Understanding the Office-Less Company

Rachel Emma Silverman’s article, “Step into the Office-Less Company,” discusses a new kind of company where employees work from home.  Automattic is an example of one such company in which employees use social networking, cloud storage, and video conferencing to communicate with one another.

While Automattic does have an office in San Francisco, the company heavily relies on internal blogs rather than traditional office buildings.  Because of this, Automattic is able to reach out to a larger and selective workforce regardless of workers’ location and timezones.  This also allows work to be completed at any hour of the day, while the company saves enormously on real estate costs.

Companies like Automattic claim that employees are more effective in this type of environment without interruptions, but also complete work with less instructions.  While only 2.5% workers currently work from home, this new type of company is still worth noting.

For further discussion, the original Wall Street Journal can be accessed here as well as read below:

The Web-services company Automattic Inc. has 123 employees working in 26 countries, 94 cities and 28 U.S. states. Its offices? Workers’ homes.

At Automattic, which hosts the servers for the blogging platform WordPress.com, work gets done wherever employees choose, and virtual meetings are conducted on Skype or over Internet chat.

The company has a San Francisco office for occasional use, but project management, brainstorming and water-cooler chatter take place on internal blogs. If necessary, team members fly around the world to meet each other face to face. And if people have sensitive questions, they pick up the phone.

Web firm Automattic has 123 employees in 94 cities—and everyone works at home.

Having a remote workforce lets companies tap into a wider talent pool not limited by geography. Firms can also save money on real estate, though sizeable travel budgets may partly offset that.

Nobody knows for sure how many completely office-less companies there are or how fast their ranks are growing, but management researchers say such firms are still rare. Today, just 2.5% of the U.S. workforce considers home its primary place of work. But that number, which is based on census-data analysis, grew 66% from 2005 to 2010, according to the Telework Research Network, a consulting and research firm. And increasingly, employees at companies with physical offices are choosing to work remotely or forming virtual teams with colleagues world-wide, thanks to rapid advances in video, social-networking, cloud storage, and mobile technology.

Many far-flung companies also have nonhierarchical management structures, providing teams and workers the authority to make decisions and complete tasks with light supervision.
But working from home isn’t for everyone. “Some people hunger for the personal contact,” says Michael Boyer O’Leary, an assistant management professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Dr. O’Leary says that face-to-face contact is most critical for new employees or when people without a track record together launch a new project.
Other staffers have difficulty creating boundaries between work and home life, even missing the mental and physical transition of a commute, says Jay Mulki, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration who studies virtual workers.

Automattic: How they make it work

  • Assignments with deadlines are posted on internal blogs.
  • Meetings with team members take place on blogs, Skype or Internet chat.
  • Internal ‘water cooler’ blogs enable workers to engage in virtual chitchat.
  • There is a ‘grand meetup’ once a year for all employees to gather face to face.

Source: the company

He says that one remote worker he studied got into his car every morning, drove around the block and then returned home to clock in.

Lori McLeese, who heads Automattic human resources, says that its hiring and orientation processes are key to creating a cohesive culture. The company requires top applicants to work on a trial project for a few weeks to see if they are a good fit. New hires, regardless of position, must work in customer service for three weeks to create a unifying employee experience and have direct customer contact.

The company lives by a philosophy of “overcommunication,” says Ms. McLeese, to help proactively quell any misunderstandings and provide workers with direction. Employees mainly transmit messages via internal blogs, dubbed P2s, which also act as a virtual water cooler. When misunderstandings occur with text-based chats, participants are encouraged to pick up the phone.

But because staffers are in so many time zones, work is often done asynchronously. Team members work their own hours—the company has a lot of night owls and early risers—to meet project deadlines. If someone misses the mark, the team leader or another staffer will reach out to the employee to figure out what went wrong.

The company also organizes regular face-to-face get-togethers of teams, allowing workers to fly to meet each other in convenient locations, and an annual, week-long “grand meetup” for all employees. Ms. McLeese says that after long stretches without seeing each other face to face, the meetups can be emotional. “People are giving each other hugs at the airport,” she says.

Mat Atkinson, the chief executive of the design-review software company ProofHQ, says that managing “distributed” teams requires 25% more effort than a face-to-face team would because managers must pay closer attention to whether workers are motivated and fully understand tasks and business processes. “There isn’t the opportunity to just pop into someone’s office,” says Mr. Atkinson, who is based in London and has 32 staffers based in 17 cities around the world.

But Mr. Atkinson says that employees are more productive because they have no commutes and fewer interruptions. And he says that being virtual costs about 50% less than having fixed real-estate costs.

Kalypso LP, an innovation consulting firm, has 150 employees around the country and in Europe but no corporate offices, says founding-partner Bill Poston, who works from his home in Boerne, Texas, when he is not at client sites.

When the firm was founded eight years ago, Mr. Poston says the decision to go office-less was financial. But now, being virtual is a matter of choice, though he points out that the company isn’t a good fit for people “who are uncomfortable with ambiguity.”

Mr. Poston also says that employees are far from isolated. Workers communicate constantly via instant messaging and email. And teams of consultants see each other almost daily when meeting with clients. The company also flies employees to an annual meeting in September, and it transports workers and their families to “family fun” weekends every June. In addition, employees can fly to meet each other whenever necessary.

Not everyone believes in virtual companies. Last year the founders of Zaarly Inc. debated whether to operate virtually or open an office for the fledgling online marketplace for local services.

The firm opted for the latter, says Shane Mac, director of product for Zaarly, which now has 43 employees, most of whom work in the company’s San Francisco-based office.

Although the firm has some remote employees, Mr. Mac says that making decisions is faster when someone is sitting next to you, and it’s easier to keep employees in the loop and brainstorm together over a whiteboard. “You can’t create true serendipity over IM,” he says.

To find out more information on this topic, contact the author of this article, Rachel Emma Silverman, at rachel.silverman@wsj.com.

Opower, an Energy Efficient Software Company, is PMI’s Newest Tenant at Harrison Property in San Francisco

Our newest tenant on the second floor of 642 Harrison in San Francisco has a goal to make the world more energy-efficient.  It’s a pretty lofty goal for a company only founded in 2007.  Opower is a software as a service company that partners with utility companies to promote energy efficiency.  According to their website, Opower is a new customer engagement platform for the utility industry.  It reinvented the way utilities interact with customers—from the quality of the information provided to the way it’s presented and delivered.  It helps people use energy more efficiently and ultimately save money on their energy bills.  And it vastly improves the overall customer experience by making energy use personally relevant.  For example, when monthly invoices arrive at a customer’s home, they can see the average utility bill cost in their neighborhood, along with suggestions on how to reduce their energy consumption.  If they are well over the average compared to other homes in the area, they then have Opower’s suggestions right at their fingertips to help alleviate some of their energy costs.

Opower decided to PMI Properties’ 642 Harrison would be a great candidate for their next office because of its size and prime location.  Opower’s decision to choose Harrison in the competitive SoMa market was featured in this article as well: Big Race for Space in SoMa, Wall Street Journal, January 26 2012.

They also have established an online presence with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as having their own, “Hey, it’s OPOWER!” blog.  Their website has many interesting and innovative ways to share information about their vision and what the company has accomplished.  There is an “OMeter” page that keeps a running tab on how many kilowatt-hours Opower has saved, and lists some interesting facts on what could be done with all that energy.  Opower also finds ways to engage and entertain their employees.  Their website lists activities such as a quarterly company outing, innovation day, soccer and ping-pong teams, and the ability to bring your dog to work.

Photo courtesy of Opower's website.

Opower was founded in 2007 by long-time friends Dan Yates and Alex Laskey.  When they started their company, lots of people were excited about cleaner energy production using renewable energy sources, like the sun and wind.  Dan and Alex knew that these sources wouldn’t be tapped in the short-term, even though they are important.  Their answer to reducing carbon emissions right now was curbing wasteful use of the types of energy produced today.  By utilizing the 1.4 billion utility bills that are mailed to customers each year, they would be able to send energy-saving ideas to hundreds of millions of households.  After creating a prototype, they went to two of America’s major energy markets, California and Texas.  The amount of interest they received from utilities, state legislators, and environmental groups soon led to first round venture capital funding from MHS Capital.

Photo courtesy of Opower's website.

They have garnered support from other green centered companies, as well as President Barack Obama. He visited their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia in 2010 and praised their work ethic and success during the hard economic times in addition to their ability to provide clean energy jobs.  They have been featured in articles from The Wall Street Journal, Techcruch, CNN, and Green Tech Media, to name a few.

You can visit Opower’s website at http://www.opower.com. You can read their blog at www.heyitsopower.com and follow them on Twitter @Opower and Facebook: www.facebook.com/heyitsopower

Wall Street Journal Spotlights PMI Properties’ Harrison Building

PMI Properties’ newest acquisition, 642 Harrison in San Francisco, was featured in a Wall Street Journal article last month.  The article spotlights the burgeoning SoMa district in San Francisco and the rapid growth that buildings in the area are experiencing within the last year.

PMI Properties was able to snag Harrison before the prices started to rise in SoMa. Compared to other agencies who paid $330 and $423 a square foot, PMI was able to purchase Harrison at $265 a square foot. The early mover’s advantage definitely was key in this transaction.

In order to attract new tenants to the space at Harrison, we renovated the second floor, created new PMI Properties banners for the outside of the building, and appealed to tech and digital media companies with vintage Time magazine posters of a young Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the foyer. With the diminishing vacancy rate in the SoMa district, businesses are searching frantically to lease space.  The pricing game has become increasingly competitive as well, as evidenced by PMI’s recent lease negotion process with our newest tenant, Opower.

Overall, SoMa has blossomed into a tech and digital media mecca, with PMI’s Harrison right at the center. We are thrilled to be providing space to creative tenants who continue to cultivate amazing ideas and innovations.

To read the entire Wall Street journal article, please click here.