Office Not Required

Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson

According to the research,* commuting is associated with an increased risk of obesity, insomnia, stress, neck and back pain, high blood pressure, and other stress-related ills such as heart attacks and depression, and even divorce.

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At the IT Collective, a film production and video marketing firm based in Colorado (but with people in New York and Sydney too), the team of editors will occasionally switch to nocturnal mode when working on a new film. It’s simply how they get their best work done. The next day the editors will overlap with the rest of the team just long enough to review progress and get direction for the next night. Who cares if they slept way past noon to make that schedule work?

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Through its telework strategy, since 1995, IBM has reduced office space by a total of 78 million square feet. Of that, 58 million square feet was sold at a gain of $ 1.9B. And sublease income for leased space not needed exceeded $ 1B. In the U.S., continuing annual savings amounts to $ 100M, and at least that much in Europe. With 386,000 employees, 40 percent of whom telework, the ratio of office space to employee is now 8: 1 with some facilities as high as 15: 1.

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Only about three times a year does the whole company get together in the Chicago office.

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By rationing in-person meetings, their stature is elevated to that of a rare treat. They become something to be savored, something special. Dine out every once in a while on those feasts and sustain yourself in the interim on the conversation “snacks” that technology makes possible.

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If people really want to play video games or surf the web all day, they’re perfectly capable of doing so from their desks at the office. In fact, lots of studies have shown that many people do exactly that. For example, at clothing retailer J.C. Penney’s headquarters, 4,800 workers spend 30 percent of the company’s Internet bandwidth watching YouTube videos.* So, coming into the office just means that people have to put on pants. There’s no guarantee of productivity.

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the number one counter to distractions is interesting, fulfilling work.

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You certainly don’t need everyone physically together to create a strong culture. The best cultures derive from actions people actually take, not the ones they write about in a mission statement. Newcomers to an organization arrive with their eyes open. They see how decisions are made, the care that’s taken, the way problems are fixed, and so forth. If anything, having people work remotely forces you to forgo the illusion that building a company culture is just about in-person social activities. Now you can get on with the actual work of defining and practicing it instead.

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Questions you can wait hours to learn the answers to are fine to put in an email. Questions that require answers in the next few minutes can go into an instant message. For crises that truly merit a sky-is-falling designation, you can use that old-fashioned invention called the telephone.

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Eighty-five percent of the examiners of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 57 percent of NASA’s workers, and 67 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency’s employees report that they work remotely to some extent.

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At 37signals, we’ve found that we need a good four hours of overlap to avoid collaboration delays and feel like a team.

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Use a shared screen to collaborate on everything from walking through a presentation, to going over the latest website changes, to sketching together in Photoshop, to just editing a simple text document together. Before you know it, you’ll be so used to sharing a screen that starting a call without one will feel pointless. Much of the magic that people ascribe to sitting together in a room is really just this: being able to see and interact with the same stuff.

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When someone wants to demonstrate a new feature they’re working on at 37signals, often the easiest way is to record a screencast and narrate the experience. A screencast is basically just a recording of your screen that others can play back later as a movie. It can be used in several ways, including for presenting the latest sales figures or elaborating on a new marketing strategy.

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avoid locking up important stuff in a single person’s computer or inbox. Put all the important stuff out in the open, and no one will have to chase that wild goose to get their work done.

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To instill a sense of company cohesion and to share forward motion, everyone needs to feel that they’re in the loop. At 37signals we’ve institutionalized this through a weekly discussion thread with the subject “What have you been working on?” Everyone chimes in with a few lines about what they’ve done over the past week and what’s intended for the next week. It’s not a precise, rigorous estimation process, and it doesn’t attempt to deal with coordination. It simply aims to make everyone feel like they’re in the same galley and not their own little rowboat.

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American Fidelity Assurance (AFA) cited the ability to continue helping customers even during disasters as a key reason they’re sticking with remote work. When they needed to close their headquarters in Oklahoma City for inclement weather, their remote workers all worked from home and customers never knew the difference.

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When meetings are the norm, the first resort, the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem, they become overused and we grow numb to the outcome. Meetings should be like salt—sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings can destroy morale and motivation.

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At Accenture, where 81 percent of employees work remotely to some extent, they even have an internal process for this called “Ergonomics for Professionals” to ensure employees get it right. The company offers a list of equipment that’s been picked for ergonomic comfort. It also offers the support of a certified ergonomics expert (an actual doctor!) who can work with people to find the best setup.

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be very available. Since you can’t meet face-to-face, you better return phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc. This is basic business stuff, but it’s tenfold more important when you’re working remotely. It may be irrational but, if you’re local, the client often feels that, if worse comes to worst, they can knock on your door. They “know where you live.” But when you’re remote, they’re going to be more suspicious when phone calls go unreturned or emails keep getting “lost.” Stay on top of communications and you’ll reap the benefits.

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Cultures grow over time, and it’ll be a lot easier if your culture grows up with remote workers.

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At 37signals, we meet up at least twice a year for four to five days. Part of the reason is to talk shop, present the latest projects, and decide the future direction of the company. But the bigger deal is to put moving faces with screen names, and to do it with enough regularity that we don’t forget each other’s in-person personalities.

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Much of open source is coordinated on mailing lists and code tracking systems like GitHub. Anyone who’s interested in helping out can because the information is all out in the open. You can self-select into participating, and the people with the most knowledge about an issue thus get easy access.

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Most successful open source projects eventually grow to the point where they can support their own conferences or, at least, sessions at general ones. This gives contributors a chance to meet in person to top off on social interaction—much like meetups and sprints do for companies. But it’s not a requirement, it’s a nice-to-have.

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When most conversations happen virtually—on the phone, via email, in Basecamp, over instant message, or in a Skype video chat—people actually look forward to these special opportunities for a face-to-face. The scarcity of such face time in remote working situations makes it seem that much more valuable. And as a result, something interesting happens: people don’t waste the time. An awareness of scarcity makes them use it wisely.

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Jason usually spends the mornings at home, then heads into the office around 11. That doesn’t mean he starts work at 11. He starts around 7: 30 or 8am. But he uses the morning to catch up on things that require zero office distractions, and then heads into the office for more collaborative work in the afternoon.

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for many, the hybrid approach is the right place to start. If you still want people in the office every day, change that requirement to every afternoon instead. Then let your troops have their mornings to themselves. You may be surprised to find out more work gets done this way.

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It sounds counterintuitive, but the presence of other people, even if you don’t know them, can fool your mind into thinking that being productive is the only proper thing to do.

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At 37signals, we let employees who’ve worked with the company three years or more take a monthlong sabbatical if they feel like it. Sure, this won’t work for every company, but if you have the slack and can handle it, it’s a great way to give the employees who need a real break (not just a quick vacation) time away to focus on themselves, or their families, or whatever it is that might be keeping them from feeling fully motivated at work.

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Mig, one of our designers at 37signals, uses his freedom to full advantage. Mig works in Chicago, but only comes into the office a few times a week, typically in the afternoon. His mornings are spent at different coffee shops around the city. The change of scenery, change of crowd, change of neighborhood, and change of menu helps him see similar things in new ways. He strongly believes that this variety translates to his work. More perspectives on the same problem is a good thing.

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There are two fundamental ways not to be ignored at work. One is to make noise. The other is to make progress, to do exceptional work. Fortunately for remote workers, “the work” is the measure that matters.

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