Profit Minded

Creating an office culture when there is no office

More and more small businesses are leveraging communications and data sharing technologies to get work done among a remotely distributed workforce. And some are using it to do away altogether with the office.

Kevin Kuske, chief anthropologist and general manager for the business furniture company turnstone, says it’s not necessary for every startup to invest precious capital to buy furniture and sign a lease. “Join an incubator or shared workspace or work in a network of spaces,” Kuske recommends. “You don’t have to own the space. Work in coffee shops, a public park, or libraries,” he suggests.

What’s more, he says, “that movement across different locations is good for your health and mental state; no type of work is ideally done in the same space.”

When Carey Albertine and Saira Rao started In This Together Media, a children’s book publisher, both wanted the flexibility that working from home offered for their young families in Hoboken, NJ, and suburban Connecticut. As the company has grown, they’ve contracted with authors, editors, and artists, but have not felt the need to establish an office.

They do most of their business by phone and email, but when they need to be with their team in person, they choose a bookstore to meet in. Those gatherings have helped them create a sense of team spirit. “We have an office culture without an office,” Rao says.

David Hancock also decided to forego a main office when he launched his business 10 years ago. Formerly in banking, he says his old firm spent tens of thousands of dollars to maintain an office. Now, he works from home in Virginia, and all 35 employees of his NYC-based company, Morgan James Publishing, work from their homes. They’ve published an average of 150 books annually, including several New York Times bestsellers, that way. “It’s very virtual, “ he says, “and very affordable.”

Hancock spends some of that savings bringing the whole team together for quarterly meetings at various locales. The business, he says, functions “like a large happy family helping each other. We have a lot of fun with it.”

For ideas on how to build a business culture among a team of people who don’t physically work together, we asked Kevin Kuske. His business sells office furniture, but also has a mission to help entrepreneurs and companies with fewer than 100 employees establish great cultures.

Yahoo! Small Business: What are the ways business leaders can nurture their business culture when they don't have a physical office?

Kuske: First, let’s be clear: You don’t have a culture because you have an office. Space is just another tool in the arsenal to build the bonds and common purpose that goes into having a company culture over time. And you can’t design a culture or make a culture. You can try to shape and influence it, but it comes from people who make up the group or the company, and it evolves with or without the space.

Working from home can be the right thing to do at certain stages or for certain roles, but there are down sides. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You just need to provide the chance for socialization to replace those spontaneous meetings at the water cooler. If you’re smart, you pick the right intervals to come together to build bonds or do particular kinds of work, and you pick a place that sets the rule that you can be yourself or sets a tone of authenticity.

When you pick a location, choose something that’s relevant. Think about the experience side of it—a place to bring people together and build the bond. And pick a location that supports the work. Are you trying to share information or learn something or get a project done? If this is an idea session, you need to spread out with whiteboards where people can get dirty and messy. If it’s about finishing a project, that’s a totally different space.

How can managers keep an at-home workforce feeling like part of a team in between those physical meetings?

It’s all the same things you worry about with the team that’s there. There is always candy and food coming into our space. Someone brought in these delicious salt caramels. One of our team popped a couple into an envelope to send to a designer who works remotely in Monterey, Calif. That was just a quick reaction, but you can also plan for that.

Are there particular apps or technologies that are useful for fostering a culture?

When people get into sharing their stories it helps people across multiple locations, and the platform for sharing is evolving. We used to have weekly check-ins. That’s evolving into public social media networks. In larger corporations it’s an internal social media network, such as jive.

Snapchat makes it quick and easy to tell stories with images and post pictures on a company page. Our employees snap photos if they see someone at a talk that we’ve spoken about or when our turnstone bus shows up at one of our locations. Or you can use a particular hashtag on Twitter so everyone at work can follow a conversation.

One of the more interesting apps as we get more mobile will be iPad robots. My head of marketing lives in Atlanta. Conference calls work great except for product development meetings, when the team gets up from the table and goes to look at a prototype. With an iPad mounted on a robot with wheels, the person on the other end can change the height or view and move around a space with you. I think this is the year you’ll start to see more things coming that will allow people to connect.

Skype, Oovoo, FaceTime, and Google+ Hangout are all great—there’s something about being able to see the expression on a person’s face—but 90 percent of the time the person on video chat can’t hear the meeting very well. What’s always forgotten is that the tech is just an enabler. Put some thought into how and where you set up your camera, the lighting, and acoustics.

What about employers providing furnishings or decor to at-home employees to bring more of a feeling of a common culture to everyone on the team?

If you’re in the physical goods business, you should have some of the stuff in your home office. In our world, there aren’t many of us who don’t have turnstone furniture in our offices.

Also, think about how we come to work and put pictures up of family. Can you put pictures up at home of the workplace? Imagery, objects, or things that remind you of the business that you work for, in a digital or physical way? Go out of the way to make sure your remote workers have something to remember the team by. We use t-shirts shamelessly.

It’s easy to equate these things to a cost, and neglect the benefit. It’s a bad design if you’re bringing on remote workers and you don’t have a plan for them to physically come into the space to meet the people they’re working with. It should be explicit to leaders: Don’t just rely on it happening because you will find out too late that someone was orphaned.

Read our previous interviews with Kevin Kuske about small business work cultures:

How to create a great small business workspace

5 signs you’re in a toxic office

4 office design tips from a workplace anthropologist

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