To better serve clients whose employees work remotely, Bellevue-based Carpool Agency decided to conduct an experiment and allow its workers to work anywhere for a month. Here’s what they learned.
In mid-July, 16 employees of Bellevue communications consultancy Carpool Agency met for a staff meeting. The scene was typical of tech startups. Folks mingled through the company’s open layout and chatted about projects. Free breakfast was consumed. Staffers were looking forward to a game of “pineapple,” the in-house version of Ping-Pong in which numerous players revolve around the table. The office itself, a parking-level room in a Bellevue retail building, is utilitarian. Desks, none of which are assigned, are clustered next to one wall; the rest of the office remains open for whatever impromptu meetings arise. Kelly-green walls zap the otherwise industrial-chic concrete floors and exposed ducts.
Something was unique about the meeting, though — most of the employees in the office hadn’t yet seen each other that month. This was part of an experiment the company deemed “Office Anywhere,” in which employees were to work anywhere they saw fit — especially spots outside the office — throughout July. To best serve clients who were increasingly curious about how to handle remote-working employees, Carpool CEO Jarom Reid decided to see how his own workforce operated remotely.
“So, who’s enjoyed it?” Reid asked his gathered employees. Four hands shot up immediately; two more rose slowly.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Cameron Masters, an account manager. “For accounts, July is a light month, so there’s less pressure. If it was May or June, we’d be frustrated.”
“Everybody’s jealous — I posted pictures on Facebook of me working from my yard,” Alex Kruse, the company’s social-engagement specialist, said. More mixed feelings arose. Developers preferred to work in the office, where they had access to better hardware and instant tutoring; account managers were happy to share the experience with clients that are hiring millennials who prefer a fluid work setting.
As employees shared their early impressions, Reid, wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the Bazooka gum logo, absorbed feedback on his grand experiment. By asking employees to work wherever they like (about three employees consistently came to the office each day), Reid resurrected an idea that first emerged in the early days of the internet but has never truly come to fruition: that the internet would make the traditional 9-to-5 office norms irrelevant.
Reid’s hypothesis was that a flexible office structure would save the company money, make it more environmentally friendly, and improve productivity and employee happiness. “My friend’s a lawyer,” Reid told me in his Sammamish home office, where he worked most of July. “They spend $2.5 million a year on office space. Why can’t they just use it as needed? Maybe you can turn the office into a commodity instead of a necessity.”
This idea, though technologically enabled (Carpool relies on Facebook at Work for communication and project-tracking apps), is not widely embraced by the technology industry. Tech firms are opening increasingly grandiose offices with perks that ostensibly turn the office into a home. “These are places where you can do everything but sleep,” said Sanna Hansen, who handles Carpool’s people and process management.
In Reid’s mind, that real estate strategy is a sign of an overburdening employer. “No offense to my employees, but I’d much rather hang out with my wife. She’s my best friend, and if I’m always at the office, I hardly spend time with her,” Reid said. “Yes, (Office Anywhere) is about productivity, but I don’t think it should be based on the work employees are doing — it should be based on the social life they’ve established.”
Social forces, indeed, shaped many Carpool employees’ work settings during July. Hansen, a mother who works part-time, used to go to the office every Wednesday. “It was a social thing. I looked forward to Wednesdays — those were my adult days,” she said. With most people out of the office, though, Hansen fell back on coffee shops, which she likes because they provide the social bustle of the office but shield her from interrupting kids and coworkers.
For some, the lack of an office requirement boosted productivity. Avoiding a commute was a near-ubiquitous perk for workers, and others felt that working from home better allowed them to finish tasks uninterrupted. Darren Litchfield, who moved to Georgia in June, finds working remotely frees him from social traps most employees are familiar with.
“In the office, you get pulled into meetings. You spend an hour in stuff that doesn’t relate to you, or doesn’t need to happen at all,” he said.
There were drawbacks. Designer Alana Espineli, who lives in a basement studio in Bellevue, found herself missing the social element. “I like interacting with people. Working alone; it’s not where I want to be. But I do like the trust aspect of it, and the flexibility.”
Communication issues were rarely aired, a testament to one critical ingredient of flexible workspaces: in-house social media. By using Facebook at Work, Carpool’s primary line of communication during July was one that nearly everyone is familiar with. Some employees, Espineli included, needed some coaxing. But once everyone was posting to the company Facebook page consistently, there was no concern with stagnant communication. Pages were created for projects, while a general company board allowed employees to post pictures and witty posts, the digital equivalent of office banter.
Many employees said mediated communication helped their productivity. While email chains can become confusing, and in-person interruptions are hard to ignore, employees said they could see a Facebook message and return to the issue at a more convenient time.
At month’s end, Reid said Office Anywhere was a success. Sales figures were above average, and employees generally seemed happy. The experiment had sparked a discussion of what the company should do with its own office. Reid sees the office as a place not where employees should be daily, but one where sporadic meetings of significance take place. But the cost of a mostly empty office is hard to justify, so Carpool is considering turning its space, for which it pays $6,500 per month, into a coworking office.
Reid sees Office Anywhere as a step toward reframing the workspace discourse. As technology increasingly allows people to work from coffee shops, hotels, and homes, workers and employers alike must embrace the fluidity the internet facilitates, and accept trappings such as dogs barking in the background of a conference call.
Reid himself experienced one instance in July when he assumed a worker was slacking. “One employee posted a picture of herself working by the pool. The sun was in the photo; I could tell it wasn’t 5:30 in the afternoon,” he said. “My immediate reaction was old-school — what if a coworker sees this? My new response is, I hope she is able to do this. If she can do this and still do her job, then that is awesome.”