Blog Future Work Report

Why do we still have offices?

It used to be that work was the place that contained the equipment and materials you needed to do your work: paperwork, typewriters, fax machines and copiers.

Now, unless we need specialized machinery or are working in stores where people come in to buy stuff (remember those?), a lot of us can theoretically do our work anywhere we have an Internet-connected device and a phone. For example, I’m writing this in my doctor’s office in Santa Fe while I wait 30 minutes to ensure I don’t collapse in an anaphylactic mess after getting my allergy shots (Ed: and I’m editing it sitting outside a cafe in Brentwood, Los Angeles).

So why do you have to go to a place that duplicates the facilities you’re carrying in your pocket? It often boils down to inertia and fear on the part of the employer.


Firstly inertia: it’s easier to keep doing what we’ve always done long after the reason for it no longer applies — especially if very few people are asking any awkward questions about why. Sir Ken Robinson points out that not many people under the age of 25 wear watches, because they’ve grown up being used to checking the time on their phones. Older people also have phones, but are mainly still wearing watches — we don’t need them, we’ve just got used to doing it that way.

Whether you wear a watch or not is pretty harmless (I love my anachronistic mechanical single-function device), but the same inertia extends to office customs, including the custom of having a office in the first place. Especially for people over 35 or so, there’s often a deep unquestioned assumption that you have to go somewhere special to do work, especially if you’ll be working with others. If you’re starting a business or a nonprofit, you think of the time when you’ll get your space, hang up your shingle, and open your doors.

People can’t immediately imagine how not having an office would work, and the effort to work out how you’ll collaborate with your team, share files and get stuff done seems daunting when you could just stumble along with familiar in-person habits instead, even if they cost a fortune and make everyone miserable. Despite this, many of the ways we now work in an office underline how we don’t need to be there: we put files up on Dropbox rather than a local server, email folks sitting across the room from us, and do GoToMeeting sessions with colleagues across the country.

In the inertia-run workplace, some people are allowed to work virtually, but even that doesn’t raise the question of why the rest of us can’t do the same. As Jason Fried of Basecamp points out in his book Remote, we trust a wide range of consultants (like our accountants and lawyers) to work without supervision — perhaps because we assume they’re sitting in their own offices.

But despite these inconsistencies and the lack of joined-up thinking, inertia keeps people struggling through traffic to reach offices they don’t need to be in.


Managers and owners would say that supervision is another key reason for keeping a physical office: people come in, they get told what to do, and then stay there while they do it so superiors can make sure it gets done. Supervision literally means ‘looking over’, with the implication that without being watched, employees can’t be trusted to do their work. Supervision is born of fear — the fear that nothing will get done, that people left to their own devices will slack off and watch YouTube cat videos all day.

Many employers’ default position is to mistrust the people they hired to the point that they pay a fortune in rent for a glorified Panopticon.

And in some ways the managers are right. People tend to perform to expectations, and if it’s clear that employees are expected to slack off and not think for themselves, then they will. In this sort of culture, people internalize the sense that they can’t be trusted to look after their organization’s best interests, so don’t really try (‘Not my monkeys, not my circus.’), and rightly conclude that can’t trust their employer to look after their best interests either. When required attendance in an office is backed up by strict vacation policies, approval procedures for spending the company’s money and other policing measure, staff end up being treated like children.

This supervision born of fear doesn’t even work very well, since being able to see people at their desks is a terrible way of keeping track of what people are doing, let alone motivating them to perform at their best. Focusing on ensuring that people are physically present often replaces more more positive values, processes, communication, goal-setting and support that would actually help people get stuff done, and enable everyone to have more transparency about what was being worked on when.

Because the more old-school supervision and meeting approaches won’t work, a virtual organization has to have better processes, tools and communication channels in place, making them ironically much better at tracking productivity than the bums-on-seats employers.

Fear and inertia are tough to overcome, but do you really want to work for a company whose key organizational model is built on those negative values? The success of a growing number of organizations such as Automattic and InVision show that it’s possible to work in a different way, and I would argue that it’s essential, if we’re all to be as happy, productive and profitable as we can be.

Blog Future Work Report

A Manifesto — we can’t go on like this

It took me about a week at my first job to make me conclude that there was something wrong with the way people worked. It was 1992 and I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had freedom and flexibility — in retrospect, an arts degree at Cambridge University is a great example of a progressive and nurturing working environment (without the pay).

You have deliverables — an essay a week — but nobody cares how, where or when you did the work, so long as you handed in your essay the night before the supervision with your teacher. We were trusted to work, and encouraged do other things we’d enjoy — play a sport, act in a play, write for the university newspaper. That was part of being well-rounded — making us happy and better able to do the work. There was also a pastoral care component, where regular meeting to check in with us and see how things were going in a holistic way (not just talking about grades).

So I’d worked hard and got a good degree, but now I was out in the real world. I got a job at a communications company producing newspapers and publications for government departments and large organizations — this was in the days before the internet, so we wrote and printed a tabloid-sized monthly newspaper for London’s water company (now it would be content marketing and social media).

It was a good job for a fledgling writer, but it was 9–5, Monday to Friday, with a 30–40 minute commute at either end of the day. From the beginning, there were problems. I couldn’t be productive for that many hours straight (who can?), and I couldn’t understand why the shops were even open, since everyone with any money was stuck in their jobs the whole time. I also hated the structure, the crushing sense of inevitability that I knew where I’d be every day for the foreseeable future.

It was a huge step back from the freedom and flexibility of Cambridge — it felt like being back at a really bad high school. I got my head down and did the work, but all the time I was thinking, ‘this is what grown-ups are supposed to do for 40 years?

I lasted around a year before running off to Dublin to do a Masters degree.

There has to be a better way

Fast forward to the present day. I’m 43, living in the Southwest of the U.S. with my wife and daughter. Over the years, I’ve worked in a range of jobs, from fast-paced Silicon Valley tech companies, to researching and writing my own book; from working on communications for non-profits to running my own web design and content firm.

Through it all, that sense continued that there had to be a better way to work than the industrial-era model of clocking in and out, showing up to an office and playing the role of the obedient employee. And I’m not alone: for a lot of people, it’s not the work itself, but the daily grind of meetings, presenteeism, minimal vacation time (I’m looking at you, America), commutes, and inflexible arrangements that grinds us down. The average worker puts in too many hours, is disengaged and unhealthy.

But the good news is that an increasing amount of research and the examples of progressive organizations are showing that there is a better way — approaches that are more productive, make employees healthier and happier, and are more environmentally sound. As William Gibson says, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — there’s a huge gap between what we know works and what most organizations are still doing. And in this gap millions of people are toiling away unnecessarily when they could be following a much richer path.

I call this better way Future Work, and this blog is the Future Work Report. I gather research, interviews, news and thoughts from progressive people all over the world, combined with my own insights and experiences, to help us all move towards future work.

Blog Future Work Report

The benefit of small benefits, or why Evernote employees get their houses cleaned

When I was working in the Silicon Valley in 1999, amidst all the stress and long hours of my job, I vividly remember the anticipation of walking into the break room on Fridays, excited at the thought of the bagels and pastries they provided for us.

We lingered a little in getting our coffee, and it seemed like a kind gesture and a way of marking the start of the weekend.

My then employers are far from alone in this — Evernote employees get their house cleaned, Google’s offerings are famous, including on-site massage, haircuts, and concierge service, while other offerings include fresh fruit and veg deliveries, unlimited Kindle downloads or Starbucks cards. But why are small tokens of appreciation so popular among more progressive organizations, and why do they work?

Such benefits perform several functions: from a purely practical results-based perspective there are some obvious pluses:

  • they can make a company stand out to potential employees
  • they can lead to greater productivity, fewer sick days and improved retention
  • they help keep people working longer (you don’t have to nip out for a haircut at lunchtime if you can use the Google salon),

That might be enough for some organizations, but in the right hands, they also sends a much more profound message that the staff are cared for — they’re not just thought of as producers of whatever widget the company trades in.

Some of the benefits look at health issues, and we know the toll work can take on our bodies. Others, like the house cleaning and concierge services, overcome one of the major issues that face employees — the challenge of balancing the everyday chores and errands with work commitments. Old-school employers might let you have time off for a doctor’s appointment, but expect you to do all the other stuff (house cleaning, shopping . . . ) at the weekends.

Callum Negus Fancey from Let’s Go Crazy Holdings (owners of several growing companies) has a good interview here discussing the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) he employs with his firms. In it he discusses how he’s trying to reduce the ‘friction’ his employees experience as a result of their work — it might be that they don’t go to the gym as much as they want to, or that they would like to spend more time with their family. To attract and keep the best people, and keep them motivated and creative, he sees it as the company’s role to help minimise that friction.

To me, that’s a great way of looking at it, and it acknowledges that people have a life outside of the office and tries to help smooth annoyances out before they become reasons for resentment.

Candy for Doctors

Employers could simply add a little more to the wages of its staff to cover many of these benefits, which would allow people to choose exactly what to spend it on (new bike instead of running shoes, espresso machine instead of Starbucks card). I could definitely afford to stop and pick up a bagel on my way to work on those Fridays in Redwood City, and as a proportion of my entire benefits package, one bagel a week was almost not worth counting. So why break out all the perks individually?

Happiness research has the answer. Harvard researcher Sean Achor points to experiments where patients gave doctors some candy at the beginning of their consultation. The happiness boost from getting a small free gift improved the doctors’ diagnostic ability markedly.

This from a one-off gift of something that cost pennies. Imagine the ongoing attitude benefits of these regular kindnesses. As Achor says, “Data abounds showing that happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay. They also enjoy more job security and are less likely to take sick days, to quit, or to become burned out.”

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, (talking to Business Insider) agrees: “Happy workers make better products . . . The output we care about has everything to do with your state of mind.”

Not Just for Tech firms

Many of these examples are from tech firms or agencies who clearly have the money to spend on perks like this. But it can be even more important to make this kind of effort when you’re a smaller organisation.

I did contract web content work for a small non-profit for many years. The staff were overworked and underpaid, but every time I’d go up for a meeting, the conference room table was groaning with pastries and nice treats. If baked goods could talk, they’d say, “I know we can’t pay you lovely people what you’re worth, but we do appreciate your efforts.”

The other thing the non-profit did was give five weeks’ paid holiday — again, something that was easier to offer than more expensive benefits, but definitely an important sign of appreciation.

Small inexpensive benefits, like letting people work from home some of the time, bring their dogs to the office, or closing at lunchtime the Friday before a public holiday are good options when you don’t have a lot of money.

So whatever your situation, look for small ways you can ease some of your employees’ friction to make them happier and improve their performance.