Cutting the office strings, the first 60 days

The team at StarbucksConnected have been driving to a location-independent model over the last few years, the journey has had it’s ups and downs but we finally arrived there at the end of 2012. I thought I’d share some of things I’ve learned over the last 2 months, some of the things I’ve read and some of the surprises.

I’ll start by outlining how we now work – I should note that we’ve tried lots and lots of different ways to get here and we’ve not finished the journey so it’s only a snapshot and I’d welcome comments and feedback.

25hrs working week – by that, we have come to understand that simply rolling up for 37.5hrs at an office doesn’t actually make you productive for that period of time. Over the last 5 years, we’ve tracked time and came to the conclusion that most folks are only really productive for around 4 or 5 hrs a day. Any more and folks become tired and grumpy, making mistakes and generally dropping to a state of poor productivity.

Flexibility – we all have things we need to deliver during a week. How and when we do that is up to the individual – some elect to take a day off during the week, some elect to play golf in the afternoon. Some work evenings and weekends and have lighter weeks. We’ve let the individual decide.

Tethering – this is the grand bargain. Everyone is empowered with the technology to be available and able to work anywhere and anytime – we expect them, from time to time, to do just that. It’s not a chore if you have the flexibility and an overall lower expectation of working hours.

Location – it’s an individual’s choice, if a company is forcing attendance at a given place for a given number of hours (albeit in return for cash) it’s tantamount to (paid) slavery. We do have a simple rule. Locations must have good data/voice access and be conducive to the task at hand. Individuals choose where and when they work depending on what needs delivering that day or week.

Responsive – we use an agile approach to all delivery and that has quality built-in via feedback loops and testing but occasionally things go awry so we have a “bell ring” approach. The bell calls all hands to the pumps via an application we wrote on Podio. There are a number of initial discovery steps that release back to work the resources not required to fix the issue. The remaining folks work until the problem is resolved.

We’re planning to stay agile and that means the framework above is likely to evolve over time.

Stuff we’ve learned

I’ll share here some of the smart moves we discovered to ease the transition.

  • Trust, trust and trust. You must trust your staff, your colleagues and your bosses. if you’re running a business this is deeply-ingrained in the culture so if this is not how you work now this needs fixing first.
  • Proof. Show them examples of companies that have made a success of this, such as 37Signals
  • Collaborate. Don’t dicate the framework, collaborate on it with the folks who embrace the approach and agree on lots of compromises.
  • Honesty. Some people can’t work this away. Accept this and help them move on to an organisation more suited to them.
  • Timing. Flexibility and tethering are bed fellows. You can’t have one without the other so introduce both at the same time and balance them (we got this hugely wrong at the beginning with a number of key staff who loved the flexibility but resented tethering).
  • Change. Folks might feel guilty if they are not doing actual work during the 9-5 slot. If they struggle then encourage them to split-shift their day, say 7-10 and 2-4pm.
  • Watch. Productivity should jump quite markedly, if your not seeing it then look again how you are tasking projects and work. Maybe look to have weekly scrum sessions to outline delivery expectations.
  • Stay in touch. Individuals thrive on interaction with others. Working in locations where there are no staff around should be seen as an opportunity to interact with strangers (new friends) and create a digital home for them to chatter. We’ve used Skype, Yammer and currently use Podio as this home.
  • Co-co-locate. Meet up in groups, or just twos, at each others favourite place to work. That could be at people’s homes, the local coffee shop or a bistro. Most of our team meet up every other day somewhere and enjoy the time spent.
  • Evolve. Seek continual feedback and implement improvements and changes when people tire or find issues.
  • Pay-forward. Plough back the savings in office costs into personal-use items for individuals. Maybe it’s a Starbuck card, or an iPad or an Internet tethering plan.

So far so good and we’re all thinking differently. The team really appreciates the flexibility and moral is at an all-time high. Some folks are seriously considering moving to the states to work location independently. Anything that opens peoples minds that far has to be applauded. 2013 sees Connected leaner, happier, more agile, far more flexible and with a brilliant team spirit and can-do approach. I’m proud.

Finally, a thought from one of the team “I can’t believe it’s only been 2 months, I just couldn’t imagine working in an office again – it just feels so old-fashioned”

By Martin Dower