Our upcoming office move got me thinking (again) about the way we’re structured. Since we opened in 1993, FreeAssociates has been a distributed company: a group of colleagues who enjoy working from their home offices, but who function as teams to get some pretty amazing things done. We’ve designed 10,000 s.f. exhibits, created complex interrelated programs of marketing materials and advertising, and generally had a great time doing it. We’re not rigid about the whole thing: the locals in and around L.A. get together in clusters to brainstorm whenever we need to, or just to have lunch and catch up. But a lot of our work takes place in our individual brains, or by phone or via the internet. And the flexibility and uninterrupted work time trump the benefits of water cooler conversations.
This intense solo time and concentration seem to be inherent in what we do. Back when I had a traditional company structure with everyone in a single office, we had a temp who was struck by how quiet it always was. Everyone was concentrating, working “in their zone,” and there just wasn’t a lot of chatter. In the small administrative office we have now, Amy and I often go for hours just focusing on what we’re doing without talking to each other. We even communicate by email about some things, although our desks are just a few paces apart. Not by design. It just works that way.
No question that there are advantages and disadvantages, and that traditional offices work better for some people, remote ones for others. But, overall, we’ve enjoyed it. Getting to work at home while my children were young was a wonderful experience. Knowing that our designers and writers are free to work when they’re at their best, even if that’s in their pajamas early in the morning, or when they get a brilliant idea in the middle of the night, is gratifying. Sure, you have to be reasonably disciplined to make it work, but none of us seem to have a problem in that regard. When you love what you do, you find time to do it.
37Signals, the developer of Basecamp, Highrise and Campfire, was built along the same lines. One of their employees blogged about his experience, and lots of other people commented — both in favor of, and adamantly against, the structure. I found it an interesting read. Maybe you will, too. Let me know what you’re thinking.