to take any shortcuts, which is where the root of the issue lies: how do you increase the value and quantity of your output without spending more time and money?

Virtual services are now widely accepted as the easy cost effective option. In the past only big businesses with big budgets outsourced work, usually to freelancers who would work a day or two a week in the office, but new technologies have made it easier for small businesses to also find specialists (in other words you don’t have to be “in the know” anymore), effectively communicate, securely share information and process payment online. You don’t need to find somewhere for them to sit in your office, you don’t have to worry about settling them in, introducing them to the team, showing them where the kitchen is, or any kind of management at all. You send an email, set a deadline and hopefully, provided all goes to plan, the work gets done, you pay the invoice and that’s the end of it. Costs are lower because you pay a fixed rate or by the hour and there are none of the extras that pile on top of a permanent in-house employee’s salary such as payroll taxes, insurance and benefits.

Here’s where you have to be careful: while cutting costs is definitely an important benefit of outsourcing, the money that you save completely goes to waste if you’re destroying the quality of your output. You have to think about your clients more than your immediate gain. If you’re supposed to be selling high quality, hand crafted products and work is outsourced to untrained hands, the product will inevitably fall short of your client’s expectations and damage your company’s reputation. The saying “the customer’s always right” has never been more prevalent in business. With social media providing a very public and unmoderated platform for reviews, there’s very little room for mistakes.

That said, outsourcing can provide businesses with access to specialised talent, which will improve productivity and help to strengthen the company in areas where it may be lacking. This is especially true for small businesses who all need to fill sales, marketing, finance, HR and recruitment roles, but most can’t afford to have a full time employee in any of those areas so the core team shares the responsibility for everything. The head of marketing ends up doubling as the office manager, the HR manager takes the sales calls and the CEO acts their own personal assistant.

Multitasking is the biggest enemy to productivity and ironically, it’s facilitated by technology. Whilst in the past we would have relied on travel agents to book our flights, salespeople to help us find what we’re looking for in shops, and typists to handle professional correspondence, online services have now made it so that we can do it all ourselves, which, whilst allowing us more freedom in terms of choice, has dramatically increased the demands on our time. So we are forced to flick our attention between tasks in a desperate attempt to get more done in the day, but even though it feels like you’re being super productive, multitasking actually slows down our ability to complete a task. It creates chaos with our concentration, making it more difficult to organise thoughts and filter out irrelevant information. The result? Poor quality output.

Bringing in a skilled, professional virtual employee allows you to be greater than the sum of your parts. The core team can properly focus on their skill areas so that instead of doing ten things badly, they can do one thing amazingly well. In fact, everything gets done amazingly well and at half the speed.

Think about it like this: as the CEO of a firm you should be dedicating yourself entirely to growth and development, instead of spending your time figuring out how to use excel to create a spreadsheet of potential clients. Hire a virtual PA and they’ll complete the task more quickly and efficiently (at a much lower hourly rate), making it easier for you to refer to later on.

So will the rise in virtual services transform our productivity? Definitely, if companies are careful and considerate about how they use them. Collaborating with professionals from across the globe could bring exciting new skills and perspectives to a business as long as they’re the real deal with experience and an understanding of your expectations and professional culture.

Richard Walton is the Founder of AVirtual a company that provides virtual PAs to small business, entrepreneurs and start-ups. He is regularly featured in the press talking about topics such as work life balance and productivity.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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