For a few years, we’ve run our live answering business on a distributed model—hundreds of CX Specialists work at home across the U.S., answering our clients’ calls over the Internet. This setup is part of our commitment to minimize commuting and enable people to work wherever they are. We believe work is what you do, not where you do it.
In early 2014, we decided to run an experiment. We’d push the Work Anywhere idea further, extending working from home to the two dozen or so employees who commute a collective 2855 miles each week to and from our Portland office.
What’s the point of all this? To prove we don’t need to be together five days a week to work together. To save time and gas. To try to change how one group of people works and get one step closer to our mission of changing how the world works.
Materials and Methods
Tuesdays and Thursdays would be our in-office days. On those days, everyone would come to the office as usual.
Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays would be Work Anywhere days. Our team would work from their respective homes all over the metro area, from a coffee shop, or wherever they chose—as long as they could get their work done.
We carefully observed the test subjects (us) over a period of a few weeks as we adjusted to the new schedule. Then, we evaluated a few people’s experiences with a rigorous methodology that included asking them how it went.
Meet the Team
Job: Director of client experience
Commutes From: Gresham by car (25 miles, 60 min. each way)
First Thought: “Initially, when the idea was presented to me, I thought it was terrible.”
Commutes From: North Portland by car (17 miles, 40 min. each way)
First Thought: “I really did not think it was going to work.”
Job: Operations team leader
Commutes From: NW Portland by TriMet bus (15 miles, 90 min. each way)
First Thought: “I don’t even know if I want to say what I first thought.”
Our three staff members each reported some reservations about the new schedule. Natalie suspected we would lose accountability and ease of collaboration. Brooke wondered if she’d be able to get enough feedback from fellow designer Evan throughout the design process. Donny, despite his three hour daily bus commute, delayed adopting the new schedule. He knew his home setup couldn’t compare to the big Thunderbolt monitors at the company’s office.
Besides the practical concerns, each subject expressed uncertainty about whether they’d enjoy working alone. “I like coming into the office and seeing my coworkers,” Natalie says.
Despite her initial skepticism, Natalie says she changed her tune after the first week of working from home three days. “I had to apologize, because I loved it. I found I was packing my day with collaboration.”
Natalie’s position involves interacting with people from the office in Portland, from our team in Chennai, India, and those who work at home all the time. One benefit of being a remote worker herself, she says, is that it helped her broaden her collaborations. “It’s easy to collaborate with the person who sits six inches away from you,” she says. “But when you’re going to start a video call with someone, it’s just as easy to start it with the person who works in another state.”
She says the experience of working from home has made her more flexible. When a team member was injured and couldn’t drive, she says, “it doesn’t matter. I’m still able to connect with that person any time I want. They’re still doing their job. There’s no reason to make it extremely inconvenient for them and their family to get them here.”
Other perks of working at home include being able to keep her dog company and having lunch with a girlfriend in the neighborhood. Overall, Natalie says, she doesn’t want to completely give up her in-office days. “I still think there’s value there,” she says. “I think for now the three at home and two in the office is a great ratio.”
Brooke, who summarizes her feelings about commuting five days a week as “ehhhhhhhhhh,” reported a reduction in her personal stress level under the new schedule. Starting the week on Monday from home, she says, is like easing into work. At home, Brooke says, she was more able to put on headphones and “get in the zone really super hard. I crank out work, and then I’m done.”
Brooke didn’t observe the changes she expected in the office on the days she works there. “It still seems like the same place,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’ve been absent.” Communicating through chat, Brooke says, can be more challenging than just talking to someone. In a chat, it sometimes takes extra effort to be crystal clear. “We would be able to get the point out much faster and better if we could just talk,” she says, adding that she’s optimistic that video calls can bridge the gap.
Donny’s home “office” involved alternating between a too-low kitchen table and the couch, where he’d hunch over the laptop resting on an Ottoman. “I had to relearn how to use a small screen,” he says. To deal with the ergonomic challenges of his home set-up, Donny made a habit of standing up and stretching every sixty to ninety minutes.
As a bus commuter who rides public transportation for about three hours a day when he works in the office, “plus the amount of time it takes me to wake up, take a shower, get myself presentable to come into an office,” Donny says, working at home saves him a lot of time. He also gets more out of his lunchtime runs. Rather than squeezing in a four mile run and a shower at the office, he says, he can run about twice as far when he works at home. “I can sit there in a pair of shorts and log right back in and continue working, because there isn’t anybody sitting next to me that I’m going to offend,” he says.
Donny looks forward to mixing up where he works more, especially after the office’s planned move to Southeast Portland, closer to his home, in mid-2014. “I might come into the office in the morning for a couple hours, and finish my day at home, or start at home and come into the office later in the day, just to have some social interaction,” he says.” But being able to have that choice, being able to be close enough to hop on my bike and be able to, in ten minutes, be in the office or at home, is something that’s really exciting.”
This early experiment suggests there are benefits to introducing Work Anywhere days to our team’s routine. Our team experienced increased concentration, wider collaboration, and higher quality of life.
The decision to Work Anywhere is not about eliminating traditional, shared office space. It’s about introducing choice and empowering team members to work in the location where they can be most effective. This experiment reminded us that every team has a diversity of tasks and temperaments, and different environments help people get things done in different ways.
Reducing the number of employee-hours worked in a central office means that office can be smaller, with potentially great cost savings. It’s about being intentional about the company’s investments, and how we use them.