CEO: Going virtual made my employees ‘feel closer’

Offering employees the option to work remotely or at the office undermines both working experiences, claims this CEO. That’s why he shut down his physical office and has gone virtual.

Is the ever-evolving physical office nearing extinction?

A new academic study from Kevin Rockman of George Mason University and Michael Pratt of Boston College suggests that offices are dying out.

With many colleagues choosing to work away from the office (mainly from home but at other venues, too), those left behind are toiling away in an increasingly empty workplace.

In a spiral, this loss of co-workers makes coming to the office less attractive, driving yet more people to leave the office behind.

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times writes that this pattern is corrosive and that long-term home workers often are lonely, lose purpose and become morose due to a lack of human contact with office-based colleagues. She says that for all their flaws, offices remain a far better work experience than remote working. The debate rages on.

Neither fish nor fowl

To me, the issue is not that coming to an office or working “remotely” is inherently better or worse than the other option, but that having both as options undermines both working experiences.

My own company’s story might be illuminating. The Digital Workplace Group, where I am CEO, employs 60 people, mostly in the U.K., U.S. and mainland Europe, and in 2011 we shut down the single office we had in London.

Since then, the entire staff has worked in whatever spot each person finds himself each day. My physical workplace today is at home in the English countryside. Last week it included an apartment the company has in London, the Houses of Parliament (a client), various coffee shops, parks and tubes and trains.

One day this week I am visiting my 94-year-old mum, but thanks to Virgin Trains I can work en route to and from Manchester—before and after our afternoon visit.

Where anyone in my company is physically on a given day has become irrelevant, as long as we all (or most of us) are digitally present, using Skype, Yammer, Google Docs, Basecamp, intranet, email, etc. Our colleagues in the Digital Workplace Group have their own options: local libraries, home offices, client premises, various forms of transportation. We have one colleague who sometimes checks in while climbing in the Alps.

Unexpected benefits

I was quite nervous about shutting down our office, but far from making us more fragmented, it has brought the company closer together. When we had both an office and remote workers, the duality created a sense that remote workers were missing out on the office hubbub.

Now we are all equal; there is no office from which some of us are absent. We are equally connected, using ever faster, clearer and more reliable technology. There is no “us and them,” no office that some people feel distant from.

Removing our office leveled the playing field and made us all feel closer and the company more intimate—similar to the closeness that online gamers experience in the collective digital environment.

Some flaws, too

This way of working has drawbacks: Sometimes we feel isolated and miss each other. So, we put effort into meeting in person while seeing clients, in meetings with our members and on travel for work trips.

It’s not perfect, and we could do more to spend more social time together. Also, when tricky issues arise, the virtual nature of how we work can lack the depth that comes from having a catchup over coffee and cake.

Still, the gains outweigh the downsides, and no one seriously considers having a fixed office again.

This way of working may not be possible for large organizations yet, but given that Automattic, the company that owns WordPress, has 500 people and no offices, clearly the approach can scale to some extent.

Here are my five reasons why no office is better than some office:

1. It creates a level playing field.

The issue of the “guys at HQ” seemingly in their own power bubble evaporates. Once you share an office—albeit a digital office—everyone has equal access to the collective space.

Staffers in Australia or the Caribbean feel as connected as their colleagues in London. A new freelancer carrying out work on a project has equal access to our digital office. You feel part of the company quickly and smoothly.

2. We gain flexibility and choice.

Where anyone works becomes irrelevant and in an output-focused company such as DWG, and it is often not important when work gets done, so long as the quality and deadlines are met.

When we are working, the expectation is that colleagues will adhere to the normal workday for their time zone, but some people have young kids, elderly parents or hobbies they slot into their day.

All this is fine, as long as we deliver superb work for our 70 or so global clients and members (which we do).

3. Efficient working becomes natural

Overall, we work free of office politics, pointless meetings and wasted time. It is far easier to organize your day as you wish: quiet time to write, pre-set meetings using Skype or Webex, phone calls as needed and a steady stream of instant messages to stay in touch with few distractions.

The digital workplace is a connected world, and that makes grabbing reports, data and contact details easy and fast. We work far more efficiently than most people stationed in an office or using a hybrid office/remote combination.

4. It is environmentally better, saves travel time and allows a company to “tread lightly.”

Think of the commutes we have avoided for a 60-person company over three years. Consider the office maintenance and power we have not needed.

Yes, we need to be warm and powered wherever we work, but the extra energy needed is far less than that required by a 3,000-square-foot office in London or New York. We consume what we need and we waste little, and that feels like a way of working suited to this century.

5. This is a future office, enabled by the digital renaissance of work.

Work has long been defined by location—from hunter/gatherers to farmers to factory workers and retail clerks—and now is being defined by our newfound mobility. We require a fixed location less and less. Work has left the office and become mobile, no matter whether we like that notion or not.

Work will happen wherever people can work, and their choices increasingly will define location. The trajectory for grand, newly designed offices is not good. Through this century, they will probably become white elephants.

DWG is just an early adopter and experimenter in this new way of working.

Paul Miller is CEO and founder of the Digital Workplace Group. A version of this article first appeared on LinkedIn.

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