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How To Set Up A Remote Office - A Real World Example

A real world example of a home office

I have been working remotely from the main office for a few years now, off and on. In that time, I have put together and refined a system which I’d like to share with you.



WHY REMOTE WORKING?
Everyone has their own reason for wanting to work remotely. My prime motivator was that I had worked as the boss in a large company which meant I had to set an example. I had to be there first and leave last but worse I had to be there, even if there was nothing to do. It has a fancy name “presentism”, having to be there. Remote working freed me from all of that. I have to admit that the large company disappearing helped the decision a lot.
It has lots of advantages for me – I can work when I like providing the work gets done. I can go for a run in the morning rather than sit in a traffic jam. I don’t get interrupted by people. I get to make my coffee just how I like it. I know there are some disadvantages that other people talk about – lack of company and lack of structure being just two. But I’m not going back to a fixed office any time – ever.

THE SYSTEM
Everything is held together by Broadband – so you need the fastest broadband you can get. I don’t think it really matters which flavour you choose. I have gone with Plusnet – who are part of BT – and they seem fine. I am sure there are better offers out there but the effort of saving a few pence has never seemed worth it.

The system we use does not deal with confidential or sensitive data – it is all about productivity and communication. Where we do handle business data then we use our own proprietary systems and data bases.

HARDWARE - COMPUTERS
If you are going to work remotely then you need a computer.  I have always favoured a desktop PC which can remain always on. Over the years I have found that mass produced machines are more reliable then the bespoke ones that you can get from the specialists. Building your own is great fun for hobbyists but I don’t recommend it for professionals. I have used Dell machines over time but the one I use at the moment is a Lenovo from John Lewis. The only snag with this was getting a VAT receipt was a little difficult. I usually pay between five and six hundred pounds.

Once you have your computer, inevitably setting it up will take some time. The important thing to remember is that it will break at some point and it will not be available all of the time. To counter this I have always had a laptop available and ready to go when the main machine dies. The choice of laptop is determined by whatever else you want to do. I have usually picked up the bargain of the day from Amazon – currently it is a three year old Asus.

Unless, you are a creative, all of whom seem to live in a parallel Apple Universe, I wouldn’t go near Macs. This may be a personal prejudice but your wallet or your bosses' wallet will thank you for it.

PRINTERS
If you have the room a printer is always going to be useful. The choice essentially is between laser and inkjet. Inkjets can be incredibly cheap. If you don’t use them for some time they will clog. Lasers on the other hand look more professional and are quicker. I have both – a Brother Inkjet come scanner that cost about £40 and a Brother laser for about £150.

The ink for the inkjet and the toner for the laser are expensive but can be found on line far more cheaply from a specialist. I use a company called 999 Inks and they have always delivered at the right price – but there are many others out there.

SCANNERS
I am a fan of the Fujitsu range of Scan Snap scanners. They are reliable and make life so easy. They just work. They make forwarding paper documents to head office so simple. Although they are relatively dear - £400 ish they last for years.

PHONES
To declare our interest, we are Birchills Telecom and we provide VoIP phone systems, which are ideal for remote working. You just plug your desk phone in and it works. Having a separate phone is a must, I think, because it works all of the time even when your computer is updating itself.

The phone allows you to be part of the head office network and transfer calls anywhere. The actual phones vary depending on the feature. We tend to prefer Grandstream phones because they are good value for money. The phone I use at the moment is a Grandstream GXP2130 because it has lights which show me when someone in the head office is engaged. The phone from Birchills is discounted down to about £30.

There are times when having a mobile is useful but I use my personal one – I can’t see any point in having an additional phone.

OTHER HARDWARE

You may consider audio conferencing or specialist video conferencing equipment but I don’t find the need.

I am paranoid about data loss when my computer breaks – which it always does, sooner or later. So, I have an external hard drive – mine is currently a 6TB Segate but that is overkill for most people. I do recommend having one – because even if you have a cloud backup solution, then restoring from it will take ages.

You should always try and hardwire your system to the broadband, so you may need some cables and maybe a router. The router usually comes free from your broadband provider. A home internet connection I guess costs about £300 a year including the line rental.

FURNITURE
Generally, I’d beg and borrow any furniture that does the job for a desk and any cupboards you want. Or, of course, you could make Mr Ikea richer and choose something cheap and funky. The only place I would suggest you spend a little is on a good office chair. It needs all of the adjustments and will probably set you back about £150.00. It is money well spent to avoid cricked necks and stiff backs.

COST
So, the hardware budget I would put together for a remote worker (assuming they have the space, would be)
Desktop Computer £600
Monitor £200
Laptop £400
Inkjet printer £40
Scanner £400
External hard drive £100
IP Phone £40
Furntiure £420
Total £2,200

SOFTWARE

There will be quite a bit of industry specific software that most workers will use but on top of that I use general productivity stuff.

WINDOWS 10
Using Windows 10 Home is pretty much a given, since it comes installed on most machines. I have never found a need for other flavours. It does update itself at the most inconvenient times especially when you have to reboot the system.


MICROSOFT OFFICE
I only use Office because it is pretty ubiquitous in the business world. I have tried Libre office but it just isn’t what everybody else uses and that causes transfer problems. I use Microsoft Office 365 Home which costs about £80 a year and allows you to install the package on 5 machines. You get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher (PC only), Access (PC only).  Although it comes with extended One Drive capabilities we don’t use them – preferring Drop Box.

GOOGLE DOCS
We also use a couple of Google Docs accounts – their office apps are quite good, but we don’t use them – we stick to Microsoft because we all know it. The reason we have the accounts is to use Gmail – their email service.  We find this useful to email customers with invoices and bills away from our main email addresses. It costs about £40 a year per account. However, beware if you want to send a lot of emails – the limit is 500 a day per account.

STORAGE

For shared data storage we use Dropbox – this allows me to share files with head office, easily. We all just put shared files into the folders and it is done. It just works – which is what you want.

We use Dropbox plus for about £80 a year which gives you 1TB of shared storage.  If you want more features, then they are available in Dropbox Business but the price rises steeply.

BACKUP
As I said I am paranoid about data loss – so I use Livedrive to back up my pc. It just sits in the background uploading data to the Cloud which is then accessible from any device I use. It costs £60 a year for 1 pc. It does stop working though occasionally – but a reinstall and you are good to go.

COMMUNICATION - PHONE
The main method that we use for communication is the Birchills Phone System which costs £10 a month per extension. I can see amongst the team who is on the phone and speak to them with a single key press. We answer the phone at different times in different places. Customers just know they are speaking to us – not that I am answering remotely. We have a voice menu set up so that customers can get to the right person easily.

Voicemail is easily set up on the Birchills system -it emails you when you get a voicemail with the voice file attached. So we have voicemail covered.

COMMUNICATION - EMAIL
We have email set up with 1&1 as the provider. We use the 1&1 Plus Package which costs about £84 a year plus the cost of the domain name (eg www.birchills.net). This service supports 100 email addresses. The actual service is good and we have never had any problems. However, the control panel on their website is very confusing and their support, in my experience, is not good. You can be left randomly clicking on the control panel until it eventually lets you do what you want.

One of the really good things about email is that it can be really cheap. We use Outlook which comes with Microsoft Office as the client.  Setting up any email client is not easy, because the instructions from 1&1 are not good, Microsoft changes the way Outlook works all of the time and you can’t see the passwords you are typing in. I get repeated errors every time I change anything.
If I was starting out again I might try and find a better supplier than 1&1 but we now have so many domains and emails with them that it is not worth the effort.

COMMUNICATION - INSTANT MESSAGING

A lot of our partner organisations use Slack for instant team messaging. It seems to attract a fanatical support base. The standard package costs about £60 per user per year. There are a lot of other players out there Zoho Cliq, Atlassian HipChat, Microsoft Teams, Flock, Twist and so on. We have never felt the need, but clearly others have.
Other companies we know use the mobile phone services including Facebook Chat Snapchat and most of all Whatsapp.

COMMUNICATION - LEGACY SERVICES
It seems incredible, but we still occasionally have to send faxes and SMS messages – and to do that we use the facilities that are built into the Birchills Telecom systems. And yes, we do know people who are still using Windows XP!

OTHER SOFTWARE
There is a lot of other software that companies will rely on – the most common of which I guess is Customer Relationship Management software (CRM). Salseforce leads the way here with may other competitors. In my experience, the systems spiral very rapidly into absurd complexity with one person being ultra careful in updating records and another not doing anything. As the complexity builds the usefulness begins to decline. I know that others may disagree, but we rely on our in house developed tool which suits us down to the ground. We wrote it using a product called Scriptcase, a rapid development tool for PHP – however that is not for the faint hearted.

You may have noticed that I have not included any virus protection programs and that is because I think they are more trouble than they are worth. I think there is no substitute for being sensible. Fortunately - so far - over many years – we have not had any problems.

COST
The largest amount of the cost associated with remote working is probably going to be the proprietary software that you need to use.

However, if it is just communication and productivity software you need your budget costs might be something like this-
Microsoft Office £80.00 a year
Livedrive £60 a year
Birchillls Phone Service £120 a year plus call costs
Dropbox £80.00 a year – one cost for the team
1&1 about £100 a year for the team
So for about £300 per user per year you should have everything you need.

PROPERTY COSTS
In a large office the usual space allocated per person is 100 sq feet as a rule of thumb – that is 50 sq feet for the work space and 50 square feet for all the other ancillary space. The cost of this will vary hugely depending on the location from a low of £5.00 per square foot in Walsall to £90.00 per square foot in Central London. The rates and service charges will roughly double these figures. So, for 100 sq ft your cost will be between £1,000.00 a year in Walsall to £18,000.00 in Mayfair. Between these extremes a lot of companies in London will budget around £10-£12K a year per person and elsewhere £5K - £6K.

These costs are pretty much absent for the employer with remote working – so maybe it would now be a good time to argue for a pay rise.

TAX
If you are providing your home office then you need to heat it, light it and provide general power. You will also have to pay rates on the area you use. This is clearly a legitimate business expense and you should be reimbursed for it. If you are employed then your employer should pay it you as untaxed expenses and if you are self employed, then it should be set against your earnings. You must be able to justify the amounts spent though and keep good records.

CONCLUSION
I know some of the choices we have made are controversial, but it does work for us. Yes, it relies on people being sensible – but we intend to only employ sensible people, don’t we?

I’d love to know what you think I’ve missed out. Let me know by using the form below.

David Hill, 2018

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