Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Office Conundrum

I have blogged the past couple of days about the setting-up of our new office. I stumbled across some other people struggling with the same sort of issues. Let's just face it, offices have their drawbacks, in addition to many good points. One option is to try to jettison the whole concept.

The guys at Charter Street have coined a great phrase: going Bedouin. Simply, going Bedouin is about avoiding as much infrastructure purchase as you can and putting all your cycles into building your product, not your overhead. This includes everything from offices and cubes to servers, phones, and software. Greg Olsen, the author at Charter Street, says that if you can buy it as a service, you should, letting other people take care of the day-to-day maintenance. Don't hire a full-time IT staff, he suggests.

It's important to note that Olsen doesn't suggest ditching the office altogether. An office can be an important meeting location when people have to be face to face and there is an element of team bonding that can be lost when everybody is remote. But Olsen is clear that things should be kept in check: "Leases can be short term and opportunistic."

My favorite quote: "I remember longing wistfully for the days when the company's infrastructure fit into my backpack."

Along similar lines, Jackson West contributed a great article to Om Malik's Blog, titled The New Office Space. In it, West references Olsen's article but suggests that you can ditch the office almost entirely and do everything in WiFi-connected coffee shops. West thinks that coffee shops can be the base for everything from daily work and email to recruiting and product demos. His article even provides a list of recommendations of the best haunts for San Francisco Bedouin workers.

My take is that I think there's a balance here. My own experience working at coffee shops has been mixed. They're not very private and they're noisy, so I find them difficult to make lots of business calls from, particularly extended conference calls. Next, there is always the issue with finding a power connection. In some Starbuck's, I have experienced people "hovering" for a table near a power outlet, similar to Christmas shoppers circling the mall parking lot looking for an open space. Finally, I think it depends a lot on what your business is about and how well your team knows each other.

If your team has worked together before and knows each other, and your business is such that people can work relatively independently, or at least electronically, I think you can move closer West's vision. If you can't meet that criteria, however, something more akin to Olsen's Bedouin concept has merit. The difference is that Olsen acknowledges the virtues of having a shared space, even if people aren't in it every minute of every day.

In Vyatta's case, we had to follow West's model at first because we simply didn't have any offices. We found that even though our team was small and we could get work done, we weren't bonding as well as we wanted. Some of us had worked together, whereas others hadn't. Now that we have the office, I find that there's a bit more cohesion. Over time, we'll probably need the office less, and we'll probably start looking more Bedouin.

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