Business Makeover Set up a Virtual Office Our expert gives this broker tools to help her staff telecommute.
High gas prices and a desire to reduce operating costs are driving more small business owners like Ester Alfau-Compas to endorse telecommuting. Alfau-Compas, broker-owner of ADAMO Realty Network in Miami, works with her husband/business partner, Steve, who’s in charge of administration. (He also has an information technology background.) Their four part-time sales associates work from their cars and home offices. “We want to be able to conduct business whether we’re here in Miami or the Dominican Republic,” she says. “We need the capability to do virtually everything we can do here in the office.” Bring in the Expert
For advice on how to set up virtual operations for her office, Alfau-Compas spoke with real estate trainer Jolita Wagoner. Here’s what she had to say: 1. Define Expectations
First, Wagoner wants Alfau-Compas to come up with a mission statement that defines precisely what she wants to accomplish. “Ask yourself questions like ‘Which transaction management platform will we use?’ and ‘Will we have one place to go for e-mail?’ [Also,] ‘What Web-based program will we use to ensure all virtual agents have access to what they need?’ ‘How do we keep tabs on sales associates?’”
Participation with office staff is critical, says Wagoner. 2. Get Everyone on the Same Page
In terms of telecommuting, it’s basically a free-for-all at ADAMO because the company lacks a systematic way for its staff to conduct business away from the office. “Everybody uses different software programs and tools,” says Alfau-Compas. “There’s no cohesiveness. We only meet once a week—in a sales meeting—or whenever we’re socializing together.”
However, they’ve tried their hand at online file sharing. Using a tool called FilesAnywhere.com, they can organize, search and share files online by creating virtual views of them. But they’ve found this tool limiting because it updates only once every day. “If I worked on one file today and someone tried to access it before it updates, that person will get the old version,” says Alfau-Compas.
Her ideal setup would be one in which everyone would be able to remotely access any of the files and forms that are pertinent to a particular transaction in real time. Wagoner says, “You won’t find somebody who can give you your Web site, file sharing, e-mail, CRM [customer relationship management] solutions or accounting with all the features and functionality that you can find in the individual components elsewhere.”
Wagoner suggests, “Microsoft has a SharePoint service, for example, that lets you use Outlook and all the other Microsoft applications to set up a full virtual office online,” Wagoner says. “But that’s just one example, and it’s expensive.
Thinkfree.com lets you create and save documents online, share them and save them to your computer. 3. Emulate Your Real Office
“Make sure you set up your virtual office like your regular office,” Wagoner says. “Ensure that your files are in a convenient spot and make sure that people know where to go to find them and that they know what they can and can’t modify. Password-protect certain files, such as financial documents. Meet with your workers face to face as much as you can because you want to keep that human component. “ 4. Use Your Association Tools
“One big program for online collaboration is TransactionDesk, which is hosted by Real Estate Industry Solutions, [REIS is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Florida Association of Realtors®],” says Wagoner. “Why pay for any of these tools when you’ve got them free with your FAR membership [go to floridarealtors.org]?” The only thing it doesn’t offer is the capability for e-mail and forms that you can actually modify online. REIS even offers training online, Webinars and support through its Technology Helpline. 5. Use Master Calendaring
Another essential tool of a successful virtual operation, says Wagoner, is the ability to access a master schedule or calendar via the Internet. “Ideally, there would be one person keeping it updated.” Staff would simply click on a particular folder and get direct, real-time access to a calendar featuring the scheduled activities for any given day. Microsoft Outlook gives users the option to set this up. 6. Web-Based Contact Management
The ability to access the company’s contact management database remotely is another primary component of an effective virtual office. Alfau-Compas says her customer database is currently stored in a shared Outlook folder that is categorized and updated.
Top Producer is a good Web-based contact management service, Wagoner says. And it’s certainly one that’s widely used in the industry. 7. Hire a Virtual Administrator
Once Alfau-Compas has perfected all the necessary internal procedures, Wagoner suggests she consider hiring a virtual administrator to help with everyday tasks. “Just go to any search engine and type in ‘virtual administrators.’ I recommend that you seek out members of the International Virtual Administration Association [IVAA] with the Real Estate Support Specialist designation.”
“Once you have all these tools in place, your imagination is the only thing that would hold your virtual office back,” Wagoner concludes. This column provides advice from industry experts concerning marketing, technology and business issues. It won second place in the 2008 Best Column category from the Florida Magazine Association.