Work of The Future: The Officeless Company?

Telecommuting has made workplaces (especially poorly-located ones in suburban office parks) more friendly to employees and come to be seen as a perk. But some offices go beyond simply letting their employees work from their own desk a few days a week. Come have almost or completely eliminated offices, as the WSJ reports:

The Web-services company Automattic Inc. has 123 employees working in 26 countries, 94 cities and 28 U.S. states. Its offices? Workers’ homes.

At Automattic, which hosts the servers for the blogging platform WordPress.com, work gets done wherever employees choose, and virtual meetings are conducted on Skype or over Internet chat.

The system lets employers hire employees from anywhere, a key advantage in the war for talent. Some people might like to work for Amazon, but be unwilling to move to Seattle. This sort of system could help alleviate that. Still, there are problems with the system – it doesn’t necessarily enable the serendipitous interaction that leads to much innovation and progress:

Mr. Mac says that making decisions is faster when someone is sitting next to you, and it’s easier to keep employees in the loop and brainstorm together over a whiteboard. “You can’t create true serendipity over IM,” he says.

The “officeless” companies seem to be making an effort to enable this sort of interaction, even if only occasionally:

The company also organizes regular face-to-face get-togethers of teams, allowing workers to fly to meet each other in convenient locations, and an annual, week-long “grand meetup” for all employees. Ms. McLeese says that after long stretches without seeing each other face to face, the meetups can be emotional. “People are giving each other hugs at the airport,” she says.

 

Mat Atkinson, the chief executive of the design-review software company ProofHQ, says that managing “distributed” teams requires 25% more effort than a face-to-face team would because managers must pay closer attention to whether workers are motivated and fully understand tasks and business processes. “There isn’t the opportunity to just pop into someone’s office,” says Mr. Atkinson, who is based in London and has 32 staffers based in 17 cities around the world.

The companies also attempt to find other ways to enable communication and manage team projects:

The company lives by a philosophy of “overcommunication,” says Ms. McLeese, to help proactively quell any misunderstandings and provide workers with direction. Employees mainly transmit messages via internal blogs, dubbed P2s, which also act as a virtual water cooler. When misunderstandings occur with text-based chats, participants are encouraged to pick up the phone.

Anyone who’s ever had an email misunderstood or questioned someone’s intent can realize the shortcomings of this system. While it won’t work for every company or employee, big box companies weren’t right for everyone either. Neither are downtown offices or suburban parks. This is the sort of innovative corporate form which we’ll see much more of in the coming years as companies try to retain employees and see how to best produce content in the information economy.

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