Everyone who works at Atomic as a full-time employee has the expectation of colocating with their team in one of our two offices in Michigan. This expectation rubs against a common industry trend toward decentralized teams with members in a diversity of locations.
To many in our industry, expected colocation seems like an antiquated or uninformed requirement to place on an organization. They say that if we didn’t expect colocation:
- It would make hiring so much easier.
- People would be able to get more done from home, free from the interruptions of the workplace.
- It would increase retention because we wouldn’t lose quality makers who want to explore different living situations.
- Our staff wouldn’t lose so much time commuting to a brick-and-mortar location.
- Our company wouldn’t spend so much money on creating and maintaining a physical space.
Going remote is something we’ve considered in the past. But in looking at each of those assertions in the context of the work we do at Atomic, the way in which we’ve chosen to do business, and where we’ve decided to be, the best decision for Atomic, our employees (and owners!) and our clients is to expect colocation.
It’s true that opening up your talent pool to the entire world is a tantalizing prospect. I can think of people all over the world whom I’ve known and worked with who I think would be a fantastic match for Atomic Object. Wouldn’t it be great if we could hire the best people and not just the best available people?
Here’s the thing: I would rather have the best team than the best people. And I think teams work best when they are in the same place at the same time. Communication is better. Feeling is better. Efficiency is better. Chemistry can form.
But this takes time. If that team is distributed, the team might not form chemistry at all. If it does, it’ll take a lot of time and effort. Way more than just being in the same place at the same time.
Is working in the office rife with interruptions? Absolutely. Are periods of extended concentration required for the creation of quality custom software? Absolutely. Does that mean that work from a colocated space isn’t adequate for software teams? Nothing could be further from the truth.
Interruptions may or may not add value. I’ll outline a scenario I see play out everyday in our offices. A maker team runs up against a really tough problem they don’t know anything about and set about triaging it. As they discuss it out loud, they are overheard by another maker on another team in an adjacent space. This maker jumps into the conversation and shares some hidden knowledge she had about the problem. This new knowledge ends up saving the first team hours—and sometimes days—of time and de-risks the project.
The adjacent maker was interrupted by something interesting in a discussion that had nothing to do with them. They interrupted another team with new information. That information at that moment added maximum value.
Now let me outline a scenario I’ve seen many times on distributed teams. One team member needs time with the rest of the team to evaluate a design solution. That member requests time from the team via a form of communication. Let’s say that communication medium is Slack. While waiting for a response, that team member is called away by some circumstance at home. Maybe a kettle is boiling over or a child requires attention.
Meanwhile, other team members respond with various times that work for them. As team members chime in, there’s a communication lag because the requester is no longer present. The requester returns to find that the rest of the team has jumped into a webex meeting to plan next week’s sprint. Now the requester won’t even be able to schedule that meeting for another hour. What a headache!
Scheduling a meeting becomes one big repeated interruption. This is a simple piece of communication that should be easily ironed out in less than 60 seconds. It ends up interrupting the entire team multiple times, and very little value is created.
Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen very few people leave Atomic because they wanted to live in another locale. A great majority of Atoms who have transitioned away from Atomic have done so in search of a different type of work within the tech industry. As retention isn’t really a problem at Atomic, I think this argument is a non-starter.
People who want explore a nomadic life while traveling the world probably aren’t a good fit for a consultancy for all the obvious reasons. We’ve chosen to found offices in attractive areas with a wide variety of different cultural possibilities. Both Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids are appealing to young professionals from a lifestyle standpoint. We think that work and life in these places is very interesting and can be explored for years without boredom setting in. A low turnover rate and growing workforce tell us that this belief is tenable.
Long commute times aren’t really an issue singularly solved by colocation; they are a solveable consequence of a lifestyle choice. If you choose to reside far away from your place of work, I’m sure you’ve weighed the pros and cons of the consequences of that move. Maybe a long commute to an excellent job is acceptable. It very well could be that a long commute for an exceptional living situation makes sense. If, for you, commuting is toxic, then take a job that’s closer to home. Working remote isn’t the only solution to a long commute.
It’s also not completely clear that commuting is a problem in every case. We have Atoms who actually enjoy a longer commute as it gives them headspace to listen to podcasts, make phone calls, or spend valuable time with a loved one.
Having a consultancy without a home is a non-starter. Are we supposed to set up for a project kickoff in a Panera? I wouldn’t really look forward to asking the Panera manager if we could wallpaper a booth with butcher paper.
Some consultants work out of co-working spaces. I have to be honest–I think most co-working spaces aren’t nearly as nice the spaces we’ve made available at AO. And I don’t have to share a space with my clients and a bunch of random people.
I’ve led kickoffs with remote parties in the past, and it is astronomically more difficult to get people who aren’t in the room with you to stay focused on the task at hand. It’s also really hard to get complete information from people who aren’t present with you when they may have partial or incomplete information.
Many of the incredibly beneficial collaboration exercises we engage in with our clients require colocation. It seems like a huge adjustment to take that space away from a consultancy, scatter their team across the planet, and then expect to be able to engage with clients on specific projects.
Offices give teams a place to make their own. We recently underwent a workplace reorganization in our Ann Arbor office. Different teams wanted to purpose-build part of our space for their particular project. This resulted in individuals in the team becoming much more engaged in the team dynamic and the way they wanted to collaborate together. Different teams organized themselves according to their needs, optimizing for collaboration and a feeling of togetherness.
Some teams at Atomic elect to decorate their space according to a theme having to do with their project. A connected truck project might have a road-trip themed decoration. A resort management system project might have a tiki-bar theme. This sort of thing unifies our teams and honors our clients.
A physical space gives your brand a place to live together with the most important ambassadors: your team. Creating a space that speaks to the values and feelings your brand should evoke is essential to create a brand-unified team. If the team is distributed, you can still create a unified team. But I bet it would be interesting to sit down and talk with them about what your brand means and how it feels. There’s probably a lot of variance.
Really, maintaining a facility is a question of keeping your priorities straight. People are our most valuable resource at Atomic. Another resource is our space. In Grand Rapids, we bought a property where we have started building lasting equity for our employee owners. The new building also allowed us to re-imagine what a collaborative space custom-made for building software would look like. In Ann Arbor, we gutted our office and renovated it around our needs as a technology company.
In both cases, we prioritized people over facilities. No one took a pay reduction because of these investments in our facilities. Atomic continued to make a healthy profit share contribution to everyone’s 401k accounts. On average, Atomic spends 83% of total expenditure compensating our people. We spend 7% on facilities. Relatively, we feel these expenditures align with good priorities for a company of our type.
We don’t think that the value our company and our clients would get out of vastly reducing that 7% would be worth the extra money. We do think that having a great space in which to work on teams is worth that expenditure. We also think our clients appreciate having a purpose-built locale in which to interface with our teams.
I’ll concede this one. Getting together isn’t convenient. Waking up in the morning, following my morning routine and then sitting down at my desk at home for work sounds pretty nice. Very convenient. Maybe I’ll go for a hike near my home with my dogs. At lunch, I can catch an episode of TV. Sounds great. But all that… sounds like a lot of value for me. What about my team members? What about my clients? Is there value in that convenient scenario for them?
It takes effort and dedication to be on a colocated team. At Atomic, we think that a convenient life isn’t something to optimize for. We want to put out the effort to work hard together. We get together every month and every quarter to celebrate together. Isn’t it more fulfilling to do something that hurts a little bit, but is worth doing? I think working together in the same place, at the same time, leads to valuable software products and a meaningful experience as a team member.
I’m curious–what has your experience on distributed and colocated teams been? What’s worked? What hasn’t? What problems have you encountered in both instances?