We at Stack Overflow have long been proponents of private offices for developers. If you’re really not familiar with our stance on this, you should definitely go over and read this post: Why We (Still) Believe in Private Offices. I’ll wait.
If you’ve already read it, here’s a quote to refresh your memory:
… we give you the space and expect you to find your own rhythm of work. With a private office, you’re in control of your space and attention: you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, and when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. In an open office you’re at the mercy of the people around you: if they’re talking, the best you can do is crank up your headphones and hope to drown them out, and if they’re playing foosball then good luck.
We’re not the only ones who believe this. A Google search of “open office plan” brings up such titles as “Why Your Open Office Workspace Doesn’t Work” (Forbes), “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace” (The Washington Post), and “Open-plan offices add distractions and hurt productivity” (Slate).
Interestingly, despite the growing backlash against the open office plan, the practice itself doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. In 2014 the New Yorker claimed 70% of all companies were using open offices. And just this week Siemens, for instance, boasted about its brand new open office in Bellevue.
While the cons of the open office—lack of privacy, constant distraction, and lower productivity levels—are rarely contradicted, there is one major pro that often drives decision-makers to opt for an open office in spite of these downfalls.
Offices don’t have to be big to be private; four walls and a door are really the only requirement (at Stack Overflow our private offices are 85 square feet). But still, even small private offices take up more space than completely open floor plans, and space costs money. The most common argument in favor of open offices—more common than “collaboration” and “creativity” (which we know are not increased by packing us all into one room like sardines)—is cost. It’s cheaper to build a room with no walls, and you can fit more people into a smaller space that way. If your company moves into an office that’s already built with an open plan, they’re probably not going to want to put a lot of money into adding walls. We still believe that the benefits of private offices for developers far outweigh the costs, but we get it: it's expensive.
There’s a simple answer for this problem.
Save Money: Let Employees Go Remote
Think about it: remote work brings with it all the benefits of a private office. You control your environment, your schedule, your everything. It can be quiet when you need quiet, or as loud as you want to make it when you want music. When my husband is at work, my kids are at school… my entire house is my private office! Pretty swank.
And comparatively speaking, there’s no real overhead for the company.
That’s what, in all of our posts on remote work, we never really touch on. A home office isn’t just better for developers, and for your company, because it improves focus, increases productivity, and supports a healthy work/life balance. A home office is also cheap.
I work remotely for Stack Overflow, and they’ve outfitted me with a full office setup (desk, chair, equipment), which they also would have had to do were I on-site. They give me a small stipend each month to cover home internet or other home office expenses. But they’re not paying for square footage in Manhattan or San Francisco for me to sit in and work. They’re not paying for my air conditioning, my restroom facilities, my lunch, my commute, or custodians to keep my space clean.
Lots of tech companies in particular offer mountains of perks: free lunch! On-site dry cleaning! Ping pong and foosball! Stack Overflow offers many of these perks to its in-office employees. Those of us who are remote, though, don’t really miss them. I’m happy to trade all the “awesome office” perks for the freedom to work from my own home in my own town on my own schedule.
And that perk? Doesn’t cost the company anything.
Cost Savings for Fully Remote Teams
My first full-time remote job was with a very small software company; I was the seventh team member, and we all worked out of our homes in various states across the U.S. The company was bootstrapped and profitable, and part of that financial picture was surely the fact that we maintained no physical office space. Overhead and up-front costs of running a business were drastically reduced, allowing our CEO to begin his company with no outside funding and grow it quickly.
Lots of very large and successful teams in tech are fully remote today. Buffer, Zapier, and Automattic come to mind. Teams with no physical headquarters, completely remote across a wide area (sometimes even the whole world), are known as fully distributed teams.
Buffer boasts that it brings its entire team together three times per year in exotic locations. Most traditional companies working 9-5 in cubicles couldn’t dream of such an expense. But because Buffer is distributed and has a significantly smaller physical overhead than a traditional company, this is something they can prioritize and achieve without breaking the bank.
Cost Savings for Remote-First, Hybrid Teams
Stack Overflow, while remote-first, is a hybrid team; we have a physical headquarters in NYC and two other offices in Denver and London. Approximately 85 out of 300 total employees (28%) are remote all of the time.
Though a relatively low percentage are full-time remote, we still consider ourselves remote-first. Even in our offices, employees have a great deal of freedom when it comes to when and where they work. Some work from home part time. Others travel often between offices. Still others work full-time in the office, but use all the same tools and communication used by remote workers.
Company Office Costs vs. Home Office Costs
Our offices are amazing places to be. Catered lunch every day, fully-stocked snack and coffee bars, and yes, ping pong tables. And all of that costs money. Our former VP of Operations and current GM of Enterprise, Alex Miller, ran some basic numbers for me and found that an employee in our NYC office costs the company approximately $10,000 annually in office and furnishings, and $5,000 annually in on-site perks (commuter benefits, free food, etc.). A remote employee, on the other hand, costs only about $1,000 annually in furnishings and $500 in perks, mainly because they don’t need to feed us, and we don’t commute.
Alex compares remote developers to paying for storage in the cloud: “If employees are in an office, you have to not only pay for space for them now, but you have to build out and warehouse space in advance. You’re paying for empty seats. But with remote developers, you only add what you need as you need it.”
One thing on-site developers and remotes have in common: they all get private offices.
We get that a lot of companies simply don’t have the space and the resources to give all of their developers private offices and these other perks. But if you believe, as we do, in the value of a private office, consider the space and resources your employees already have: their homes.
How do you work—in a shared office space, a private office, or from home? Do you prefer one over the other? Let us know in the comments!