Goodbye to the Office (Is this a good thing?)

Seth Godin recently posted an article entitled “Goodbye to the office“. In it he argues (rather convincingly, I might add) that if industry were starting over today, the idea of having a central office for workers would never cross your mind. Historically, offices were needed to put employees close to machinery necessary for production and allowed manager’s to keep better tabs on worker’s productivity. Given the evolution of the US economy from manufacturing to service-delivery and the advent of mobile technology for productivity–and monitoring that productivity–Mr. Godin wants to say “goodbye” to the office.

As someone who has been blessed to work primarily from home for the past 4 1/2 years, I agree with all of Mr. Godin’s points. At CareHere we’ve been able to build a very strong company with only a very small portion of our corporate staff working at our corporate office a majority of the time (and we only opened our office after several years of having no “official” home at all). What practical steps did we take to accomplish this? Well, most of it was happened upon by luck, but we also recognized a good thing when we found it. Here are a couple of quick points:

  1. Motivation matters more than experience. It really doesn’t matter if an employee has 6 months of experience or 30 years worth of experience if they’re not self-motivated. Driven employees will always perform better remotely than those that are less so but all employees aren’t wired this way and that’s OK. Some employees will just need a few more checks-and-balances put in to place along with more frequent touch-points.
  2. Finding the right technology and productivity tools will take time, especially if you have a limited budget. Many small- and mid-sized business can’t afford to invest thousands of dollars in collaboration and productivity software. With the rise of Web 2.0 and SaaS, however, this isn’t as large of a hurdle as it used to be. For example, we use Box.net for document sharing, DimDim for online presentations, MozyPro for online backups, and Rackspace for email, all of which are reasonably priced and can scale with you while you grow. Other organizations may find Basecamp (project management), Highrise (CRM), or other such online tools useful.
  3. Not all meeting spaces are created equal. Starting out, almost any location with tables large enough and free Wi-Fi was good enough for meetings. As our company grew, however, it became harder and harder for us to find a place to meet (we even started out having our weekly staff meetings in the living room of one of our co-founders). This REALLY became a problem when we needed / wanted to meet with prospective clients or business partners. Starbucks or Panera may be great places to catch up with co-workers but they aren’t that useful for meetings where the stakes are higher. Choose your meeting locations carefully.
  4. Over-communicating can be as dangerous as under-communicating. When you don’t see people every day (especially key decision makers) you have the tendency to CC (or even worse, BCC) everyone that you think should read your latest tome. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Having well defined guidelines on what needs to be run of the flag pole and what doesn’t will help you out a great deal and when you do need to get a response, put what you need in the first sentence (along with a due date) and then fill in the details next. When given the trust to work from home you need to honor that trust by knowing what needs to be communicated and what does not.
  5. Eventually, you probably will need some form of an office. We eventually moved in to an office because we had a client that insisted on coming and seeing us at our office. We had already committed to the move to begin with but we were kicked in to high-gear by this request. What was the underlying motivation for us? To be honest, we needed storage space, space for an industrial printer, and a conference room for meetings. We fulfilled these needs for a while with an executive office space but that simply became cost-prohibitive so we moved in to our new “home” and it was a great decision. You may never get to this point but, chances are, eventually you will (at least for the foreseeable future).

That being said, however, anyone considering working from home for any extended period of time should also consider the following (As a disclaimer: I still struggle with many of these no-nos):

  1. You will need well defined boundaries. For me, this manifested itself as a true “home office” with doors that can be shut. My boys understand that, when my door is closed, they need to let me work and knock gently if they need my attention. Since they’ve really never known anything other than me working from home this really isn’t any issue but it may be for you if everyone is adjusting to you being at home most of the time. Perhaps most importantly, you really need to try to leave your work in your office an not let it encroach on other areas of your home.
  2. It will be even more important for you to learn how to say, “No”. Highly-motivated, Type A personalities (of which I am one) are always up for a new challenge and often time have a hard time saying no to requests. We have to force ourselves to draw lines. When you work from home these lines get increasingly blurred. (At that point, please take the time to re-read my first point in this section.) For me, this means saying that I do not (or at least try not to) answer my phone between 5:00 PM and 7:30 PM when my boys go to bed so that I can spend time with them. I also try to limit the amount of time I work on Saturdays for the same reasons. It really comes down to knowing your priorities.
  3. You will need to be more proactive in raising your hand and asking for help. When you don’t see your “boss(es)” on a daily basis it’s easy to find yourself simply working heads-down, caught up in details and 40 hour weeks become 60 hour weeks and then 80 hour weeks before you even realize what happened. The remedy? You need to be proactive about asking for help because no one but you really know how much you’re working (unless they’re tracking the date stamps of your emails).
  4. Technology can only replace so many face-to-face meetings. I’m a really big user and proponent of technology. I typically prefer emails to phone calls and phone calls to meetings but some times you simply need to sit across the table from someone and hash something out. Whether that is a co-worker or a boss, a prospect or a client, there are instances where you need to jump in the car, take the ride on the train, or jump on the airplane to go see someone. Humans are, at their very core, social beings and it’s still difficult to replicate the subtleties of non-verbal conversation when you can’t see the other person.
  5. You will need to become a better writer and editor. If you’re going to replace many of those face-to-face meetings with phone calls and many of those phone calls with emails you will need to become a better communicator. That process starts with becoming a better writer. You will need to pay more attention to the tone of your emails and be able to put yourself in the position of the recipient to better ensure that you’re effectively and accurately getting your point(s) across. Furthermore, you will need to become a better editor so that you learn what you need to say and what you don’t need to say to help save everyone time.

So, what do you think: If given the opportunity, would you choose to work from home at least part of the time?

UPDATE: For some additional thoughts (as well as some validation of my own), read this excellent post from Steve Adams at GigaOM: “Working from Home (Without Looking Like It)“.

UPDATE 2: Now for the downside of working remotely: “Want 240 More Work Hours a Year from Employees? Think Mobile!

UPDATE 3: It’s a good question: “Can Remote Workers Excel On-Site?

UPDATE 4: What would you do? “What to do when an employee asks to telecommute.”

UPDATE 5: The author asks: “Is the traditional office becoming extinct?

(Image source: nicholas.odonnell – and, no, that’s not me in the picture.)

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