Virtual workplace a model for innovative business

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A Winnipeg-based organization that facilitates technology skills development across rural communities in Manitoba uses a virtual workplace to stay connected with remote staff.

The Manitoba E-Association Inc. employs youth across the province to teach local communities and community-serving organizations to utilize and adapt technology for a variety of purposes.

Skills taught to these communities include Web site design and maintenance; training is also provided on various types of software applications.

Through this setup, paid short-term employment is made available to youth in rural and remote places – youth who might otherwise be hard-pressed to find information technology (IT) jobs in their hometown.

Currently, there are more than one hundred youth between the ages of 16 and 29 who participate in the ‘train the trainer’ program from their home towns, says Clarice Leader, executive director of the Manitoba E-Association Inc. “The virtual workplace is the only way we can manage a distributed workforce of that type.”

The Association is funded, in part, by the Community Connections program, of which Leader is also project manager. Community Connections is operated by the Government of Manitoba’s Department of Science, Technology and Mines.

Besides cash donations, Community Connections provides funding in kind as well.

The organization’s virtual workplace – dubbed E-Office – allows users to file progress reports, log their work hours, gain access to commonly-shared files on the server, and read and post messages on a bulletin board.

The Association uses weekly progress reports, filed by youth, to tabulate accomplishments for each community project or community-serving organization. The reporting and payroll part of the system is designed to allow users to log work hours only after progress reports have been filed, says Leader.

The reporting and payroll aspect of E-Office is a service provided by Synray Support Solutions, an information and communications technologies provider based in Winnipeg.

To monitor the youth’s job performance, a designated volunteer for each project provides the Association with reports on a weekly basis through E-Office. This virtual process eliminates the need for the Association to dispatch a supervisor to each location, says Leader.

“The cost to have supervisors in each of those towns would be prohibitive, and the organization wouldn’t be able to run.”

Besides staying connected through the reporting and monitoring component of E-Office, the youth stay abreast of Association news through the online bulletin board that’s categorized along a variety of subjects.

The E-Office benefits the Association’s full-time administrative staff as well, many of whom are also scattered across Manitoba, says Leader. The virtual workplace for employees is much like that for youth, with the exception of the payroll function.

The E-Office is based on Windows Small Business Server. “It was chosen to [support] our virtual office setup because of the diverse amount of tools that come with it,” says Troy Fontaine, project coordinator at Manitoba E-Association Inc.

In particular, he says, Microsoft Exchange Server provides “full e-mail capability” and the ability to view other employees’ calendars for better task management.

It also means they can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) across which to inter-communicate, adds Fontaine.

Although E-Office has been a useful channel of communication between dispersed employees and youth, he says, managing remote individuals can sometimes be difficult given the Association’s lack of a managed IT environment.

Drawbacks aside, the Association’s mandate to teach rural communities to use and adapt technology fits in with its own use of a virtual workplace, says Leader. “We need to be able to demonstrate, from an organizational level, the extent to which technology can be used. We see ourselves as role models.”

Besides setting a good example, the Association’s E-Office should encourage other members of the community to take an innovative approach to business, she says. “If people can see an actual example [of innovation], they are more likely to wonder ‘why can’t we do it this way instead of using more traditional methods’?”

There is a definite recipe to creating an innovative community, says Kieran Bonner, professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo. “You need tolerance, diversity and openness to new ideas,” he says. “And you need innovative people in the community to attract other innovative people.”

He says creating an attractive city requires factors such as a university, innovative businesses, a lively and diverse culture, and far-sighted municipal leadership.

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