Small Business Guides
Make a mobile office work for your business
7 min read
Offices used to be essential for most businesses. But mobile technology and new working practices mean that many small businesses don't need any office space. Here's what you need to know about having a mobile office.
Running a business without an office
It often makes sense to start a new small business from home, because it keeps costs to a minimum. But these days, some businesses continue to operate without offices even once they've become established.
Technology has made this a practical option. Ten years ago, the likelihood of finding public spaces with free wireless internet and power outlets was almost zero. Today most cities have them – in libraries, cafés and even on buses and trains. Casual-use shared office space is widely available for meetings and short-term work, too.
Mobile devices and cloud-based software have helped drive the change in working practices. For many small businesses, it now makes perfect sense to operate with no fixed office location.
Could it work for you? In this guide we'll look at the pros and cons of working without an office, with tips on making the most of this new and potentially liberating way of doing business.
A seven-point checklist to see if you could go without an office
Instead of travelling to work, technology allows work to come to you. For some types of business owner (especially those who don't need to see their clients face-to-face on a regular basis), an office is no longer essential. Here's a short checklist to see if your business could work without an office:
- You mostly do business by phone, email, messaging and social media.
- You run a service business or a 'dropship' retail business, not a manufacturing business or a bricks-and-mortar shop.
- You rarely see your clients in person.
- Most of what you sell is digital, for example software, graphics, words, photography, video, audio.
- You don't need large equipment to do your job.
- You're a good communicator.
- You're happy working alone.
Three benefits of a mobile office
People run businesses without offices for a variety of reasons. Here are three of the most common:
- Not having an office can save you money
Office space can be expensive, especially for a new business. Furniture, electricity and internet access must all be paid for too. And as your business grows, your office would have to grow with it – which means relocation expenses. That money could be better spent in areas that directly affect the bottom line, such as marketing or hiring more employees.
- Without a commute you'll save time
If you don't have to commute to an office you could gain an hour or more every day compared with people who do. Whether you use that time for work or relaxation, it's a big benefit.
- Less distractions increases productivity
If you manage your environment properly, remote working can increase your productivity. There will be fewer distractions and fewer meetings – making it easier to concentrate and think clearly about your work.
Where will you go?
For the office-less worker there are many possible venues. Most ex-office workers need an internet connection and a power supply for a laptop or other mobile device – and not much else.
The obvious place, with both advantages and drawbacks. Power and internet are already available and the commute is easy. On the other hand, working from home can cause relationship stresses and work-life imbalance. It can be hard to switch off at the end of the day when your home is your office.
Many provide free wireless internet and power outlets to customers. They may not be happy if you buy a single coffee and stay there all day, though.
- Libraries and other council buildings
Public spaces often have free or cheap wireless internet these days, and many allow visitors to plug in their laptops too.
- Shared workspaces
There are many shared workspaces available, particularly in larger cities. They usually have flexible terms so you only pay for the hours or days when you use them. Payment gives you access to printers and other office equipment, communal areas, internet and power. They're good for business networking too.
- Hotel rooms
Expensive to use on a regular basis, but great for those times when you need to get away for a few days and concentrate on a big project with no distractions.
Think about meeting places too. It's more professional to meet a client in a shared workspace or hotel lobby than in your makeshift office at home.
Use the right tools
You can't work properly without the right equipment. But for many office-free workers that's a relatively small investment:
- Laptop computer
Unless you need a lot of processing power, a basic one will be sufficient. As long as it has an internet connection you can work collaboratively with people all over the world.
- USB flash memory sticks or hard drives
Always keep backups of your work – and use encryption software to keep them safe.
- Mobile phone
Make sure your clients can reach you easily. You can also use this for internet access if you can't get free wireless internet.
With a tablet you can take advantage of the larger screen to work on the go – from anywhere.
- Cloud or online applications
This is what's really driving the office-free revolution. Everything you're likely to need is available online, using cloud-based software.
Some of the more popular tools include Google Apps (such as Drive, Docs and Calendar). There’s also Evernote for keeping lists, Dropbox or Box to store your data and backups and Basecamp for collaborative project management.
Instant messaging software and video-conferencing tools such as Skype or Google Hangouts are essential if you're working in a remote team. Make sure you get quality online accounting software too, which you can access anywhere at any time.
There are many cloud or online products available, so you should be able to find whatever you need to do your work remotely.
How to cope with the downsides
Working without an office has its disadvantages, but you can overcome them if you're prepared. Here are some of the issues you may face, with tips on how to cope.
- Avoiding loneliness
The first few weeks may feel liberating – you're free from office politics, commuting and unnecessary meetings! But humans are social creatures, so make new friends and acquaintances wherever you can. Don't limit yourself to online contact – that's not enough to keep you happy and sociable.
- Staying in the loop
Office chit-chat can lead to the exchange of important business information, new ideas and new projects. Some office spaces are even designed to encourage this interaction. You'll miss out on such conversations by not being there. Try to make time to meet your colleagues and work partners socially, perhaps after work on a Friday.
- Getting new work
If you work on a freelance basis or as a contractor then one of the best ways to pick up new work is to be physically present. You may only need to do this once a month. Visit your clients' offices, talk to the people who commission you, and be friendly and professional. The next time new projects are assigned, you'll be remembered.
- Maintaining motivation
It can be hard to stay motivated if you're not in an office full of working people. If you have a work deadline next week it can be tempting to take time off today. But that just increases your workload later. Learn to plan and schedule your work sensibly. And build up your willpower – it will help you succeed.
- Meeting clients at the office isn’t an option
When you don’t have an office, you’ll need to utilise other spaces to catch up with clients. Some cafés will have relatively quiet areas for you to meet with clients – but bear in mind that you won’t always have complete privacy!
- Finding the right balance
Office workers have clearly defined working days. They start when they arrive in the office and stop when they leave. If you don't have an office then it can be hard to know when to switch off. Be disciplined about this. You'll work better and more creatively if you find a good work-life balance.
Not everyone can have a mobile office, but it's an option that's increasingly taken up by companies around the world.
Have a back-up plan
You might think your business will run smoothly without an office, but sometimes the practicalities can trip you up:
- What happens if your favourite coffee shop's wireless internet breaks down?
- Will you still get a desk and power outlet in the library during student exam revision time?
- Can you cope with noise, distractions and people talking while you're working?
Libraries, councils and coffee shop owners don’t have to provide your business with free power and internet access. It's great that some of them do, but it's always wise to have a back-up plan in case your 'office' needs to relocate at short notice.
Work wisely, wherever you are
Not everyone can have a mobile office, but it's an option that's increasingly taken up by companies around the world. Employees often benefit too. Having the flexibility to work remotely can have a positive impact on work-life balance – and can improve employee satisfaction and productivity.
If you decide to run your business this way, you will need willpower, dedication and good communication skills. But the rewards will make it all worth it – more freedom, greater job satisfaction and potentially more profit.