Our imaginations sometimes lag behind reality by a fair few years. How we think about offices is a case in point. The word office conjures up images of a large open-planned space, with cubicles for the workers sitting at desks as numerous telephones ring, printers hum and keyboards clack. In truth, most of us work in small or even home offices that are nothing like this archetypal image.
The growth of the small or home office over the past few years has been truly phenomenal. More and more of us are working in small offices and it is innovations in technology that have helped to fuel this growth.
Charting the growth of small offices
A recent blog post from Rebel Office Supplies reminded its small or home office customers just how important they actually are. Looking at the most recent estimates from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the make-up of private sector businesses in the UK it found a number of reasons that small or home offices should be cheerful.
There are now more small businesses in the UK than there ever have been before. Their number has been dramatically growing since at least the turn of the millennium and is showing no signs of letting up. In addition this growth in the number of small businesses is also seeing them hold an ever larger share in the number of people employed in the private sector and in the turnover it generates.
Let’s talk some figures. A staggering 99% of all businesses in the UK can now be classified as small businesses. A small business is defined as any employing 49 or fewer employers but the bulk of these businesses are far smaller than that. Of the 4.8 million businesses estimated to be operating in the UK 4.5 million of them have fewer than 10 employees – and furthermore 3.5 million of these do not have any employees at all.
These small businesses are collectively very far from small fry. They make an increasingly significant contribution to the employment and turnover created by the private sector in the UK. Small businesses actually account for nearly half (47%) of all employment and for over a third (34.4%) of the total turnover that is realised by all UK businesses.
Reimagining the office
The typical office may have once consisted of a large open-planned space housing employee after employee each sat at their own desk that partially hides a jumble of wires for desktop computers and an inscrutable telephone system. Those days are now long gone. The typical modern office is more likely to be a single dual-function room in a house containing portable, wireless equipment and just one or two people.
It is certain that social factors such as the increased need for greater flexibility for shared childcare responsibilities have helped trigger the growth in small or home offices. It is equally likely that economic factors such as the increasing reliance of larger businesses on freelance rather than in-house staff for cost-cutting reasons has also helped boost the phenomenon. The most likely facilitating factor, however, is technological. Technology has reimagined the office and made the growth in small offices a reality.
New technology and the small office
Advances in communication and information technology have quite simply made the small office more viable than ever before. They have facilitated the ease of setting up a business, provided efficient ways to maintain one and offered unprecedented opportunities to grow and develop markets.
Here’s a review of the technology that has caused a sea-change in the modern office and has made small very beautiful indeed to UK businesses.
The internet has revolutionised many areas of life and the composition and working spaces of our offices are one more to add to the list. It is thanks to the internet that a home-based office in Sheffield can now sell fair trade crafts from Senegal to Seattle and beyond.
The internet made it possible for small offices to compete effectively on a larger stage. Niche businesses are no longer just viable but, thanks to that long tail, suddenly very attractive indeed. Global customers can be reached and local customers can be brought into sharper focus. Making and receiving payments is simplified and that all important presence can be projected regardless of how things may really look behind the screens.
Next time you return from a holiday to find your office email inbox bursting with unread emails pause before you curse. Annoying it may be but it is also testament to the centrality of email to today’s businesses. Email makes communication and the transfer of information quicker and more cost-effective. Email messages can be accessed wherever you are – and this is crucial for small businesses whose staff may need to be out of the office without cover. Finally email – and other internet based methods of communication such as VOIP and video conferences – help to make managing remote staff such as freelancers much more viable.
The smart phone has, more than any other device, helped to free us from the tyranny of the office. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that many small businesses use laptops and smart phones to shrink their office requirements to a wireless signal and seat at the local coffee shop. Smart phones let us carry many important parts of our office with us whether this may be emails, phone calls, documents, contact lists or diaries.
Other SOHO essentials
Other technologies that have enabled and supported the growth of the SOHO include:
- Social media – for reaching niche audiences, networking and communicating effectively with customers without a sky-high PR budget.
- Video conferencing – for making international marketing and outsourcing feasible for the small business
- Internet phones – allow SOHOs to choose their dialling codes and project a presence in Sydney when based in Sidcup.
- Wi-Fi – lets the home office become portable and adaptable as circumstances require.
- Multicore processors – helped to realise the multitasking capabilities of computers.
New technology and the small office boom
New technology has helped to change the very definition of what an office is – and many of us have not even noticed.
- It has made outsourcing and looser collaboration possible
- It has freed office staff from the office itself without the need for a roster of support staff
- It makes smaller working units and office spaces viable
- It helps small businesses to reach niche, global and local markets
- It helps small businesses to project a larger, sustainable presence
Small certainly looks beautiful for UK offices and paradoxically it looks set to be a growing trend.
Cormac Reynolds is a writer and a journalist with plenty of experience working in offices