Work Wise Week: Flexibility and the small business

Many small businesses believe that flexible working is a non-starter for them as it is thought too expensive, but for some it is their raison d'etre.

Flexible working is a given at many larger firms where the infrastructure and expertise is in place to allow its staff to work from home or on the move. But for smaller companies it is lack of budget and trained personnel that stymie attempts to allow remote access to networks and information held by the company to do business.

Many small businesses baulk at the prospect of flexible working according to experts.

"Most small businesses believe that providing employees with the technology necessary to work remotely is expensive, a security threat, a logistical nightmare and basically out of their league," says Simon Presswell, MD EMEA of Citrix Online.

He says that many small business owners think that only through providing costly laptops, PDAs and smart phones, together with expensive Virtual Private Networks (VPN), that they can provide their employees with an efficient method of working remotely. But this need not be the case.

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"Many small businesses are not aware that there is an alternative, known as software as a service (Saas)," says Cresswell. "Quite simply it is the provision of hosted applications through the internet and it is a phenomenon which is transforming the remote working landscape. Through the SaaS model, small businesses can benefit from the very latest remote working technologies at a cost they can afford."

Although this is not the case for some small businesses that have managed to embrace flexible working and using software as a service to work from just about anywhere in the world.

Remote accountancy

Rob Shaw, operations director of PracticeNet, an IT services company aimed at accountancy practices in the UK, says that using software as a service has allowed his small business customers to work from anywhere in the world, even exotic places, and still look after his client's customers in the UK.

Accountants have been using the company's electronic office environment to store documents, clients' information, diaries and financials electronically rather than on paper. The accountants also use LogMeIn to access their client's PCs to capture data and financial information like Sage accounts. Using remote access applications has allowed these accountants to save time and money on travelling costs.

In more complex cases where accountants need to travel on-site to a client they may be required to take case books, client files, directories with them - remote working has given them the flexibility to leave these at the office and remote work on a case. The other advantage is that the accountants avoid the risk of losing highly confidential documents on their travels.

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This flexibility has allowed companies to re-use office space vacated by remote staff for other uses or even contract staff on temporary projects.

Shaw says that one accountant has managed to run their practice from the Carribean. He says that remote working offered real tangible benefits to SMEs.

"What SMEs like is the instantaneous ability that remote working gives you, if something needs to be done then it's simply a case of remotely accessing your office PC and work can be done," says Shaw. "SME's are small in staff numbers, so once you're away then it's not always that easy to carry on work if required."

Call centres

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But access to files is not the only part of the story. VoIP also offers SMEs the ability to route voice calls to employee's homes. Duncan Miller, director at voice and data communications company Inter-Tel says that travel agency Freedom Direct, based in the North-East of England has used VoIP products from his company to connect its call centre staff from around the UK, and even as far as Australia, to its customers.

Not only has this allowed staff to work from home it has other benefits for the SME.

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"IP-based communications systems also reduce costs for SMEs, as it is carried out over the internet rather than having to run up huge bills with landlines," says Miller. "Many SMEs are managing to reduce costs and drive efficiency through the versatility of VoIP, whether it's allowing employees to work from home or to connect multiple offices or sites together. VoIP is an enabling technology which is providing serious business benefits."

Flexibility led to small business start-up

For some, it was the desire to work flexibly that led to them setting up their own small business.

"One of the reasons I wanted to work for myself was to get away from the inflexible working practices of larger organisations that I had previously worked for," says Steve Bellerby, director of utility management consultancy Smith Bellerby. "I use to spend hours travelling to and from work, all of which was wasted 'dead time'."

He says that using Blackberry devices and T-Mobile web'n'walk laptop cards has resulted in an increase in productivity for him and his small team of analysts.

"With our flexible approach to working, my team and I can work from home or in transit. As a result, our working day isn't as long as it used and I think as a business, we are much more productive and efficient," he says.

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