The Flexible Office

Flexible: early 15th century from the latin ‘flexibilis’ “that which may be bent, pliant” from flexus of flectere “to bend.”

adjective: 1. capable of being bent or flexed, 2. susceptible to influence or persuasion, 3. responsive to change, adaptable.

If you could fast forward from the 1950’s to today chances are good that you would recognize very little of the demands of working life, family life, and family structure. The way these elements have evolved has required an enormous amount of flexibility and adaptation, but the demands of these inter-relationships verge on pushing us to bend to the breaking point.

The world today provides incredible tools for managing our working lives and our personal lives, literally letting us connect from anywhere and everywhere, but the structure and demands of our lives have not allowed us the related flexibility to work from anywhere or everywhere.

Over the course of the last ten years, average working hours for professionals have increased, average commute times have increased, executive opportunities have decreased, and the number of disability claims related to stress have increased. More US workers report negative spill-over of work into their personal lives, more people feel compelled to be available 24/7, salaries are staying flat, and fewer people are taking vacations even if they have the days available. No wonder that the for the first time in three generations the average US life-span has decreased – we are literally working ourselves to death and I don’t think that people are really having that much fun on the way.

When I joined theBATstudio in January 2009 (as the second employee), my goals were fairly typical for a growing business: high productivity, excellent customer service, outstanding deliverables, and year on year growth, with one caveat—no office. I wanted a lean office for selfish reasons: lower overhead means better margins; and I wanted a flexible office because after 12 years as a professional in the working world I firmly believe that productivity and success are not defined by strict hours in an office. With the ability to connect from anywhere there was no reason to require everyone to show up at a specific location everyday, and after many years of struggling to balance professional life and family life I knew that anecdotally that taking that pressure away makes for happier people and more productive employees.

Ask most people what an office with 90% productivity looks like: employees focused on their tasks, diligently working away? The quiet of a Montessori school where everyone is focused and no time is wasted in banter at the water cooler?

I don’t know about you, but I have been in offices where social exchanges are made in hushed tones and everyone scurries around looking rushed and frantic. Where it feels like it takes forever to get anything done, even though allegedly everyone is working all the time – 10 hour days and accessible 24/7. In fact the US corporate productivity average is 30%. That means in a 40 hour work week only 12 hours are actually productive. So if you are available to the office 24/7 (and 60% of professionals report that they have to be), and you work an average of ten hours a day (50% of US professionals do), then what are you doing with all that time? Clearly they are not working that whole time, and wouldn’t you rather have them engaged in their personal lives off the clock?

My typical day looks like this: arrive at theBATcave (a converted storage room in the basement of my house) about 8:30, settle the dogs into their beds, check e-mail, calendar and to do list – then start on most immediate needs. Around 9:30 make tea and start laundry, keep working. Around 11:30 walk the dogs (this can be combined with a meeting as needed), and check e-mail before lunch. After lunch (12:30/1) keep working. From 2:50-3:30 expect the stream of children into the office to talk about their day and complain about their chores, around 3:30 send them away and get back to work. Sometime around 6 realize that it is time to leave the office to go make dinner. A typical day for my employees – who knows? Our office in entirely virtual: productivity requires individual focus and your schedule is whatever you want it to be based on a 40 hour work week—you work when you want, from where you want, as long as you meet client deadlines.

We average 90% productivity – sometimes it is better, closer to 95% and other than client responsiveness and project deliverables I have no idea what the staff is doing with their day! Time off is time off – closed computer, ignored cell phone, your time because I expect most of your “work time” to be about work. We do “water-cooler” talk by IM, but we also let each other know when to leave us alone so we can WORK, and because there are no fixed hours we work when we are working.

This kind of office management can be challenging on many levels: not everyone out there is good at managing their own time, especially outside the stricture of an office. Clients who work the typical US work-day/week want us to be available on their schedule, whenever they want us—which can be over the weekend and late at night but because we are flexible we can often meet these needs while balancing it with a long lunch in the middle of the day, or attending a class field-trip with the kids. Between smart phones and texting you can stay on top of the work fires, have a life, and create time to get your concentrated thinking time in. Practically it can also be hard to not have the collegiality of the office – talking to the dogs or the plants is not exactly as stimulating as social banter in the hallway. But with the shift for so many to the workplace as a life-defining environment, I wanted to create an “office” that allowed individuals to succeed in their careers, and maintain their own identity outside of office title or role.

In a virtual work environment the question of who you are and what you do becomes more complex: I am an attorney, I run operations, I also walk my dogs, cook meals, read books, raise my children. I have to work at friendships because they are not right down the hall, and I am responsible for accomplishing something everyday not just being present in a building and looking busy. But ultimately I am empowered to define who I am, I am not a passive participant with an identity that can be destroyed by a RIF over which I have no control.

Of the entire US work-force, including the self-employed, approximately 15% work from home (23,000,000). By not commuting we get about ten extra days a year that our office-based friends spend in their cars. We save 110,000 barrels of oil every day, and we spend about 20% less time at work. We also spend a lot more time in our pajamas.

Certainly there are some days/weeks/projects that require more time, and to be successful you have to put significant effort into whatever you are doing. The day doesn’t always end at 6 just because I am at home, and I can’t always walk the dogs if a client needs something in order to meet their deadline. But having flexibility means that I can have dinner with my kids more often than not, and I can work on editing content after they are in bed – and that is something I value. As a manager I also value employees who know that they have the freedom to identify what matters to them, and to engage with that when they need to.

If we live in a world where we have 24/7 access to everyone anyway, why not take advantage of that accessibility and let each individual find the space from where they want to be accessed? And if supporting employees for purely altruistic reasons is not good enough to appeal to the bottom-line focus of corporate America: 90% productivity and minimal overhead – that is compelling.

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