A year of true independence

It’s been a year since we took the huge step of completely virtualising our workplace. We’d embraced home working since we started in 1996 but at the end of 2012 we made the giant leap of getting shot of our office space. It’s been quite a year so I thought I’d reflect on how it’s actually changed how we work, lessons learned and some thoughts on what 2014 holds.

We timed this right. We needed the convergence of cloud technology, mobile computing and a catalyst. Technology is at the heart of everything we do, whilst we aggressively embrace new tech we are mindful of the bigger picture.

Technology by itself is not enough, we need to apply that to how we work. Not the other way round.

Technologies that made it happen

  • Cloud-based collaborative applications. Worthy of mention is Podio, Basecamp, Google Apps (Mail & Calendar) – all are woven into the fabric of how we work. Podio is our go-to place for chat, important information, standardised documentation and HR applications. Basecamp is client-facing project control and Google is used for old-fashioned email and calendaring.
  • Agile Project Management. We had a couple of false starts and cock-ups in the this space since we moved to Agile in 2011 but have now developed a simple solution to a complex problem. We have tried (and binned) a few before settling back with an old friend, Basecamp. It has almost universal adoption and client acceptance level that “contemporary” tools from Trello and Pivotal Tracker can’t match.
  • Served by the Cloud. Combines Amazon AWS, management tools from Pingdom and WordPress. Hugely simplified and “anywhere” management of AWS services makes it a no-brainer. It’s not the cheapest solution upfront but it’s unique scaleability and stability wins by miles. Keeping a watchful eye on our 70+ sites is Pingdom with neat customised alerting via smartphones and SMS. Finally, WordPress has been a platform-of-choice for a few years and it’s really come of age as an enterprise solution.
  • Device management. A desktop is not something any of us have used for a while, but we’re not just stuck to laptops, we use tablets and smartphones if they better serve our needs and the needs of the environment. I can as easily send an invoice from my smartphone as I can deal with a support ticket on my tablet. This has mean’t focussing on services and applications that are available across a wide range of platform or (as is our preference) work just fine in a browser. In fact, we use very few dedicated applications anymore.
  • Mobile internet. Don’t laugh, but until quite recently reliable connections were a luxury and high-speed was a relative rarity. We can now rely on high-speed 3G and 4G services pretty much anywhere across the world. Additionally, free or low-cost fast Wi-Fi is pretty universal. (I’m writing this on the train, with free Wi-Fi, using the cloud)

Work is what you do – not where you work

We all know that work doesn’t actually get done at the office. But we were now independent of location, the natural next step was to work independent of time. This was an easier step than I thought as the team adapted quickly to the “work when you want, or when we need to” mantra. The surprise was the volume of delivery and quality shot through the roof. Per person productivity is over 100% higher in 2013 than in 2012.

I’ll write that again … “twice the work delivered”. And in most cases folks work fewer actual hours – typically 25hrs a week.

Knowing that most work is not life and death to be done asap (a word we’ve re-defined) we’ve all been able to mould our working patterns around our life, not the other way round. Whether that be a casual “sunny afternoon in the beer garden” or disappearing off to Europe for a few days – life is now dominated by the things that matter.

Loss of routine has not been without challenges, some people crave a framework to attach work to and to delimit their life. Different coping mechanisms were adopted by different people but, critically, everyone was free to adapt as they wished. We all now look very oddly at folks who go to an office and work in cubicles, on desks or any such “production” environment.

Handing back the office keys might have saved us over £35k in rent and rates but the real savings are the invisible costs. 3,800hrs commuting costs £6,000 in fuel costs, £10,000 in parking, £32,000 in vehicle costs and 400 tonnes of CO2.

By the end of 2015 the total savings will have topped a quarter of a million pounds. I firmly believe that we’d be totally raving mad to operate an office now. As Richard Branson says “In 30 years time, as technology moves forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.”

ASAP: Re-defined as “no due date due the project or the client not planning well enough in advance. YCRTA, it will be done in the next week or six unless we have a reason to drop everything and do it now”.

Lessons learned

Wow, so much has been learned, mostly by ploughing our own furrow. I wrote a post after just 60 days, whilst we were still stressing the small stuff (we don’t do that anymore). The shortcut to this is now available, in October the forward thinking team at 37Signals published “Office Not Required” – we just wish it was out a couple of years earlier.

It’s well worth the read, a few hours that could change your life. Moving to location independent working has changed our lives. I’ve worked from Starbucks on a busy Monday lunchtime, the Natural History Museum on a Sunday afternoon, a beach in the Seychelles at Sunset, on the top deck of ferry crossing the North Sea, outside in the Sierra Nevada Mountains before dawn, on a train traveling at 125mph, at 38,000 ft, on the tube, in meetings, at client offices, hotels, back of taxis and in lots of pubs and clubs (lots and lots). I’ve worked anywhere and everywhere.

At our old Grade 1 Listed Mill office, I used to have my own private office – 200 sq ft with easy chairs, and a big screen. Yuk! Seems a generation ago – I not only prefer working independently, but I can’t imagine working in the confines of a single room or office block ever again. I’ve met interesting folks, had fantastic people-watching moments and also had the peace and quiet to achieve what I need and under my terms.

What do I carry?

I travel as light as possible, but the essentials for me are:

  • iPhone 5. With unlimited tethering on 3. Cost is £18 a month.
  • iPad Mini 3G. Anything that I can get away with not using laptop. Plus provides a backup to tethering should power or signal be an issue. Cost was free for the iPad on a £15 a month contract.
  • 4 amp/hour backup battery with a Lightning connector. Well spent £30.
  • 2 pairs of in-ear phones. Both with mic, one is noise cancelling for flights or other high noise environments. Works well with my Spotify Mobile subscription. Expensive at £200, but I really like my music and the ability to control noise in my (varied) work spaces.
  • Mac Air with a charger on a short “8” cable, it’s getting long in the tooth (Mid 2011) but works brilliantly with 5 useable hrs. Cost is about £900 for a new one.

I don’t carry anything I might be able to acquire or borrow or don’t need so no paper, pen or business cards.

By Martin Dower