London: For many businesses server rooms are a thing of the past. Rather than designating a corner of the office as a staff no-go area and housing boiling hot computer stacks in them, businesses have migrated their various software needs into the cloud.
The benefits for small businesses are obvious; cost, efficiency, mobility and also the ability to upgrade or switch when new programmes become available. For business owners such as Andy Atalla, founder of digital marketing agency atom42, the choice was a no-brainer.
His business was established in 2007, but as it began to grow he was increasingly persuaded by the benefits of cloud computing.
“Cloud computing isn’t just important to what we do, it’s part of the fabric of how we operate. Almost everything we do is cloud-based. Without these services, we wouldn’t be able to operate.”
The company uses Box for file storage, a variety of Google apps that aid collaborations and information sharing, VoIP to make calls, and key parts of atom42’s business offering are conducted using cloud-based software.
“The services we use for the technical element of our job (search engine optimisation) are also increasingly all cloud-based,” Atalla says. The ability to access the office from anywhere means some of its staff work remotely, from overseas, or on the move.
“It frees us to be able to work from anywhere in the world. I can even take my landline number with me making and receiving calls on a desk phone, mobile or even my computer.”
For some businesses the benefits of cloud-based software has led to even bigger decisions. Cloud computing goes hand-in-hand with flexible working leading some entrepreneurs to ditch their offices completely. Sanjay Parekh, co-founder and managing director of Webexpenses, began trading at the turn of the century, but by 2007 decided his London office was no longer worth the cost. “Some people may say we’ve taken things to the extreme. However, we now have employees based all over the UK, allowing us to choose from a very wide pool of talent unrestricted by location.”
Parekh says his business costs have fallen by 15 per cent as a result of closing his office, yet the company has expanded its revenues by over 20 per cent per annum since 2007. He credits the decision to allow his staff to work more flexibly as part of the reason the company has been successful.
“The flexibility has had a hugely positive effect on our staff as our employees enjoy a greater work/life balance. This in turn has ensured we have happy, more productive employees. For me personally, this has been a godsend, particularly when it’s my turn to do the school run.”
Not all employees like working from home. It can be a culture shock for someone used to the hustle and gossip of the office — suddenly having no one to talk to. But for others, avoiding the commute and choosing their own hours is ideal.
For Sophie Devonshire, founder of online retailer Babes with Babies, such an approach chimes perfectly with her business ethos. She founded the company in 2006 shortly after giving birth to her first child and has operated the business from various locations, including overseas.
Both her customers and her staff are parents and relate to the demands of balancing career with raising children. Her staff work on “tailored time” allowing them to do their work while also managing family commitments.
“All our team can access the cloud as and when they want it. So if they’d rather work in the evening, while their kids are sleeping, than be in the office during the day they can,” she says.
However, Devonshire says her policy of flexible, non-office based working is as “hard-nosed” as any business decision. She says recruitment and retention is improved, as staff can work from anywhere and the financial considerations are significant.
“As a business owner I’d rather spend more on my staff and my customers than on my IT support and a traditional office set up, so the cost savings are critical.”
However, one area that doesn’t quite fit the company’s ultra-flexible mould is customer service as the paying public will not wait. Therefore, her ‘get it sorted’ team or customer service need to be available during key times.” They do need to work set hours in order to cover the needs of customers. However, they don’t need to be in an office and can work from anywhere,” Devonshire says.
The benefits and flexibility of cloud computing, particularly when coupled with mobile devices, mean for many small businesses and freelancers work is changing for millions. For Parekh, the old school industrial mindset is outdated and businesses need to rethink their organisations. “It makes no sense for businesses to carry on with the Victorian tradition of the nine to five working day one which can be found in many offices across the UK. Although our decision to up sticks and work remotely may not fit every business type or model,” he says.
Yet having face time with colleagues can be enjoyable as well as beneficial. So would something be lost if we all worked remotely? Interestingly, Devonshire tries to preserve the office chat online to maintain the relationships between staff.
“We use an ‘office noticeboard’ on Skype instant messenger for all the important stuff and separately have an ‘office chat’ instant messenger for the ‘watercooler’ conversations and chat about TV, life, love and everything.”
Mobile meeting rooms and rented spaces are also used by companies, but for some business owners the office remains sacred.
“We have clients coming in for meetings fairly regularly. However, even if we didn’t, I still would never want to lose the office,” says Atalla. “We’ve developed some really close friendships in the business, which I’m sure we would miss out on if we all worked remotely. A large percentage of what we are as an organisation is borne out of the time we spend together, and it’s something I would never want to lose.”
Moving into the cloud?
Cloud-based software is often free at user level, so testing programs is easy. Here are some programs regularly used by many businesses:
1. Gmail: Opening a Google account is the easiest, most obvious way to join the cloud. Enabling use of scores of apps, office documents, email and instant messenger.
2. Skype: Free calls, conferences and even video calls are available on this VoIP service.
3. Dropbox: A free document and files sharing folder network. Business versions offer 1,000gb of storage.
4. Yammer: An internal social network for businesses, allowing teams to create their own bespoke spaces, share snippets of business news, links and documents and hold “watercooler” discussions.
5. Trello: Free project management software which enables users to “organise anything, together”.
6. Zendesk: Customer service software offering analytics, multiple languages and the ability to scale with the business.
7. Gooddata: Business intelligence and analytics in the cloud, enabling business owners to “bash” their data into shape.
8. Skillsoft: Offers courses, resources, books and videos for staff training for businesses looking to upgrade employee’s skills.
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