A few months before the start of the pandemic we took the lease on a large office in Nottingham’s Lace Market. Formerly the top floor of a textile warehouse in the area’s Victorian heyday, it boasts commanding views across the south of the city and the River Trent.
We decided to just throw some desks in and see how we started using the space before doing any serious customisations.
Fast forward 18 months and we’re kind of glad we held off. Like many organisations, we’re now thinking deeply about what the office is for.
Social media is full of ideologues making strident cases for the death of the office or the office being the only place work gets done. Much as it’s enticing to hitch onto one of these bandwagons to save any deep thought, as a company leader that isn’t an option. As with pretty much everything viewed through the lense of experience, it depends.
For knowledge-based roles, the office is now in competition with the home as a viable forum for getting work done. This forces a proper examination by organisations about the role of the office and how it fits into the fabric of infrastructure to support work.
We have always leaned toward remote-first operating at Cronofy – however, we valued time together too much to make it complete. We’ve never seen home-working as a way to save on office costs. Instead we’ve been happy to spend money on travel to allow the team to take time together.
We’ve been thinking deeply about what the office is for and how it can offer something different to working from home. There is a cost to commuting but there is also a cost of isolation.
Not everyone has the luxury of space at home that is fit for full-time work or free from distractions. So not providing an office for people to use does restrict your prospective talent pool to people who have the means and/or circumstance to provide it for themselves.
Beyond just providing a fit-for-purpose place to work for some of the team, I see several areas where an office can provide value over working from home.
Collaboration is the obvious benefit. Yes, there have been great strides in collaboration technology but nothing is close to being in a room together. Sketching on a whiteboard together is so much easier and fluid when you can read each other’s body language to know when to take turns.
Sensitive privacy is something that is hard to do remotely. Again, being able to read body language allows you to navigate difficult conversations with one of your team far more empathetically. The office can provide dedicated space for private conversations that have no place in a coffee shop. Performance management issues or helping people navigate personal challenges is very hard to do remotely.
High-end tech is expensive but sometimes it’s necessary. For example if you want to produce high quality audio or video content, you can invest in the best kit and have a dedicated booth or room at an office for people to use. Appearing on a podcast is possible at home for many of us, but hosting a webinar or recording product walk-throughs can really benefit from the polish of a dedicated environment.
Social time is really important to us at Cronofy. We believe work isn’t a purely transactional relationship. Yes, everyone has to deliver, but we should have fun doing it. Investing in spending time together helps foster more effective relationships and builds understanding among the team. Regular chats over coffee; breaking bread together; trying to throw axes into targets; all give the opportunity for learning about the whole person that your colleague is.
There are many organisations, like Gitlab, that have made remote only work very well for them. They have made a conscious choice to eschew the office and in so doing have made it clear who is the kind of person that will be successful at the company.
Organisations need to first make a deliberate and considered decision about what approach they want to take. For Cronofy it’s a mix. We want to be able to employ people who need an office, often the case with people earlier in their career.
We also recognise that working from home is preferred for many which we can support up to a point. Where we draw the line is that primarily remote people have to be prepared to get on a train, plane or automobile periodically to come together and engage in-person.
Every founder has to decide what company they want to build and, in line with my previous post about our principles, you can’t lose sight of what’s important to you. The role you assign the office will heavily influence how your company grows and what it becomes.