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An Office Designed To Keep Employees Working From Home (fastcoexist.com)
73 points by kirpekar 2019 days ago | hide | past | web | 46 comments | favorite

It will definitely keep people away, just not for the reasons the bean counters expected.

1. People like having their own desks.

2. With enough space to actually work on.

3. Where they can hear themselves think.

I feel like it's time to carpet-bomb management and B-schools with PeopleWare again.

A few years ago I did a 3-week internship in the consulting arm of a Big 4 accounting firm. They had hot-desking in their office -- you were supposed to book it on the day. In practice certain folk had "ins" with the space and planning staff and so certain desks were never "available".

The practical upshot was that you had to wander around the vast office for 20 minutes trying to find the desk you booked from home that morning. And meetings were a pain. "Where are you? Red battleship 27 omega-B? I'm in pink rubber ducky 14 sigma-epsilon-J".

>just not for the reasons the bean counters expected

>People like having their own desks.

The lack of assigned desks was explicitly mentioned as one of the changes designed to keep people away.

A much simpler way would be to simply close the office. Cheaper too.

Accidentally creating a poor working environment out of ignorance is one thing, but deliberately doing so borders on madness.

It does seem to be a round about way to do it, but I was just pointing out that it was intentional, not agreeing with it.

My previous company tried to encourage more support teams (sysadmins, dbas, storage etc) to work from home and a lot of people embraced it. However the company discovered an unfortunate side effect - teaming broke down.

When our customers had critical incidents, our ability to respond and resolve the issues became worse and worse. The effect of working from home caused the teams (and even people within the teams themselves) to often fail to see the problem holistically. They would check their specific area and then pass the buck to another team.

Telecommuting definitely has benefits in the right situations, but if your work requires groups of people to collaborate closely and quickly, telecommuting can have a very adverse effect on your performance.

People regularly underestimate the benefits of a team working in the same office. I don't care how effective people feel they are when working from home, the team as a whole will function much better with everyone in the office.

Distributed teams are an anti-pattern. It's much easier to work with someone when you see them every day and perhaps have a few drinks after work from time to time. When everyone is just a name attached to an email or a voice on a noisy phone line, you're probably not going to feel too motivated to help them much. And without teamwork, why have a team?

I downvoted you because I believe your comment reflects a much more problematic anti-pattern that colors this debate: some companies have 100% distributed teams who deliver work and are happy with their jobs. Some companies have 100% on-site teams who deliver work and are happy with their jobs. Clearly, both of these systems work. Dismissing the entire practice of distributed teams as "an anti-pattern" is leaving a huge body of discussion on the table. It's obvious that this works in some situations and not others. You're assuming facts not in evidence: "When everyone is just a name attached to an email or a voice on a noisy phone line..." The article specifically says that there are high-quality screens installed all over the place to address exactly this concern. Please, let's stop repeating the same scripts and talk about what's really going on!

It's the mix that doesn't work particularly well.

Especially a mix in which certain team members are perpetually "outside" the main group. The remote participants simply don't have access to the same side-channel discussions office residents do. Location, bandwidth, and multi-channel communications (sight, sound, and even touch) matter.

The places I've seen this work well (very rare) involve people who travel frequently between locations (expensive and personally disruptive), and in which work and participation are forced onto the same channels remote workers use (chat/IRC/voice).

And sadly, in 2011, speakerphones and audio conferencing still sucks massively.

If you've got a very strong, very cohesive, very long-lived team, with a history of strong direct interpersonal relations, you may be able to get away from this.

Another factor I suspect has a strong bearing on this is a team in which members are chosen by merit (or at least on a broad-based acclaim, not by a single hire/fire entity), and who cannot be easily shed. Scientific communities, some forms of government collaboration, and much of the Free Software community operates on this basis.

Knowing your job is NOT at stake for any given mistake, error, or political misstep you make does a great deal for such activities to engender stronger and better participation.

In my experience.

And sadly, in 2011, speakerphones and audio conferencing still sucks massively.

I do some work at a large university where they have abundant bandwidth and the latest "telepresence" hardware, and as often as not you are still dealing with laggy audio/images, freezes, dropouts, echos, individual participants having technical issues or ignorant of how to use the systems, etc. It just doesn't work smoothly enough to be a pleasant experience, and often times is such a distraction as to render the entire exercise a waste of time.

We have a couple million-dollar Cisco telepresence setups where I work, and the experience has always been pretty great.

One time, it was 2am and my friend and I had just been kicked out of a bar near our office. There was also a severe thunderstorm warning in effect (with a lot of lightning) so we decided to go back to work instead of riding our bikes home in a tornado. Being rather inebriated, we did not do much work. Instead, we wandered around the building and found the telepresence rooms. We wondered, "how do we link these up and have a conference". There was a phone in each room, and they had some digits on them, so I went to the other telepresence and punched those digits into the phone-like device there. Connected! We then had a conversation for a good hour or so; it was so much like real life that it wasn't worth the effort to get up and walk back to the other room to have a "real" "in-person" conversation. There was no latency. Eye-contact was eye-contact. Everything was the right size. The displays may have even been Retina Displays; I didn't notice any pixels like I might when watching HDTV.

So all in all, not bad when done right. It passed the "wait out a tornado while drunk test", which I think says a lot.

Well, duh: two highly engineered rooms proximally located with high-speed data links (presumably) between them.

So: being right next door was practically like being ... right next door.

The point is that the hardware works quite well. I don't remember who makes our telepresence system, but connecting to a branch office over 1,000 miles away, the audio & video quality is still "like next door."

What's far worse is when the systems get deployed in a typical office without much regard for what makes for a good teleconferencing environment.

Just as "open floorplan", hot-desked, minimal personal space offices make lousy working environments for technical workers, a glass, steel, and dry-walled office with no acoustic absorbing materials, poorly distributed mikes, wide range of speakers with varying levels of accent and enunciation (one Russian I'd worked with was the black hole of speech, even in person words were unintelligible beyond an event horizon of approximately 12 inches), and the usual technical glitches (digital distortion, dropouts, varying volume levels from multiple remote locations, ambient noise locally or remotely ...) and the experience is uniformly barely tolerable.

There's a reason any professional AV situation (panel, conference, broadcast session) has one or more sound engineers. People may not appreciate the complexity, but it's a non-trivial problem.

Yes, it's cheaper than flying a bunch of people all over the planet (a lot cheaper), but "cheaper" != "good experience". And when the result is that the time is in fact wasted as you say, I'd say it's worse than the alternative (no meeting, written communications, personal travel).

Plantronics using (forcing) audio conference is eating their own dog food.

The problem with those setups is that although they work great for meetings, they're not suited for casual use.

And casual, informal communication is a major factor in teamwork.

There are startups addressing this. Sococo is one (I work there).

Declaring any broad idea like this to be an "anti-pattern" is itself an anti-pattern.

From personal experience, I disagree.

Some of the people I enjoyed most and worked best with were offsite. One I met in person after many months. Another I never met in person. Nonetheless, we could joke and get along quite well on the phone.

These were people who got stuff done. And they figured out that I did as well. We could trust each other.

On the other hand, there were people on-site you couldn't trust unless you practically stood there staring over their shoulder.

Different settings may work better for different people. But when you start telling them what does and doesn't work and mandating your solution -- then you have a problem.

P.S. Hmm. Now that I think about it, in a prior job, some of the people I worked best with were at plants in different states. I never met many of them, either. Being at plants that, you know, actually made stuff, they understood very well getting stuff done. When they said they'd do something, usually they did. If they couldn't, they let you know and why. I appreciated this, and I didn't use my headquarters role as an excuse or reason to blow them off. We got along well.

I've found "having a beer" to have little correlation with working well with people. I remember now the one fellow who wanted to "have coffee" -- just long enough to make sure he could do next year's calculations after I'd left.

P.P.S. I did not downvote you. I think this is a difference of opinion worth expression or even debate.

Over the course of my career, one of the most frustrating things has been to work with people who not only hold such a differing opinion but who give zero consideration to and have no willingness to discuss differing opinions.

For example, I'm perfectly happy to let others work in open space, if that's what works for them both subjectively and objectively. I couldn't care less. I just don't want it prescribed -- mandated -- for me.

Well said. One would expect that more people here would understand and accept that not everyone has the same needs or wants for socialization at work or "a few drinks after", what with the "socially awkward geek" stereotype and all. I for one get more motivated seeing my coworkers push high quality commits on github than, say, trying to evade "so, what did you do last weekend" small talk. Looking forward to start working 100% remotely at some point, with all my contacts being "just nicknames on irc".

100% agreed. I know it isn't for everyone, but I can't wait for the "office" stigma to go away and being able to work together with people through the internet on (paid) projects, like I'm used to with OSS. Communicate through IRC, Skype and mail and Google Documents. I work much more efficient that way.

I'm regularly sick of the overhead fluorescent lighting, blame-shifting meetings where nothing happens, awkward "what did you do last weekend" talks at the coffee machine, phone calls about nothing, and sitting in a room full of cackling people being unable to think. Not even starting on all the crazy talk about "human resources"... being shifted between projects before I was even able to do anything because of all the red tape.

Also I'd love to be able to work where I want with my laptop, no matter whether that's at home, in a park, in a field, or in the train. In my mind, that was supposed to be the future.

Enjoy dying alone!

Thanks, will keep trying!

Enjoy dying with tons of people yammering around you!

You think the people small-talking at work are your Friends? That is sad.

Maybe in your small sample size, but not for others. My team is distributed, and we're quite effective on productivity.

It has more to do with the people than the geography.

You're wrong. I've worked from home for five years as a full-time contractor/consultant. When working with clients who treat me with respect and pay me a fair rate, I feel extremely motivated. I regularly accept assignments from them I would not accept from any new client. I don't hesitate to pull an all-nighter for them if necessary. And I feel very much a part of a team. I feel like a know some of my oldest remote clients better than certain people I've work with face-to-face for multiple years. They do things like send me a nice floral arrangement when a family member dies, and send me nice bonus checks, even though I'm just a contractor. In return, I help them whenever I can and don't hesitate to put in extra hours when they're needed.

But those companies who treat me like a commodity, and who try to bargain me down at every opportunity -- those companies I avoid whenever possible.

There are benefits and drawbacks to distributed teams, just as there are to any particular office set-up. I worked on a very productive distributed team for about 5 years, and I've worked from home on more or less solo projects, I've shared an office with a door with one co-worker, and I've worked in ordinary open-plan offices for about the last 9 years. All had different trade-offs, between ease of interaction and freedom from distractions. Who I was working with has made much more difference in both my productivity and my satisfaction than how far away they were.

I think it works if you have a very strong leader who has a good idea where the product should go. I do a lot of consulting where I don't see people but am always amazed how many issues can be resolved when the whole team sits in a room together.

A good office should attract people and by extension, serve as a recruiting tool.

Their modern facade of bright colors and "hip" furniture doesn't conceal the fluorescent lights, low ceilings, and berber carpeting.

Imagine the opposite - 20-foot ceilings, lots of natural sun light, and hardwood floors - and you can feel it's much more conducive for working.

I wholeheartedly agree with you. Lighting, ceilings and floor choice are tremendously important in workspace design, and that place looks, frankly, like most other poorly designed office spaces. Once you commit to open plan, you've already thrown acoustics and a quiet working environment almost entirely out of the window. At that point the awful carpeting and 1970s style ceiling tiles only serve to reinforce the disingenuous nature of their supposedly hip concessions to progressive workplace design (I'm looking at you, Herman Miller fluorescent light fixtures).

Then again, it's really shocking how strict most office space management companies and building code bureaucrats tend to be when it comes to how you can use your space. I've seen several really great spaces with all kinds of potential just completely hamstrung by idiotic restrictions surrounding fire sprinklers and ancient ventilation systems. When you add in the stupid expectations and demands from management (like giving up tons of space for a dedicated reception area when you don't have and will never have a receptionist) it makes it even harder to create a good workspace.

Hardwood floors? No thanks - they're noisy.

What's the advantage of hardwood floors, if I may ask?

They're much cleaner than carpet and reduce allergies.

My company has had this setup for the past 12 years. We have a small office with desks and conference rooms anyone can grab if they are free.

It works well. I work from home 99.9% of the time, but sometimes it's nice to go into the office for a change of scenery or when the cable goes out. There's usually one or two random people also in the office at any given time and you get to have interesting randomized social experiences by going out to lunch or dinner with them.

This fits the startup way of thinking but not the real way of thinking. If you can't draw a line between your work and personal life you'll burn out a lot sooner.

Plenty of people nothing to do with startups work from home, whether because they are self-employed, or aren't willing to relocate, or their company doesn't have a physical location.

Some people may have trouble with it and find themselves working too hard, others may find it hard to focus and are instead too lazy. Neither of these, however, are a requirement of working from home, plenty of people manage it fine.

My point is that those that do work from home and do it successfully (at least in my experience) have a separate work area for work that is not considered "home" but considered work, this is a concious decision people make to deal with working from home and not being distracted. If someone has an office to go to but also works from home they will often not consider creating another workspace at home and that will result in their home life and work life "merging". For a startup having your home life and work life being one and the same is relatively normal (again in my experience at least) but with a "normal" job most people don't want that. They go to work, they come home, work is done. If the line between home and work is merged as much as the article proposes without people making sure to create a separate work environment at home they'll have problems.

I have been working from home for the past 6 years. I have a dedicated room for my office. Work can be done only in my office, not even on the kitchen table. This is a hard rule and it is really good. You can enjoy a nice evening with wife and kids without thinking about working because work is only in the office.

If you start to allow yourself to work here and there with the kids playing on the side, you totally blur the lines between your activities and you end up being inefficient. You cannot fully focus on work and you cannot fully enjoy your time with your family and friends.

Note that this is only my personal experience.

It was called "Hotdesking" 10+ years ago and it was a failure then, too. Architect Rem Koolhaas ran his office with it, and people hated it.

Didn't Sun also employ this strategy to somewhat better effect? I can see a group of architects hating something like that due to the nature of their work and the proliferation of tools they need at their desk, and for some types of software development, I can see the same problem with hotdesking (makes it harder to run a really crazy workstation with a lot of monitors for one thing). I suppose now you can just get away with a laptop and a huge EC2 instance for heavy lifting...

Anyone here work at Sun during their Nettop hotdesking phase? What were some of the pros and cons?

Yes, they did, though I don't know about "to better effect".

Chiat Day was another notorious hotdesking failure.

Off topic, but Rem Koolhaas's design for the campus center for my alma mater is the primary reason I refuse to donate money to them: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCormick_Tribune_Campus_Center . Worst. Campus Center. Ever.

At first, I misread this and thought it was designed to keep employees from working from home.

Glad to see I was wrong.

ObOnTopic: I try to work from home once or twice a week. In those bursts, I can get a lot of work done that requires concentration and nobody bothering me. But the rest of the time, I make sure to be in the office, partly for the serendipitous connections ("oh hey, I've been meaning to ask you...") and partly for the easy back-and-forth with my team mates.

WFH for occasional productivity bursts is fine.

But it's also pointing out a major failing of your office design.

Should be titled "An Office Designed To Keep Employees From Working"

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