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How thinking outside the office could help your business

Smaller business office solutions

With so much of the work we do now taking place online, lots of UK businesses are tearing up the rulebook when it comes to office premises.

We meet some business owners who moved away from the traditional office set-up.

Opening or maintaining an office is a big commitment, but a traditional long-term property contract is no longer your only option. Technology is offering businesses increased flexibility in how they operate – by helping keep outgoings low, attract and retain the best talent and build stronger relationships with clients.

Peter Thomson is research director at Wisework UK, a team of flexible working consultants with decades of experience. He says: ‘We work with lots of people who want to flex their workforce and keep overheads to a minimum. This might mean working from home or using flexible workspaces, like serviced offices with short-term contracts.’

Other approaches include basing staff in client locations, working from home, renting hot-desks or hiring freelancers. The benefits aren’t just financial or strategic. ‘By adding flexibility to your workforce, you can attract people for whom commuting to an office 9 to 5 every day is just not practical or desirable,’ says Peter.

Parents with childcare responsibilities, carers, part-time workers and freelancers could all benefit from working in a non-typical way. Some business owners may be concerned that you couldn’t keep an eye on a workforce that isn’t under one roof. But Peter says: ‘The key is to measure people by the tasks they complete rather than the hours of work they do. Then it’s obvious that they are pulling their weight when you see results. We’ve actually seen productivity rise when people are allowed to work in a way that suits them and aren’t wasting time on trains or in the car.’

Meet 3 UK businesses taking a flexible approach

Marc Defosse is owner and MD of RibbonFish , a tech company that builds online tools and apps for companies all over the world.

‘We were initially a small group of contractors, winning huge contracts for major global publishers, UK councils and local authorities, but we had no office whatsoever.

‘Most of our time was spent at client locations across Oxford, Cambridge, Basingstoke, London, and New York.

‘Financially, working remotely was helpful. But there are other benefits to being right there on the scene. It’s much easier to walk over to a client’s desk and chat to them about the project – addressing their concerns and queries is more efficient and immediate. You can get instant feedback on your work, and collaborate more closely.

‘A chunk of our current work has also resulted from being in the right place at the right time. We were entered into a request for proposal (RFP) just 7 days before the closing date after an off-the-cuff conversation, and won a lucrative contract.

‘Trust develops faster when your client can see the hours of devotion your team puts into a project. Building a team spirit within RibbonFish was more difficult when we were spread across various cities, and you’ve got to be constantly aware that you’re in your client’s environment. If you’re having a bad day, or there’s a team dispute, you need to keep it under wraps. That said, everyone’s human and there’s no reason to not acknowledge challenges and show your personality – after all, business is built on relationships.’

Antonio Borges is MD of Monkfeet , an online company offering bespoke business courses from industry professionals, based in co-working space work.life Camden .

‘We’ve been up and running for 2 years, working in partnership with co-working spaces across London. We’re now based at work.life Camden, which is really well connected and full of creative businesses.

‘Flexibility is the best thing about it. We only have to give a month’s notice on the number of desks we take, so we can grow as much as we need. At the moment we’re fewer than 20 people but plan to grow fast over the next year.

‘It’s also plug in and play. As a tech business with remote servers, this is perfect – we don’t have to worry about any of the infrastructure of running an office.

‘As an online business, we don’t normally see clients, but book meeting rooms for business partners and investors. This is another huge advantage. Some hours are included in the monthly rent and the rest are charged as an add-on so it’s much cheaper than a boardroom that’s empty half the time.

‘Because work.life Camden offers hot-desking, fixed desks and separate offices, which are a little more professional and offer more privacy, we have the option of growing within the space, so for us, this could be a long-term solution.’

Mark Thomas is CEO of PR company Word Association . Most of his company now works remotely.

‘10 years ago, I went travelling and we closed the office and worked remotely. It worked so well that we kept it going.

‘Most people use a combination of home-working and hot-desking. We used to be totally home-based, but found having the base has helped with some challenges, like team building, so now everyone gets together a couple of times a month at least.

‘Communication is easy, though Skype or FaceTime and tools such as Adobe Acrobat Pro allow us to collaborate on projects. This way of working keeps overheads low, can help with staff retention and the quality of staff we can attract.

‘To any business owners thinking about taking the plunge, I’d say, think carefully. It doesn’t work for all staff, so consult and then experiment with various levels of remote working. It’s also worth developing ways to manage staff based more on outcomes than time in the office – it can be a big cultural shift but it’s worth it.’

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