Collaborating In A Virtual Office (Part 2)

8/13/2013 5:38:13 PM

Going documental

While the communicating, scheduling and brainstorming might be the exciting part, you still need to work out the more mundane aspects of collaborative working, such as where the work will be stored and how you’ll make sure everybody is working on the right versions of the right files. The approach varies according to the work the company does.

Some companies may have advanced needs best served by specialized services; for example Cloud9 or Squad provides facilities for collaborative computer programming. In general, however, the choice is to either work entirely in cloud-based services, or to work on local files and use a cloud service to synchronize and manage them.



For sharing general office files, the obvious choice is a free service such as Google Drive or ThinkFree, both of which let you read, share and create written documents, spreadsheets or presentations. Google has withdrawn free Google Apps accounts to new users, but if you’re signed up or if you don’t mind paying $50 (excluding VAT) per user per year, you’ll get a more powerful collaborative working environment than if your staff members use Drive as individuals. Alternatively, annual subscriptions to Microsoft’s Office365 start at $60 per user per year for access to web-based apps and hosted email accounts.

Using a free or subscription-based online service saves the headache of having to roll out and manage software on everyone’s PC, but it could leave you vulnerable to web outages; staff can’t work on documents they can’t reach. The alternative is to use a conventional suite such as Microsoft Office or a free alternative such as Ability Office along with a third-party application to copy locally saved files to the cloud and synchronize them between users.

Our favorite synchronization app is SugarSync, which can be used to synchronize one or more folders between several users so the latest version of contents is replicated between everyone’s PCs, mobile phones or tablets, as well as being backed up online. In this way, multiple users can work with the same files on their devices, with the most recent version synchronizing to the cloud, and then to everyone else’s computer. The entry – level business package, which is $55 per month for three users and 1TB of space, does away with the expense and hassle of the business running its own server.

As with other cloud services, however, using SugarSync means you’ll have to entrust your files to a third-party with servers outside of the European Union, which may not be suitable for sensitive customer data under the provisions of data protection legislation. Find more about your responsibilities under data protection law at the Information Commissioner's Office ( A decent alternative is to buy a device that lets you set up your own shared resource, such as Iomega’s Personal Cloud range of storage devices or a Synology NAS device capable of running the Cloud Station module. These can provide secure online storage space situated on a device you own, shared to colleagues over your internet connection. Just bear in mind that you’ll need to devise a suitable backup scheme.

Google Calendar

Google Calendar

Whatever suits your business, online tools offer most of the communication, organization and synchronization you’ll need. With some imagination and the right services, you can build a flexible, distributed business while minimizing exposure to cost and long-term commitments.

What if you need a physical location?

It's remarkable how much of your business you can conduct online, but even so there are still many things for which you unavoidably need an address. If you’re running a UK business, you’ll already know that you’re legally required to have a registered office at which correspondence and legal notices can be received. It’s common to have an accountant deal with this through their registered office service. It’s usually cheap, or free to accountancy clients.

Each director must also provide a service address at which they can receive communication about the company, such as notices from Companies House or HMRC. This can be a home or office address, but it needn't be your own. If your business keeps you away from home, you could delegate the processing of company mail to a less mobile colleague, or pay a trusted friend to receive and check mail for you. If there’s a high volume, a document scanner will help them quickly capture and share it.

There are a few things to consider for staff who work from home: it’s likely that neither your business insurance nor a homeworker’s own domestic policy will cover them if they’re working, and the same will probably apply to any business equipment they’re using. The company should pay or contribute towards the homeworker’s costs, although usually only for permanent or contracted staff rather than freelancers. You also shouldn’t overlook an employee’s other needs, and the rights and protections they may have under health and safety or employment law.

Some people are happy to work from home, but many find that travelling to an office provides an important routine and a change of scenery. In many areas, it’s possible to take advantage of a growing range of co-working offices, where permanent or casual desk space can be had with no long-term commitment. Try searching the internet for ‘co-working (location)’ to see what’s near you. Such offices are a good way for staff to meet and share ideas with other professionals, and most include other facilities such as meeting rooms. Casual desk space is inexpensive, with access to a couple of days per week typically costing less than $152 per month, but a full-time desk may costs up to $457.

For groups of people, serviced office space provides a useful compromise between co-working and leasing an office. Usually available with a minimum commitment of only one month, serviced offices are cabled, furnished and ready for use. Payment is usually via a flat monthly fee that includes utility, phone and broadband costs, while extras such as secretarial services are often available.

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