Now that so much business is conducted via internet and telephone, there is less need to work from a traditional office. Advances in digital infrastructure have changed the working environment: inexpensive (or even free) and easy-to-use web-based business applications and services enable people to work where they want. But because a physical presence is sometimes still required – when signing a deal or holding a conference, for example – the demand for office space has become ad hoc rather than permanent.
The virtual office presents two opportunities: first, it promises huge cost efficiencies for small businesses in terms of computer systems, virtual server space and even employee resources. Second, it gives rise to exciting new enterprises that provide physical real estate and attendant computing facilities for as little or as long as required – by the week, or even by the hour. As a result, the framework exists for savvy entrepreneurs to adopt a flexible approach to traditional office requirements, saving both time and money.
Virtual offices – such as those operated by Regus – allow small businesses to utilize a prime business address, private meeting rooms and real-life receptionists who can screen calls and schedule appointments. Regus itself has more than 1,000 locations worldwide including over 450 in the United States and costs from $99 per month. This fee includes a dedicated business address, a local phone number, mail and call handling, and unlimited access to Regus business lounges around the world. This type of working environment offers an efficient way to cut back on payroll costs, and with rent, energy and commuting costs continuing to rise, the utilization of internet-based shared office services is poised to grow.
Starting more web-based virtual offices and concierge-type services that link these with existing physical spaces seems a natural next step for creative small enterprises. Businesses that connect virtual office workers – and which allow them to share servers, IT storage and power – are in increasing demand, as are online printing and shipping services that provide hardware equipment that virtual office workers would not otherwise be able to access. Businesses with excess floor space might think about renting it out; service companies should consider how they can target their business to this market. Tech support companies will be able to help others make the move online.
Historically, the cost of setting up, maintaining and growing a business was often prohibitive. Rent, utilities and support- staff pay all add up – not to mention the cost of the time spent attending to ancillary administrative issues. Free outdoor wireless zones, mobile devices and the ensuing 3G laptop revolution mean emails and more can be accessed from a park bench if the user so desires. Businesses can take advantage of the huge savings made by eliminating what are fast becoming unnecessary costs: those of maintaining a fixed, physical office and attendant staff; and those of investing in software that can be accessed online.
Up in the Air: Cloud Computing
Cloud computing is the name given to web-based computer applications that have – until recently – been accessed using a personal desktop. Rather than storing personal files and documents on your home computer, they are stored on remote servers (the “cloud”) that can be accessed from any internet-connected computer. Instead of loading Microsoft Office and other programs from your personal computer, you access them online from any computer you use. In business terms, cloud computing enables companies to function by storing their files on the internet rather than on personal servers. It can extend IT capacity and add as many applications as required, without the company having to invest in new infrastructure, train new personnel or license new software. Usually a subscription-based or pay-per-use service, it offers IT functions such as payroll processing, Bloomberg, conventional credit card processing services, virus scanning and expense management systems. Amazon is an example of a company that has leveraged its expertize as a trustworthy online business in order to provide its own version of cloud computing, called AWS (Amazon Web Services). It offers services such as database hosting, payment processing and e-commerce. Other companies like 3tera ffer similar cloud computing packages, too. Over the next five years, businesses are forecast to move toward employing a combination of locally hosted (desktop) software plus a series of web services; over greater time, the trend is almost certain to favor cloud-based systems. Cloud computing is likely to accelerate the trend for the “office-less office,” making the labor-intensive and time-consuming process of installing and updating software on every computer in the building a thing of the past.