Many moons ago, I was a freelance writer working from home in Oakland, California, often while my five-year-old daughter was running around the house with her friends.
One memorable day, I was repeatedly dialing U.S. Senator Alan Cranston’s office in hopes he might pick up his phone (that happened back in the day). I was working on a story about the Keating Five, a group of senators who became too cozy with disgraced Arizona developer Charles Keating. They all got ensnared in the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s.
By sheer luck, Senator Cranston picked up his line, but just as my daughter began banging on my bedroom/office door, sobbing because she had fallen and was bleeding. Life choices, egads.
Soon after that incident, I rented a tiny office down the street for my burgeoning journalism career. I was done with the home office experiment.
Times have changed and I have a different view of the virtual office scenario. Today, companies all over the country are reevaluating the option as the coronavirus is forcing businesses to let employees work from home.
Inman News became a completely virtual office operation four years ago. As we began to hire more and more writers and editors around the country, we found that many of them wanted to work from home. We obliged.
But we hit a glitch. The employees who worked out of our office of some 30 years in the San Francisco Bay Area began to ask if they could also work from home. Our first move in that direction was to allow them to do so on Friday and Monday.
Then, we decided to close our office. Made possible by technology tools like Slack, Facetime and Zoom and shared documents and project management programs.
It was one of the best moves that we ever made for morale, productivity and recruiting.
“I don’t think I could ever work in a traditional office again,” said ace Inman reporter Patrick Kearns who works in Ridgewood, a gentrifying New York City neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens.
Our savings from office rent accrued right to the bottom line. And imagine a world without the Big Bertha IBM copier where people often made unnecessary copies of everything.
At first, it was tricky with HR questions like who pays for the internet and what about the snacks in the kitchen and the free coffee.
A few folks complained about an assortment of minor woes, until the benefits began to kick in.
No long and stressful commutes, diminished office politics and senseless whining goes unheard. Those whose success depended on their skills “managing up” don’t do as well in this environment. In fact, they look silly.
Virtual is more transparent in many ways than a physical office.
Here are three tips for making the home office strategy work.
- Engagement has never been more important. We operate on the Slack platform, which is collaboration and communication central at Inman.
- Actual face time is still important. Live meetups are necessary. Inman uses our live events and regional get-togethers to solve this problem.
- You must personalize the experience. We have all sorts of customized channels on Slack like #editorial, #events and #product. But we also have fun with more personal channels like #watercooler where a recent thread focused on grilled cheese recipes.
My bet is the coronavirus will reshape the traditional workplace by sending more people home to work. FYI: I hung up on Senator Cranston.