Changes in technology and culture alike are fundamentally shifting not just what businesses do, but also how they operate – including the traditional notion of what constitutes a workplace.
‘The sharing economy’ – it is the new buzz phrase that is emerging to describe seemingly every second business start-up.
Admittedly, it’s a nice euphemism: sharing goes with caring, and caring makes the world sound like a happy-go-lucky place where everyone is equal and there is no such thing as competition.
Of course, that’s not exactly true. Competition is cutthroat in the business world. If it wasn’t, any and every business would rake in cash effortlessly.
What it does describe, however, is the increasing tendency of individuals and businesses to utilise goods and services to maximum effect. For example, why buy a car that will only be used a few times a week when you can share one?
The net effect is that users reduce costs, since they only pay for their usage and are not responsible for ongoing operational expenses and maintenance.
So too can this notion of sharing be applied to commercial workspaces.
The virtual or serviced office is not really a new concept – they have been around for some time. What is new, however, is the divergent role these spaces are playing in the business world.
No longer are virtual offices the sole domain of out-of-town corporate executives that need to work and meet while away on business. These spaces are playing an increasingly important role in the development of small businesses and start-ups, and their function is evolving from being purely places to work into being places where like-minded operators can network, exchange ideas, make new connections and learn from one another. They are effectively becoming innovation hubs.
As OfficeEarth CEO Mark Baranov says, it is a game of perception.
“For businesses that want to be perceived as credible, they will want to compete in a field where their competitors are known to be … you don’t want to advertise your location’s sub-region, because you then limit your inquiries to the sub-region and you don’t have any scale,” he says.
“So you’re happy to advertise a Melbourne address if you’re servicing Victoria [for example], but if you advertise a Geelong address, people will automatically stereotype you as a Geelong-based business and you may not get the inquiry you want, even though you may quite happily provide that service.”
More than a place to work
Of course, there are virtual offices where collaboration is the core focus, rather than simply providing a physical space.
“I conceived the idea for Work Club in 2005 and created it as a space for people whose paths would not ordinarily cross,” says Work Club Global founder Soren Trampedach.
“I believe collaboration between people from diverse backgrounds improves the individual experience and the business outcomes – it’s what leaders need in the current culture of rapid change and digitisation.”
Part of that experience has been to create a space that emulates aspects of home life, such as incorporating a sleek kitchen and contemporary sofas to facilitate relaxation. Yet, as Mr Trampedach explains, it is not just about physical presence.
“Work Club is a place to work, but it is also lifestyle. We have yoga, meditation and nutrition advice, curated retail elements from boutique manufacturers and partnerships with companies from many different disciplines,” he says.
“We [also] offer members exposure to culture and creativity, to speakers they’d have to pay a lot of money to access and to experts who talk about macro-trends.”
Another form of outsourcing
Many businesses see the use of virtual offices not simply as a necessity when starting out, but as a means of outsourcing the cost-intensive process of finding, occupying and maintaining a physical premises, particularly in locations where permanent premises may not be required.
Some, as Mr Baranov says, have even given up their own workspaces in favour of virtual offices.
“We certainly have had those instances; mostly it’s companies that are going from direct client-facing to online businesses,” he says.
“We’ve had other businesses that have been successful in one geographic location and want to dip their toe in another.
“And we’ve got other companies that have virtual offices in five, six, 10 different cities around the world that we service for many years. And they are quite happy with having one head office and five to 10 satellite offices, which are virtual offices for their communication and showing to their clients and prospective clients that they are open for business in those areas.”
According to Mr Trampedach, it is not just the nature of work that is rapidly changing, but the nature of workspaces, too.
“Work is no longer done from 9am to 5pm; it is done in real-time everywhere and as a consequence spaces are getting blurred,” he says.
“Retail will no longer just be retail and offices will no longer just be offices. In Work Club, there is an element of retail, hospitality, your home and of course the office. Work is our anchor, but the other elements are important for the overall lifestyle experience that people are looking for.”
Mr Trampedach adds: “It is an exciting as well as a scary time because whole industries are changing rapidly and the way we perceive work is changing. I think we will see fewer large headquarters and more and more distributed locations so people can travel less.”
Consider Your needs
With such diversity now available in the virtual office space, it is more important than ever to fully consider your requirements before committing to a workspace.
Consider the following as starting points:
- Do you require a physical space to work in, and will that space solely be used by you and your employees or will you need to meet with clients and/or business partners at the premises?
- What other features will you need from the space? Some providers will offer a full range of solutions including auditoriums and function spaces, projectors, video conferencing capabilities and library/research facilities.
- Do you want a place to work on your own or somewhere to mingle with other business operators and become part of a community – or both?
- Where will you require space – in your home state, nationwide or even internationally?
- How urgently will you require facilities such as meeting rooms? As they are shared spaces, meeting rooms and other facilities may not be available when you need them and you will generally need to book well in advance to secure them.
- When are you likely to require access? Many virtual offices offer 24/7 access, but it is not a certainty across all companies and sites.
- Keep in mind that some virtual offices can be selective in the clients they take on board, whether to ensure a cultural fit among their client base or to manage the volume of people using their space at any given time. So don’t assume you will automatically secure space in your desired location.
Virtual Office FAQs
What happens if a potential client just walks in?
“Micro-businesses [in particular] are very concerned about the perception that they are at a location,” Mr Baranov says.
“The on-site receptionist will have to scan for that client name to see what the instructions left behind are for that particular client, and tell the walk-in that unfortunately the person isn’t available, take down some details and pass that on to the client to deal with.”
Mr Baranov says despite the frequency with which this question is asked, in practice walk-ins do not happen very often at all.
“It’s definitely a rarity; it certainly doesn’t happen on a regular basis.”
Where are your sites located?
Just as in any type of business, there are large chains and boutique workspace providers. Most, however, have a global network of sites available to their clients, whether operated by one company or as a partnership with other providers.
Will I still receive my mail?
According to Mr Baranov, this is a surprisingly frequently asked question.
Depending on the arrangement you work out with the space provider, all mail sent to their address will either be forwarded to your stipulated personal mailing address or left for you to collect from their reception desk.
How much does it cost?
This is an entirely open-ended question.
There are spaces offered to suit most budgets and prices can vary significantly depending on the location, the facilities available and whether any additional services are offered.
Some charge users per visit, others have rolling monthly plans and some can require businesses to enter into contracts.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.