Remote Work

The Power of a Handshake – Why Remote Teams Still Need an Office

People at a party

As remote work gets more and more popular, we have to ask what is the glue that holds companies together?

Your first instinct might be to say “well, company culture, of course!” But how do you maintain a culture in a company that’s globally disparate? It’s hard enough to scale a company culture, but a team scattered across the globe is a bigger challenge still.

When you don’t see eye-to-eye with the people you work with, stuff gets lost. Marissa Mayer famously killed remote work at Yahoo, saying that some ideas can only be conceived by the watercooler. Her solution was robust (and plenty upsetting), but she had a point about the watercooler.

Physical contact matters.

Home Sweet Home

The Toggl office is ridiculously big for its local Estonia-based staff. Out of 34 employees, almost half work remotely from other countries, and their numbers are likely to grow in the future. Also, since we don’t have office hours, most people take advantage of the chance to work from home.

This leaves our office – laid out on two separate floors of a mini-highrise – eerily empty.

Toggl offices look more desolate than Mad Max

This is the office at 2 PM on a Wednesday. Seriously.

While our rent is rather cheap, having a huge office and no-one to staff it with begs the obvious question – is it worth the investment? Especially in this day and age where some influential people are calling for the death of offices altogether?

Overall, we think it is. And for a very good reason.

Having an office is not an expense. For us, it’s an investment into the team’s capability to work together. Coming back to the watercooler concept, it’s true that there are certain ideas that can only emerge during people’s face-to-face interactions. Bouncing ideas within earshot of other people allows for moments when somebody you perhaps wouldn’t have thought to turn to for advice, can randomly inject new life into a bogged concept.

Remote communication tools simply cannot facilitate those acts of random benefit. Not even the almighty Slack.

But it’s not just about creativity and cooperation. It’s also about building a strong company culture. And company culture relies heavily on “affective trust” – trust not based on competence and reliability, but on feelings.

Take a second and look at that empty office picture above – that picture says “you don’t need to come to the office”. Now look at the cover picture – that one says “people come anyway.”

And they come for “the feels”. They come for the culture.

Balancing remote and local

The bottom line is this – you need a physical meeting ground, a tangible nexus for all your people. Going 100% remote for project based work makes perfect sense, but if you’re building a legacy, you’ll need to start with the foundation.

Bouncing people around the globe every month would be a waste of money and energy, but we bring our people in to meet each other as often as we can. In April, we had a week long teamwork challenge in Tel Aviv. In August, we’ll meet again to celebrate the end of the summer season with a bonfire on a beach on one of the Estonian islands.

Somewhat more frequently, our remote team members fly in individually to spend a week at the office.

“You can post your values on Google Docs, but culture can only be fostered by people.”

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We’re fortunate enough to have resources for these occasional bigger meetups. But even the smaller meets cost money. But it’s an investment we see as absolutely necessary for keeping our company culture alive. You can post your values on Google Docs, but culture can only be fostered by people.

The nexus, and the incubator for that culture is our office.

I am not suggesting that everyone should copy our specific model. What’s important here is the core idea of investing in handshakes. When and how is subject to individual conditions.

It’s about time we abandon the Fordist idea that the objective of work is to sit at the office for eight hours. The growing trend of remote work is a sign of this. And the benefits of remote work, particularly for tech companies, cannot be ignored.

But as we move into this new paradigm, we have to remember that those valuable “are you thinking what I’m thinking” moments start with eye contact.

Do you think the office deserves a chance? Share this article on Twitter!

Need tips on how to handle remote work? Here’s what our American support team member Elise has to say about her experience.

June 11, 2015