As usual, we’re talking here about small businesses in professional services, because we like to help them grow and thrive. Their usual pattern is to start life in the entrepreneur’s own home and then move out to an office. But when is a good time to move to an office, and how will that change the business?
Let’s go through the stages in the life of a business, from start-up to maturity.
Should I start in my home office or rent an office space from day one?
Home. It’s a very healthy start not to have to cover fixed monthly costs. You may even ‘employ’ a couple of people who basically provide outsourced part-time support whenever it’s needed. Like you, they do the work from their own homes, so you’re all dependent on high-speed broadband for communication. You’re making a nice profit and everybody’s happy. Your ‘staff’ enjoy being able to wear pyjamas to work, or nipping out to do the shopping when things go quiet.
When you start a business in professional services it’s true that there’s no rush to leave behind the cosiness of your own home, provided that (a) you have the self-discipline to actually work from home; (b) when your clients want to meet you, they’re happy to do so in their own offices; and (c) your home isn’t stuck up a mountain, discouraging you from venturing out to network and meaning that when you do visit clients the cost of travel puts a big dent in your budget. Of course, the networking and the visits in (c) are precisely what’s most needed when you start up.
Warning: not everybody can work from home
Working from home all the time might affect your professional wellbeing in subtle ways. When you’re on the phone with clients, you sense you’re becoming less bold and outspoken than when you had colleagues close by. And maybe you’re not projecting the most professional image when your dishwasher starts beeping in the middle of a conference call.
Or maybe you’re the king/queen of procrastinators, so home working makes the most of your natural tendencies. The distractions have multiplied and they’re at the tip of your fingers; there are almost too many to choose from. You tell yourself you are going to finish that presentation today – as soon as you’ve watched just one more episode in your box set of that brilliant TV series. And it’s true, you do watch just the one episode – but by then it’s 7pm, which is almost dinner time. Oh well, you say, tomorrow’s another day.
Or maybe you’re someone who knows they’re not cut out for working from home. It’s not productive for you. You’ve tried it before and it wasn’t good.
If any of the above rings true, ask a friend with an office-based business to lend you a corner of a desk.
Should you move out of your home office?
If you’re still in your home office five years down the road, the cosiness might now be part of the problem rather than the solution. You’re limiting your growth.
There’s something about getting yourself out of the house and into the proper business world that propels you into growth. Your team will also feel different about their job and their enthusiasm will increase. You’ll join the world of growing businesses and leave behind the ‘lifestyle business.’ You now have some proper costs to cover; you can no longer afford to have a two-hour coffee-break, or to forget to get dressed. Productivity wins, business wins, people can feel they’ve actually joined a proper business. No slacking allowed, either for you or – more importantly – your team.
On a different note, it might actually be beneficial to you in a broader sense. If you live with a partner (regardless of whether you have kids), they might well see benefits in you being at home for much of the day. You can obviously take care of stuff around the house like never before. And, as an added bonus, you’re less grumpy than when you used to commute every day. But, as time goes by, perhaps the picture starts to look less positive. Your partner has the impression you’re present in body but not in mind. For many of us it’s not easy to switch, mentally and emotionally, from work-mode to home-mode, especially if work and home are the same physical space. Your partner might end up feeling they’ve married not only you but also – involuntarily – your business.
Our advice is that if your partner tells you to take the business out of the house, you should do just that.
Where should you move?
What is ‘location, location, location’ in this case? Well, we know where you shouldn’t go – which is down the road from your home, no nearer to your clients’ offices than before, with your employees forced to commute for hours to ensure you’re still within walking distance of your favourite pub. Do what’s good for your business, not for yourself. That’s the first step in growing up.
Here are the points to take into account when making the decision:
- Where are your main clients and prospects located? Have they ever hesitated to meet you when you explained the distances involved? Does the new location allow you to have an occasional after-work drink with your loyal clients? Can you be ‘in their face’ (in a positive way) more often than before?
- Where are your main competitors located? We’re talking here about the competitors you envy because you think they’re growing faster than you.
- Is the area genuinely conducive to your type of business? What do your clients expect to visit – a creative shack in East London or a suited-and-booted office in the City?
- Does the new location make your employees proud that they stuck with you when you were operating out of your own spare room, or do they actually wish you were back there again?
Should we continue to work as flexibly as before or should we implement a 9-to-5 schedule?
Relax about bums-on-chairs time in the office and the 9 to 5, unless your business runs a shop with strict opening hours. The work can be done anywhere, including back at home and in the coffee shop. The purpose of moving your team to an office wasn’t to recreate the regime of a 19th-century factory.
Here’s what you should be monitoring whether your team is in an office or someplace else:
- Billable time
- Project deadlines
- Team-meetings attendance.
If your business offers professional services, these days it’s likely your clients are all over the world. You want your team to want to be available for the 7.00 am call with Australia and 9.00 pm with the US, and that might mean the only window for them to go off and do their errands is an afternoon in the middle of the week. So be it.
Can some of my team members still work remotely?
There’s a difference between working from home when needed and being based at home. If you have a proper office and some of your staff are still based at home, you’re creating unnecessary obstacles inside your structure. When you have to communicate the same thing more than once to get the home-based staff on the same page, it makes it harder for the team to stay cohesive. It will affect your project efficiency. Eventually the people who are based at home will feel isolated and their work output will decrease.
You may be tempted to allow home-based work for personal reasons, such as team members’ need to care for their young families. Or financial reasons, such as the cost of travel. But if your team members’ roles fundamentally require their regular presence in the office, such concessions are merely storing up problems for the longer term.
So, if you want to allow your team to work from home, here’s what you need to take into account:
- Their role
- The internal communication needs that come with their role
- How remote they are when working from home.
If you implemented good internal communication rules, with technological support, you may actually be saving time by not needing everybody’s presence every day.
The roles that don’t require intense internal communication, such as non-managerial infrastructure ones (e.g. IT support), can be carried out anywhere in the world. The roles that require regular team communication but should be out in the field, like sales, can either be remote or present in the office when needed for internal communication. Caveat: your sales people should have easy access to clients; they shouldn’t be trying to uncover a new market in their local area. Crossing countries to attend meetings will be tough no matter how motivated your sales people are.
And remember, your managers cannot be remote. Nor should they spend four hours on a train to get to the office two days a week.