A History of the Virtual Office

Businessman sitting in chair, resting in office.
Alan Clerkin

Alan Clerkin

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Businessman sitting in chair, resting in office.In the past decade, virtual offices have been a growing trend in the commercial world. Virtual offices or virtual office packages, which offer communication, address and temporary office services such as meeting rooms or short-term office rental along with registered business address services, are proving to be increasingly popular with entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses alike.

Because virtual office services enable businesses to present a professional appearance to potential business partners or customers, they help entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level without facing the high costs that are typically associated with a dedicated office space.

Even though virtual offices have been growing in popularity over the last few years, the idea has actually been around for several decades. There’s been an ongoing debate about who coined the term virtual office. The first virtual offices were accurately accredited in 1989 by Ralph Gregory in Boulder, Colorado, when he founded ‘The Virtual Office Inc’. His first child was born and he wanted to be able to work from home and spend time with her.

However according to an article from 1982 in Infoworlds, John Markoff, first mentioned the term ‘virtual office. In the article Markof wrote “A virtual office would be built around a portable personal computer (laptop?) and local area network (internet?) that would expand working horizons dramatically”.

Markof also stated: “In the future virtual office, workers will no longer be constrained by computer equipment or geographic location. They will be free to travel or to interact with others while communicating information freely. The office as we know it will cease to have the central importance it does today”.

What a great insight and vision into the future Markof had in 1982, before the internet, smart phones, mobile phones, laptops and from what I can see the first mention of the phrase ‘virtual office’.

Also in 1989, Mark Dixon after taking a business trip to Belgium, founded his company Regus, providing clients with executive suites at affordable prices. The company went bankrupt in 2003, but was able to turn things around in less thank a year after receiving financing from a business parent and being restricted. It is now a huge global company, listed on the American stock market.

The first mention of the phrase ‘virtual office’ in the Irish media, was an article in the Irish Times in 1996, titled ‘Death of the Office’. It mentioned how more and more workers in the US were telecommuting and working from home or on the move.

An interesting piece from the 1996 article stated “One reason why telecommuting hasn’t taken off in Ireland, is that commuting distances and times are not increasing as much as in areas such as south-east England, where many commuters find it commonplace to make a 120-mile journey twice a day. “The pressures for telecommuting are not as great here as in the US or UK,” says Andrew McLaren, a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at TCD.

Wow, back in 1996, commuting long distance to work was mostly unheard of in Ireland. This was a time before the Celtic Tiger and rising house prices. How times have changed. Now according to the Central Statistics Office 200,000 commuters spend an hour or more a day commuting to work, from the commuter belts of Kildare, Meath and even commuting from the midlands and beyond.

With most of those workers commuting to Dublin from the commuter belt and beyond, the concept of a virtual office in Dublin could benefit many, especially those involved in IT. As house prices and rents increase along with improving technologies and a growing workforce, the workspace in Dublin and Ireland is going to change with a growing demand for flexible office space, including co-working, serviced offices and virtual offices.

The virtual office concept has existed since the early 1980’s and has changed over the decades with technology. For example, a 1980’s virtual office included a fax service, now this has been replaced with a scan to email service, in which physical mail is scanned and emailed to the client.

In Ireland and worldwide, even as technologies proliferate and their problems are overcome, offices – no matter how virtual – remain collections of people. The office of the future might have fewer workers in it, but the ones who are there will matter more than ever.