'Work is a thing you do, not a place you go to'. Perhaps it's becoming a cliché among enlightened managers, but some companies are taking the mantra to its logical extreme: doing away with the office entirely.

One of the biggest benefits of ditching a physical headquarters is, of course, the money saved on rent. Social media management company Buffer shut its San Francisco office in 2015 after finding its rent cost more than marketing, advertising or health insurance.

remote work dean mitchell istock
© iStock/Dean Mitchell

"We just pay for a virtual office which provides an address, a mailbox and someone to answer the phone. If we need offices we hire them by the hour," Andy Clark, managing director of Commerceworks, tells Techworld.

Beyond the obvious cost savings, working without an office also means you remove wasted time spent commuting, he adds.

Other advantages include access to a wider pool of talent (not everyone lives in a big city), plus catering to people who may find it harder to travel, for example those with disabilities.

"I always had a concern that we wouldn't be taken seriously without an office, but in reality our clients don't care as we pass the savings onto them," Clark says.

It can be tempting to mix the two scenarios, but for fledgling startups both Helmig and David Cancel, CEO of Drift, advise you either commit to the whole team being in the office, or the whole team being fully distributed.

If you try to combine both "there are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done," Jason Zimdars, UI designer at Basecamp, wrote in a blog post.

Tips on how to function without an office

Trust is a crucial element to making an 'office-less' company work, according to Zapier cofounder and CTO Bryan Helmig, who has worked with a fully remote team since launching the firm in 2011.

This comes down to hiring the right people suited to working from home – people who can work without direct supervision. It's crucial to have a clear plan and objectives everyone can see at all times, and communicate clearly, according to Clark. You also have to be open with clients and set clear expectations about the business model, he adds.

Naturally, the fully remote scenario only works as well as the technology it relies on. There's no magic formula but the companies Techworld has talked to recommended tools like Slack for communication, G Suite or Office 365, Goto meeting, MinuteDock, Salesforce and Zoom.

There are many, many other tools available of course, and a vast array to choose from for every need you could have. The main point is that in 2018, technology allows for this sort of distributed way of working, from conference calls to collaborating on documents to logging customer interactions.

The drawbacks

Of course, not every company will suit this way of working. If you have to collaborate on a physical product or piece of hardware, bringing people physically together may be realistically the only way to do that.

Having people in the same room can also make it easier to collaborate, communicate and brainstorm.

A less-discussed issue can be how isolating remote work can be. A lack of personal contact with colleagues can make it harder to build up empathy for them. Some companies try and mitigate this by having regular meetups or even week-long retreats.

It's clearly a very attractive option – but relies on a complex mix of carefully balanced ingredients. If you're going 'office-free' for your startup, we'd suggest thinking carefully about how you implement it. If done badly, it can be a recipe for miscommunication and mistrust. But if done well, it can ensure you have a much happier and more productive team.

Do you work at an 'office-less' company? Love it? Hate it? Got views on how to make it work – or advise avoiding it entirely? We'd love to hear from you.