Do you need an office? We ask five socents

Are you energised by the buzz of a busy office or happiest in your own space? From calculating overheads to coping with distraction, coworking versus remote working, commuting and more – there are numerous things to consider when it comes to your physical set-up. We asked five Red Bull Amaphiko social entrepreneurs how they built a base for their enterprise, whether office space is essential, and what it takes to maintain work/life balance. Tip number one? No pyjamas…

Making space for success

Alison Harris from Cape Town–based progressive mentoring initiative Sk8 for Gr8 operates her socent from home. She says working from home when you’re starting out cuts costs and helps channel your focus, but maintaining stress-free sleeping space is essential.

“I always ensure I have a separate space in the house to work from – not the bedroom,” Harris says.

“I also make sure I have proper Wi-Fi and artwork around me for inspiration. In the beginning it was very easy to quickly do some household chores or have ‘free time’ for coffee with a friend, but I soon realised I could only do that in my lunch break or after work. Even though I’m not in an office, it doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done.”

At one point Harris did try a stint in an office but, working by herself, it just seemed a bit pointless.

“I thoroughly enjoy working from home and grabbing coffees at local coffee shops for meetings. It keeps things fresh and gives me and the people I’m meeting with an opportunity to escape the office or computer screen.”

Felix Spies of Split Second Science, whose science shows and workshops aim to inspire high school students, takes a similar tack to divide work and life. His home workspace consists of two areas: an extra bedroom where he conducts administration, and his garage where he tests equipment, stores supplies and cleans equipment post events.

Split Second Science in the classroom (Image: Split Second Science)

“When I was working at my previous job I was confined to an office that I could not leave unless there was an emergency,” Spies says.

“By not being tied to an office, I have the freedom to work wherever I want – from a coffee shop to standing in a queue at the pharmacy. I’m also saving large amounts of capital that I can push back into my business to help it grow and make a difference within science education.

“However, I ensure that I follow a routine of breakfast, gym, shower and then work until 5pm. At 5, I leave all work-related matters unless they require urgent attention.”

Ditching distraction

The idea of setting and sticking to a regular work routine when working from home is a common thread among all five of the socents we spoke to. Without one, chaos comes calling and productivity slips.

As mum to four school-aged children, Renshia Manuel of Growbox is no stranger to home-based distractions. But rather than letting them throw her off track, she’s making the most of her resource.

“With four kids hovering around, it’s extremely easy to become distracted at home,” Manuel says.

“For this reason I prefer to do my admin when they are away or asleep. However, having them around does have its advantages at times – they’ve come to form part of my ‘staff’.”

Operating a wholesale plant nursery, Manuel says all four children are a great help when it comes to re-potting plants or planting seeds for the coming season. Plus it’s extra pocket money for them when the plants are growing well.

“Working from home was an adjustment at first – more for the children than me,” Manuel explains. “It took them a while to get used to the fact that I was off limits at certain times of the day and they weren’t allowed near my office ‘nook’. But they soon adjusted and we have a set routine in place. They now have more household responsibilities and their own chore charts for daily duties, which gives me more time to concentrate on work-related issues.”

The upsides of out-of-home

Despite all the top tips around creating a separate space within your home, establishing clear boundaries and setting a routine, sometimes you just need to get out. Having an external office often helps increase the credibility of your socent by presenting a more professional and established face. It also provides a hub for client and supplier meetings, enables you to work alongside your staff and share ideas more easily, and eliminates dangerous home–based distractions like housework and daytime TV.

Harris says, as you start growing, office space is essential. However, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Bathabile Soko of mini science kit manufacturers ChemStart, carries out admin from home, but rents a space to assemble her kits. It’s a setup that’s worked well for her and her team until now, largely due to the need for customers to collect kits – as well as feel they are dealing with a professional organisation.

“I would be uncomfortable with people collecting the kits from my home. Yes, they are my customers, but they are also strangers,” she says. “Because we have a space to work from, this has not been an issue. My staff work at the lab, rather than at home with me. I haven’t moved from home completely just yet, but I will soon. I’m actually looking forward to it. It will put me in a different frame of mind.”

Manuel also operates a mixed model at present, working two days from home and three from a space provided for Amaphiko social entrepreneurs at Red Bull’s South African offices.

“This has been a tremendous help with high data costs as I can contact clients and suppliers from the offices,” she says. “I also try my best to schedule all my meetings and appointments around my Red Bull office work.

“It’s almost like having the best of both worlds – I get to be home to help my children with homework and assignments, but also have designated times for business.”

Conversely to Soko and Manuel, Elliot Gann of Today’s Future Sound, a project that uses beat-making to teach technology and arts skills, says the nature of his work dictated that he and his staff remained mobile from the start. An office isn’t a practical option for him and his team, but they did require space for weekly staff meetings. After trialling cafes and friends houses, they eventually began working with Impact Hub in Oakland, California, who agreed to provide a meeting room at a discounted rate.

“I don’t think we could really have done this at my house – there was something important about having a facility of some kind with internet, a projector, a table etcetera,” Gann says. “I think there’s also something to be said for having an office or space separate from one’s home to separate home life from business and vice versa.”

Best for bootstrapping?

All five of our socents agree, if you schedule your time and prepare for distractions, working from home can help you save money. The complexities come as you grow Gann says as, like most things, it can be a bit chicken and egg.

“When you’re bootstrapping you only have yourself to hold accountable and be in debt to, as opposed to being responsible for other people’s money. However, needing capital to make capital and be more effective is a serious matter to consider.”

Gann and his team were eventually able to get more resources and donations, but he believes this may have been easier if they had more resource to begin with. When considering moving from a home office to a coworking or independent space, it’s important to weigh up the cost against benefits. A more central location, less distractions and the connections you’ll make, could be key to your socent’s ongoing growth and success.

If it works for you, work it

The truth of the matter is, there’s no one right answer when it comes to your socent setup and location. Most will start from home, the local library or a cafe simply because of scale and budget. This may be enough, or you may need to move as you grow, so take time to explore your options. If you are looking at an office, consider the terms. When you’re first starting out, you may not want to commit yourself to a year’s lease or more.

As Harris at Sk8 for Gr8 says, “the most important thing is to understand how you work. It is different from person to person”.

“If you enjoy background noise, put music on. If you get cabin fever ensure you schedule out-of-office meetings once a day or work from a coffee shop. There is no one–size–fits–all when it comes to working styles. It really is dependent on you and your business.”