Xenia Taliotis 5 Dec 2017 01:42pm

Where’s your office at?

Traditional business premises may no longer be essential but a more flexible approach creates its own challenges. Xenia Taliotis looks at how accountants are coping
Caption: Illunstrations: Jordon Cheung
Location, location, location. In the world of real estate, we know it to be everything – but does the same rule also apply to running an accountancy practice?

It’s a complex picture. In Yorkshire, Lydia Ebdon runs her practice, Approachable Accountants, from a remote farmhouse, but has clients throughout the UK and overseas. “The main benefit of being at home has been in productivity – I save loads of commuting time and work hours that best suit my body clock. My location has never been an issue because I’m happy to travel to my clients, and besides, so many of them like dealing with us by email or screen share. It makes no difference to them whether I’m sitting in posh premises, or in my spare bedroom.”

Ebdon employs two staff, both of whom also work from home. “We communicate constantly, but rarely meet. Having a cloud-based practice means I can employ the best staff, regardless of where they are in the country. Had I been office-based, I’d have had to hire from the pool of people who were prepared to commute.”

Jo Murray, from Free Range Business, Shepton Mallet, sees things differently. She left big practice in 2014 and, like Ebdon, started from home. She soon had enough clients to merit taking on her first employee and says the recruitment process was hilarious: “He was going to be in our home, with our children, so how he got on with my husband and the kids and the nanny was as important as his qualifications. In the end, we all interviewed him.”

But Murray says with her business and her family growing fast, office premises became a necessity. She decided to take the plunge when space became available in the Old Mill, an historic property in the heart of Shepton Mallet that she’d always liked.

Running an office has changed the way she feels about being self-employed. “It’s odd, but I feel more professional. Having a separate place to go to helps me draw a clearer line between business and family. Of course it’s possible to work from a virtual space, but I wanted all my staff to be under the same roof. Plus we have a meeting room now, so clients can come to us, and we have space for growth. Premises are a massive overhead, but they’re an investment in our future.”

Simon Nuttall is a partner at McGills, which has offices in historic buildings in Cirencester and Malmesbury. “Where you base your practice, and what type of premises you choose should, to some degree, reflect the profile of your customer base. I know technology enables us to work from anywhere, but our clients like to visit us. They like to be met at reception, shown to my room and offered a cup of tea. We’re quite a traditional firm and we attract clients who are similarly minded.”

McGills has been in its Cirencester premises, very near the marketplace, since 1979. The firm operates an open-door policy, and its prominent location gives it an advantage for gaining new business. “People know where we are,” says Nuttall, “which is why I am loathe to move away. We’re creaking at the seams, but I am sure it would affect our business if we relocated. Our office has parking and it’s minutes from the centre, which makes us attractive to both clients and staff. The reason we acquired the firm in Malmesbury was to gain more space without moving: we’ve based our HR department there.”

Consultant Deane Short, another home worker, also wanted to keep his family and business life separate and has, for the past year, been working from his local coffee shop. “I found it difficult to concentrate at home. There were so many distractions – my three-year-old daughter, Netflix and Sky Sports – but I couldn’t justify the expense of an office or co-working hub. I knew several people who used coffee shops as their base, so thought I’d give it a go. It’s the perfect solution – I go in after I drop my daughter off at nursery, work solidly for four to five hours and then go back to collect her in the afternoon.”

His clients rarely ask about his arrangements, and like Ebdon, he always travels to see them, or hires a meeting room if necessary. “It works for me,” he says. “I like the people and the environment, and I don’t overstay my welcome. It makes me work extremely efficiently.”

Keys to success

Think about your objectives. If you are setting up your own firm, do you intend to employ staff? Having your employees working from your home can be difficult. If your plan is to grow quickly, an office may be better.

If you’re going to employ people who will be home-workers, make sure they know your brand values. Regular communication is essential.

Don’t work all hours. Or at weekends. One of the advantages of working from home is that you can more or less work when you choose – which is also one of the disadvantages. It is easy to get sucked into a pattern when you are working all the time.

Choose an office and location that reflects your client base. Slick, city premises, coffee shops and virtual offices may work for forward-looking techy types. Older, more traditional clients may well appreciate a more formal service, including being greeted by a receptionist.

Think about staff recruitment. You may struggle to attract talent if your office is on a grotty industrial estate miles away from good public transport links and local amenities.

Five live tips

  1. Keep your home and your work separate. Even if you intend running your business from your house, set aside a room, or even a corner of a room, that is specifically for work. And keep the boundaries well delineated. You need to have a lot of self-discipline to make a success of this.

  2.  If you’re moving to new premises because you’ve outgrown your current space, don’t get carried away with planning for where you think you’ll be in five years’ time. A larger office will hit your margins while you wait for growth, unless you are able to let some of the space until you have the staff to fill it.

  3. Office politics, pointless meetings and the commute to and from premises are a waste of time. Without them, you should, potentially, be far more efficient. Use the extra hours wisely. It’s easy to fall victim to Parkinson’s Law and to allow your work to expand to fill the time available.

  4. If you do want to use your local coffee shop as your office, be polite. Certain laws of etiquette apply and nursing the same cup of coffee for hours is not one of them. As a very rough rule of thumb, one drink every 90 minutes should guarantee you’re welcomed back the next day.

  5. Do the maths. If you live centrally, it may be that a co-working hub – where free drinks are on tap – will prove a cheaper option than a coffee shop. You can rent a desk at one of these flexible, shared offices for as long as you need – anything from a few hours per month to full time.