Hands off my Office!

Remote working and the death of the office may be the ultimate disruption of old-fashioned, pre-Silicon Valley corporate culture, but I’m still not convinced.

Working Differently

I’m lucky enough to spend time meeting fascinating people, who run other tech companies, at events and conferences all over the UK and USA. I’m always interested to hear what works for other companies and why, and much of the advice I have used to great effect over the years. Increasingly though, it usually takes as little as twenty minutes before someone insists that my company “needs to go remote” as “it’s the best thing ever”.

In early 2014, during PHP North East, I heard Sam Lambert (Director of Technology at Github) discuss how their company works remotely. He made a compelling argument about the freedom to work from where you want, when you want, and the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. It aroused my interest enough that I became curious which other business worked remotely. It turns out that it’s a long list, but here are some of the highlights:

  • 10up
  • Automattic (WordPress)
  • Basecamp
  • Github
  • Lullabot
  • Mozilla
  • MySQL
  • StackExchange

That’s certainly an impressive list for anyone who works in the our industry, but just because it works for them doesn’t mean it would work for us. So, it was time to look at the numbers.

Crunching Numbers

The following is, an admittedly oversimplified, breakdown of our annual office costs:

  • Rent: £27,000
  • Staff food: £7300
  • Happy Hour: £1900
  • Water Cooler: £1000
  • Caffeine Intake: £1200

That’s approximated £38,400 a year in office costs. Big Bite is currently a team of eight, making the office cost of each individual £4800 a year. Ouch. I’m sure that our accountant would insist that we could pay for a few less lunches or buy a round of beers less often, but I’ll discuss why those expenses are valuable in a moment.

First though, let’s look at the time our team spends commuting to the office each day:

  • 30mins – Jerome & Jon
  • 20mins – Iain, Mark, & Natalie
  • 15mins – Connor
  • 5mins – Myself & Ollie

That’s an average journey time of 18 minutes as a Big Bite team member, meaning 36 minutes of walking, cycling, driving, or sitting on the train each day. Not exactly the commute from hell. Spread across the year though, that number looks a little bigger:

46 weeks x 5 days x 36 minutes / 60 (hours) / 24 (days) = approximately 6 days travel per year.

In theory, by working remotely we could ask everyone to work that additional 30 minutes each day. Their working week would increase to 40 hours, but in return they’d each receive 6 extra holiday days per year and a £4000 pay rise, with us keeping £800 to keep the tax man happy. We’d be spending the same money, but instead of an office the team would get less travel, more hours, and a slightly bigger salary. It’s another compelling argument, but the culture and success of our company is a direct result of our team, not just the numbers.

Hands Off My Office!

One of the perks of working in tech is that we’re free to redefine what our working days look like. We’ve worked hard at Big Bite to make sure that we having a company culture that gives our team flexibility to work from home when required, as well as a pleasant place to work, and the space to be creative beyond the scope of each client project. We’re a close-knit team whose best work comes from direct collaboration, within a workspace without needless hierarchy or showy corner offices. But beyond that, there’s very real benefits to having a communal workspace where our team comes together.

I love not just working, but bonding with our team, and the office provides a physical sense of coming together to work towards a single successful goal. Improvements in time-tracking software and communication platforms like Basecamp, Skype, and Slack may all facilitate real-time collaboration when working remotely, but there’s no replacement for being able bring someone over to discuss what you’re doing in person.

Defining the roles between owners and staff will always be a balancing act to some degree, but the ability to spend time together carries plenty of benefits that remote working doesn’t offer. Some of the best ideas from our team have come from idle conversation whilst enjoying evenings playing Halo in the office. Our weekly Wednesday lunches and Friday breakfasts give everyone a chance to relax and talk informally, whether the subject is how we could be better as a company or their plans for the weekend. I value the fact that our team can have a drink together outside the office, where we get to discuss life, meet spouses, and really get to know who each other are instead of just what we each do for a living. When our team are using their free-time to attend industry and networking events it’s a pleasure to be able to thank them by buying a round of drinks.

Not only does all this encourage a sense of camaraderie, but it’s also allowed me more insight into how team members may work best, if a team member is feeling down, or whether there are pressures outside of work that we can help with. When there are easter eggs on my desk, secret santas are organised, or people bring back holiday gifts for the team, it has evolved organically rather than being mandated fun that people feel they have an obligation to participate in. To me, that’s real company culture – where there’s no expectation and yet people want to do things for and with their colleagues anyway – and the office, as well as the distinction of sometimes being away from it, remains central to that.

We’re not afraid of change here at Big Bite. Our company and culture will continue to evolve as it always has done. Somewhere down the line it may make sense to embrace a remote working model, but for who we are as a company right now the office is still a valuable shared space. We may not be chained to our desks, but that doesn’t mean that we’re ready to give them up just yet.

For more on how our company culture continues to works for us and our clients, read our article Evolve or Die: Changing Company Culture.

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