Why do we have an office?

Despite the current uncertainty of lockdowns our answer to "are you remote or office based?" is: "yes".
Why do we have an office?

Console is a small startup with three co-founders based in London and a designer working remotely in Italy. Investing in an office is a luxury for a bootstrapped startup, but has been worthwhile as a means to boost our productivity and to improve our quality of life.

We started a company together because we enjoy hanging out and find it inspirational to work alongside each other. Starting a business is tough. On a daily basis you are testing assumptions, iterating quickly and dealing with a lot of unknowns. A lot of what you work on is in flux, will it work, won’t it? Good ideas come from discussion and collaboration that is difficult to achieve remotely.

The sheer amount of uncertainty that comes with starting a business requires founders to support one another to build the confidence and momentum that will shape the company’s vision for the future. Remote work removes a lot of the social aspects that make starting a business fun. You can do it remotely - we have had regular calls during lockdown - but it's not the same as when we were in the office together.

This changes as a company matures. As the processes adapt to a fully formed product, revenue and customers, the focus changes to execution. Remote work is perfectly suited that mode.

But companies change. New projects start. People join, people leave, and things evolve. Having an office is not a one time, binary decision.

Our answer to "are you remote or office based?" is: "yes". Here's why.

The Console Clerkenwell, London office in early 2021.

The benefits of office based teams

We had an office before Console existed. We knew we wanted to work together and had several ideas we wanted to explore, so signing an office lease was the first step towards actually starting something. This provided several benefits:

  • One person might have an initial idea, but ideas are improved by debate and discussion. Sometimes this is in a formal meeting, which can be replicated on a video call, but often it is more ad-hoc. In the first few weeks we discussed our various ideas in detail, thinking through the different ways it might work (or not). We had the occasional long meeting to sit around formally discussing things, but mostly it was informal chats whilst talking about tech in general, when walking to the shop for lunch, or highlighting something we'd seen recently.
  • Results can be discussed in the moment, iterated, recalculated, then discussed again. Console wasn't the first idea we had - we dismissed company ideas in several different fields - but only after we went away to do some research. After discussing the initial idea, we would divide tasks, work for a few hours, then come back to discuss the results. We were all in the same room so there would often be short, random discussion about something we had seen which helped prove or disprove our hypothesis. Being together in the office meant this was easy. Otherwise we would have had to coordinate times for calls to regroup.
  • We can separate home from work. When you only work from home, (especially if it's happened suddenly due to COVID) and you don't have a separate office space, it can be difficult to create a healthy balance. It's too easy to keep working late, or "just finish one last thing". Without an office it's harder to make the excuse that you need to head home to "beat the crowds" because you're already at home! Some unscrupulous bosses might take advantage of this.
  • A mistake we've all made in previous companies has been avoiding thinking about culture until problems arise. That's too late. One of the great benefits of bringing a team together in an office environment is to shape a company culture that supports and inspires employees. There are many flaws with pre-COVID work environments. Open-plan offices are poorly designed for deep work, group-think can emerge quickly within close-quartered teams and office politics is a distraction all round. Our view is these flaws tend to be the result of bad culture rather than due to being in a physical office.

The best companies I’ve been involved with had a strong aligned vision for how to move the company forward and a nurturing environment that facilitated learning and mentorship. I worry that with an entirely remote workforce a lot of the informal learning and mentorship that can occur by being in regular close proximity to team members may begin to be lost.

Arguing that remote working allows for more flexibility is only true if you don't trust your team. This is an old-school way of corporate thinking. Treat your team like grown-ups and there is no reason why they can't have the freedom to prioritise their workload to meet the pressures of their professional and personal lives.

The benefits that remote working offers parents, carers and long distance commuters through offering greater flexibility to support their tight time demands are important, but this greater flexibility need not be at the cost of working in an office with your colleagues. Everyone should have the same benefits without needing to create a two-tier system.

It does, however, require a sensitive approach to how you coordinate core work hours and a willingness to create an environment where there’s no shame in leaving loudly to meet commitments outside of the office. If everyone knows what they need to be working on, whether someone starts at 8am or 10am should not be a marker of how they are performing.

The Console Clerkenwell, London office in late 2020. Standing desk activated.

The benefits of remote teams

The lockdowns occurring around the world right now are giving companies of all shapes and sizes time to reflect on their working practices. They say they are now remote companies, but that's not really true. They are office based companies doing a few calls, or using Slack more. They are trying to adapt existing processes to remote working, but it is not easy. It's a real test of good communication, workflow and planning processes. I don’t envy companies currently attempting this forced transition.

Being a remote-first company means designing company processes to assume everyone is remote, even if that is not always true. This provides many benefits which can endure even as the office returns:

  • Most office jobs can benefit from extended, solo focus time. Engineering is the classic example, but other roles need focus too. Marketing involves long-form writing. Data analysts need to work through large volumes of data. Account managers need to communicate coherently with their clients. Even the best designed offices have distractions, so being able to get away from that is a boon .
  • Coordinating life admin is easier. You don't have to do anything extra to be in for a delivery, sort out a property issue, pop out to the shop, or deal with a medical appointment. You can still do this if you are in the office, but it means deliberate scheduling rather than taking things ad-hoc.
  • You can choose where to work from, and it can change whenever you want. I have a nice home office, but some people prefer to work from a cafe, or the park, or from another country. If the company processes work from home there is no reason why they won't work from a completely different location. You just need a laptop and the internet.
  • You have more control of your time. Anyone can disrupt you in the office because it is rude to ignore someone face to face. From home, you can deal with that notification later. Set "do not disturb" and focus.

This is a common theme we've seen talking with developers for our Q&A interview series. One of the fun questions is about their setup: hardware, software and desk. Every Q&A includes a desk photo - some are more elaborate that others - but everyone is working from home right now.

My home work set-up: 32" Samsung monitor, Razer Kiyo webcam, MacBook Air, Herman Miller Aeron chair, String desk & shelving, Katsu Naito artwork, Vitra mouse mat & collection of various pebbles collected by my daughters.

My co-founder, David, ran his previous company (Server Density) on a hybrid remote/office model. It started remote, and engineering was remote for the whole life of the company, but they also had an office. This is where he first worked with Daniele, who joined Console as our first non-founder team member. Daniele originally worked with David in Server Density's London office before moving back to his home town in Italy, where he now works with us remotely.

Console: hybrid office & remote

It may seem contradictory to praise the advantages of an office while still hiring remotely, but we’re deliberately taking a hybrid approach. David has worked this way since 2009, and whilst we're still a small team we know this is the right approach for us. Now with COVID, it’s something I imagine many companies are embarking on.

The office is going to change. Some companies will never go back but our bet is that the office is here to stay, just in a different form. We think it will become the place to start new projects, debate and solve tricky problems, build a culture and offer a space for employees to separate their home life from work. But there will be challenges.

Will we be able to create a coherent culture? Can we provide the necessary training and support for remote team members, especially those who are more junior? I fear that the isolation of remote work may be unsuitable for many workers who lack a social support network and may result in longer term hidden mental health issues. It doesn't suit everyone and many people prefer being the office. This is something we need navigate in the future.

What we do know is that we want to work with talented people above all else, and that means they get to choose where they work. We want to have the option of an office, but have no problem if people prefer to be somewhere else.

Running a start-up is a learning process, and adopting a hybrid approach to our team is part of this journey. I look forward to sharing our experiences on the Console blog as our team grows, and likewise returning to our little office in Clerkenwell, London soon!

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