The Virtual Office: The Early Years

In March, virtual office company Alliance Virtual Offices sparked a campaign to clean up the definition of ‘virtual offices’.

Inaccurate information and thinly veiled promotional material has created questionable entries on external informational sources like Wikipedia. This, says Alliance Virtual, is both immoral and misleading; leading to confusion as to what a virtual office really is and causing damage to virtual office operators as well as the industry itself.

In an effort to define the meaning of virtual offices and to put history straight, Alliance Virtual has begun investigating the early years of the industry in order to better understand how, when and by whom the concept was pioneered.

As part of this campaign, OfficingToday’s Lisa Creffield recently interviewed Marcus Moufarrige, COO of Servcorp, to find out about his company’s role in pioneering the virtual office concept. In this insightful discussion, it was revealed that Servcorp began offering a combination of services in the 1980s which, according to Mr Moufarrige, “was essentially a glorified paging service paired with an address”.

This service was developed in order to make use of extra capacity, and Servcorp has since evolved to become one of the world’s largest providers of virtual office and business address services today.

However, there’s another angle to the story. It starts in 1980 in London when Richard Nissen launched a business centre in Piccadilly and, later, in an effort to diversify his business post-recession, passed a trademark for the term ‘the virtual office’ in 1992.

Prior to this, any combination of services similar to a virtual office – such as those offered by Servcorp – were known under different names. Marcus Moufarrige recalls: “We originally called it ‘Networking’ then ‘Company Headquarters’ as a brand, this was in the late 1980s. By the mid nineties we started branding it ‘Servcorp Virtual Offices’.”

What’s fascinating about these early years is that it appears both operators – and most likely others too – began offering a combination of secretarial, business address and mailing services as a way to diversify their business, and to maximise their physical office capacity. Yet it wasn’t until after the early 1990s that ‘the virtual office’ became the de facto calling card for this package of services, and according to British trademark records, we have Mr Nissen to thank for that.

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