A guide to remote working

Remote working enjoyed a lot of attention in the earlier part of this decade, as the technology required to make it possible really started to mature. As computer use became almost universal, and internet connections became a standard fixture in every home, the prospect of doing your job without having to go to the office became a reality.

Today remote working is again very much in the ascendancy as it holds many advantages for companies looking to cut costs.

Remote working and cost-cutting

If you are already an employer, you will be acutely aware of the costs associated with maintaining your staff. Aside from paying their salaries, each of your employees will be generate other, sometimes unexpected expenditures. These could be as simple as the cost of providing tea and coffee in the kitchen, or as significant as provision of computer systems and IT support. Furthermore, the more staff you take on, the larger the premises you will need, involving not just higher rental and office services costs but also the expenses associated with the process of moving.

Having employees working on your premises is therefore an expensive prospect and, especially in the current climate, many businesses are looking to cut costs wherever possible. All too frequently, business owners’ first instinct is to look at redundancy as the most effective cost-cutting option. However, this isn’t always the answer; your staff should be the backbone of your business, and it will be their experience that helps you take advantage of the eventual economic recovery. Furthermore, redundancies can actually prove very expensive in the long term, as the costs of recruitment are so high. As such, you should look elsewhere for cost savings if you possibly can.

Offering your staff the option of working remotely can result in a significant reduction of outgoings. In the first instance, you will sustain fewer of the costs associated with having staff on-site; your electricity and phone bills will be lower, any in-house technical support staff will have less work, and you will have more space available. If you wished to keep the office space, you could actually bring in some income by sub-letting to other businesses; office sharing is a popular option for businesses that cannot afford their own space. Alternatively, you may consider downsizing your office, thereby cutting your rent.

Setting up remote working

Running a successful remote working scheme requires, above all, trust. Unless you have faith that your staff will be disciplined enough to perform the tasks required of them off-site, remote working is not a viable option. It is also important to stress that not every member of staff will be suited to remote working. While some employees will thrive on the independence it offers (and, indeed, the shorter commuting times!), others will not have the mindset required to put in the necessary hours outside the office and without supervision. Furthermore, many employees work best in a more sociable environment, and would simply become unhappy spending their days at home.

You should be aware that remote working may require some infrastructural changes. In the first instance, you will need to provide a secure means by which your employees can log on to your company’s systems. Depending on your current arrangements, this might be difficult; many companies do not have remote access to their files and systems, but rather keep everything on an on-site network. You will probably need to provide remote access to this network. This can be achieved relatively easily, either by installing your own servers or, potentially more cost-effectively, by storing all of your data on someone else’s servers. This has recently become very cheap with the growth of ‘cloud computing’; Amazon Web Services amongst others, offers cost-effective online storage distributed across the ‘cloud’. The service is charged according to the amount of space and bandwidth used.

If security is a particular concern, and you do not like the idea of hosting your information on the internet, you may also consider installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This allows home-based workers to interact more securely, using a series of ‘virtual’ connections to enable remote access to an intranet or similar network. VPNs are generally more cost effective for larger organisations, and you should consider seeking professional help with setting one up.

Remote working for start-ups

If you are just starting out with a new business venture, there is a high chance that you will be reticent to take on office space until you have a better idea of how much revenue you will bring in. In these cases, a ‘virtual office’ arrangement, involving remote working, may well be the best solution.

Many companies offer virtual office services, whereby clients pay for a mailing address (generally with a ‘prestigious’ postcode like London W1) in order to give the impression that their business has permanent offices. Some of these companies also offer ‘hot-desking’ facilities, whereby small businesses and freelancers can use their desk space on an ad hoc basis.

Small start-ups and freelancers can use virtual offices, in tandem with remote working techniques, to keep operating costs down. As has been mentioned, cloud storage has meant that working online is now very cheap indeed. If, for example, you need to run some sort of customer relationship management software (CRM), you can easily find a powerful, free solution that can be installed in the cloud and which you can then access from any location.

Indeed, there is not even any need to have a landline, other than for broadband access. You can make use of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype for your telephone needs. Many VoIP services, Skype included, offer a free ‘virtual landline’ number; when a customer calls what appears to be a landline number, your VoIP phone will ring. Best of all, there is generally no line rental and the call will be charged to the customer at the normal local rate.

Remote working is likely to become ever more popular as more businesses seek to minimise their overheads. Furthermore, new remote working and virtual office technologies mean that budding entrepreneurs are able to start and run their businesses with very low costs. This is particularly important during these uncertain economic times, when it is difficult to accurately forecast cashflow.

As an employer, remote working can seem like something of a business panacea. While these techniques can prove useful and cost-effective, it's also true that they may not suit your workforce. Therefore finding a balance between cost savings and productivity may take time and a little experimentation, but you will ultimately be rewarded with staff who are motivated, efficient - and, most of all, cheap to maintain.