Offices are expensive

Posted to: DEV; Hacker News; Twitter

This is one post where that ubiquitous disclaimer is actually needed: These are my personal opinions, they are not the official position of Canonical. All stated facts are simply my impression, pulled from my flawed memory. I haven’t checked them with anyone.

While the industry-wide battle over whether to allow working from home rages on, my company remains fully committed to 100% remote.

Canonical has been globally distributed and 90% remote since its founding in 2004. But until the pandemic, my team (web & design) was one of the few exceptions.

Many years ago, the head of design convinced Mark (or was it Jane?) that the design discipline required designers to physically stand around whiteboards, move post-its around and lay out large design prints on tables.

Shortly after the fledgling webteam was formed, it was merged with the design team to ensure presentational excellence. As our team grew and our tech matured, we became a significant engineering team. But unlike the vast majority of engineers across the company, we were all based in the London office.

As we now emerge from the pandemic, the story throughout the industry and world is one of workers wanting remote flexibility and senior managers and CEOs trying to force them back into the office. Our experience was basically the opposite:

Despite many in our team remaining attached to the office, the mandate came from the top: We had to try to make remote work. Unless the web & design team catastrophically failed to work remotely through the pandemic, we would not be returning to the office.

Early in the pandemic, before there was any prospect of the office reopening, it was already clear that keeping an office for our team was too expensive. It had persisted purely through inertia; but the cost of the extra premium realestate, the extra equipment, and the cultural distance between us and other engineering teams was too high.

And this is before you even considered the personal costs of the commute and the lack of flexibility for team members.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t catastrophically fail at remote working. Our work continued at least at the pace that it had before, and our team continued to grow, excel and have fun.

Canonical still has a London office. It’s moving, it’ll be much smaller than it was - although it will still be gorgeous I believe. There are still teams that need the office, and it’s also nice for us to have it for those who want to meet there, as well as one off team meetings and events.

The biggest benefit of being a remote team was one that honestly hadn’t occurred to me before it happened: hiring. Previously we only hired those who could commute to London; now we hire from any country across at least 4 different timezones. The difference this has made in our ability to find really good developers has been immense. It was immediately obvious.

The other obvious benefit to working remotely is the flexibility we can offer everyone.

So my team’s, and Canonical’s, experience is that remote working is much more cost-effective than office working, at least in the immediately obvious ways.

There are many other subtle questions about social cohesion, efficiency of meetings, serendipitous meetings, management oversight etc. These challenges I think are really interesting and what I really wanted to write about, but this post is long enough already, so I’ll hopefully elaborate on that more in a follow up post soon.

By @nottrobin