The virtual office is an established part of the flexible workspace industry, and is continuing to evolve. We speak to Mail Boxes Etc. to find out just how popular virtual offices really are.
The virtual office sector is growing. In 2011, the BCA created a dedicated membership solely for virtual office operators, and increasing numbers of businesses now recognise it as a cost-effective alternative to physical workspace.
There's good reason behind it. The virtual office service is something of a veteran in flexible workspace circles - it was first used commercially back in the 1990s. However, the concept has been around for much longer, as the idea of renting a business address stems back to the old favourite, the P.O. Box.
Of course in recent years, the virtual office has evolved and is now a complete package - offering a mailing location, business address, receptionist support, mail handling or forwarding, meeting room hire, and even day office usage. Compliance has evolved too, and the industry is strictly regulated to ensure that virtual office users comply with HMRC Money Laundering Regulations, which came into force in December 2007.
So just how popular are virtual offices?
"Demand is constant," says James Simmons, Marketing Manager of Mail Boxes Etc., a supplier of mailbox rental and virtual office services. "Businesses are signing up to our services daily, both online and through our stores. Most of the demand comes from people or companies who want a professional business address, and who want someone to manage their mail handling tasks."
James explains that a growing proportion of clients who take up virtual office services are home-based, or running a sole trader business. The cost element is highly appealing to these businesses, as is the prestige that comes with using a business address that's an alternative to their home address.
"Many small businesses come to us because they don't have the budget for a physical office space," says James. "They realise that they can use a month's worth of virtual services for less than the cost of daily meeting room hire!"
James says that the mailing address is their most popular service, partly because users can protect their home address, but also due to the mail handling and forwarding support that comes with it. Far from the PO Box days of old, a virtual office with Mail Boxes Etc. offers a structured system that includes signing for mail from any carrier and forwarding it according to the client's instructions.
Now, based on the level of demand and the popularity for virtual office services, Mail Boxes Etc. is branching out.
"We've diversified significantly over the years, and along with mailing and worldwide parcel delivery we now offer digital and lithographic print services. Next, we're planning to roll out additional telephone answering and messaging services, and we're working on an improved website presence that will make the online buying process easier and more user-friendly."
Mail Boxes Etc. is not the only company experiencing virtual office demand. Business Environment has recently launched its own virtual office package - Velocity Virtual - offering traditional virtual office elements of an office address, call handling and meeting room facilities along with new tech-savvy services including data storage and virtual desktop access.
David Saul, Managing Director of Business Environment, says that their new virtual office package provides entrepreneurs and SMEs with a "fast, flexible and cost-effective solution".
Virtual offices are an established part of the flexible workspace industry and their diverse range of services continues to appeal to businesses of all sizes. As more and more businesspeople move towards a more flexible and mobile way of working, we can expect to see yet greater growth