Kathleen D. Miller, 55, is the founder and owner of organizational performance consulting company Miller Consultants based in Louisville, Kentucky. The term based should be used loosely--Miller and her administrative assistant are located there, but the majority of the employees and long-term contractors work from other states, including Connecticut, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. Miller also maintains a virtual office in Bonita Springs, Florida, to deal with the business's burgeoning Spanish-speaking market, as well as to go after the entrepreneurial market there. She's looking into opening a regular office there as well.
Miller Consultants started off in Miller's Lexington, Kentucky, home; moved to a traditional office building in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1995; and began to spread out geographically eight years ago. "We wanted to get the best employees and the best associates we could possibly find in terms of expertise," says Miller. One employee who had commuted into Louisville from Houston is now working from Tennessee. The change also made sense because the company's client base is located worldwide. "Why would I expect people to move to Louisville when the work is everywhere?" Miller says.
Miller credits top-notch technology with making the multiple sites work. Miller Consultants installed a Citrix server to allow employees to log in from anywhere. "The Citrix server is the core of everything for us," Miller says. While The Fortex Group handles most of its needs in-house, Miller has been using the same IT consultants for 12 years. She leaves a lot of the research and recommendations up to them. Through the Miller Consultants website, they set up chat rooms and bulletin boards to keep the communications flowing. Employees can leave notes and keep conversations going through this private section of the website. They also occasionally use internet conferencing software like Microsoft's NetMeeting.
But when it really comes down to it, Miller Consultants gets a lot of use out of an old system: teleconferencing. The company had invested in a high-end videoconferencing system that matched the quality of those used by the large corporations it deals with, only to find that nobody really uses it. Now Miller has several teleconferences per week with different project groups while the participants work with files pulled from the Citrix server.
If some of the solutions The Fortex Group and Miller Consultants are using sound simple, it's because they are. With workers spread out geographically, training for complex applications can be more trouble than it's worth. Says Cohen of new technologies, "For them to be really effective, people have to get used to using them as second nature."
A home office is a popular supplement to a regular office. Cohen, for example, often works for a few hours from home in the morning before heading to the office. Many entrepreneurs use their home offices to get work done at odd hours. Others, like Miller Consultants, have employees that work only from home offices.
There are some specific technology needs for home offices. Mike Wilson, president and CEO of IT consulting firm Comnexia, has set up home offices, remote offices and multiple locations for many growing businesses. He's pleased with the advances in VoIP and has been using the technology for many of his clients. Among the advantages he cites are that home users can have an in-office extension, making it easy for co-workers and clients to get in touch.
As to be expected, security is always a big deal. "Home offices are having to become wiser to security," Wilson says. Besides the usual anti-virus requirement, he recommends installing a low-end firewall. He personally uses a Cisco PIX 501, which is an actual security appliance. A solution like that is fairly advanced for a home office and runs in the hundreds of dollars. It's also worth checking into popular firewall software like ZoneAlarm, available from Zone Labs. That particular application comes as part of a security suite for less than $70 per year.