Virtual Office: an Actual Definition, and Putting a Stop to Shills

by | Mar 30, 2021 | Flexible Working, Virtual Office | 0 comments

Virtual Office

While I don’t think a definition on Wikipedia or some other website will make or break an industry, I do believe if all the definitions are poor, it reveals that the originating sources of communication (those in the industry) are perhaps poor as well.

The flexible workplace industry, and its component offerings — like the virtual office — are often perceived by those in and around the industry to be misunderstood, overlooked or worse yet, completely unknown to those who might benefit from the industry’s services. In the past ten years, a new movement  — co-working space— within the flexible workspace industry has arisen and surpassed serviced offices and virtual offices in terms of popularity and buzz, and perhaps in other ways too.
I would posit the reason virtual offices do not see the growth and buzz that they could is due to a lack of good, clear communication of what it is, and the broad based benefits associated with having a virtual office. I decided to take a look at top google results for definitions of “virtual office”. The results were enlightening. While I don’t think a definition on Wikipedia or some other website will make or break an industry, I do believe if all the definitions are poor, it reveals that the originating sources of communication (those in the industry) are perhaps poor as well.
The emergence of the collaborative internet has revolutionized and democratized the function of defining terms. Definitions and classifications no longer rest solely in the hands of unseen publishers. Any individual with any knowledge of a subject or term may become more-or-less directly involved in creating and revising its various definitions and functions.
Of course, sometimes collectively defining terms can be a little trickier than it seems. This particularly can be said of technology-related terms, which tend to take on new meanings and connotations as technology advances.
Take our words “virtual” and “office” for example. Both of those words have existed nearly 100% independent of each other throughout their entire existences. “Virtual” was an adjective living a pretty static existence until the 20th century, when the advent of computers and software suddenly shaded the word with unpredictable implications and applications. “Office,” having more literal than metaphorical definitions, continued to live a static existence until computing technology conspired to combine the two into a single term whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts. Like many compound terms, its meaning cannot be understood as simply a combining of the two traditional definitions.
Things are further complicated by the quaint trend of referring to anything Internet-related as “virtual,” a somewhat short-lived trend whose ghost nevertheless haunts the term “virtual office,” encouraging the simplistic notion that the term merely means “a (metaphorical) office on the Internet,” or something equally nebulous and hazy.
These simplistic notions have crept into the ongoing discussion and definition of the term, a problem the online community needs to use its collaborative powers to remedy.
For instance, Investopedia (one of the top non-commercial results in a google search ) defines “virtual office” in such a way that it almost says nothing at all beyond an outdated, surface reading of the two terms separately:
A business location that exists only in cyberspace or digital world. A virtual office setup allows business owners, entrepreneurs and employees to work from any location by using technology such as laptop computers, cell phones, pads and internet access. A virtual office can provide significant savings and flexibility compared to renting a traditional office space. Meetings can be conducted via teleconferencing and video conferencing, Zoom, and documents can be transmitted electronically. Some companies even provide virtual office services to give virtual offices the prestige associated with physical offices, such as an important-sounding address, a professional phone-answering service and even occasional rental of office space and conference rooms.
This definition, as meaning-free as it mostly is, is more harmful than neutral, as it just encourages an inaccurate understanding of a new thing that was born of two disparate concepts. Also, it is full of logical fallacies.
First, there are any number of businesses, including Alliance Virtual, that can provide an address to include as part of your virtual office — not merely a “cyberspace” location, but a physical location that you can put on your business card, and where you can pick up mail or to meet with a client.
Second, I am not really sure how to argue for or against the idea of a “location” being “cyberspace” and have decided against trying. I think the reader will understand why.Not very helpful, to say the least.
Unfortunately, despite its growing reliability and accuracy, and despite its continuing reign as the most prevalent place to define terms, Wikipedia doesn’t really do any better with its two proffered definitions. In fact, one of the alleged definitions (the one for “Virtual Office”) is not so much a definition as a veiled advertisement by a company who created a cloud-based server product. I would call for this entry in Wikipedia to be removed altogether.
The entry for “virtual office” (link to the latest snapshot from January 28 is here  and I will link to the snapshot rather than the actual entry due to the fact it will change, hopefully for the better after people read this post) is a little better, but still very much focused on the narrow view of a single industry and therefore limited in scope:A virtual office provides communication and address services without providing dedicated office space.This is a noble start to a definition, but like the other current web definitions of virtual office, it suffers from a significantly narrowed scope. Definitions like this are usually written by someone with special interests in a particular industry, or by someone unaware of the broader applications of the component parts of the virtual office, and how those aspects can enable people to work more efficiently. Also, it attempts to define the term by saying what it is not, which is always less than ideal.
Another nitpick issue with the Wikipedia definition is actually a logical fallacy: it says “communication and address services”.  This is a case of sloppy writing mirroring sloppy thinking. By using “and,” it is saying that one has to have both to have a virtual office. In other words, if you just have address services, like a UPS Store or other brand mail depot, you are not a virtual office; or if you just offer VoIP, you are not a virtual office. I’d say the head of all mail depots and VoIP systems would take some exception to such categorization.
We could continue to parse the Wikipedia entry and find multiple flaws in every sentence, unfortunately. Most of the problems come from sloppy thinking/writing, but there is also evidence of obvious company shilling. This is sometimes a problem for Wikipedia, given its “anyone can contribute” collaborative nature; “anyone” unfortunately includes shills and advertising specialists.
For instance, further down the “virtual office” entry page, you will find information that has likely been planted by a company in the industry, and which provides no real value to someone wanting to know what a virtual office is:
Some virtual office companies or telephone answering companies offer a franchise system, enabling entrepreneurs to enter the marketplace for a fraction of the usual set up costs and with the added bonus of leads being fed to them.
This is likely a marketing ploy to allow someone who is doing research (perhaps someone who is thinking of starting some sort of company) to know there are franchise opportunities available.
I have marked up the Wikipedia page as it currently exists and we count about 200 problems. I stopped counting when my brain began to have trouble processing how many inaccuracies can exist in a single sentence.
But let us not simply curse this darkness; let’s light a candle. Since Wikis are collaborative, let’s collaborate and see if we can improve upon the Wikipedia definition by developing a more genuine, transparent, balanced view of what a virtual office is:
A virtual office is any or all of a combination of people, place, technology and processes (the “Virtual Office Infrastructure”) which enable individuals and entities to work more efficiently, whether remote (at home, in Bora Bora) or in some non-centralized office (with its corresponding technology and people that may inhabit it). Usually, the infrastructure is paid on an as-needed and/or recurring basis as opposed to capital expenses associated with typical office infrastructures (land, buildings, equipment).
We feel this definition moves us at least a little closer to a useful, inclusive, and accurate definition, one that includes far more aspects that most would consider part of a virtual office.
Such a revised definition is necessary, because the virtual office infrastructure is shared across individuals and entities, allowing resources to be allocated more efficiently. There are no dedicated servers, or dedicated offices or dedicated receptionists, for example. All is shared in order to make more efficient use of the infrastructure. In theory, there is unlimited capacity and inventory, yet there is little or no excess   inventory or capacity. In practicality, of course, there are limits to capacity and inventory, and there are often predictable capital expenses on the part of the provider (but not the consumer) and overhead associated with increasing usage.
For a more concrete example, think of Digital Ocean’s cloud server infrastructure (or Amazon Web Services or Rackspace). In the recent past, one of the only ways to have back up was to partition your existing hard drive or to buy a new server. But now, for $15 per month, a company can back up its entire website and customer data in a safe and secure environment on a recurring basis with little to no manual intervention. Of course a new server that could hold the data might cost a few thousand dollars and would require someone on a regular basis to run the jobs that backed up the data.
This is just one small, optional component, but it neatly illustrates why web definitions such as Wikipedia’s need some work in order to truly reflect the phenomenon that is the virtual office. To further put things in perspective, let’s lay out a list of services our definition of “virtual office” allows for, and compare and contrast these items with the current Wikipedia definition:
                                                                                                  Our Definition           Wikipedia Definition
an address to put on a business card                                     Yes                                   Yes
a place to receive, pick up and/or forward mail                    Yes                                   Yes
a place to hold a meeting                                                          Yes                                    No
a place to work as needed                                                         Yes                                    No
a place to fax or make copies                                                  Yes                                    No
someone to answer the phone                                                 Yes                                   Yes
a place to store electronic files                                                Yes                                    No
an online phone system                                                            Yes                                    Yes
a phone number                                                                          Yes                                   Yes
a way to bind presentations                                                      Yes                                    No
a virtual administrative assistant                                            Yes                                    No
Instant Message / Chat                                                             Yes                                    No
Video Chat                                                                                   Yes                                   No
Web RTC                                                                                       Yes                                    No
As this table clearly confirms, the Wikipedia definition needs a lot of work, much of which can be facilitated by a quick look into the history and evolution of the virtual office and its place in the larger global picture.


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