Virtual Office (NL)

Project partners    :  Nofa

Contact data :
Frederieke van der Lijn
+31 140511
e-mail:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Main problems to be solved (analysis)

Introduction to the theme:
•    Dealing with decreasing amenities / services in rural areas
•    Provision of front desk services in a digital way (face-to-face contact)

The region is facing population shrinkage and population ageing. This will have repercussions for the housing market, welfare and healthcare, quality of life and financial planning. In addition, Northeast Fryslân is one of the poorer regions in Fryslân in terms of income classes, and thus has a relatively large target group of lower-income earners.”
In such a context access to amenities are clearly important.

The amount of amenities in small villages is decreasing. Inhabitants of villages in rural have increasingly less access to amenities because by a processes of scale enlargement, the distance to these amenities is increasing. Banks and shops are closing because there are’nt enough clients to keep a physical office open. Furthermore, municipalities will merge in the future, which means that the distance to some services is increasing. This affects the livability, especially for the less mobile inhabitants, e.g. the elderly.

Easy access to amenities is essential, and the role played by digital facilities and technologies seems to be important. The project aims at reintroducing amenities, services, in the village, in an innovative, digital way.

Policy frameworks to be dealt with/fitting in:
Municipalities in the region are working together to reinforce the socio-economic infrastructure by means of  the Agenda Network Northeast. The project fits in one of the three project lines: “Sociaal en Leefbaar” which focusses on the liveability of the region.

Aim of the project:  
Research shows that the most basis facility / amenity a village needs in relation to quality of life, is a meeting place. A meeting place is a basic need, and in a small village personal contact is more and more essential; people are depending on each other because of lack of facilities and substantial distance to the larger centers.
Such a meeting place can take many forms. In small villages, the village hall is often the only facility where communal activities can take place. The village hall accommodates local associations and organizations. Other villages may have other meeting places in addition to the village hall.

The advent of the internet has also enabled people to make “virtual connections”. This presents opportunities for villages that are experiencing a gradual decline in amenities. By connecting a virtual meeting place to a physical meeting place (e.g. village hall, school, café), the village resident can reach out to the wider world.

An example of a virtual meeting place is the virtual office. The virtual office reintroduces amenities to the village. Residents can use the virtual office to take advantage of the services offered by various providers, such as banks, welfare organizations, municipalities, the police, Chamber of Commerce, and the tax authorities [Dutch: Belastingdienst].  In contrast to “ordinary” internet, face-to-face contact is established with members of staff.
This type of virtual office is aimed at a wide audience, and in particular at less mobile villagers (e.g. the elderly).

(Expected) Results:
-    The presence of a virtual office location in the pilot village. Citizens can use the virtual office in a very accessible way.   
-    Fully equipped Customer Care Center, ditto other providers
-    Several providers
-    A summary of the needs and wishes of the users of the virtual office
-    Providers will recognize and commit themselves to the service offered by the virtual office  
-    Commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers in the village (social support centre)
-    Citizens will use the virtual office more often (measurable) and the satisfaction of use will increase.

(Expected) outcome within the WP: Experience with the use of virtual communication and offering services to citizens by means of a virtual office (Skype) has been exchanged with the partners in WP3: monitoring of the number of clients per year, quality of the service, the usability of the software for the provider and the clients.

(Expected) outcome for the region as a whole (impact of the project; effects may be written in terms of the sustainability triangle = 3 P approach (people, planet, profit), i.e. benefits on the social, economical and physical part)

Expected result was that the inhabitants of Twijzelerheide would go to the virtual office  for certain services, instead of travelling to the town hall in Buitenpost.
By housing the virtual office in the building of the social support centre, the village received a service point, which could reinforce the diversity of services in the village.
The service point, including the virtual office,  is run by volunteers and unemployed as part of a reintegration project. The project makes it possible for citizens and volunteers to learn. They learn to deal with new technologies, responsibilities, to help others.

Started 2009
Opened September 2010
Monitoring 2010 – 2013  

€ 20.000 to realize the virtual office, the hardware and the implementation at the location (citizens office) in Twijzelerheide

Costs for providers offices (depends):
-  site survey, installation and training
-  Investment hardware and software
-  licenses
-  technical maintenance

Additional costs:
- Promotional activities

Implementation of the project (cf. CAA):
The municipality of Achtkarspelen is the project- owner and responsible for this project. The consortium started with the idea and helped Achtkarspelen with starting up the virtual office (process management and additional things). The consortium consists of suppliers and is not responsible for the project.

Several representatives of the municipality and the consortium participate in a project group. In the table below you'll find an overview of involved people/organizations



Municipality Achtkarspelen

Owner and provider on the virtual office.


Supplier / Contact for providers  

De Eijk BV (renewal & innovation)

Contract providers


Idea owner / create support / offers needed services


Idea owner / procesmanagement  

Werkpro / Raderwerk

Implementing Heidepunt and coaching volunteers

Which stakeholders were involved?
DHV (international consulting and engineering), Kabel Noord (cable company), Axtion (it-solutions), De Eijk BV (renewal & innovation)
The municipality organizes regularly meetings with all the stakeholders to discuss the progress of the project.   

What process did you run through to fit the project into local conditions?
how did you sustainably implement the project (locally, regionally)?
-    Several meetings with the management of the village hall and later on (after deciding to use another location) with the Social Support Centre.   
-    Presentation / demonstration of the virtual office at a local fair
-    Several articles and information on the village-website
-    Regular contact with several stakeholders and the involved local people
-    Upgrading of the Internet connection, from broadband to fiberglass (in combination with the primary schools) to improve high quality infrastructure
-    Achieve commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers in the village (social support centre

Regional: Regularly contact with the VRA Project Smart Rural Network Society in Burum (Northeast Fryslân) to exchange experiences for the purposes of scale-up potential, and to strengthen services to make it more attractive for providers.     


1 Which successes were achieved so far in the pilot project?
- what is the background / main reason for these successes?
- Implementation of a virtual office and connection to the municipality Achtkarspelen (infrastructure)
- Commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers in the village (social support centre)
- Upgraded internet connection (glass fibre in combination with the primary schools)

- what set-backs or problems did you face and what were the reasons for this?
- the number of visitors of the virtual office was low

- the number of providers of services was too low: we only succeeded to contract the municipality Achtkarspelen. The housing corporation, tax authority and welfare organization weren’t able to adapt their internal processes to connect to the virtual office.
That means that the virtual office hasn’t enough content to be attractive for a small and relatively social weak village like Twijzelerheide (1868 inhabitants, 1-1-2012).
To attract providers you need a larger scale (more potential clients) to make the investment interesting and profitable.

- The front desk of the municipality of Achtkarspelen was during the process of implementation involved in a reorganisation process. The additional service provision by means of a virtual office together with this reorganisation was too much to handle at the same time. The front office should have been implemented before introducing a new innovative service channel: virtual office. In this project it was the other way around.

- Providers may be willing to invest only when there is sufficient demand. In one separate villages this is difficult to achieve; this needs a larger scale. This can be reached if more villages install a virtual office, or by the use of video communication from homes (using webcam).
In this particularly case bundling of demand is possible when the virtual office in Burum (Smart Rural Network Society)  is implemented.  

- Technical problems, such as not enough upload capacity by the national internet provider KPN, the sound box that gives a ring when a citizen wants to connect with the front desk was sending out the conversation between the front desk and the citizen, the only solution to plug it out during the conversation and to plug it in when the virtual office was available again. Not the best solution and no other technical solution was offered by the supplier/company

- The speed of the internet connection was initially too low (upload- and download speed). The solution was the construction of glass fibre.

- are there any break-down patterns to be recognized in the project?
If we don’t succeed in attracting more providers, we are forced to stop the project.  
People in the village were sceptical and when confronted with technical problems (e.g. calling in, but no contact) they lost confidence in the service of the virtual office.  

- are these set-backs, problems or break-down patterns easy to solve? How?  
- Ensure that there a enough service providers to make it work. In our case we intent tot connect this pilot project to the pilot Smart Rural Network Society in order to enhance the number of services / providers. This will we crucial to make it successful.
- Provision of high speed internet connection
- Training and testing by a test-group before opening the service for all inhabitants, to make sure all bugs are fixed.

- what are the DO’s and the DON’Ts of the project?
- Focus strongly on commitment of the employees
- Providers must promote the use of the virtual office by pointing out the possibility to use the virtual office instead of traveling to the providers office of instead of calling by phone for an appointment
- Communicate clearly and regularly to employees (provider) and inhabitants
- Make it attractive to use the virtual office (combination / variety of services)
- Find ambassadors which can promote the virtual office
- Start with recruiting providers to ensure a minimum of services and tune this to the wishes and demands of the users/visitors

- what are critical success factors in this project?
- Number of providers (minimum 2)
- Number of clients (depends on village size)
- Well-trained employees; the service by the virtual office has to be well implemented in the work processes of the provider.

2 What are the expected boundary conditions for the project to be implemented?
- Providers need to recognize in and commit themselves to the provision of services by the   
  virtual office
- Enthusiastic volunteers
- Commitment of the local community organizations
- A high quality digital infrastructure
- Budget for the rent of the location, the hard- and software, and construction of the
  infrastructure (fast broadband or even better: glassfibre)
- A business plan to make it sustainable (costs / incomes)
- Agreements on ownership and management of the virtual office

3 Which related projects can be studied or consulted (other innovative best practice examples) before starting to think on implementation?  
- Smart Rural Network Society (Burum, NL)
- Virtueel Loket Aa en Hunze (NL)
- Teleloket Enschede (NL)
- Public Video Conference Spot; bringing public services to citizens in rural areas (France, Auvergne (

4 What is the applicability / transferability of the project?
a) as derived from the project results
- in terms of critical mass (physical, social, budget)
The village must not be to small and the culture of the village must be socially strong. It is also applicable as a solution for a couple of villages, facing the same lack of services.
- in terms of the needs of the region or location
It is a solution for villages or regions facing a decrease of facilities combined with decreasing or accessibility caused by people being or becoming less mobile (elderly).  
The larger the distance to a specific service / amenity, the more inhabitants will be inclined to use a digital solution.  

- in terms of the starting point for implementation
This particular project hasn’t started with a needs assessment. The assumption was that is too difficult to measure the need if people have no idea of a “new” initiative, but the lesson learned is that some kind of need assessment is crucial. A virtual office could be one of a set of possible solutions.

- in terms of participation and organization
Essential is the involvement in an early stage of:
- the Association of Village Interests
- the Board of the village house, community centre, etc.
- possible service providers / stakeholders
e.g. in a project group.

During the process, regularly briefing of the inhabitants by presenting the results is important. Using feedback from the inhabitants and others involved is essential.
During the process it is necessary to anticipate on transferring the ownership of the virtual office to the village; it must become the project of “the village”; they have to “adopt” it in order to enhance the acceptance of this innovation.

- in terms of time needed for implementation
Services must reasonably fit in the normal working process of the provider. The provider needs to adept his working process (working place with video conference equipment, employees need to be available when a client “calls”, it is usually an extra service, offered in addition to the daily work etc.).

- in terms of expected outcome (spin off for other fields: physical, social, economical)
Subprojects can be started to help people to learn how to deal with digital services. Providers who don't use any digital services yet, but who have a lot of customer contacts can use the connection to the virtual office as a pilot to learn to change their work process.

b) as derived from testing or implementation the project or the project results elsewhere.
  What were the results there?   
The project in Aa en Hunze had a good start, but also had problems with service providers that decided to change strategy and implemented virtual and digital services for there customers directly, from the office to the home. In those cases the virtual office in the village hall become unnecessary.

5 Which tools does the project bring in to alleviate / help starting up implementation elsewhere?

- Description of working processes (situation ‘as is’ and ‘new process’). Description process as it is now and the process using the new technology.  A successful project is 20% technique, 70% human beings and organizations, and 10% (bad) luck
- Training program employees

6 Sustainability
a) How is/can the project be sustainably implemented? What is needed to reach this?
- in terms of organization
You need:
- a project and process plan
- project structure
- communication plan, regarding clear and regular communication with stakeholders, (potential) providers and involved local parties
- during the process, regularly briefing of the inhabitants by presenting the results is important in order to get support among the population. Use the feedback received from the inhabitants and others involved.

Exchange experiences with other similar projects. (E.g. for scale-up potential and
strengthen services)

- in terms of regional / local networks/partnerships / people  
You need:
- commitment and enthusiasm of volunteers in the village (social support centre).
- providers of services

During the process it is necessary to anticipate on transferring the ownership of the virtual office to the village; it must become the project of “the village”; they have to “adopt” it in order to enhance the acceptance of this innovation.         

- in terms of budget
You need:
- budget for the rent of the location, the buy or rent the hard- and software, and construction of the infrastructure;
- a business plan, so that the virtual office will not be dependent on grants.

Date of production of this project format: November 26, 2012