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Here, there, everywhere: The dispersed office

After salaries, rent is often the largest business expense for an SME. Implementing and downsizing office space can save the average London-based SME £18,600 per year. That’s a potential savings of £306 million for the more than 16,000 SMEs in the capital. Research by PowWowNow, a conference call provider, based this on the assumption that SMEs shift just 20 per cent of their workforce to flexible arrangements, such as remote working, and reduce office space accordingly.

While London shows the most dramatic savings, SMEs in other regions can save on annual costs too:
• East of England: £5,328
• North East: £5,160
• South East: £7,100
• Wales: £4,440

It’s not just small companies that are giving staff more flexibility and reducing their office sizes, though. The global accounting and consultancy firm PwC shrunk office space per employee by 30 per cent a few years ago in most of its US offices when it modernised them, after noting people didn’t go into the offices the way they used to.
 

Going all the way

Some companies choose to go further, though. An increasing number of businesses are choosing to go officeless. Some are small shops, sometimes a sole proprietorship, but the trend is growing in the UK with 1.54 million working from home for their main job. That’s a 74 per cent increase in the decade from 2008 to 2018. A major benefit for companies that go officeless is that their job candidates don’t have to worry about commuting to the office, making the whole country – or even the world – their talent pool.

Automattic – a software firm with more than 900 employees globally and best known for its product WordPress – has, after its latest round of funding in September, a valuation of $3 billion and no permanent offices. So, it seems, going officeless is possible and can scale as a company grows. But what are the best ways to make it a success?
 

What’s the secret?

It takes work to make an officeless business succeed. And it won’t work for all businesses. A manufacturing business, for example, needs a manufacturing facility. So an SME must first consider if it must have a central premises for business purposes.

Most important is hiring the right people. You need people who can work with minimal supervision. If hiring new staff, you may want to spend time seeing if they’re responsive and communicative, and if they can satisfactorily complete a small project. Have a probationary period and, if not a good match, set them free to find something better for them.

If you’re converting existing employees from an office to dispersed working, the hiring is done, but the managing isn’t. It’s crucial that management is aware, involved and active in ensuring the team coalesces.

Companies need to make sure staff have ample time to socialise, both in person at company-sponsored meetings, conferences and events, and using technology, whether it’s Slack, WhatsApp, Skype or other communication software. Creating a group channel so staff can share casual conversation about home life, weather, sports or other topics can create a virtual water cooler and build cohesion.

Going officeless doesn’t mean skimping on technology either. Staff will need a good internet connection, a mobile phone, communication and collaboration software, and document management and office productivity software, just as if they were in an office. Companies may also need to either give an allowance for, or provide, hardware as well. And finally, scheduling and payroll systems must be robust and reliable. Staff expect to be paid on time and records must be kept for tax and regulatory needs.

Encourage employees to find an environment that suits them. Some may choose to work from a co-working space, preferring to get out of the house and work around people. Others may like to set up a home office. Still others will settle in at a coffee shop. As long as the work gets done to an acceptable standard and no client information is compromised, be flexible.

Also be flexible about the hours staff work. The flexibility to run an errand or go to the dentist or gym is one of the great benefits of working remotely. There may be conference calls or appointments with clients that require adhering to a schedule, but allow staff to work when they’re most productive and they’ll produce better results.

Current technology makes going officeless a real option. SMEs can cover a wider geographical area, draw from a wider pool of talent, and reap significant savings by doing away with a traditional office. It’s not without pitfalls, but the rewards – both financial and otherwise – can be worth it.

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Here, there, everywhere: The dispersed office
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