Remote work against expensive real estate

posted by Jeff | Thursday, November 30, 2017, 5:30 PM | comments: 0

Microsoft is planning a significant renovation to, apparently, most of the campus over the next few years. In their blog post, they talk a lot about how people work best, the shift to collaborative spaces and such. I worked in Building 6, and later Building 5 (and then Building 34 after that), and it was kind of neat to be in those original buildings. In fact, legend has it that my coworkers that worked on Visual Studio Galleries at the time in 6 were using one of Bill Gates' original offices as their team room. 5 had some parts that were reconfigured for team rooms, focus, rooms, etc., but most of it was still the old school offices.

A few weeks ago I was Intuit headquarters for the small biz hackathon there, and it took place in one of their more modern buildings. We were of course surrounded by Google, and Facebook wasn't far away, with other big names like Amazon and Microsoft sprinkled about the area. You could tell even from the outside that many of these buildings were designed with the new open space concept in mind. There's a lot of debate over whether or not this evolution of office space is ideal, especially for software developers. Microsoft was famous for having individual office space, and culturally was in the midst of the shift to shared spaces when I was there. My personal opinion is that gigantic wide open rooms are not ideal. They're noisy and full of distractions, and when you look around at all of the headphones on, you can see everyone is battling that. But I do think that smaller team rooms are pretty great, and even awesome. I think it starts to fall apart when you have more than 8, maybe 10 people in the room.

But the bigger thing is that maybe we don't need offices at all. I totally get that some businesses and occupations needs butts in the seats. I'm not here to argue that. And yes, I'm a disciple of books like Rework and Remote, but does anyone ever really think about the cost of real estate? Most major cities are under $2 per square foot, but places like Seattle are over $3, San Francisco over $5 and New York City over $6! So assuming that a person can operate in 25 square feet, each employee costs you at least $600 per year, not including the common areas, and that's $1,800 in New York. Imagine you have a hundred employees... you do the math.

There are people who insist that collaboration suffers with remote, distributed teams, but I can tell you, after doing it five of the last six years, it does not. That doesn't mean you can't hire people who suck at working remotely (and I wonder if they'd be any better co-located), but technology makes it pretty easy. At my previous gig, I had people spread out across Florida, one in Seattle, one in Atlanta, one in nowhere-PA... all over. They were some of the best people I've ever worked with, and we delivered awesome software. My current team is similarly spread out, and output and quality is also super high. We also have a cultural expectation of using video calls when we talk, so it's far more personal. No taped-over web cams here!

While I get the allure of a technology campus, and maybe even miss it, it does seem limiting and expensive to seek having your people all in one place. Remote work works, and has not been an impediment for me. I'd like to "get the band back together" more often, sure, but our remoteness does not cause us to be ineffective.

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