Patrice Riemens on Fri, 14 Sep 2012 09:42:23 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Rachel Silverman: Step Into the Office-Less Company (Wall Street Journal)

original to:

Step Into the Office-Less Company
How One Tech Firm Manages 123 At-Home Employees Scattered Across 26
Countries and 94 Cities

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, work gets done wherever employees choose, and virtual
meetings are conducted on Skype or over Internet chat.

The company has a San Francisco office for occasional use, but project
management, brainstorming and water-cooler chatter take place on internal
blogs. If necessary, team members fly around the world to meet each other
face to face. And if people have sensitive questions, they pick up the

Having a remote workforce lets companies tap into a wider talent pool not
limited by geography. Firms can also save money on real estate, though
sizeable travel budgets may partly offset that.

Nobody knows for sure how many completely office-less companies there are
or how fast their ranks are growing, but management researchers say such
firms are still rare. Today, just 2.5% of the U.S. workforce considers
home its primary place of work. But that number, which is based on
census-data analysis, grew 66% from 2005 to 2010, according to the
Telework Research Network, a consulting and research firm. And
increasingly, employees at companies with physical offices are choosing to
work remotely or forming virtual teams with colleagues world-wide, thanks
to rapid advances in video, social-networking, cloud storage and mobile

Many far-flung companies also have nonhierarchical management structures,
providing teams and workers the authority to make decisions and complete
tasks with light supervision.

But working from home isn't for everyone. "Some people hunger for the
personal contact," says Michael Boyer O'Leary, an assistant management
professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Dr.
O'Leary says that face-to-face contact is most critical for new employees
or when people without a track record together launch a new project.

Other staffers have difficulty creating boundaries between work and home
life, even missing the mental and physical transition of a commute, says
Jay Mulki, an associate professor at Northeastern University's College of
Business Administration who studies virtual workers.

Automattic: How they make it work

    Assignments with deadlines are posted on internal blogs.
    Meetings with team members take place on blogs, Skype or Internet chat.
    Internal 'water cooler' blogs enable workers to engage in virtual
    There is a 'grand meetup' once a year for all employees to gather face
to face.

Source: the company

He says that one remote worker he studied got into his car every morning,
drove around the block and then returned home to clock in.

Lori McLeese, who heads Automattic human resources, says that its hiring
and orientation processes are key to creating a cohesive culture. The
company requires top applicants to work on a trial project for a few weeks
to see if they are a good fit. New hires, regardless of position, must
work in customer service for three weeks to create a unifying employee
experience and have direct customer contact.

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.

But because staffers are in so many time zones, work is often done
asynchronously. Team members work their own hours?the company has a lot of
night owls and early risers?to meet project deadlines. If someone misses
the mark, the team leader or another staffer will reach out to the
employee to figure out what went wrong.

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

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.

But Mr. Atkinson says that employees are more productive because they have
no commutes and fewer interruptions. And he says that being virtual costs
about 50% less than having fixed real-estate costs.

Kalypso LP, an innovation consulting firm, has 150 employees around the
country and in Europe but no corporate offices, says founding-partner Bill
Poston, who works from his home in Boerne, Texas, when he is not at client

When the firm was founded eight years ago, Mr. Poston says the decision to
go office-less was financial. But now, being virtual is a matter of
choice, though he points out that the company isn't a good fit for people
"who are uncomfortable with ambiguity."

Mr. Poston also says that employees are far from isolated. Workers
communicate constantly via instant messaging and email. And teams of
consultants see each other almost daily when meeting with clients. The
company also flies employees to an annual meeting in September, and it
transports workers and their families to "family fun" weekends every June.
In addition, employees can fly to meet each other whenever necessary.

Not everyone believes in virtual companies. Last year the founders of
Zaarly Inc. debated whether to operate virtually or open an office for the
fledgling online marketplace for local services.

The firm opted for the latter, says Shane Mac, director of product for
Zaarly, which now has 43 employees, most of whom work in the company's San
Francisco-based office.

Although the firm has some remote employees, 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.

Write to Rachel Emma Silverman at

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info:
#  archive: contact: