Five ways to build a virtual office

When it comes to running a business, our feet are firmly on the ground but our data and software are increasingly in the cloud. My burgeoning media empire consists of two people (my lovely wife and me), but to the outside world we seem a lot bigger, thanks to online applications.

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To get our tasks done, we lean heavily on Web-based apps, from office suites to calendars to collaboration tools that let us work with colleagues on the other coast. Better yet, many of the services we use are free--at least, in their most basic incarnations. That never hurts.

The good part about going virtual is that you don't have to worry about leaving your data or software on the wrong machine when you're away from the office. The bad part, of course, is when you can't reach the Internet. Even then, however, more and more online applications are offering offline access so that you can keep working while waiting for Road Runner or Comcast to restore your Net connection.

Here are five ways you can make your business virtual, too.

Hire a virtual receptionist

You may run a mom-and-pop shop, but with the right phone tools you can sound like one of the Fortune 1000. We use Skype for many of our outbound calls. You have to download the software to your machine, but your phone book and call histories reside on Skype's servers, accessible to any connected computer.

Calling other Skype users is free; to receive calls from non-Skypers, you must buy a SkypeIn number starting at US$3 a month (United States and Canada). To call landline or cell phones, you purchase SkypeOut minutes (calls to most US locations cost about 2 cents per minute). Using Skype we can set up free conference calls with as many as nine other people, though the quality varies depending on each person's Net connection.

We've taken an extra step and hired Pamela for Skype, an add-on that records incoming and outgoing calls (for "quality assurance," of course). The free version stops recording after 15 minutes; other versions offer unlimited recording, store voice and video mail, route calls, and do even more, for prices ranging from $13 to $37.

Another of our favorites is Google's GrandCentral, a free service that lets you automatically route or record incoming calls. (Unfortunately, it won't record outbound ones). You can set up unique voice-mail greetings for each caller or, if you're trying to avoid someone, play a "number not in service" recording. GrandCentral will ring up to three phone numbers in succession until it finds you, or it can send callers straight to voice mail, which you can retrieve anywhere.

GrandCentral even lets you post an "unlisted" number on your blog or your eBay auction listing; visitors to the site can click a button to call you, but won't ever know what number they dialed. The only problem? At press time the service was in closed beta; Google won't say when it will open GrandCentral to the general public, so for now a current user must invite you to sign on. (Though you might get lucky here

Google also sometimes offers GrandCentral to users of other Google services: My editor received a log-in when he created a Blogger account.

Feed your suite tooth

You don't have to lug a laptop loaded down with a bloated office suite, or e-mail endless revisions of the same documents back and forth with your colleagues. Cloud applications such as Google Docs and Zoho Office turn your browser into a word processor, a spreadsheet, or other desktop software, and store your documents on the Web so they're accessible (and shareable) from anywhere.

Google Docs serves up a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentations program. Zoho offers all that and a ton more: e-mail, project management, a wiki, a database creator, invoicing, Web conferencing, and other apps.

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