In the cut and thrust of modern-day contracting, flexibility is king; and the ability to be able to travel with work, and work effectively remotely has never been more important. We consider how you can you achieve the ultimate goal of a virtual business; something that can be managed from anywhere in the world with just a laptop and a WiFi connection.
Step 1: Set up a virtual office address
A lot of contractors set up their first company using their home address but that approach can be riddled with problems.
- Whenever you move house, you have to go through the painful process of changing your address with HRMC and all of your clients and customers. I have also found from personal experience that banks often hold multiple instances of your address across different accounts and systems, and it can take months to iron out teething problems. I once ended up having to physically drive to a previous address and knock on the door to retrieve a vital set of bank statements from the property that I need for a submission deadline for my annual accounts.
- As my accountant always tells me, HMRC doesn’t like businesses that are constantly changing their address. This was a problem for me a few years ago because I was living in rented accommodation, and moving around with work, so I had to change my business address multiple times within the space of 2-3 years.
- If you are in rented accommodation on an assured shorthold tenancy, it will probably exclude you from using your rental address as a business address; and you may also find that your local council technically prohibits you from this, as well (although they would normally only show an interest if you had customers coming and going from the property which is unlikely to be the case for a contractor).
- Residential addresses also look unprofessional. Your website and your business stationery should all display your business address so think carefully about what message your home address is projecting to potential clients.
There are plenty of companies that offer virtual office addresses in the UK, and many of those will offer telephone and mail handling services, as well. Regus is a well-known example, but there are plenty of independent local and regional companies that offer exactly the same for the same or less money, such as Mail Boxes Etc. It is worth shopping around because prices varying considerably (particularly if you are happy with a non-London address). Your accountant may also provide a business address you can use for your company-related paperwork, e.g. Companies House.
Step 2: Set up a website and web-based e-mail address
This is the easy bit because most small business website packages will include a web-based e-mail address that you can access wherever you are. My top tip, though, is to get a package that includes POP3 access because then you can send and receive company e-mail directly from your Hotmail or Gmail account rather than having to constantly log in and check for messages.
Step 3: Set up a virtual company telephone number
Although it is increasingly acceptable to just use your mobile phone number in business communications – even in large organisations – there is still something reassuring about a landline. Most virtual offices will offer call handling services but if you only have a small call volume, this is probably an unnecessary expense. I found it simpler to set up a PAYG 0845 redirection to either a landline (which is normally free) or a mobile (which is normally paid).
Step 4: Use hot desking
If you normally work on a client site, this will not be relevant; but if you work remotely, hot desking is worth considering. I have worked from Scarborough to Sarajevo on a combination of dining room tables, kitchen work surfaces, coffee tables, or perched on the end of a sofa; with varying degrees of success. However, I can say that I am generally most effective working at a proper desk with a proper office chair, away from my home environment; and this is where I spend the majority of my time now.
There are hot-desking facilities all around the UK, from as little as £10 per day – Regus Businessworld is worth a particular mention because it has good coverage if you move around a lot – or less if you are prepared to make a longer-term commitment. Hot desking has the added advantage of being a bit more sociable than working at home, with additional opportunities for networking.
Step 5: Digitise your accounts
FreeAgent is fast becoming the de facto standard for contractors and for good reason. It does everything that you need, and it does it well. I combine FreeAgent with Receipt Bank which means that whenever I get a receipt for a business expense, I scan it straight into my iPhone and upload it, eliminating the usual monthly paper chase. The software can link up to your bank account, and even to HMRC, so you can submit your VAT returns from within the application.
Step 6: Virtual mail
Most virtual offices will offer mail handling service but the problem I found is that I was constantly missing important pieces of mail during the week while I was working away from home. I recall one particularly nasty example where I came back from a 2-week stint to find a demand letter from HMRC for an overdue VAT payment.
The answer eluded me for a long time but it finally arrived in the form of UK Postbox which is a digital mail handling service originally targeted at ex-pats living abroad who needed to retain a presence in the UK. You can either redirect mail through Royal Mail to a UK Postbox PO box address or permanently move your business address to one of their virtual office address. As mail arrives, the contents of the envelope is scanned to PDF and then you can either store a digital copy, or forward it to you anywhere in the world.
It works the other way around, as well. You can write a letter, scan it, upload it, and post it back without ever having to visit a post box or buy a stamp. I have completed the circle by making a high-quality scan of my signature that can be inserted at the bottom of any document that requires it.
Step 7: Virtual filing cabinet
The final piece of the puzzle. I had a bulging 2-drawer filing cabinet for the first 6 years as a contractor and, even though I referred to relatively infrequently, I knew that it was critical to retain those records. I finally took the leap of faith and scanned everything as a ‘searchable PDF’ and uploaded it to a virtual filing cabinet on Cubby (which is a good alternative to the ubiquitous Dropbox run by the people who run Log Me In). Not only have I freed up some valuable space, but I also know that I have instant secure remote access to all of my documents, past, present, and future from wherever I am.
If you have a huge amount of paperwork, it might be worth considering a one-off submission to a bulk scanning company. I decided to go it alone with my trusty HP OfficeJet printer-scanner which only cost me a few hours of my time.
Peter Roy is a freelance project manager and productivity guru.