Officeless companies = does networking work?

Can a company without offices have its own corporate culture?

To our dearest readers,

Today, we would like to take a closer look at one of the hottest topics of the moment, bound to revolutionize the way we live. And no, it’s not Emmanuel Macron, but officeless companies. Here at About Work, we believe it would radically improve our working conditions worldwide. So it may be a good idea to ask ourselves if such an initiative can be implemented in a smart way, without making concessions over profitability or the quality of communication. Let’s dig into this and release misconceptions that don’t always apply. For our greater pleasure.

Enjoy!

 

There are many reasons why an office is kept empty during hours and hours : vacation, meetings, lunch breaks, business trips…

A few figures from France:

Source: Buzzy Ratios Arseg, 2016 study, http://www.arseg.asso.fr/fre/ArsegDocs/Les-Buzzy-Ratios-BRA-Indicateurs-de-l-Environnement-de-travail

This is why companies like Buffer, Auttomatic, Mozilla, BaseCamp and Upworthy chose to operate without any corporate offices : remote working can be very advantageous. Working from home means that you can enjoy flexible working schedules and get a better work-life balance, it also means less time spent on the road or in public transportation. For the companies themselves, it allows them to cut real estate and operational costs. Finally, on a large scale, massive remote working would reduce traffic, offices’ energy consumption, and even paper printing. The environmental impact is consequently pretty positive, as it would decentralize some working areas and relocate workers on more local areas. According to data collected by GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, if every worker wishing to work from home did so half their working time, companies would save $11,000 per person per annum, telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 p.a., and the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking the entire New York State workforce permanently off the road. Pretty huge, right?

Nevertheless, the picture may not be as perfect as it sounds. Many can argue that teleworking has its drawbacks : limited communication, working time verifications, specific material needs, demotivation… In BVA’s 2015 study, ¾ of teleworkers evoked the positive impact remote working can have on their family lives, but they also admitted that there could be a backlash when considering their personal career prospects and their relationship with their coworkers and the company in general.

Now, let's take some space from those compromises : let’s dare to face the idea that remote working doesn’t work and try to work out an objective answer. Does having no office affect efficiency, motivation, or communication? Can we trust coworkers or subordinates to work from home? For the purpose of a fair investigation on this matter, we will question each main objection there is to generalizing remote working.

Once we free ourselves from some misconceptions, let’s dig into the question of creating a culture without offices. Is it really that hard to get?

1/

"You can’t get clear guidelines when you don’t regularly see your manager"

in a nutshell

Not really! According to the Gallup Institute, remote workers believe they have a clearer job description compared to traditional workers. Remote working may not be optimal for all positions or for all types of activity, some efforts are still to be made on the management side in order to open up some positions to remote working. Managers would need to reinvent their role : a good manager is now someone who is connected, who is comfortable on all virtual communication canals, and who gives extra-attention to the individual needs of each of its coworkers.

more specifically...

In its latest report, Gallup shows that digital nomads and other remote workers have a better assessment of their job description than traditional workers.

Admittedly, the question of quality communication is a relevant one. But are clear guidelines always necessary? No. In fact, they are most of the time the main reason why a worker will inhibit his or her creativity. However, it is also true that human interaction is one major source of creativity. Reflecting on the efficiency of a brainstorming session online instead of taking place in a physical room is a relevant question for this matter. Let’s also take into account the fact that creativity isn’t necessarily the top priority in all jobs in all companies, especially when considering client specifications.

There are also jobs that do not often involve collaboration. Solitary tasks like web developing or translating are pretty straightforward and don’t need that many guidelines. Once again, the only red line consists in the clients’ constraints.

OK. But not all jobs are meant to be creative or solitary. For all those that do need specific sets of evolving guidelines, the key answer is in the new management methods and roles. A good manager isn’t just that person who motivates you and helps you understand your goals and work faster anymore. It’s also someone who is connected and who approaches coworkers on a case-by-case basis. The manager must adapt deadlines to clients’ expectations but also to the team’s abilities, a team which remains virtual. Some need daily attention and communication, others prefer a weekly talk, or a monthly check-up… Meaning that the manager must adapt his or her methodology to the various profiles he/she has to deal with. This is quite a challenge. Communication tools are numerous and can be complex: Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, internal blogs, Dropbox, GitHub, Jira, Asana, Slack… ProofHQ CEO Mat Atkinson believes that working with distributed teams requires 25% more efforts, because of the extra attention on workers’ motivation and understanding of their tasks. As for communication, some believe that instant messenger services are more democratic than physical meetings in which sometimes, whoever talks the loudest is right.

We found one great solution for managers who struggle with all this communication technology : Wuphf.

2/

"We’re less motivated when we work from home"

in a nutshell

While remote workers feel less engaged than employees working at home 3 days a week, there is a core trend that can’t be ignored: a higher engagement level is progressively reached for people who work more from home. Moreover, the workforce demand for teleworking is growing, to the extent that it actually becomes a factor affecting employee retention. So the real question is to look into the future and wonder : what can a manager do to get better motivation from their employees while seeing them less?

more specifically...

Let’s go back in time and cite, to our Management teachers’ delight, the Hawthorne effect. In the 30ies, Elton Mayo observed that plant workers are more motivated by the attention they get than by the material improvement of their working conditions. The sense of belonging to a social group and the idea of cooperating are undeniably crucial. This is indeed confirmed by the Gallup report we already talked about earlier. Beyond the optimal 4 days a week working at home, employees feel less engaged and somewhat disconnected. However, the same survey from 2012 shows that the optimal peak was at 1 day per week… So yeah, there is a powerful and quick change in the air.

The fact that there are no offices does not mean that there is no relationship. In fact, Ray Oldenburg, and American sociologist, talked about the tiers lieux. He defines them as places that combine the formal and serious aspect of work with the friendly and intimate side of personal life. It can be coffeeshops, restaurants, coworking spaces… These places can be used for occasional meet-ups with coworkers as well as client meetings, or simply for those who don’t easily focus at home and require a separate working space. The feeling of disconnection can be partially overcome with coworkers gatherings, and not necessarily with workers from the same company: you can participate in ski sessions in the mountains with other ‘digital nomads’, or board on a catamaran cruise… Sounds good, right? However in some cases the feeling of exclusion is so strong that it directly impacts motivation. One big question is whether a company should let some of its employees work remotely, those who want to for example but not necessarily, while others stay in the office. One potential risk with this method can be easily explained with the the famous “FOMO” idea – Fear Of Missing Out: basically, working at home is okay as long as you’re not missing out on what other coworkers, who work at the office, are doing.

Mankind needs some attention and some sense of belonging. Even when organizing cruises with other companies’ remote workers, even when meeting up occasionally with some coworkers, even when your manager is a top-notch communication pro, you may face the risk of feeling disconnected. But can we really ignore the fact that 79% of all workers surveyed want to start working from home? that 37% of employees claim to be ready to change jobs just to be able to work remotely, even partially? Out of 1500 tech employees, 37% would be willing to give up 10% of their salary just to get to work from home. And 72% of employers interrogated believe that the possibility to work remotely is an important factor for employee retention (GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com). According to a Maddyness and Nexity Lab infography, the same trend can be oserved in France: 66% of employees are in favor of home-working (but only 16% of them can actually do it!). That’s probably why remote workers at AT&T work on average 5 hours more than when they’re at their office desk.

3/

"Productivity isn’t the same when working from home"

in a nutshell

On that matter, we have found a full set of figures and research data refuting this assertion. For our greater pleasure, as you can imagine! Simply because working at your office desk means being interrupted by colleagues, participating in time-consuming meetings, take breaks with your colleagues..

more specifically...

Admittedly, temptations arise when working alone at home. But contrarily to common beliefs, the workplace is filled with distractions: meetings that aren’t always very productive or meaningful, coffee breaks, phone calls from your neighbors that make you lose focus… Not to mention delays in public transportation and traffic.

Let’s let statistics speak for themselves. The NexityLab and Maddyness study estimates productivity gains are between 10% and 15%, but studies show that productivity usually increases from 15% o 55% Companies like Best Buy, British Telecom, or Dow Chemical consider that their teleworkers are 35% to 40% more efficient. Those from American Express produced 43% more than their peers working from the office. As for Alpine Access, remote salesmen made 30% more sales. Not striking enough? Their customer complaints have also dropped by… 90%. Yup. (GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com).

Working from home means being able to work on our own, and being able to measure performance with relevant and well-defined KPIs.

One important thought though: there are core psychosocial risks related to home-working. Working from home should not mean being available at all times, feeling disconnected or abandoned by the company, or feeling excessively liable to the company offering such a privilege. The working nomad needs to find a proper balance on his/her own.

4/

"A manager cannot correctly assess workers’ merit if they’re at home"

in a nutshell

Facing these new working methods, it’s the manager’s responsibility to adapt performance measures to the personality, the position, and the sector in which his or her coworkers operate. It’s quite a challenge!

more specifically...

This is the very heart of our topic: it’s up to senior management to come up with relevant performance measures in order to reap the benefits from teleworking. Broadly speaking, it’s truly a new approach to work: rather than evaluating the effort, you reward the achievement. And honestly, this isn’t so far away from the way the market economy and its liberal fundamentals were conceived and implemented. Some even advocate that officeless companies are more fair, given that workers can be strictly assessed on what they produce rather than on the impression of productivity they may or may not express.

We’re still far from it, though. Basing ourselves once again on the Gallup report, the three main reasons for a lack of motivation are blurry and irrelevant expectations, unclear and irregular feedback, and an unfair performance measure. 6 out of 10 workers surveyed admit they do not know what their managers expect from them.

Building trust and shaping a relevant set of performance measures is absolutely essential, for both managers and workers. Indeed, all along the research process for this article, we find that this is the key preoccupation for employees who fear that their absence from the workplace can negatively affect their career prospects (we can however point to the fact that this is valid for companies who maintain offices but allow teleworking for some). This is all the more difficult as performance measures vary from one job to another, and from one sector to another.

5/

"not everyone can work remotely"

in a nutshell

Yes indeed. Remote working is somewhat discriminating because not all job positions can be filled with remote workers. However, from another standpoint, it can radically open up company’s access to recruits spread worldwide, may it be to best talents living on the other side of the world who wouldn’t relocate for a job, handicapped individuals, or experienced seniors who wish to enjoy the flexibility of retirement while sharing their expertise at the same time.

more specifically...

As such, a remote worker must master communication tools in order to be efficient; This is why many times you may hear that remote working mostly works for the Y Generation, composed with individuals who get used to blurring and who were born with this new technology. So what about the 75% of retired Americans who want to continue working while enjoying some additional flexibility?

Not all work tasks can be achieved on a simple laptop from home. A salesman who is often out of the office may prefer remote working, while more sedentary workers may prefer to feel close to managers and coworkers. The scope of this topic is obviously restricted: a construction worker or a chef needs to be at his office, contrarily to a B2B salesman or a web developer. There is also a personality gap: some want personal interactions, and some may need this to start a common project.

That said, breaking the link between work and the office can open up the labor market. Recruiters are probably the true winners when considering officeless companies. With such a model, the scope for recruiting is limitless, with an enormous potential in talent management. Rather than hiring average web developers who are living in the area or ready to move, an officeless company can hire top Brazilian and South Korean developers to work on a project managed by an Israeli in a company based in Delaware. It would also be fair for workers who have limited access to offices. 12% of the American population old enough to work has a handicap, and 75% of them declare that discrimination in the workplace and difficulties in transportation are the main factors preventing them from working.

John Melas-Kyriazi said so...

"What we’re witnessing today with distributed teams emerging is just the beginning of a broader movement. The real opportunity lies in taking this model of a distributed team and applying it to the global workforce. By harnessing the massive, untapped talent pool that exists in every corner of our planet, we will be able to maximize the potential of companies and ideas — regardless of where they originate."

John Melas-Kyriazi en février 2016
John Melas-Kyriazi en février 2016

Now that we’ve cleared common misconceptions from this field of study, we can focus on the corporate culture topic. But first of all, what exactly is corporate culture?

what exactly is corporate culture?

There are many, many definitions. Honestly, some of them are pretty abstract. Elliott Jacques in 1951 defined it as follows : “a company’s way of thinking and the way it usually and traditionally acts, which is more or less shared by all of its members”.

Maybe a more practical definition is the one delivered by Edgard Schein (pronounce “Shine”). He considers culture acts through 3 different levels. Values are the words consciously chosen by the corporate leadership to express what the company should be and what guides its choices. However, we can admit that few workers actually know what the corporate values are, and some of those who do may not take them seriously. Premises are the beliefs that subconsciously flow in the company and that determine strategic orientations. Finally, artefacts consist in all the visible aspects of culture, such as dressing codes, language, founding myths, or the office layout.

So we notice that, at a first glance, a company without offices doesn’t have any artefacts, given the fact that its employees don’t see each other. There can’t be a dressing code for example. We could also consider that if companies based in one place already struggle to include values chosen by the top management in workers’ minds and working methods, it is all the more complicated for officeless companies.

However, there is a certain corporate culture behind all this. Officeless companies, as said previously, must rely on accountable workers. Trust is at the very heart of the set of values that an officeless company could develop. That’s probably why Auttomatic has a recruitment process stretching out over several weeks: they challenge candidates with actual mock projects rather than listen to them during interviews. Also, management is generally pretty democratic, as constraints are limited to the maximum. Finally, an officeless company is more inclined to consider achievements rather than merit : this could very well be considered a premise. So, we’re actually pretty close to determining a corporate culture as defined by Edgar Schein…

All of this is true for officeless companies as a whole: could it mean that they all have the same culture?

Do all officeless companies have a similar corporate culture?

The third leg of corporate culture, artefacts, may not be entirely absent. There is a specific language that can emerge, even without offices. Actually, we could consider that written communication, combining formal and informal expression, is pretty rich and beholds many shades (nuances), what with abbreviations, emojis, punctuation… They actually enrich and modulate language. And may offset a certain lack of human interaction, why not?

Corporate culture also relies on other elements than Shchein’s tryptic. The paradigm school insists on the power of symbols. For example, a team picture holds many subtle symbolic signs that partially reveal the corporate culture, in the way the manager is standing and where he or she is standing, the way people are dressed, the gender balance… In the absence of repeated human contact, we can imagine that symbols have an important impact in officeless companies. Wouldn’t a Whatsapp of Skype profile picture, seen on a regular basis and staying identical for some time, be meaningful?

Another way corporate culture operates is through rituals. They are essential : when there is no office and no regular meet-ups, they can be the only occasion to actually meet the manager in person. Officeless companies tend to promote their yearly teambuilding event organized in a heavenly place. Rather than seeing each other every day at the office, workers spend a week on beaches in Hawaii (that’s something Buffer did). Moreover, it is not unusual for managers and Board members to meet once a month. So, simply put, it looks like officeless companies just favor quality over quantity.

Auttomatic team distribution Auttomatic. Taken from their corporate website

That’s it! Our pre-investigation has come to an end.

Although we could really spend a lifetime rummaging through sociology books and specialized articles to dig in deeper, we’re pretty eager to fly out to the USA and check our facts. If an officeless company doesn’t work, can it only be due to performance measures that are not good enough? Are officeless companies ready to tackle the cybersecurity risk? How is corporate culture perceived by remote workers and how is it supported and spread out by the management team?

So. Let’s meet officeless HR managers, founders, digital nomads, to get to know better how they work, what their corporate culture looks like, how it is implemented, spread out, and what their performance measures look like.

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