Firms turn their backs on the office

2008

Who needs an office anyway? That's what an increasing number of organisations are asking as a new survey from the UK reveals that up to half of small businesses don't work from formal business premises.

A survey of 530 small businesses by mobile phone operator 02 has found a huge upsurge in the numbers of small firms abandoning their offices in favour of working at home since the onset of the credit crisis.

This year alone, around one in ten of the companies questioned had chosen not to renew an office lease, while two-thirds of those polled who were still working from an office said they were considering giving it up over the next 12 months.

Little wonder that separate research suggests that the amount of vacant office space in some cities in the UK has almost doubled over the past year, while official figures suggest that half of small businesses in the UK are based at home.

Of the half that told 02 they don't operate out of offices, a quarter said they do have access to office space but work remotely or from home, while nearly one in five have abandoned their offices over the past eight months.

The reasons for making the switch will come as little surprise. The credit crunch has led small firms to look to reduce costs, with rent an obvious candidate. Indeed, almost two-thirds of the firms polled said that reducing costs was the main reason for them to abandon the office.

Similarly, in uncertain times, bosses are increasingly reluctant to sign up to lengthy rental contracts.

The desire for flexible hours, an end to expensive and time-consuming commuting and access to better communications technology also emerged as drivers towards new ways of working.

Simon Devonshire, head of O2 SME marketing, said: "Developments in technology and mobile communications are enabling businesses to be flexible and respond very quickly to changes in the market place.

"Getting rid of the office relieves many small businesses of a major overhead very quickly and shows a rapid response to current economic pressures."

But as one successful UK recruitment consultancy has found, saving money is the least of the benefits of being flexible about where, when and how you work.

When Jo Sellwood and Sharon Mullen co-founded Strategi Search & Selection they were determined to create a business that was not based on a culture of presenteeism. They knew from experience that long hours in the office do not necessarily lead to increased productivity or job satisfaction – and particularly that such a culture does not suit working mothers trying to juggle work and family life.

So they set out to build a company that delivered the service it promised to clients but with an adult environment where staff can decide what their work life will look like.

And crucially, that means flexibility about all aspects of work, not just its location. So for some the choice has been to divide their time between home and an office. Others plug into the Strategi office network as appropriate. This menu of options is key to offering a flexible choice of working according to Strategi.

The company is equally flexible about part-time or full time working and it is not unusual for a member of staff to move from part-time to full-time or vice-versa depending on their circumstances.

"As an employer we get immeasurable return in terms of loyalty and commitment," said Sharon Mullen, who is the mother of three year-old triplets and works a four-day week.

"Flexible working has become a massive retention tool for us, although that wasn't the main reason for doing it initially. For example, we have talented people with family responsibilities who need to spend some time at home and cannot find the same flexibility they get with us from other employers.

Indeed the model has proved a real success, with very low staff turnover and a substantial business growth rate as illustrated by a 300 per cent increase in turnover over the past five years.

But what about those fabled water-cooler conversations and the criticism that it is impossible to mimic the informal but valuable discussion that take place or over a coffee or lunch?

For Sharon, the key is communication, communication, communication. Strategi consultants combine regular telephone contact with text, email and teleconference support on a daily basis.

"This is one of the things that we have taught people that works really well", says Sharon.

"If I have just spoken to a client who has mentioned something to me that I think would be useful for another member of the team, I will immediately pass this information on through a text, email or voice message. In fact, it is my obligation to pass on that communication. It has to be this way if you want to make a success of flexible working."

But as she also admits, it takes the right sort of people to make it work.

"It needs people who are self motivators, driven and very bright. They also need to be willing to work hard. Our consultants all tend to be at a more experienced senior level and thus at a different stage in their careers.

"There is not the same need to socialise and to validate themselves with their peers which would be more true of those in the younger generation X and Y groups who tend to prefer our office working option."

Flexible working is not a cop out – far from. In fact according to Sharon. "we have to be careful to ensure that people do not work too many hours as you don't have the obvious cut off point of leaving the office at the end of the day."