On the second floor of a generic office building complex in Fort Collins, Colorado, there’s a nearly life-sized photo of a garage. There isn’t a sign, or a label, but everyone who works in that generic office building knows what that garage is and what it represents. The photo is there to remind people who walk by it every day who they are and the legacy they have inherited. The garage that photo is of is located 943 miles away in Palo Alto, California. That garage is the birthplace of silicon valley.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo’s memo to remote workers announcing the end of work-from-home arrangements. There are plenty of passionate responses against this move, mostly citing figures about remote workers being more productive, putting in more hours, working with fewer distractions. Most of the people supporting Yahoo! cite their possible lost employee percentage, org chart orphans like Milton in Office Space. But some focus on the culture, and that’s where I think the crux of the issue may lie.
It’s really, really, really hard to drive a spontaneous, passionate corporate culture in a distributed group, especially a really large one. While companies like 37 Signals, who get to pick out specific personality fits when they hire, claim to be able to do it, I don’t think just anyone can.
I started working for Whole Foods Market in 1999, and while I was never a real employee, I spent a lot of my time there until we started Polycot in 2001. During those years I did a lot of dropping in and chatting with the people I was building software for, and I learned a lot about the grocery business, store promotions pricing, the culture differences between organically grown and acquired regions, employee compensation systems, and the difficulty of sourcing and maintaining wide format dot matrix printers.
Towards the end our VPN access was becoming fairly robust, and I was getting really good at solving problems in ways that wouldn’t require me to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, so I started working from home. First it was a day or two a week, then became nearly all the time. As time went by Whole Foods changed, and I wasn’t there to see it. I still got the site-wide emails, but not being in the office regularly put me fundamentally out of the loop, and after a while I was a stranger.
At Polycot we really wanted to have an office, we had a dream of collaboration, long nights dreaming up great ideas, having those spontaneous conversations that can only occur in person, not over email. Unfortunately we weren’t all located in the same town, and maintaining an office is an expensive proposition, so we eventually shut it down. A few years later we re-opened in a sub-leased space at Enspire Learning, and then moved to the final Polycot office. Working together in the same space was great, but we’d already built a culture between the founders of working remotely, and we were all introverts. We had some good times at the office, but the culture never gelled like it might have if we’d started there and made it one of our founding principles. Eventually people moved on, and in the end it was just two of us in the back. At that point it was easier to work remote, and doing so was pretty much the death-knell for any spontaneously creative projects.
Companies work hard to build their corporate culture. It’s what separates HP from Apple from IBM from Dell from Microsoft. When you hire a remote worker, and that worker’s primary communications are through text chat or monthly phone calls, it’s really easy for that worker to just be an anonymous cog in a machine. Their horizons may only extend to their immediate team, there are no spontaneous interactions with other groups, no hallway conversations that you randomly get sucked into.
I joined HP in 2010, and I’ve always been a remote worker. Our Austin site for most of that time has been a big data center in a remote part of town, not the kind of place that inspires you to feel like part of a legacy, or inspires you to come up with great, creative ideas. Our specific team is more than half remote, spread across 4 time zones and two countries, and while that gives us a lot of independence from the corporate bureaucracy and daily commute, I bet if you asked some of the newer folks what it meant to be an HPer, they wouldn’t have an answer.
A month ago my team had a face to face in Fort Collins. It’s the kind of thing the accountants scream about, flying 20 people in from across the country (and beyond) to sit in a big room for three days. If you’re going to have spontaneous conversations, though, that’s what you have to do. If you’re going to dream up new things and get the real value of all the smart people you’ve hired, sometimes you have to put them in the same room.
At one of our first team face to faces two engineers got together and nearly completely rebuilt a product in an afternoon. They both had pieces to the puzzle, but neither of them knew it. If every conversation they had over chat was about today’s deliverables or sprint planning, it never would have happened.
The most valuable thing for me, though, was walking by that photo of the garage on the way to lunch. Because next to that photo of the garage, in a quiet hallway, was this.
That’s an HP ScanJet IIc, the first color scanner HP made, back in 1991. It’s signed by the development team, a bunch of people who got together and carried on the tradition of inventing new stuff, the tradition that traces all the way back to the HP 200A Oscillator that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built in that Palo Alto garage.
The role of companies is the same as the role of countries and schools and institutions: Beyond their day to day services, they give us a foundation to stand on, a legacy of people behind us, who worked and strived to do the next thing, and do it better. They cloak us in story, in myth and history, and they inspire us to do the next thing. The greatest challenge we have going forward, as the panopticon gobbles us up, our tools dehumanize us, and the homogeneity of Facebook smushes us into an ad-targeted paste, is how we maintain that legacy: How we keep telling ourselves that story to inspire us to do more than be a cog in a machine, or a metered metric of lines of code committed. Because in the end that’s what we want. We want to be part of the story.