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Inc. Magazine's case for virtual offices

Jane Berentson

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: The stereotypical newsroom, the way a lot of people imagine it, probably involves reporters writing or on the phone, editors holding planning meetings over by the white board over there, and in general, a fair amount of hubbub. At Inc. Magazine headquarters in New York City last month, you might have witnessed the occasional tumbleweed cross from cubicle to cubicle. That's because the entire issue was created by reporters and editors working from home.

Jane Berentson is the editor of Inc. Magazine, which makes the case for the virtual office in this month's issue. Jane, welcome to the program.

Jane Berentson: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Where did this idea come from?

Berentson: We had wanted to do a story for a while about what it was like to work in a virtual office. And I assigned it to our senior writer Max Chafkin, who then said, why don't we report that story, but also go virtual at the same time. He would report on other companies and also report on our experience at the same time.

Ryssdal: Obviously, you're getting the issue out, so things presumably went OK. But how was it on the inside? You know, what was it like going to work in your jammies everyday?

Berentson: Well, it was different for different people. So I think there were some people who were a bit skeptical before we started it and thought, "No no no. We really have to come into an office. The magazine's a collaborative venture." But one of those people, for instance, decided that why do we ever have to come to the office again, because he could get out of his bed; roll 20 feet to his desk, still in his pajamas; save $300 a month on commuting and thought it was great. There were other people -- I, personally, for instance -- missed the social and collaborative aspect of coming to an office.

Ryssdal: There is that element, though, of social and collaborative work that doesn't work out so well. People pop into your office and it completely messes up your flow and you lose your place in an edit or whatever you're writing. I mean, it goes both ways.

Berentson: It absolutely goes both ways. I know that I do have a tendency to leave my office and walk through the office, making comments or interrupting people. And they're all very good natured about it, but I think there are probably times when they just wish I would just stay in my office -- or excuse me, not come to work in the first place.

Ryssdal: You know, when you hear the phrase "Oh, he's working from home today," there's a little thing that runs through your mind that says, "Oh come on. How much work can you really get done at home. 'Cause the dog has to go out, the kids have to get to school and you have to do this, the garbage is coming... Seriously, really, you're working from home?"

Berentson: I think there's a prejudice that goes around that phrase, because I think that it has been a signal of "no, you do have things to do and you're not really going to work." So you have to take on good faith, if you're going to do something like this, that when someone says they're working from home, they really mean they're working from home. And I would say our experience indicated that actually people worked much harder at home than they do in the office, because they would get into a zone and keep working. And I think this was true to a lot of the writers on staff.

Ryssdal: What about that little bit of extra something, that little bit of pizzazz that comes through a story, because somebody looks over somebody else's shoulder and says, "You know what? Right here, if you said this, it'd be just so much better."

Berentson: I think if one was to grow up in a situation where you were virtual, all those things would work themselves out. So, for instance, we are used to looking over the shoulder, but if that's not the way we were trained to work, we would find other ways of doing the same thing. One of the things we loved was Skype.

Ryssdal: Phone calls over your computer and video, as well?

Berentson: Phone call over the computer, you can see the person you're talking to, you could hold things up. I made people take me on a house tour, and they would walk around with their laptop and say, "Here's my kitchen and here's my living room." And it was fun. But also, you did have that very, well, nice feeling of being together.

Ryssdal: Jane Berentson, the editor of Inc. Magazine, the upcoming of which was produced entirely outside their offices in Manhattan. Jane, thanks very much.

Berentson: Thank you.

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If Skyoe was their "revolutionary" tool(which has been around for years)that they discovered, no wonder there project wasn't more successful. They should do another project and pair there editors with someone in the "virtual" or telework profession and see how much more robust and rewarding their experiment would have been. Something like "Dancing with the Stars". I am starting a new movement called HybridOfficesTM-part virtual, part physical, ALL business.

So, a college graduate, who has spent years studying for tests and doing homework in a noisy dorm, and years before did it at his or her parents' home, then goes to a workplace and is told...no way can they possibly work from home and be productive?

They've been practicing it for years, haven't they?

I think this was a great piece, one that reflects the need of many individuals to have flexibility in their day. In my job as a college Dean it is essential that I have face to face time to interact with faculty, students and other administrators, in a normal day this leaves little time to do essential elements of my job. Working from home is an excellent way for the college to realize more productive hours from me and allows me to keep my door and office open to those that we need to serve.

Key elements to making this work are building trust from both sides and a culture that is based on results and quality vs time served.

CMP Media's NetGuide Magazing did just this in the mid 90s. In that scenario, it was a blend of remote one/two person offices in NYC, SFO and on Long Island, in concert with home office editor/writers in Atlanta and Virginia. It certainly works--a good ensemble of talent can work through most any medium. Kudos to the Inc. team.

I have worked from home for over 10 years. Today's technology makes working from home the wave of the future. Also working from home makes for less useless meetings. My booklet "How to Work from a Home Office" Best Practice Tips is a must for anyone contemplating working from a home office. http://www.outskirtspress.com/homeofficeguru
If I can help anyone don't hesitate to call on me. Thanks for another fantastic article in Inc Magazine.

Is this really all that novel? We published No Depression Magazine from a virtual office with staff spread out in four different states for 13 years (75 issues) from 1995 to 2008. It worked great for us to have a presence in several different markets and we saved a ton on overhead all those years. Along the way No Depression received Utne Reader Independent Press Awards for Arts & Literature coverage, and was cited as one of the nation's Top 20 magazines of any kind in 2004 by the Chicago Tribune so clearly the quality didn't suffer. We went out of print in May of 2008 and now exist solely online and still operate out of our home offices. http://www.nodepression.com/

This story has been long overdue, in my opinion. I have always worked in combination - work from office till noon and then work from home. I find, that most days virtual workers tend to work more hours, not less and produce more than if you work from office. Esepcially when you consider commute times, lunch/coffee breaks, and other social breaks. Which is not to say that there is no value to working together in the same room. But here is where technology has also helped immensely. As she said, skype / cell phones are geat for individuals to talk. web meeting tools allow screen share. there are virtual office tools like sococo that let you feel like you are in the same office and colaborate / communicate effectively. cameras let you walk around show off your kitchen, get on social terms with your team.This is aflat world. Virtual offices are the way for the future.

So . . . Is Inc. going to ditch its real offices and go virtual from here on? You didn't tell me.

Listening to the story of how a company was miraculously able to put together a magazine with its reports and editors working remotely sounded to me a bit like someone talking about how they just started communicating with their customer via the web – where have they been?
I have been working as a freelance technical writer since 2003, having been sent on involuntary sabbatical from my old job. ;-) With rare exception, I have always worked remotely since that day. I say remotely rather than home, as I work from wherever I am at the moment. All I need is my laptop, an internet connection, and to a lesser extent, my cell phone. For several months out of the year, working remotely for me means working while I travel. Since 2003, I have completed work for my clients from 20 different countries. Yes, it requires discipline, and yes, it took some explaining to my clients that I was traveling and NOT on vacation. But in the end, results are what mattered, and I could deliver, even if it was from a resort in the Philippines, or a hotel in St, Petersburg.
Maybe someday, US businesses will realize that by trusting workers to work remotely, they can not only achieve greater productivity but also save money on rent for fancy offices. Today’s professional can and will get the work done, regardless of where they are – with broadband, all things are possible.

I established habits for working at home 20 years ago when I started doing freelance pr work. I soon set up boundaries and parameters -- regular hours Monday through Friday -- otherwise I'd be out of sync not only with the people I was trying to reach but also my other friends who worked a regular schedule. Work would encroach into the evening but rarely on weekends. Over the years, I've spent years working in corporate situations and back freelancing from home. Today I work for a small music publishing company based in NJ -- doing promotion and marketing for their online store and catalog of sheet music. I found the commute affected the rhythm of my work -- having to leave to catch a bus when I wanted to finish whatever I was working on. There are things I need to do in the office but there are reasons (meetings/concerts) to be in NYC. Most of my work can be done by logging into our network server from home (via LogMeIn). So I started to work from home one day and then two or three days a week. At first people are suspicous that you're not really working because they can't see you (even though you can waste time very well in plain sight of everyone). But since work actually gets done and projects are demonstrably completed, that doesn't last long. Actually I work longer hours and in a more concentrated way because I don't have to leave suddenly to catch the bus home. I always respond to emails from colleagues immediately. Our webmaster is in another city so we work virtually no matter where I am. Last month during the snow storms -- most of my colleagues were stuck at home doing nothing, while I was home getting work done! Either you trust your employees or you don't. There are so many tools now -- Ichat or Skype, Google Wave -- there is no reason you can't get the same things done virtually. Lines of communication do need to be established so people in different places can work efficiently. But this can be a problem even if everyone is in the same place. I don't understand the resistance and suspicion to this completely practical and efficient way to work.

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