During the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses all over the world received a crash course in how to operate remotely. Companies that already used a distributed workforce are patting themselves on the back for their foresight. Now, both existing and new business owners are asking: Do I really need an office to run my small business?
Many small (and large) businesses do very well without an office—and not just because a pandemic forced them. Plenty of successful companies made the choice to go 100% remote long before it became a necessity.
Of course, there are many small businesses that simply cannot provide their core services without an office. Hair salons, car repair providers, and many other small businesses must interact with their customers or clients in person. This guide will focus on small business owners whose business model allows them to make a permanent shift to remote work.
Benefits of running a business without an office
Of course, not every business can or should operate remotely, but if you're still on the fence about whether your small business could do it, consider these statistics:
- Before COVID-19 remote work was already on the rise. The percentage of employees who spent at least 40% of their time working remotely increased from 46% in 2012 to 55% in 2016 and has been on the rise since. Companies that don't respond to the changing landscape will lose access to the most talented employees as the expectation for remote work options increases.
- Office space is expensive. The average cost of office space in New York City is more than $100 per square foot, and even in less expensive markets like Atlanta, it's $50 per square foot.
- Employees want the flexibility of remote work. According to Gallup, 54% of office employees say they would leave their current jobs for the option to work remotely.
Best practices for running a business without an office
Running a business with a distributed team requires careful planning as well as investment in tools and resources that will allow you and your employees to communicate effectively and manage all traditional in-person activities through cloud-based services.
Each small business will have its own particular needs and challenges. This guide covers best practices that apply to all small businesses:
- Ensuring all team members have suitable workspaces
- Protecting company data
- Getting a virtual business address
- Investing in communication tools
- Using an effective project management tool
- Finding meeting space, if necessary
- Providing remote work training to employees
Create an effective remote workspace
Not having an office doesn't mean you don't have a workspace. Remote work consultants recommend creating a workspace that is free from distractions and used exclusively for work.
But not everyone has a separate space that can be designated for work. If you (or your employees) don't, that's OK. Having a designated space is useful, but you can be productive at your kitchen table as long as you have the technology you need and are physically comfortable in your workspace. If you need two (or three) computer monitors to be effective, make sure you have those. If you can't focus on your tasks because your back is killing you from sitting in an uncomfortable chair, you're going to lose valuable time.
Make sure your employees have remote workspaces that allow them to work effectively. Ask them what they need to be more productive—a more comfortable chair, a standing desk, multiple monitors.
Companies like GroWrk can help you outfit your team with useful workspaces. GroWrk provides ergonomic home workstations for distributed teams on a monthly subscription model, so you don't have to spend capital to get everyone standing desks.
Secure your business data with a VPN or VDI
Cybersecurity is a growing concern among both small and large businesses. Investing in a solution to protect your company's data is critical, whether you're operating in an office or remotely. You and your employees will likely use public Wi-Fi networks (at a coffee shop, or in an airport), which can be easily hacked.
You have a number of options to protect your data, from simple and inexpensive to more complex and quite costly.
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN allows users to send communications across public networks (like the Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop) as if they were using a private network in a physical office. VPN services are inexpensive, ranging from a few bucks a month to around $15 a month, and there are a lot of options.
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)
A VDI provides each user with their own virtual desktop, all of which are connected to a centralized server managed by the administrator. VDI provides security along with a shared user interface so that everyone in the organization has access to the same tools and applications. Significantly more complex than a VPN, a VDI can cost thousands depending on how many employees you have.
User rating site G2 ranks Virtualbox as its top VDI service for small businesses, but you should discuss a VDI purchase with an IT professional first.
Get a virtual business address
Not having a physical office doesn't mean you can't have a business address. In fact, you need a business address to provide credibility to customers and to avoid the privacy risk of using your personal address for business communications.
plus, any business that registers with their secretary of state's office needs a business address. You may be able to use your home address for that purpose, but if you do, be warned that it's on a public document that can be easily accessed online.
The benefits of a virtual business address
If you don't have a physical office, your options for getting a business address are: (1) renting a P.O. Box; (2) asking to share an address with a local business; or (3) buying a virtual address.
For small businesses, a virtual business address provides the best mix of flexibility and security.
With a virtual address, you can access your mail online from home or while you're away.
Using either a P.O. Box or a shared address means you have to travel to that location to pick up your mail. That requirement automatically removes some of the flexibility you gained by choosing to run a small business without having a physical office. And picking up mail from either a P.O. Box or a shared address simply isn't possible if you're out of town.
You may have an employee that can manage the process, but that requires additional legwork—perhaps getting them the P.O. Box key or introducing them to the owner of the local address you're using. If you receive an important piece of mail that needs immediate attention, they have to scan it and email it to you. And what if they're out of town?
A virtual address provides the flexibility to read and act on your mail from your computer or mobile device from anywhere in the world.
Some virtual address services also integrate with programs like Bill.com or with file-sharing services like Dropbox so you can easily and efficiently collaborate with team members or pay an invoice. They may allow you to automatically make check deposit requests that you receive in the mail. All of these options reinforce the flexibility and efficiency you're creating with a remote business.
Perhaps most importantly, using a virtual address service that follows security and privacy best practices will keep your mail safe and secure. Sharing an address with a local business opens you up to security breaches since you don't know who might have access to the mail, and while a P.O. Box is secure, you (or your employees) have plenty of opportunities to lose a piece of paper between getting it out of the box and taking action on it.
Invest in remote work communication tools
Communication is important in any business, but it's especially critical for distributed teams. Without the opportunity for casual discussions that take place in an office, employees need lots of opportunities to connect with each other.
Beyond connecting peer to peer, the right communication tool can help ensure that senior leadership is communicating with the team at large. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study showed that employee engagement improves when senior leadership continually communicates their strategy.
So especially when your team is working remotely, it's essential that you have the right tools in place to communicate with your team.
In particular, we recommend you have the following tools: video conferencing for virtual meetings, messaging tools like Slack for quick soundbites, and collaboration tools like Google Drive for easy version control. These tools will ensure you stay on top of communication.
Choose a project management tool for remote work
Whether you're in the office or at home, project management can make or break your team's productivity. Effective project management tools orient the whole team to the most important tasks and milestones and include collaboration features so that you can be sure everyone's on the same page.
With plenty of options on the market, choosing the right platform for your team comes down to which features will help keep you and your team on track and what your preference is for user interface. For instance, some project management systems (Trello and Asana are two of the most popular) include a feature that acts almost like a giant bulletin board task list. For people who respond best to visual information, that feature might be a non-negotiable.
One feature that's especially useful for distributed teams is reporting. Detailed reporting of tasks and the time spent on them can help managers and employees stay in tune with each other's efforts and expectations when they're not in the office together. Tools like Asana and Monday.com can quickly create visually impactful reports that tell the full story of a team member's productivity. Everyone on the team can see it, so there's transparency about each person's responsibilities and progress, without the need for lengthy in-person meetings.
Train employees on remote work
Remote work doesn't necessarily come naturally to everyone. Some employees may have spent their entire career in an office before coming to work for you. Help your team understand your expectations as well as how to use the tools that you've provided.
- Define the workday. One of the perks of working remotely is the flexibility to work when you want to, but if you need your teams to be available at certain times, make that clear.
- Set video guidelines. If you don't want to see anyone in their pajamas on a video call, make sure that's clear. Showing up in your pajamas to the office is an obvious no, but understanding guidelines when working from home can be less clear.
- Provide opportunities for connections that aren't task-based. Hold regular virtual coffee chats or happy hours where employees can talk not only about what they're working on but also how their week is going, what's happening with their kids—the kinds of things they would chat about by the coffee maker or while they walk into the office together.
- Give training on tools. Many remote work tools are simple to use, but not everyone will have used them before. Provide training or access to training on using the features and functions that are important to your organization.
- Set communication guidelines. Let employees know what types of communications are appropriate for a slack message and what should be handled in an email or a phone call.
Running a remote small business that's just as successful as its office-based equivalents is completely possible with the right preparation and tools. Set appropriate expectations, prioritize communication, and maximize opportunities for flexibility and online collaboration.
If you're looking for a virtual address service that's committed to helping you succeed, sign up for Earth Class Mail, a LegalZoom company, today.