Back to the office and back again

I’m just going to say it. Offices should be optional. They are a tool to be used when you need them, not a mandate, not an expectation, not an assumption that the tool is always needed.

I’m not saying that offices are useless and face-to-face interactions are not worthwhile. I want to be clear — I’m not saying that at all. Rather, I’m saying that assuming that offices are needed every day is just… wrong. They’re not. The more I see and hear and experience the benefits of remote and semi-remote working, the more of a champion I’m becoming for the cause of simply working from home more often than not.

Note: this obviously does not apply to doctors, janitors, teachers, airplane pilots, and others who don’t work a typical office job. My discussion here is about office work.


At some point this past spring I got a jolt of an idea: I should hire some interns.

I had projects piling up and I was busy at MightySignal. With our small team, we’re pulling in north of $250,000 per employee per year in revenue. I’m happy with that ratio, but it means we’re pretty strapped for time. I had one daunting project in particular that I wanted to knock out this summer and I didn’t want to do it alone. It would be the perfect project for an intern. Or two. Or heck, even four.

I got to work and had a really easy time finding qualified candidates. I was shocked, actually, at how well we were able to attract exactly the kind of students I hoped to work with. I settled on two engineering interns to knock out some lingering R&D on our app scanning technology, and two marketing interns to finally, once and for all, pound out a big SEO project I’d been wanting to do.

However, recruiting interns from all over the country meant putting them somewhere. I didn’t think a remote internship was a good idea. It felt too risky. My full-time staff are all remote, but I didn’t want to assume a student would want that experience. Internships, I think, are about the experience of learning face-to-face. This is one area where I’m totally on board with office time.

So, since I was working from home at the time, I needed an office. With the blessing of my board, I signed a three-month lease for a small office in downtown Walnut Creek this summer. It was furnished with good internet and cell phone reception, and sat across the street from my gym. It took about six minutes to ride my bike to work, coasting a slight grade downhill the whole time.

The first intern started in late May and three more piled on in June. I ultimately lost an intern to an unexpected research opportunity that she couldn’t pass up. I chocked that one up to good hiring. So my intern class settled in at three: Rohan, Siddhant, and Zach. I’m happy with how it went, and yes, the office had something to do with it.

Benefits

Offices provide structure and routine. It’s positive peer pressure to show up, work hard, and put in your eight hours. When you’re first starting a new position (or an internship) I think this is good habit-forming practice

It also expedites the time it takes to get to know each other. I like to eat, and lunch is one of my three favorite meals. Each week we went out to eat, re-creating one of my favorite perks at Scripted, the weekly catered lunches we provided to everyone. There’s something nice about breaking bread together. You can’t do that on Slack.

Parts of the MightySignal tech stack are very hands-on. Some of what we do involves physical devices, actual iPhones, and Mac minis that power them. I needed my engineering interns to be in the same room with this stuff. It’s not conducive to remote work.

On the SEO and marketing side, I tried to write out a comprehensive project plan, but inevitably as we dove into the details and started to work on it, things would change. Assumptions would be proven wrong and on-the-fly shifts would be needed. Working in the same room with the interns helped to streamline those changes. When a particularly vexing issue arose, I’d suggest we hash it out at Philz, a welcome new addition to the Walnut Creek café scene and a short walk from the office.

I enjoyed being in the vicinity of my team. It feels good to share a room with people who are working towards a common goal. It also felt good to revisit my in-person management approach, something I haven’t needed to do since my staff are fully remote.

I ultimately settled on a schedule compromise, which I think my interns also appreciated. We would work Monday through Thursday at the office. Fridays could be from home (or anywhere, really.) I needed this because my kids aren’t in pre-school on Fridays and my wife also works, so Fridays can be a bit of a hot potato day, with us taking turns entertaining the kids while the other one shoots out emails or gets on a conference call.

At Rapleaf, the job I had in the lull between Scripped and Scripted, I fell into the habit of not coming into the office on Fridays. I was on the sales team, and we were having a really, really hard time getting sales. The company was going through a steep transition and being commission-heavy sales reps, we were barely treading water. The office felt stifling to me. It zapped my energy. I’d play ping-pong with Grant Lee, the guy who would propel me most during my time there. When I stopped showing up on Fridays, he came up with a term for it: “Buck Friday.”

“Having a Buck Friday, ol’ buddy?” he’d ping me when I didn’t show up.

“Yep!” I’d write back.

Since I’m the boss now, I gave my interns that option. They could have a Buck Friday every week if they wanted to, because I was going to take one for sure. Two of them took me up on it, and one of them went into the office anyway, saying he liked it there. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not, but I invited that guy to stay on with us part-time after classes start back up. I appreciated his dedication.

To sum it up, I put these in the plus column for having an office and going to it regularly:

  • Faster onboarding
  • Easier communication
  • Team lunches
  • Technical project management
  • Camaraderie
  • More management practice (for me)

Costs

It’s now about two-and-a-half months into my summer office experience and I’m very much looking forward to returning to life as it was: taking calls from my creek, responding to emails from my patio, and doing demos in the cottage in my backyard. I miss it.

In fact, I miss being alone during the day. At the office I have to be on. I feel pressured to be accommodating, proactively checking to see if anyone needs help. I wasn’t sure how social I should be. Sometimes I just wanted to put on headphones and work; my part of the SEO project involved a few days of coding, and I needed to get my development environment re-configured. It took some time and I didn’t want to be distracted. Those days I wished I could have just worked from home.

There’s also the literal cost of the office. The rent isn’t bad but it isn’t free. I happened to have scouted out a great deal on Craigslist; the tenant was motivated to find someone to fill in the office during the exact months that I needed the space. This worked out perfectly, but at Scripted it was the opposite. We paid an exorbitant rent and signed a three year lease which was painful to get out of when we sold the business. Plus the snacks and furniture and lunches, which in my case were minimal, but at scale can be very pricey.

Commute time is a huge one. The interns managed to find housing nearby and one already lived in the area. Nobody mentioned a negative commute experience, but it’s time out their day that could decrease productivity. When I was still working on Scripted and commuting to San Francisco every day from Walnut Creek, I would spend exactly two hours roundtrip on bike and BART, door to door. That’s two more hours I could have been working rather than thumbing through news articles and crossword puzzles.

For those who don’t have public transportation options, the commute impact is even worse. There’s traffic, wear and tear on the car, the chance, albeit small, of getting in an accident. The cost to park in San Francisco is tremendously high, and if there’s construction or a lane closure, it can double or triple your commute time, taking precious time away from your family at the end of the day.

Commute impact on the environment is huge too. Just under half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Contra Costa County (where I live) come from road transportation. If half of the commuters where I live could work from home, that would not only unclog the roads during rush hour, it would also dramatically reduce the carbon footprint in my community. This is important.

Finally, offices are a distraction. For all the benefits you get in building friendships in the office, those same friendships can also reduce productivity. It’s not always helpful to get lost in idle conversation, or pulled into a ping-pong game, or stuck out in a long lunch with co-workers. It’s often hard to work in an office.

In summary, here are the negatives:

  • Distractions from co-workers
  • Productivity lost commuting
  • Cost to employees
  • Cost to employers
  • Cost to environment

Conclusion

I know I got a lot more work done at home, but I also recognize that the four of us in the intern office combined got a lot more work done than I did alone. I’m glad I hired my interns and that we all spent the summer in an office in Walnut Creek.

However, if these were full-time staff rather than short-term interns, I would have done it differently. I would have signed us up for access to a co-working space and suggested that we meet there every Thursday. We’d get there early, work together all day, have lunch together, and say farewell until the following week.

I believe it’s possible to have the benefits and avoid the costs of having an office. The answer is simply to treat the office like a tool. It’s there when you need it and you can ignore it when you don’t. I think most teams would benefit from meeting together about once a week if they’re in the same city. If my remote workers were all in the same country, I’d schedule meetings about once a quarter. Since half my staff are international, we meet together twice a year.

Every team is different. Every company need is different. However, I think it’s healthy to challenge the assumption that everyone needs an office and should go to one every day. It’s just not the case if you really think about it.

2 thoughts on “Back to the office and back again”

  1. […] I forgive myself for that oversight, as most men tend to do, because I think I’m a pretty good husband. If I may say so myself. I cook, I clean, I wash dishes and put them away, I do laundry (when she lets me) and I take the kids to school 99.9% of the time (she picks them up). Until just recently I was home every day because I worked from home (I’ll describe my first temporary office in Walnut Creek for summer interns in a future post). […]

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