From virtual reality to virtual machines and virtual assistants, it’s likely you will have heard the word ‘Virtual’ being used more and more in recent times. But what does it really mean and what is the behind the trend of things ‘going virtual’?
In software and computing, being ‘virtual’ commonly refers to something which can be seen or done using a computer or a type of software program. In other words, it is something that can be done via a machine without the need to physically exist, be present, act, talk or interact with anyone.
Think of, for example, the world of virtual reality. Films like The Matrix are a good example of what it means to ‘be virtual’. When Neo enters the Matrix, he enters a virtual world, one that doesn’t physically exist but is made to appear real all thanks to a software or computer program.
Asides from film, recent improvements in computer game and game console technology has now led to the ever-increasingly popular virtual reality gaming which allows gamers to enter and play in a non-existing world, but one which may look and even feel real.
You could, for example, be in the cockpit of an aircraft or shooting down enemies in a warzone without physically being there.
But it’s not only gaming and films however where we can see examples of things going virtual. The same can be true in the world of academia and education. Traditionally, spending several years at University was the only way to gain a degree.
However, virtual learning now allows for students to study and gain a university degree without ever stepping foot on campus. In fact, over 30% of students now participate in some form of virtual learning and experts agree this figure is set to increase twofold in years to come.
In business, there is also an increasing trend of things going ‘virtual’. For example, you may have likely heard the terms ‘virtual assistants’ or ‘virtual teams’ being used from time to time. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly more common for businesses to operate with teams of individuals physically located outside the office or place of work.
Thanks to the use of the internet and continuing improvement in communication technologies, gone are the days when all assistants were required to work in the same office as the Managing Director. Virtual assistants are now able to support directors and managers in their usually daily tasks while working from another town, city or even country
Virtual teams also allow businesses to complete projects with colleagues and team members working from different locations. Imagine a project manager located in London, a product designer in Manhattan and a team of software engineers in Singapore. This is the business world of ‘going virtual’ and this phenomenon is set to continue.
b) Virtual Offices Explained
What then are virtual offices and how do they play a part in businesses being or going virtual?
In layman’s terms a virtual office is an address that can be used to register a business. However, a virtual office can offer a wider range of functions than simply a means of business registration. For example, it can act as the registered address to which mail is sent and sorted and a Virtual Office in a specific location could also offer specific marketing advantages.
In short, whether a start-up, small or large company, a virtual office address can offer the ability to work and conduct operations from anywhere in the world while at the same time maintaining a professional public presence in a different location.
One of the main functions of a virtual office is its use of its address. Virtual offices use real physical address as their place of business registration. This means that they can be found and are searchable when using Google, Bing or other similar search engines.
Having a physical address in a certain location could be very beneficial for businesses wishing to promote a professional image to their clients or potential customers. For example, imagine a potential customer searching a business via Google only to find they are registered and operating from a small house in the countryside.
Contrast this to a well-located address in the city such as Central London.
Image aside, the use of address can also function as a means to separate business activities from the personal activities of the business owner. For example, for an ambitious entrepreneur or Start-up working out of a home office, it is likely highly unpractical and inconvenient to receive large volumes of cold callers and unexpected customer visits to their home address.
In addition, there is also the likelihood of the business owner being bombarded with unsolicited junk mail and B2B service enquiries at their place of residence.
For many businesses, one of the key features which a virtual office can offer is the ability to work from anywhere.
With businesses becoming increasingly globally integrated and with technologies increasingly supporting remote working and collaboration, registering, renting or purchasing a physical location for an extended period of time may not be in the best interests of the business’ long-term goals.
By having a virtual office address, many companies may feel rest assured that they are not tied to a long-term physical location and have the flexibility to react to future changes, should they be required.
Virtual offices can also offer a means of additional or secondary company registration which is significantly more cost effective than physically renting or purchasing an additional property.
This is particularly of use and importance for businesses who operate and manage numerous services and products from one central hub but may wish to have a clear distinction between their activities.
For example, a successful sportswear brand may not necessarily want to be associated with a range of food and drinks products, although they may be managed by the same team of people.
By using a virtual office, businesses can register two separate entities and create a clear division between the two business operations, all without the expenditure of renting two separate physical office locations.
c) Features of Virtual Offices
The growth and increasing popularity of a virtual office in recent years has also led to a significant development in the types of services and features being offered by virtual office providers.
While no service provider is the same, most typical features of virtual office service packages are likely to include some of the following:
Use of Address – Use of an individual physical address for company registration. This may be a unique address for a specific business or a ‘shared address’ which is used for the registration of multiple companies.
Mail Forwarding – In-house mail forwarding services to ensure business related mail is signed for, received and forwarded to a designated address.
Mail and Document Scan Service – Same day scanning and emailing of incoming mail and documents to a designated email address or cloud storage service.
VoIP Business Line – Supply of a hosted Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) business line for local numbers. Some providers may offer multiple business lines local to different office locations.
Virtual Receptionist – A professionally trained person dedicated to handling your business’ affairs from incoming customer calls and customer service enquiries. Virtual Receptionist software systems are also available to handle incoming calls using automation.
Virtual Assistants – A professionally trained person to act as an assistant for the business covering general, administrative and operational tasks. Depending on the extent of administrative support required, this individual may be hired exclusively for the business.
Accountancy Services – Advice and support from a team of trained accountants to deal with issues of company taxation such as HMRC, tax filing and correspondence with Companies House.
Business Bank Account Introduction – Support and advice regarding opening and managing business and corporate bank accounts. This may be of particular use to Start-up businesses.
Trade Marking Services – Advice and legal support regarding trademark registration and trademark protection.
Director’s Mail Forwarding Services – Mail forwarding services specific to Directors and Executives.
Furthermore, depending on the extent of a business’ requirements, many virtual office service providers now also offer a wide range of service packages to suit different business’s needs.
For example, businesses with minimum requirements or those that are budget conscious may prefer to opt for a minimal service package which includes simply the registration and use of the virtual office address.
In contrast, larger businesses may benefit from a more comprehensive service package covering full administrative support with dedicated personnel. Service features, service packages as well as their corresponding pricing can generally be found on each individual virtual office service provider’s website.
They are often categorised and named as ‘bronze’, ‘silver’, ‘gold’ or similarly ‘basic’, ‘corporate’, ‘elite’ etc.
d) Types of Businesses using Virtual Offices
In addition to the growing trend of businesses using virtual offices there is also an increase in the range of different types of businesses using virtual offices.
However, while a wide range of business are making use of virtual offices, their reasons for doing so are likely to differ depending on their business needs. Below are just a few examples of how different business types can use virtual offices to their advantage.
For many Start-up companies, business survival is heavily reliant on keeping costs down. With high demands on capital to source products, manage logistics as well as invest in marketing and sales activities, the prospect of high office rent can be unnerving.
Virtual offices therefore offer a very cost-effective solution for many Start-up companies in their early stages of growth. Not only are they able to reduce their overhead costs by eliminating the need to enter high office rental contracts, but they are able to do so whilst maintaining a professional appearance for their business.
It is no surprise therefore why more and more Start-ups are opting for virtual offices each year. Afterall, in order to grow, businesses must be competitive.
Small Businesses & Sole Traders
An increasing number of small businesses as well as Sole Traders have also embraced the world of virtual offices for many of the same reasons. The increasing competitive business landscape means that in order to compete with the best, minimising costs is also a matter of survival.
With the improvement in collaborative and communication technologies, small businesses with small teams are now increasingly able to move away from traditional bricks and mortar company set ups to work via virtual offices.
For Sole Traders, whilst keeping costs down is also key, the ability to segregate personal and business activities can be especially useful not only with regards to managing business and personal mail and correspondence, but also for accurately calculating and managing tax due on self-earned income.
For multinational companies, the ability to attract clients and promote products and services in new markets can be significantly increased by having a local market presence.
As a result, many multinationals are also using virtual offices today to expand their global presence and avoid the need to spend on physical offices and local staff hire. For example, a London-based law firm which offers legal services to global investors can provide a more localised presence to their international clients by operating several virtual offices in their target markets.
Opening virtual offices and have locally registered addresses in Hong Kong, New York or Sydney, for example, can help the business become more accessible to prospective clients in these markets.
In addition, virtual offices not only offer an attractive cost-effective option to multinationals, they also allow businesses wishing to access global markets a legitimate international presence without the need to navigate unfamiliar and sometimes difficult local business practices.
As a result, businesses can focus on their core business practice without worrying about the cost and administrative burden associated with negotiating local rental agreements and navigating local labour laws.
e) Advantages for Businesses using Virtual Offices and Virtual Addresses
Low costs and the ability to offer a global presence however are not the only advantages businesses can gain by using a virtual office and virtual address. Here are a just a few ways which businesses can benefit from going virtual.
Firstly, for many small businesses and start-ups, virtual offices and virtual addresses offer a level of privacy not available when operating from a home address.
Virtual addresses can allow business owners to avoid unwanted junk mail and unsolicited visits by clients or B2B salespeople which they otherwise would have experienced if having their home address listed and searchable via the internet.
This can also be supported by setting up and communicating from a separate and professional business-related email address.
Secondly, choosing the right address for a virtual office can provide businesses with a professional image and leave a strong impression when prospective clients search or enquire about a business.
This can be important as most virtual addresses are registered at physical addresses and are therefore searchable via Google and other similar search engines. With this in mind, choosing a virtual address for a building that best represents the nature of the business is key.
For example, can you imagine a small graphic design agency serving small local businesses to be renting office space in one of London’s financial district’s prestigious skyscrapers? Being so may cause doubt and have the opposite effect intended.
It is important therefore to select an address and building which is best suited to the image the business wishes to portray.
One of the key advantages of using a virtual office and virtual address is the flexibility it can offer small and large businesses alike. Firstly, unlike renting a physical office, virtual offices can be set up in just a few minutes.
There is no need to wait for the space to become available nor the need to enter in to and negotiate rental agreements and contracts. Secondly, unlike standard rental agreements, virtual office contracts are extremely flexible.
For businesses which undergo significant growth, this means that businesses can exit their contract at any time when they feel the need to move to an actual physical office or hire staff.
On the other hand, businesses can also just as easily exit their contract should their business struggle to take off.
With regards to cost, virtual offices offer a substantially cheaper alternative to renting a physical office. Where further cost benefits can be made however is in the additional services and support than many virtual office service providers offer.
For example, many virtual offices service providers may include the cost of virtual assistants and receptionists within their price offering which usually results in being cheaper than hiring an assistant and/or receptionist separately.
In addition, many virtual office service providers also provide different levels of accountancy and legal services which can reduce the need to spend on such services elsewhere.
When targeting customers in a certain area or of a certain demographic, having a locally registered address can be a considerable advantage over the competition.
Not only does a local presence present both a professional and accessible image to local clients and businesses, it can be done simply and quickly without the need to open a physical office.
Furthermore, having a local presence in several countries can also help portray the breadth of a business’ activities, promote their international portfolio and portray to potential clients that they are a leading global business.
For businesses who operate via virtual offices, several studies have shown that employees demonstrate higher levels of job satisfaction and are more productive in their work. Employees also have been recorded to have taken fewer sick days and holidays when working virtually or remotely.
Operating via a virtual office also eliminates the need for employees to commute, reducing the number of cars on the road and having a positive effect on the environment.
f) The alternatives
With a long list of advantages and benefits for virtual offices, it may now be hard to think of what alternative options businesses may have at their disposal. Here we look at some other alternatives from home address registration, mailbox services to coworking and physical office rental.
Home Address Registration
The most common alternative adopted by businesses, particularly Start-ups and individual entrepreneurs, is to register the business at a home address of the address of a family member.
Remember, while this is a perfectly legal and acceptable alternative, think of the inconvenience business owner’s or their family members may face by having their home address registered and available to the public.
Some companies may choose to use a mailbox service as an alternative solution to a virtual office and this alternative can provide businesses with a permanent street address for receiving inbound company mail.
Depending on the scope of a business’ activities, mailbox services may be a perfectly adequate alternative solution to virtual offices. However, the extent of their service offerings is very limited, and companies are likely to outgrow them quickly should their business needs become more complex.
Coworking space can offer another consideration for businesses and the rise of companies such WeWork, Spaces and Industrious are all testimony to the popularity of the office and social space sharing business model.
Coworking can offer businesses the opportunity to rent and make use of a well-maintained office space whilst benefitting from networking efficiencies and a wide range of shared community activities.
The coworking business model has particularly proved useful to IT and technology companies where employees from different companies are able to socialise, network, share ideas and bring improvements to their wider businesses.
Many now successful start-ups such as Uber, Ofo and Spotify were all born in the coworking space.
Renting Office Space
The final alternative to virtual offices is to rent a physical office space. Though this traditional business model of renting or purchasing an office location has been disrupted in recent years, there are still many businesses which swear by this traditional model.
Firstly, depending on the type or activities of a business, using mailbox services or coworking spaces may simply not be suitable. Moreover, whilst all businesses will want to reduce their overheads were possible, renting or purchasing a physical office location could prove to be a lucrative investment in the long term.
. For example, businesses who manufacture and distribute physical products are likely to require a physical space to not only store buy showcase their products to potential customers.
Having a professional office space which highlights a company’s activities and achievements is therefore likely to leave a positive impression with visiting company stakeholders.
g) Comparison between Virtual Offices and the alternatives
With several options on the table, deciding the optimal solution for business owners can often be a difficult task and it is important therefore to consider the pros and cons of each business model.
Firstly, for those considering using their own or family member’s address, it will quickly become apparent to customers researching the business that they are an individual working from home and not a serious competitive business.
In addition, the lack of privacy, unsolicited visitors and spam mail to home addresses also brings additional frustration. In contrast, a virtual office provides a separate legitimate business address and enhances the business’ professional standing.
For business owners considering a simple mailbox service option, it is useful to note how they differ from virtual offices with regards to their location and service scope. Most commonly, mailbox services are often simply a postal box fixed to a wall, sometimes on undesirable properties and locations.
For example, some mailbox services may be located at the basement of a shop or residential building. In contrast, virtual office addresses are usually registered to a physical building which is viewable and searchable by the public.
In addition, unlike the mail forwarding and mail and document scan services offered by many virtual office service providers, mailbox services in contrast are often very limited and generally rely on mail collection in person.
Coworking spaces have been the success stories of many Start-up companies in recent years, though a few key differences between coworking spaces and virtual offices offer an insight as to why it may not be the best option for all.
For example, while often praised for their modern and functional social spaces to network and collaborate, many coworking spaces lack some of the key functions and service features which businesses require.
For example, many coworking spaces do allow their tenants to use their address for company registration purposes which is significantly important if you want to promote a professional well-located office location.
Moreover, coworking spaces usually do not provide some of the basic administrative services available with virtual offices such as mail forwarding and require post to be collected in person.
The rental contracts associated with coworking are also generally very expensive and rental contracts can leave businesses tied in for significant periods of time.
A similar comparison can be made between virtual offices and renting a traditional physical office space where costs of rent are high and limited flexibility to exit or terminate a rental agreement is likely to make businesses uncompetitive.
While coworking spaces and physical offices can offer some advantages for certain types of businesses, virtual offices in contrast offer a low cost and flexible rental model which means businesses can leave, should they need to, as and when they please.
h) The downside of using a Virtual Office for your business
The numerous advantages for businesses using Virtual Offices may make it seem the perfect business model for all business owners. However, there are a few downsides which you should be aware of before choosing a virtual office service provider.
Most notably, though some virtual office address providers will specifically provide a unique address per registered business, it is not uncommon for some providers to register multiple businesses against the same address.
While this may make sense practically from the provider’s point of view, it can however lead to multiple issues for the registered businesses in question. By sharing an address, a common issue faced by many businesses can be the effect one company’s reputation can have on another.
This problem is most visible in Google’s search results as well as Google’s ‘My Business’ profiles. When a potential customer searches your company’s address, they unfortunately could be faced with the negative reviews of another.
However, it’s not only bad reviews you should be worried about. Should a company sharing the same address commit any illegal activities, this could lead to the company being blacklisting.
The knock-on effect to your business could be serious with supplier credit applications and business bank loans and credit card applications potentially being rejected. Choosing an address that is unique to your business is therefore key.
Another downside of using a virtual office could be the potential loss of face and trust with your business’ customers and suppliers. For example, should a customer turn up unannounced at your virtual address, they certainly would be rather disgruntled being refused entry by the virtual office service provider.
Furthermore, in the event that customers and suppliers realise that you are using a virtual address, they may lose a significant amount of trust in your business as they may feel that without a physical office base, you may be more inclined to disappear and not be traced.
It is for this reason that virtual offices are often appealing to fraudsters as the anonymity which they provide and the ease at which they can disappear may allow for illicit activities.
From an administrative standpoint, there can also be a few negatives which businesses may experience on occasion. Firstly, the nature in which mail is processed and forwarded on means that the speed of the mail and letter delivery cycle is on average extended by a few days.
While this may be acceptable for most correspondence, it is not ideal if waiting for something urgent. In addition, if collecting post in person, it could mean a long and inconvenient journey to the virtual office provider’s address.
For example, while a London-based address may sound attractive, regular trips from the Lake District or Newcastle to collect post is only going to cause additional cost and inconvenience.
i) How to choose the right Virtual Office Address Provider
With the above risks and downsides in mind, both security for your business as well as a fast and effective service should be some of the top considerations when choosing a Virtual Office Address Provider.
But what other factors should be included in your decision? Here are five top tips for helping you choose the right virtual office address provider.
Unique Address Registration
First and foremost, it is important to ensure that the address offered for your company registration is not associated with any other company or business activity.
When choosing a virtual office service provider, it is therefore important that the address that they offer for registration is a unique address available to your business only.
By holding a unique registered address, you can ensure no risk of having your business’ reputation tarnished or worse being blacklisted thanks to other companies.
Reviews and Testimonials
While looking out for your own reputation, you should also be sure to check out the reputation, reviews and testimonials of the virtual office service provider themselves. What do their other clients say about them? Do they offer a good balance of service quality and pricing?
What verification do they require to set up a virtual office? To minimise risk and ensure the best success for your business, you should ensure that your virtual office service provider is not just a reputable company but is able to live up to their standards and customer service levels.
Service Features and Packages
Depending on the scope and activities of your business, the service features or service packages which providers offer could make all the difference. Do you need a simple mail forwarding service, or do you require a more comprehensive service package with the aid of virtual staff?
Do you have tax-related or legal queries which could benefit from additional support and advice? Before contacting various virtual office service providers, be sure to define your own business requirements and goals. In addition, many providers may be able to create a service package bespoke to your business’ needs so make sure you ask.
Location and Company Image
Remember, one of the key advantages of virtual offices is their ability to portray both a legitimate and professional image of your company. The location of your virtual office should also be high on the list of your considerations alongside service features.
Does the address location correspond to the nature of your business? Does the building of the registered address look professional and presentable? Do you have far to travel if your need to collect mail in person? These questions should all be considered carefully before making your choice on a virtual office location.
Finally, how does the pricing of the service features or package you need differ amongst different virtual office address providers? What are the payment terms and how do they compare alongside other alternatives such as coworking spaces, mailbox services or renting a physical office space?
You should set your budget requirements prior to discussing service features and service package pricing options to ensure you are getting best deal, without spending overboard.
j) The future of virtual offices.
A steady growth in the uptake of businesses using virtual offices worldwide suggest they are here to stay. But is this the case for all businesses? And what does the future hold for virtual offices in the long run?
The rise of the ‘gig economy’ has favoured the virtual office phenomenon in recent years. With businesses and services becoming more and more digitalised and an increasing demand for flexible work hours by employees, the need for physical office locations is predicted to decrease over time.
Furthermore, recent studies have highlighted increased productivity in company employees who have the flexibility of working from home or remotely, prompting other companies to experiment further. What’s more, without a need to commute to physical offices, the time saved usually on long commutes is contributing to a better quality of life and employee satisfaction.
The continued improvement of technologies such as 5G mobile connectivity is also likely to have a continued profound effect on the further development of communication technologies and the ability for businesses to go virtual.
Though IT and technology companies have been participants and users of virtual offices for some time, the ever-improving tools available to collaborate remotely and in real time means that other industries and professions are now following suit.
While not all industries will ever be able to fully embrace the virtual office business model, many more are like to convert fully, if not partially, in the coming years to realise operational efficiencies and cost savings.
The increased recognition of the importance of the environment is also creating a movement towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices both in business and our own personal lives.
As virtual offices offer a greener alternative to conducting business, the role of the virtual office is likely only to be encouraged in the future. Reducing the need for employees to commute reduces the number of cars on the road and increased virtual collaboration across countries and time-zones is significantly reducing the need for international business travel.
In short, businesses have much to gain by using a virtual office and it is no surprise businesses both large and small are using them to support their growth. Though some industries still require a physical bricks and mortar presence, virtual offices offer considerable advantages compared to many other alternative business modes.
Though they do have their downsides, virtual offices offer low costs and the ability to provide a legitimate and professional business image can be the steppingstone to success for new start-ups while also a doorway to international markets for promising multinationals.
With communication and information technologies continuously evolving and business looking for more sustainable business practices, the future of virtual offices looks bright. Now may never be a better time to go virtual.