The virtual workforce. Telecommuting. Mobility baked into everything. The cloud.
Nearly all the big trends facing small companies doing business in the '10s speak to the increasing irrelevance of one of the hallmarks of the working world: the office.
We've all worked there, whether we had an individual office with a window and a door, or just a small patch of carpet in a sea of cubicles. And generally an office isn't a bad place to spend the day: It has climate control, an IT department to fix problems, and sometimes even free coffee. But most of all, offices offer camaraderie, and the chance for employees to have impromptu meetings and bounce ideas off one another.
Unfortunately, offices are also terribly, terribly expensive. Even in the down economy, real estate in a prime area such as midtown Manhattan can cost $50 per square foot per month and up, and that's not including utilities, furniture, and build-out expenses.
So maybe you don't need an office after all. With a largely mobile workforce that is often working from home, a car, or a nearby café, what's the point of stocking a fridge that no one will ever use? Why not ditch the office for good and go 100% office-free?
Many people already do this, but if your job involves more than just tapping away on your laptop and making the occasional phone call, running a company without an office can be challenging.
Here are the big issues--and how to address them.
Dealing With Employees
One of the biggest fears that many employers have about telecommuting is the worry that remote employees won't do their jobs. Leave staffers alone at home all day, and they'll just watch TV, do the laundry, or play hooky, leaving you to foot the bill for a day off. Those concerns seem to be misplaced, however. In fact, some studies have shown that employees who have more flexibility (including telecommuting options) work harder and longer than if they were at the office. This is why many employers are happy to outfit their staff with smartphones and laptops: A mobile device makes it incredibly easy to take your work home with you.
Of course, managing remote employees isn't always smooth sailing, and it's quite possible that your key people will decide to take a long lunch when you need them the most. The solution is largely one of setting expectations. Even if your employees are never in the office, they need to know that you expect them to act as if they were. Set working hours and a specific lunchtime if necessary, and require your staff to stick to the schedule. This policy should be in writing, either in a person's offer letter or as part of your employee handbook. If employees can't stick to the schedule for some reason, tell them that they need to let you know well in advance. An office employee wouldn't think of leaving for a doctor's appointment without notifying the boss, and there's no reason a remote worker should do so either.
Making the rules of remote working crystal clear should mitigate most management problems.
Another big challenge with remote work involves communicating. You can't just walk over and drop a file on a junior staffer's desk or round up a few people for a quick meeting. So how do you keep in touch, and keep everyone on the same page?
Instant messaging has been the communications medium of choice for most virtual or far-flung organizations. Choose a platform, and require all staffers to sign in to their account at the beginning of each workday. If employees aren't going to be available for a while, whether it's for lunch or other duties, have them update their IM status to reflect where they are and when they'll be back.
Of course, having a workable phone network is critical too. Although many people have forsaken landlines these days, if employees' cell phone reception isn't perfect, they'll need to change networks, acquire a VoIP system, or even invest in old-school wires. As a small-business owner, you may have to pay for some or all of this expense.
If you want to get really advanced, you can look into having group video chats with your staff. OoVoo supports video chats with up to 12 participants (free with ads; $3 per user per month without ads). Skype Premium supports up to 10 simultaneous participants for $5 per user per month. Just make sure everyone has a very fast network connection.
Managing Client Meetings
If your business involves dealing with clients, IM and Skype aren't usually the greatest options, and you'll find that eventually you need to meet people in person. Starbucks doesn't make a terrific first impression, but your garage may be even worse--home-based businesses carry a stigma of unprofessionalism, and if you're trying to pump your company up to look bigger than it is, you can't exactly ask a prospective client to have a seat on your futon.
The best solution: Meet at the client's office whenever possible. Sure, this means more travel on your part, but it lets you put your best foot forward and immediately places you on the same level as your client.
If a client is coming to you, you'll have to get more creative. Even if you have a dedicated office in your home, you don't want to lead clients past dirty dishes and stacks of children's toys to get there. A clean house also speaks volumes about your organizational abilities and general conscientiousness.
Another option is to meet in the middle. Meeting at a coffee shop or restaurant is common, but the environment can be noisy and cramped, and it doesn't offer any privacy. Arrive early and stake out a spot in a corner, away from other patrons and noisy equipment or audio speakers.
If you have the means, shared or drop-in office space can offer instant professionalism, one hour at a time. You'll find shared office space facilities in most metro areas, and many service-oriented businesses (such as law firms) lease their conference rooms when they don't need them. Ask around with your service providers, or simply run a Google search for "shared office space yourcity" to find options. Expect to pay $20 to $80 an hour for a space with the typical conference-room amenities, such as Wi-Fi and whiteboards.
Dealing With Files
One of the most nagging challenges of working without an office is what to do with all the invoices, receipts, statements, faxes, and other bits of paper the average worker accumulates on a daily basis. The easiest solution is to jettison paper from your work life as much as possible. Sign up for electronic statements from utilities, banks, and service providers, and ask for invoices to be sent to you by email.
You'll never eliminate all paper, of course. Many people have had good luck with tools such as Evernote, which lets you save electronic documents and scan paper ones, and essentially forces you to categorize and file everything using a system that makes logical sense. Notes and files sync with the cloud, so you can access your information from a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
You might think that freeing yourself from an office means you can skimp on security, but actually the opposite is true. When your laptop or smartphone holds all of your data, security becomes of paramount importance. Losing a single device to theft or a malware attack can be devastating. If you keep client data on that device--especially anything of a financial nature--the loss could cripple your business for good.
Making backups is the obvious first step, and if you use cloud services such as Dropbox and Mozy, you can keep your data secure without having to invest in a USB storage device or other additional hardware. Employing strong passwords and encryption is another essential step that can save your hide should a device fall into the wrong hands. Various versions of Windows and Android include encrypted storage options, and third-party tools are also available.
Finally, consider a business insurance policy that can cover you in case all of the above fail.
This story, "Why you don't need to work in an office ever again" was originally published by PCWorld.