Cate Huston’s team met in Thailand earlier this year
There’s a growing trend for firms to ditch their offices entirely, but is that good or bad for workers?
“Talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is often not,” says Cate Huston. “Working this way means you can access that talent and also give opportunity.”
She leads the developer experience team for Automattic, a large multi-national company where every single one of the 930 staff work remotely. The business has no fixed office presence at all.
“It’s a deep part of our culture, nobody even mentions offices anymore,” she told BBC 5 live’s Wake Up To Money programme.
“I’m office-free. We all just love the freedom and we travel to meet each other so we enjoy those adventures as well.”
Her employer is one of a small but growing number of businesses that are choosing to have no central office.
Faster internet connections, messaging and video apps, and the rise of collaborative and monitoring software are allowing some firms to do away with their offices entirely.
Instead, they hire staff from multiple locations and ask them to work from home or from shared working spaces near where they live.
Automattic’s staff work across 70 different countries and, instead of paying for a central office, the company pays to fly staff to regular meet-ups throughout the year.
It also pays workers to equip their home offices and helps them meet the cost of renting a work space, or for drinks if they work in a coffee house. But that is still cheaper than an office.
“There’s definitely some cost saving to not having an office; you don’t spend money on the office, especially in the tech hubs like London and San Francisco and New York where office rental costs are shockingly high,” says Cate.
“But because we do really value the in-person time together we have these regular meet-ups. We have one for the whole company that happens every year and most teams meet up twice on top of that.
“We spend money on that, on flying everyone together. My team met up earlier this year in Thailand.”
Remote working is increasing rapidly, fuelled mostly by self-employed and flexible workers.
More than 1.54 million people work from home for their main job – up from 884,000 ten years ago, according to the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey, the largest study of employment circumstances in the UK.
Now some businesses are rejecting the notion they even need a headquarters, let alone office space for their staff.
“It’s definitely an increasing trend. It’s certainly very cost effective and attractive for start-ups,” says Ilke Inceoglu, professor of organisation behaviour at the University of Exeter Business School.
“From the perspective of employees, you don’t have a commute and that is a huge benefit.”
Remote working may sound idyllic for anyone who has commuted during rush hour, but there are potential downsides.
Prof Inceoglu says: “Some people find it a challenge to draw a line between work and home-life. If you always work from home because you are office-less then where does your work stop and your home-life start again?
“It’s important to take steps to make sure there are boundaries.”
There are other risks to working from home. Mental health charity Mind has highlighted that remote workers may be at a higher risk of feeling lonely and isolated.
However, in a fully remote business, Prof Inceoglu says that risk may be reduced: “Feeling isolated is certainly a risk of remote working but if everyone is in the same boat then you already feel a sense of connectedness.”
Jess Sims used to work for a company where every member of staff was in the office except for her. She now works for a fully-remote collective of freelancers called The Doers and says it’s definitely easier when everyone is scattered.
“When you are remote but everyone else is in the same place, you’re effectively watching through a window at all the office camaraderie that happens but you can’t be included,” she says.
“People forget to update you because you’re not around all the time. You have to chase people to remind them you exist.
“Now, I work with a remote collective and we are all in the same boat, we all work from home. And so we are all a bit more aware of what everyone is feeling and look after each other.”
Cate Huston believes fully remote working can actually be good for communication. “Remote work makes the problems of work more explicit and then we can set out deliberately to address them.
“If you work in the same office it’s easy to think: ‘Oh we have lunch together every day so we’re a cohesive team that support each other,’ but that’s not necessarily true.
“When your team is spread all around the world like my team currently, we think much more deliberately about how to build ourselves as a team, how to make sure we are communicating well, are we documenting things clearly.”