Philly Creative Guide

Guest Columnist

Lee Kulberda

Running a Virtual Office
by Lee Kulberda, 1 Aug 2007

Lee Kulberda is the Senior Project Manager for lucidCircus' Philadelphia office with 15 years of new media experience. Currently, Lee specializes in Abobe Flash-based application development.

lucidCircus is a graphic design studio specializing in cohesive creative projects spanning several mediums - identity, print, motion, audio and the web. Check out their wealth of work at www.lucidCircus.com


A recent phone call to a prospective client whose fear of working with a 'virtual office' prompted me to think about the way my business, and many I work with, conducts business. Not all virtual offices follow the same model, but the way we work is this: The company consists of a small core of members, each an independent entity, doing business under one virtual roof. This resource pool contracts under an assumed agreement to fulfill certain roles and to utilize a fairly large network of contractors to complete our projects first to our and, ultimately, the clients', satisfaction.

Despite the fact that the business I represent has been in the design and development field since 1998, has worked for big name brands, survived the .com bubble burst, and still maintains a stellar reputation, the prospective client balked at a 'get-to-know-us' meeting for fear that our network of talent would prove to be less than reliable. Some clients need the warm fuzzies that actually seeing the work being done can give. Most don't. Our physical office in Philadelphia was maintained for 5 years but after the 2nd year, it was extremely rare for us to host a meeting. It made good business sense to get rid of it and work from home. At least in our cases.

Rather than getting into the standard argument of 'brick-and-mortar' vs. 'virtual' offices: savings in overhead derived from the lack of a physical office, savings in downtime and busy work expenses, etc., my defense of a virtual office is more along the lines of how and when people are the the most productive. Quality time vs. quantity of time. I'd rather hire a freelance coder who is at his most productive while sitting at Starbucks in Center City inhaling lattes or sipping wine in an outdoor cafe in Paris than a full-time programmer who is killing time in a cubical 9-5.

Lee Kulberda, Senior Project Manager at lucidCircus

It is true that not every individual is capable of working in such a manner. It does take a certain level of discipline and dedication. However, once a contractor's dedication to their own business is determined, a symbiotic relationship develops that, in my opinion, is stronger than a typical employer/employee relationship. The consequences of not performing up to expectations affects the contractor more directly and immediately than with an employee. Generally, the contractors I encounter have their reputation and the possibility of further work on the line, whereas, an employee, especially in a corporate setting, needs to demonstrate a continued lack of performance in order to be affected.

Both sides of our business, the creative and the technical, require a certain type of individual to whom comfort, an environment conducive to long periods of concentration, and the ability to work when inspiration strikes are extremely important. These three aspects of the ideal work environment tend to be quite rare in a traditional office or collaborative studio. Not to take away from the value of a good face-to-face brainstorming session, but these sessions seem to me to be the exception, rather than the rule. I cannot attest to how others work, but I am rarely more than five minutes away from my laptop and find that most people I work with are less disturbed by late nights than you would find in a traditional office. Indeed, much of the work gets done during off hours which makes for impressed clients when they can wake up and find the work ready for review at 8am.

I have done my time in Corporate America, and while some may actually thrive in such an environment, I found it very distracting, not to mention quite humorous. I found most meetings an excuse to order catered lunch and to dog-and-pony the higher-ups with just how productive you and your team are. The problem here is that in an 8 hour day a two hour, mid-day meeting severely limits productive time. I have found that a few good hours in my own home office often times rivals a full day in a corporate office. Factor in a 5 second commute (assuming your home office is in your home), cigarette or coffee breaks aren't an excuse to avoid work and that work can be done when you feel your most productive, not when the clock tells you to be.

It seems that this work model shifts the focus from time-driven to task-driven. While hourly rates are used as a comparison of potential contractors, they really have little bearing on cost estimating. Rather, a price with carefully outlined specifications and delivery schedule, is established at the project onset. Once the project is a go, it is a simple process of periodic status checks and discussion to keep the project moving along on-time and on-schedule. Establishing a consistent and flexible negotiation process with contractors makes unforeseen circumstances or client-driven scope creep painless for all involved.

Low overhead, no employee commitments, ability to hire whomever you feel is best suited on demand, talent worrying about their reputations rather than their next scheduled review, comfortable work environment and flexible work hours results in happy workers and satisfied clients. Provided, of course, that prospects don't judge you by the size of your conference table.

Print Article Brought to you by: Lee Kulberda | Senior Project Manager at lucidCircus

Do you have a story to tell? Email us your idea and you could be the next Philly Creative Guide Guest Columnist.

View the Guest Columnist Archive.