Create a Nowhere Office as your startup place of work

Until Spring 2020, the predominant working experience for many of us involved leaving home, going somewhere else, encountering a bunch of people, doing some work with them, bidding them goodbye, and going home. The office. The culture of this ritual with the same characters flung together day after day, attempting to accomplish grand or humble things fuelled Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, the definitive mocumentary series.

The Office first aired on 9 July 2000.  The show portrayed the cringy humour of the mundane and humdrum tedium in fourteen episodes. Gervais’s portrayal of David Brent was a jokey, goateed nightmare wrapped in neediness. The show’s bleak world was addictive, skewering the common ordinariness of office life with painful observational humour.

We might not have realised how going to the office lent our daily lives a sense of occasion but seeing folks putting on their coats trudging out the door for the bus home, we now do. Over the past two years, the routine of the office has gone. There’s a wistful frisson in remembering that feeling; we hadn’t accomplished everything we’d hoped to do today, but we’d come back tomorrow, encounter the gang, and give it another go. 

But post-pandemic sees us firmly adopting the ‘hybrid’ model, but in the last week it’s come under attack. Firstly, Boris Johnson made a renewed call for people to return to the office, saying his experience of working from home was spending time making another cup of coffee and then, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to his laptop and then forgetting what it was he was doing.

This followed Jacob Rees-Mogg leaving notes on folks’ empty desks in Whitehall, inviting them back to the office, and then Lord Sugar branding PwC staff lazy gits, after the firm adopted a shorter working week for summer. Finally, Stephenson Harwood, a London law firm offered staff the option to work from home permanently, but the convenience comes at a price: pay them 20% less than their current salary.

A more intelligent approach comes from Julia Hobsbawm who has identified the new way of working as rather than making a daily commute, people will choose where they work in the Nowhere Office. Why Nowhere? Partly because we are in a liminal space between one phase of work and another, and partly because nowhere is an anagram of Here, now. Nothing is certain, everything is moving fast. We are nowhere near where we ever were in working life and are unlikely to return to this place again.

Recent comments show the difference between hardliners of a particular generational disposition who believe that if you’re not in the office you’re not working, and others who recognise that how you work productively is a more complicated than turning up to a fixed place. For me, the nine-to-five physical office is out; it is skills, not schedules that determine who works from where, and this gives impetus to hiring and working across time zones and geographical boundaries. 

The organisational efforts supporting the D-Day Normandy landings were in a way a prototype example of a Nowhere Office: desks, fax machines, and punch card operators were set up on the windswept shores after beachheads were established, providing the back-office infrastructure for a vast military operation – a kind of ‘pop up office’ in which what mattered was not the place but the people and their mission. Then came the Co-Working revolution in which the roots of today’s Nowhere Office were laid down, as the internet and the smartphone made work fully mobile.

The era of startups emerged alongside the cultural shifts as millennials and generation Z entered the workforce, bringing with them digital native skills, expectations of freedom and values around purpose that challenged the always-on, always-in culture in favour of mindfulness and meaning – rejecting presenteeism, which for too long meant showing up for its own sake on a s schedule rather than for a purposeful reason.

The Nowhere Office is a positive place where purpose and meaning drive productivity, and where employees, shorn of the obligation to just show up, will no longer face what the social historian Studs Terkel memorably called a Monday to Friday kind of dying. A good example of the concept came from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky who recently announced employees can work from anywhere. In the days following the announcement, Airbnb’s recruiting page received a million visitors. The policy can be summarised as to:

  • You can work from home or the office – wherever suits you best
  • You can live anywhere in the world, not near an Airbnb office
  • There will be one week in person team gatherings, once a quarter 
  • To make this work, the focus is to deliver two major product releases a year so all Airbnb staff work in a highly coordinated way.

I’ve taken some of Hobsbawm’s and Chesky’s thinking, and combined with my own thoughts, and considered how to translate this into a work form anywhere strategy for startups.

1. Hybrid working means a hybrid environment: digital and physical The physical office is an anachronism, the only space everyone needs to be is the internet. Physical communities are getting digitised – Amazon replace the Shopping Centre – and there’s some great things about that. However, the problem is you don’t see people on Amazon, you did at the shops; you see people different than you, you got to look people in the eye and bump up to people, you have to wait in line and be courteous and you don’t get to pick who is around you. On the internet and zoom, you create a hermetically sealed bubble of people just like you.

People are going to need space and won’t want to work from home every day. The startup office has to do something home can’t do. It’ll be for different purposes, giving an identity, your team happy place, your collaboration space.

2. Remote workforce means thinking global Take the opportunity to see your talent pool as global and your team distributed, don’t limit yourself to a radius around the office. The way to see the future is not to look at the old companies if you want to know what the workplace future looks like – you don’t have a legacy holding you back, be flexible, mobile, and nomadic. The solution for diversity should be truly being able to hire people from everywhere. That’s the upside. The downside is too much Zoom and remote work is a world where people can feel lonely and disconnected.

3. Don’t default to tech Technology has redefined the relationship between the place of work and the time taken to get there. Go in when it matters and stay home using Zoom when it doesn’t. The thing about human connection is it’s inefficient. Technology is like gravity, it wants to find the fastest point between A and B. If we’re not careful, we will remove all human connection and your startup will live with no culture. You can see where this starts to go. I’m an optimist. We don’t have to go down that road. We can design meaningful moments where people come together.

The solution is going to be a true hybrid, but not three days in the office. It’s going to be total flexibility, and then gathering in an immersive way when you need. Full remote is not going to work. You’ve got to do something in between. The in-between Chesky predicts is three days a week becomes two, then becomes one, and defined gatherings. Chesky advocates being more intentional about when people need to be in the office.

4. Big Rocks Working from home has given more clarity about what’s really important in our lives – the big rocks – family, friends, hobbies. Life priorities have come to the fore during the past two years. It’s likely employees will have some big rocks they don’t want to give up. You need to leverage your commitment to boundaries and your insights into the optimal work-life rhythm and integration (see next) to keep folks energised.

Cultural cohesion is important for ensuring people feel connected. Chesky has set Airbnb’s culture to be based around getting together one week a quarter to be enough human connection for people to come together and bond. Johnson and Sugar are from a different generation. Startup leaders think quite differently. Young people like being part of a community, and its hard to get to know people on Zoom, there’s a lot of limitations and your bubbles become smaller. Zoom can have some pernicious effects. Build a big rocks sensitive culture where the physical space is a cradle of innovation.

5. It’s about rhythm, not balance I’ve never thought work-life balance was the right perspective, creating an optimal work-life rhythm should be the focus. Work-life balance is a temporary state especially in a startup where life is dynamic and constantly in flux. As folks settled into working from home, many found a more sustainable and nurturing work-life rhythm, not losing time to commute or other frictions that come with office-based work.

People created routines and rhythms that were more productive while working from home. Some days it will be faster, others slower. Nothing is permanent; you just need to be clear about the elements that inform your optimal life rhythm and integrate that with work.

When you’re always at home it can be difficult to draw the formerly bright line between work and personal life. Now, when you close the laptop and call it a day, you don’t have the trigger of leaving the office building. With tech, boundaries were pretty blurry before everyone started working from home, but now you have to ask yourself a couple of questions: First, do you have any? Secondly, if you do, does anyone else know what they are? Because if they don’t, you may as well not have any. As you head back to the office, it’s a great time to reassess and reinforce your boundaries.

6. Recognise different teams and people have different needs Today’s offices are often an open sea of desks with a perimeter of meeting rooms and no personal offices. What creative people really want is a wall for sticky notes, whiteboarding and space to walk around and think; engineers are going to want a totally different thing. We need to move toward multi-use spaces.

When people do gather physically, what will matter will be the social interaction that takes place and the learning. Coming in to sit at a desk to do emails or exchange messages on Slack when you can do that anywhere make no sense in the Nowhere Office. Make your office space where people can learn and gossip, creating a culture that is stronger than any bricks and mortar. Make the office a collaboration hub.

Nowhere Offices are focused on who is doing the work and their status rather than where they work. There are three ‘types’ of people:

  • Learners: new starters or graduate hires may find it more beneficial to be in a physical office in terms of social capital and comfort, it’s harder to get work done at home if you share a space with others or have poor broadband. The benefits of learning from others can often only come from the serendipitous snippets picked up in an office, exchanging knowledge, opinion, intelligence, and emotion is impossible to fully capture or replicate digitally.
  • Freelancers: freelance workers in your team may be content to come to an informal gathering every now and then. Dipping in and out of offices, they don’t need a fixed place, just somewhere to gather with you from time to time.
  • Leaders: Seniors in your team who need to know more about the projects and people, need to work harder than ever to get in touch with the human needs of their colleagues, and ‘listen and learn more’ than previously with a digital model, so provide a space to enable this.

 We’ve eschewed the Orwellian routine of the office forever. Many startups had already adopted a hybrid, flexible model before Covid, embracing the freedom, space and cost advantage of free-spirited working, but for us all there were lessons learned about leadership, human needs, habits, processes and automation. Build these into a Nowhere Office strategy. Shift the mindset from how your team works to where they work, evolve your organisation design and structure, and focus on wellbeing not productivity.

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