What It's Like To Work In An Office Designed For Telecommuting

Plantronics’ new office for telecommuting sounds like paradise to some and hell to others. But how is it changing the way the company’s employees work?

Imagine working for a company that has designed its office to encourage employees to work from home (or wherever else they want). It’s not a fantasy for employees of wireless headset manufacturer Plantronics, which recently built a new headquarters in Santa Cruz, Calif. designed to make telecommuting easy. The building is loaded with video chat rooms, quiet "focus" rooms, wall-mounted TV screens for videoconferencing, and enough desk space for just 60% to 70% of employees. There is no assigned seating.

After writing about the headquarters last week, we received plenty of skeptical reader comments; many of you suggested that such a setup would encourage people to become workaholics since work can be taken anywhere. Others questioned the loss of coworker camaraderie. We spoke to a handful of Plantronics employees to find out.

The New College Grad

Kyle Bokariza, a product marketing specialist at Plantronics, just graduated from college. He previously interned at the company, so he knows what it’s like to work in a cube-filled office with assigned desks. But, he says, the new setup remind him of college: "Coming from school, I’m used to in between classes going to the library, grabbing a table, and having a full line of site of people around me. That’s what the building reminds me of—sitting with people, working on group projects. It’s a familiar setting."

Despite the flexibility, Bokariza still works in the office four days a week. He spends one day going to coffee shops to work, using Plantronics’ products and observing other people using them as well. "It rounds out my perspective on things," he says.

The Longtime Office Worker

Before the switch to the new office, senior product manager Jan Caldarella came into the office every day. It was a drain on her productivity; she was constantly waking up early to talk to colleagues in the U.K., staying up late to talk to coworkers in China, and rushing in to the office in between. It’s hard for her to get work done in the office. "People will come by and chat, ask questions. I feel like I’m constantly being interrupted," she says.

Now Caldarella plans on working working from home two to three days a week—a move that she expects will drastically increase her productivity. Instead of driving to the office after her U.K. meetings, she can continue on working without interruption. That speeds up everything, and means that she can talk to China earlier, too. And that, in turn, leaves more time in the evenings for her to spend with family. "I need solid blocks of quiet time to get technical documents done," she says. "My time in the office is now more high-quality time to socialize and meet [with people]."

The Professional Telecommuter

Amy Huson, Senior Director of Enterprise Product Marketing, is used to working from home. She lives in San Francisco, which is, as she calls it, "an ungodly 75 mile drive" from Santa Cruz. This means that she has long worked from home four days a week (Plantronics allowed this on a case-by-case basis before the new office). "This is a lot easier for me. Now people naturally think to make a meeting online, and they always provide some kind of remote access," she explains. "Before, I had become the stealth expert of finding anybody [in conference rooms]. I put all the work on me as the individual. It has kind of flipped."

In the old office, most of Huson’s team members came in every day, and "they got used to having a remote boss." But since Plantronics now encourages telecommuting, Huson’s team has switched to a more flexible working arrangement. "Now that we’re all working remotely and flexibly, I think the energy of the team has increased," she says. As Huson notes, people often work better when they have variety in their work environments: "It’s palpably noticeable how changes in environment and workspace have sparked new interest in the team."

And there’s one benefit to telecommuting more that everyone can agree on. "I think about that many fewer traffic jams," says Huson.

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  • RudyTorrent

    The drawback to full-time, onsite work is the risk of productivity declining due to interruptions like background noise and compulsive meetings.  When workers are remote, calling a meeting and marshaling people into a conference room is not such an easy option to the compulsive meeting-schedulers. 

  • Customer Service

    I would love the idea and fully support this for our industry. We are mobile workers as it is and the traditional environments just do not breed collaboration or creativity.
    Great article.

  • D.T. Pennington

    As a freelance writer, I can say that I haven't worked in a regular office for nearly 3 years. All of my clients are remote and they all seem to understand the benefits of having contractors on their team. They don't have to accommodate me with desk space or a computer, or health insurance, or bother with heating/lighting the extra square footage their office would need if I were working there. 
    I talk with all of them via email or Skype just about every other day. 

    When I do need a focused work environment, Denver has numerous new co-working facilities that have most of the amenities of a regular office without the feel of a regular office. Frankly, I don't know why more companies aren't looking to make their workforce remote. 

  • Karen

    I'm also a freelance writer and work remotely for all my clients. I agree with DT Pennington's point.  I am so much more productive working this way than I ever was when I had to commute to a central London office every day. Here in the UK, I think the main barrier to more remote working is not technology, but the attitudes of upper management. They like to see employees sitting at their desks. I honestly think that they believe that as soon as their backs are turned the workforce starts slacking off! 

  • Carrie Requist

    There is so much sense in designing your company for "location-neutral" workers.  Not only can people choose to work in the environment that best suits the work they are doing at the time (like the product manager in the article who needs blocks of uninterrupted time), but this also allows the company to hire the best employees it can find, regardless of where they live and to retain employees who need to or want to move from the area.  It is very easy to set up an online "water cooler" in a chat window with various products.  People can easily video talk to each other via Skype and hold meetings with WebEx.  What I think is hardest is if there is a central office and just a few remote workers, but when everyone has the opportunity to choose their own environment, I find you have happier, more productive workers who also really enjoy their lives.

  • robjday

    Thanks for the follow up article Ariel.  No better way to silence remote critics than digging into the source.  I'm glad to see this is working for a variety of people at Plantronics.  I suppose the next criticism will be long term effects, but let's just leave that for the future.