The benefits of business with no fixed abode

First published in the Financial Times on 28th May 2013.

You can save money and have happier workers if they labour from home, car or espresso bar

Do entrepreneurs need an office? Increasingly the view seems to be no.

A nifty new book called Out of Office by Chris Ward, is a manifesto in favour of roaming around using temporary hotspots to work. It was hard for me to resist this freelancer’s manual: the inside cover features a picture of one of my Gail’s bakeries.

The author explains how President Barack Obama’s first inauguration speech was written by 27-year-old Jon Favreau sitting in Starbucks; how Richard Tait, creator of Cranium, started the board game in a coffee shop; how Michael Acton Smith invented the children’s virtual world Moshi Monsters in his local Caffè Nero; and how JK Rowling, the novelist behind Harry Potter, believes a café is the best place to write.

It is a convincing narrative, and for basic start-ups it makes much more sense to work from home and public spaces such as cafés than committing to an expensive office lease. Offices are hard to find, costly to fit out and involve much tedious administration. Moreover, by staying independent you avoid the misery of a daily commute, which for many is the worst part of a job.

Thanks to mobile communications, ubiquitous WiFi and cloud storage, together with the increasing irrelevance of heavy-duty equipment such as photocopiers, fax machines and desktop PCs, the traditional office is becoming redundant for many sorts of organisations and workers. Of course, factory managers, surgeons, chefs and industrial chemists are still tied to specialist locations. But many of us – from software engineers and copywriters to architects and fashion designers – can operate almost anywhere. That freedom, and a willingness to adapt, can make one’s career more enjoyable and, sometimes, more efficient.

Some oppose flexible working. Notoriously, a few months ago Yahoo sent round a memo stating that all employees must work “physically together” – essentially banning working from home. The company worried that falling productivity was caused by remote staff, who cannot respond to issues as quickly, while missing impromptu meetings that can make an important contribution to an organisation’s output.

Unquestionably, real collaboration and interaction are much harder using digital devices instead of face-to-face contact. A discussion using Skype is not as good as being in the same room, just as an email exchange is never as good as a conversation on the phone.

But this is an age when fixed costs must be kept to a minimum. If founders or employees prefer the informal method of distributed working, then you can save money and have a happier workforce if they labour from home, car or a cool espresso bar.

There are alternatives to relying totally on ad hoc spaces. New clubs are springing up that permit their members to hire smart board rooms by the hour for important meetings when you have to impress clients. In London, these include the likes of Adam Street, One Alfred Place, and The Clubhouse. Then there are co-working spaces, rather more basic resources with hot desking and a sharing ethos. And there are serviced office providers such as Regus, MWB and Workspace. They offer a much more structured solution to the problem of where you locate your business.

I tried working from my study at home briefly and hated it. I needed to separate my domestic and work lives physically: thanks to always-on mobile devices this is hard to achieve anyhow. So I make the daily pilgrimage to a specific place of work, because I enjoy the sociability, and because when companies reach a certain scale they struggle to be taken seriously if the only meeting room is a coffee shop. Other challenges include a lack of confidentiality and the inability to tap nearby support.

But I like businesses with small headquarters – they are better placed to minimise bureaucracy and office politics. In industries I know well, such as retailing and hospitality, it is assumed staff are on the road most of the time and hence they are able to share offices. This saves costs and keeps management close to customers and the action.

Overall, the anti-office movement is probably a good thing for the morale of your people, your cost base and the productivity of your teams.