How to Run a Business Without an Office – 2020 Small Business Guide

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By: Laurie Ersch | VP of Customer Success |

Earth Class Mail

Published May 15, 2020

In the time of COVID-19, small businesses all over the world are getting a crash course in how to operate remotely. Companies that already used a distributed workforce are patting themselves on the back for their foresight. And both existing and new business owners are asking themselves: do I really need an office to run my small business?

Many small (and large) businesses do very well without an office — and not just because a pandemic forced them to. Plenty of successful companies made the choice to go 100% remote long before it became a necessity. 

Of course,  there are many small businesses that simply cannot provide their core services without an office. Hair salons, car repair providers, and many other small businesses must interact with their customers or clients in person. This guide will focus on small business owners whose business model allows them to make a shift to remote work. 

For teams who may still be adapting to running remote, this article will guide you through everything you need to know to run a successful small business without an office. 

Benefits of running a business without an office

Of course, not every business can or should operate remotely, but if you’re still on the fence about whether your small business could do it, consider these statistics:

  • Prior to COVID-19 remote work was already on the rise. The percentage of employees who spent at least 40% of their time working remotely increased from 46% in 2012 to 55% in 2016 and has been on the rise since. Companies that don’t respond to the changing landscape will lose access to the most talented employees as the expectation for remote work options increases. 
  • Office space is expensive. The average cost of office space in New York City is more than $100 per square foot, and even in less expensive markets like Atlanta, it’s $50 per square foot. 
  • Employees want the flexibility of remote work. According to Gallup, 54% of office employees say they would leave their current jobs for the option to work remotely. 

Best practices for running a business without an office

Running a business with a distributed team requires careful planning as well as investment in tools and resources that will allow you and your employees to communicate effectively and manage all traditional in-person activities through cloud-based services. 

Each small business will have its own particular needs and challenges. This guide covers best practices that apply to all small businesses: 

  • Ensuring all team members have suitable workspaces
  • Protecting company data
  • Getting a virtual business address
  • Investing in communication tools
  • Using an effective project management tool
  • Finding meeting space, if necessary
  • Providing remote work training to employees

Create an effective remote workspace

Not having an office doesn’t mean you don’t have a workspace. Remote work consultants recommend creating a workspace that is free from distractions and used exclusively for work. 

But not everyone has a separate space that can be designated for work. If you (or your employees) don’t, that’s okay. Having a designated space is useful, but you can be productive at your kitchen table as long as you have the technology you need and are physically comfortable in your workspace. If you need two (or three) computer monitors to be effective, make sure you have those. If you can’t focus on your tasks because your back is killing you from sitting in an uncomfortable chair, you’re going to lose valuable time. 

Make sure your employees have remote workspaces that allow them to work effectively. Ask them what they need to be more productive — a more comfortable chair, a standing desk, multiple monitors?

Companies like GroWrk can help you outfit your team with useful workspaces. GroWrk provides ergonomic home workstations for distributed teams on a monthly subscription model, so you don’t have to spend capital to get everyone standing desks.  

Secure your business data with a VPN or VDI

Cybersecurity is a growing concern among both small and large businesses. Investing in a solution to protect your company’s data is critical, whether you’re operating in an office or remotely. You and your employees will likely use public Wi-Fi networks (at a coffee shop, in an airport), which can be easily hacked. 

You have a number of options to protect your data, from simple and inexpensive to more complex and quite costly. 

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN allows users to send communications across public networks (like that Wi-Fi at the local coffee shop) as if they were using a private network in a physical office. VPN services are inexpensive, ranging from a few bucks a month to around $15 a month, and there are a lot of options. 

Not sure where to start? Check out these VPN recommendations from TechRadar

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

A VDI provides each user with their own virtual desktop, all of which are connected to a centralized server managed by the administrator. VDI provides security along with a shared user interface so that everyone in the organization has access to the same tools and applications. Significantly more complex than a VPN, a VDI can cost thousands depending on how many employees you have.

User rating site G2 ranks Virtualbox as its top VDI service for small businesses, but you should discuss a VDI purchase with an IT professional first. 

Get a virtual business address

Not having a physical office doesn’t mean you can’t have a business address. In fact, you need a business address to provide credibility to customers and to avoid the privacy risk of using your personal address for business communications.

Plus, any business that registers with their Secretary of State’s office needs a business address. You may be able to use your home address for that purpose, but if you do, be warned that it’s on a public document that can be easily accessed online. 

The benefits of a virtual business address

If you don’t have a physical office, your options for getting a business address are (1) renting a PO box, (2) asking to share an address with a local business, or (3) buying a virtual address.

For small businesses, a virtual business address provides the best mix of flexibility and security. 

With a virtual address, you can access your mail online from home or while you’re away. 

Using either a PO box or a shared address means you have to travel to that location to pick up your mail. That requirement automatically removes some of the flexibility you gained by choosing to run a small business without having a physical office. And picking up mail from either a PO box or a shared address simply isn’t possible if you’re out of town. 

You may have an employee that can manage the process, but that requires additional legwork — perhaps getting them the PO box key or introducing them to the owner of the local address you’re using. If you receive an important piece of mail that needs immediate attention, they have to scan it and email it to you. And what if they’re out of town?

A virtual address provides the flexibility to read and act on your mail from your computer or mobile device from anywhere in the world. 

Some virtual address services also integrate with programs like Bill.com or with file-sharing services like Dropbox so you can easily and efficiently collaborate with team members or pay an invoice. They may allow you to automatically deposit checks that you receive in the mail. All of these options reinforce the flexibility and efficiency you’re creating with a remote business. 

Perhaps most importantly, using a virtual address service that follows security and privacy best practices will keep your mail safe and secure. Sharing an address with a local business opens you up to security breaches since you don’t know who might have access to the mail, and while a PO box is secure, you (or your employees) have plenty of opportunities to lose a piece of paper between getting it out of the box and taking action on it. 

Invest in remote work communication tools

Communication is important in any business, but it’s especially critical for distributed teams. Without the opportunity for the casual discussions that take place in an office, employees need lots of opportunities to connect with each other. 

Beyond connecting peer to peer, the right communication tool can help ensure that senior leadership is communicating with the team at large. In fact, a Harvard Business Review study showed that employee engagement improves when senior leadership continually communicates their strategy. 

So especially when your team is working remotely, it’s essential that you have the right tools in place to communicate with your team. 

In particular, we recommend you have the following tools: video conferencing for virtual meetings, messaging tools like Slack for quick soundbites, and collaboration tools like Google Drive for easy version control. These tools will ensure you stay on top of communication.

Check out this blog post for more ideas on how to communicate with your remote team.

Choose a project management tool for remote work 

Whether you’re in the office or at home, project management can make or break your team’s productivity. Effective project management tools orient the whole team to the most important tasks and milestones and include collaboration features so that you can be sure everyone’s on the same page.

With plenty of options on the market, choosing the right platform for your team comes down to which features will help keep you and your team on track and what your preference is for user interface. For instance, some project management systems (Trello and Asana are two of the most popular) include a feature that acts almost like a giant bulletin board task list. For people who respond best to visual information, that feature might be a non-negotiable. 

One feature that’s especially useful for distributed teams is reporting. Detailed reporting of tasks and the time spent on them can help managers and employees stay in tune with each other’s efforts and expectations when they’re not in the office together. Tools like Asana and Monday.com can quickly create visually impactful reports that tell the full story of a team member’s productivity. Everyone on the team can see it, so there’s transparency about each person’s responsibilities and progress, without the need for lengthy in-person meetings. 

Train employees on remote work

Remote work doesn’t necessarily come naturally to everyone. Some employees may have spent their entire career in an office before coming to work for you. Help your team understand your expectations as well as how to use the tools that you’ve provided. 

  • Define the workday. One of the perks of working remotely is the flexibility to work when you want to, but if you need your teams to be available at certain times, make that clear. 
  • Set video guidelines. If you don’t want to see anyone in their pajamas on a video call, make sure that’s clear. Showing up in your pajamas to the office is an obvious no, but understanding guidelines when working from home can be less clear.
  • Provide opportunities for connections that aren’t task-based. Hold regular virtual coffee chats or happy hours where employees can talk not only about what they’re working on but also how their week is going, what’s happening with their kids — the kinds of things they would chat about by the coffee maker or while they walk into the office together. 
  • Give training on tools. Many remote work tools are simple to use, but not everyone will have used them before. Provide training or access to training on using the features and functions that are important to your organization. 
  • Set communication guidelines. Let employees know what types of communications are appropriate for a slack message and what should be handled in an email or a phone call. 

Conclusion 

Running a remote small business that’s just as successful as its office-based equivalents is completely possible with the right preparation and tools. Set appropriate expectations, prioritize communication, and maximize opportunities for flexibility and online collaboration. 

If you’re looking for a virtual address service that’s committed to helping you succeed, sign up for Earth Class Mail today.

Virtual Address Privacy and Security (what you need to know)

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By: Casey Shaeffer | VP of Operations | Earth Class Mail

Published April 27, 2020

Virtual addresses give individuals and businesses significant flexibility — they can receive and respond to postal mail items from anywhere in the world. Plus, freelancers or independent business owners can use a virtual address to keep their personal mailing address private. 

But if you use a virtual address for your postal mail, are you sacrificing data privacy in favor of agility? 

The good news is that if you use a virtual address service that follows best practices for security and privacy, your information will be as secure as if you received it in your physical mailbox — perhaps even more so. 

The bad news is that not all virtual address services follow those best practices, which is a major problem. Many of your most private and confidential documents come through the mail — W2s, health care records, tax documents, investment statements, checks. That’s why it’s a federal offense to steal someone else’s mail. 

Arming yourself with updated information about how virtual address services work and what they should be doing to protect your privacy will allow you to make an informed choice about whether to use a virtual address service and how to choose a provider. 

How does a virtual address work?

If you’ve never heard of a virtual address or virtual mail, the concept can be confusing. Isn’t virtual mail just…email?

Providers use a number of similar phrases — virtual address, digital mail, virtual mail, virtual mailbox — to describe a service that aims to digitize mail so that people can receive and respond to postal mail even if they’re not in a physical office space. 

At its most basic level, a virtual address works like this

  • You choose an address that’s owned by a virtual address service. 
  • Mail sent to that address is received by the virtual address service. 
  • The virtual address service scans the mail and uploads it to a cloud-based service where you can see it.

That’s the root process, but there’s a significant variation in the details of how an address service actually operates. And those details matter when it comes to your privacy and the security of your confidential information. 

For instance, some virtual address services contract with third parties to scan or dispose of mail items — an operational detail that automatically creates a reduced level of oversight and security.

How do virtual address services ensure security?

Any virtual address service’s number one priority must be maintaining the security and privacy of your information. 

There are several security best practices for virtual addresses you should look for when you’re choosing a virtual address service:

  • Authorization by the United States Postal Service to receive and store mail 
  • A secure facility that has 24/7 monitoring and restricted access technology
  • Background checks of all employees with access to mail
  • Barcode tracking of all mail items at every stage of processing
  • HIPAA certification for all employees that handle mail to ensure HIPAA compliance when handling health care documents
  • Onsite destruction and shredding of mail items under supervision
  • Mail items only opened and scanned with permission from mail owner 

Putting these practices in place can be time-consuming and expensive and can put some limits on a business’s ability to expand, which is why not all businesses implement them. We decided early on that security and privacy were non-negotiable, so we created a sophisticated production line at Earth Class Mail that prioritizes security, accuracy, and efficiency. 

We get over 5,000 new mail items every day, and each piece that arrives gets its own identifier — a barcode used to audit every single operation that’s performed on that piece of mail. 

For instance, if a customer opens their account and requests that a piece of mail be shredded, an employee doesn’t run over to a shelf, grab a document, and shred it. 

Here’s how it works: the request prompts an internal work order. The operator receives the work order, scans the barcode on the appropriate bin, and verifies the correct piece of mail by scanning its barcode before anything gets shredded. Each step in the process ensures that all actions taken match the customer’s intent. Plus, the customer can see a full report of every transaction.

We developed our process to give our customers fast and accurate service while providing them the highest level of security and data privacy.  

How do virtual address services maintain data privacy?

When you’re turning your mail over to someone else, you want to be sure that the correct actions are occurring to your mail as well as that the virtual address service is handling it in a way that safeguards your privacy. 

So what can a virtual address service do to make sure your private data is kept…private? 

We answered that question by focusing on three parts of our business: facilities where mail is received and stored, employees that handle mail, and the processes involved with handling mail.

Managing virtual address facilities to ensure privacy 

A virtual address service that is focused on safeguarding your privacy will have mechanisms in place to limit the access to that mail. 

Though we have more than 80 virtual addresses around the country, all of our mail is received and processed in our main mail processing center in Beaverton, Oregon. Our facility, is monitored by camera 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We use best-in-class restricted access technology to ensure that only approved personnel can enter the facilities. 

Some virtual address services partner with local small businesses that have available real estate and are willing to share their physical address. Employees of that small business scan the mail. This practice raises a number of privacy concerns, one of which is whether the local business’s office has any security system in place to keep unwanted individuals out. 

Virtual address employee practices to ensure privacy

A virtual address service must thoroughly vet potential employees and have complete oversight of employee actions so that they can prevent any privacy breaches. 

At Earth Class Mail, we’ve addressed this need by performing background checks on all employees and requiring any employees that handle mail to become HIPAA-certified, which means they’ve received training on handling confidential health care documents. 

And we maintain complete oversight during the mail handling process. Virtual address services that partner with local businesses, as mentioned above, often use the employees of that business to scan received mail. This practice raises an immediate concern about oversight: is someone present while they’re scanning the mail? Would they know if that person took a quick photo with their personal phone? 

We do not contract with any third parties to handle the mail. We have full control over all mail handling activities. 

Managing the mail handling process to ensure privacy 

A secure facility and well-trained employees won’t safeguard your privacy unless the virtual address service has security measures built into their processes. Without them, an employee could accidentally scan and send confidential information to the wrong person. 

Again, that’s why virtual address services that contract with local businesses raise such privacy concerns. Even without any intended wrongdoing, there are plenty of opportunities to create accidental data breaches. 

These privacy and security concerns are the reason we spent years perfecting a production line that includes barcode tracking and auditing at every step of the process — so accidents simply aren’t an option. 

This combination of secure facilities, vetted and trained employees, and sophisticated processes means we can feel confident ensuring our customers that their private and confidential information will remain so.

Questions to ask when choosing a virtual address service

If you’re in the process of choosing a virtual address service, these questions can help you determine whether the service provider you’re considering has security measures in place that will protect your private information.

  1. Is this service provider authorized by the USPS to receive postal mail?
  2. Do all employees who process mail undergo background checks?
  3. Is the facility that receives my mail monitored and restricted-access?
  4. Do any third parties handle my mail, either for processing or destruction?
  5. Does the service provider have a tracking system in place to audit mail processes?
  6. Will I be able to access a record of all the actions taken on each piece of my mail?

At Earth Class Mail, we take the responsibility of receiving mail seriously. And we have a great deal of respect for the customers that trust us to handle some of their most valuable assets — their personal and confidential information. 

And while we would love to provide a virtual address for everyone that needs one, we’re most concerned that anyone using a virtual address service knows their private information is safe. So even if you choose to use a different provider, make sure they’re following security best practices. Ask them the questions we’ve included here, and don’t turn over your postal mail to a company that isn’t 100% focused on protecting your information. 
Looking for a virtual address that gives you flexibility and security? Check out Earth Class Mail.