Telecommuting can replace newsrooms

BeatBlogging.Org doesn’t have any offices.

There is no newsroom. Jay Rosen and I don’t even live in the same state. Oh, we do collaborate like mad.

We just don’t need to be face-to-face to do it. The NYU students who work on the project don’t need to be at NYU or even in the New York area to get work done. We can work from anywhere.

We use Google Docs, wikis and an internal blog. We have a modern e-mail Web app like GMAIL to send e-mails and IMs. We use Skype and Twitter.

We use Mevio for our audio files and WordPress for our site. We have Dropbox for backing up our files and could use it to share large files if we needed.

These Web tools have made us incredibly efficient and allow us to run extremely lean. We’re not wasting money on PC-based software or a physical location. Why should we?

In fact, I’d say working collaboratively and remotely makes us more efficient. I don’t have people stopping by my home-office (or a coffee house) bugging me, telling me random jokes or asking me if I want to go to lunch. And I can get work done wherever, whenever.

Sometimes inspiration strikes at 2:00 a.m. Because I’m set up to get work done remotely, I can capitalize on that inspiration.

This all brings me to my real point: What’s the point of a newsroom in today’s era of limited resources? What would you rather fire: content producers (and by extension money makers) or a physical building? For knowledge workers, I’d argue that physical buildings often make us less efficient and always cost a lot of money.

Workers > buildings

Michael Rosenblum and a client got rid of the newsroom. Why? It wasn’t worth the expense:

We had an office for the first station, but realized after a year, no one went there. There was no need for it.

All of our video journalists work from the field, cut on their own laptops, and set their own schedules. Coming into an office every day would only eat into their reporting time and serve no purpose. Not to mention the vast cost of a physical office – the building, the desks, the carpet, the lights.  All unnecessary.

So when we set out to design our second station, we eliminated the building and the office entirely.

Don’t need it.

Don’t want it.

Why do content producers need to be in a physical building? They don’t. Reporters should be out reporting and conducting office hours for the community.

If I’m an editor, I don’t want to see my reporters. If I am seeing them, they are not out being a part of the community. And I really don’t care where editors are located.

They certainly don’t need to be in the same building together. Heck, they don’t even need to all be in the same state or country. Same with Web developers, database journalists, etc. I just want people who are good at what they do and can work with collaborative Web tools.

Instead of laying off employees, news orgs should consider laying off their office buildings. Or at least downsizing them with the idea that workers would show up to this smaller, collaborative-focused newsroom less often.

In my experience, companies that require workers to come in every day to get work done aren’t utilizing collaborative tools that make them more efficient. If they were using Web apps like Google Apps/Docs, wikis, BaseCamp and Web-based e-mail, they wouldn’t need you to come in. With those tools, almost all meetings are obsolete.

Telecommuting is all about mindset. That’s all it is. Many mangers have only known showing up Monday-Friday, 8-5 in the office each week. They think that’s the only way to get work done.

They can’t envision a different way of working. They assume you’ll just slack off if they can’t walk over to your desk whenever they want. They think you won’t be in the loop and be able to collaborate.

You don’t want to work for these kinds of managers. They let fear override logic. They are stuck in the past, when the present and future offer a better way of doing things.

I’m here to tell you that those kinds of managers are wrong. In my previous jobs, I worked in an office. Now I telecommute full-time.

I no longer waste two hours of my day commuting into work. Instead, I can spend that time actually working. Now, if I want to get work done at 2:00 a.m., I can. Also, I can update our Google Site (a powerful wiki-like tool) whenever a good idea strikes me.

Nothing sapped my creative energy like being told that I had to think about work a certain part of the day and personal stuff another part of the day. Now, I can think about work whenever it makes sense to. I don’t work straight through my day and then go home.

No, I work in chunks and then do non-work stuff for other chunks. I’m much more flexible now, and I have to be because I follow journalists all over the world. You can find me doing work early in the morning and late in the evening.

And why not? It’s just more efficient to work when you have work to do, not just to show up for work when you are scheduled at the office.

I’m more efficient now, and I work more. I have more time to work, and I have less distractions. No longer do I feel drained from a long commute, and I don’t waste time traveling to work.

Rethink the office

There are times when it may make sense to meet in person, but we don’t need to meet everyday. In fact, I’d argue that meeting daily makes us less efficient, and a bonus of not having an office is that it cuts down on meetings. Of course, there are companies that will never really need to meet.

Want to collaborate? Use collaborative tools! Meetings are a time sink.

Get rid of the building, and the you’ll get rid of the endless, unproductive meetings.

Here are two options that should save money and make for a better product, while still keeping a physical office space when needed:

  1. Have a smaller space that workers can bring their laptops in for collaboration.
  2. Rent out a space just when you need it for in-person collaboration.

Option one is less radical, but it still saves money. If your workers work from home several days a week and don’t have set desks and offices, you don’t need anywhere near the same amount of space.

For instance, different teams could have different days of the week where they come in for collaboration. During these days, they would have access to the work space, which would be built around people bringing in laptops. There would be lots of white boards and spaces designed around serious collaboration (not around stupid, daily status meetings).

But it would be much smaller, and smaller means less money. Imagine if only 25 percent (or less) of your work force was scheduled to be in the office each day. Plus, you don’t have offices wasting space.

Option two is more radical, but it makes sense. Why not just rent out space once a week for collaboration or monthly or whenever you need it? Why buy or lease a building if you don’t need to?

Simply rent out space when you actually need to meet in person. If more businesses did this, there could be a sizable market for rent-an-offices. But these wouldn’t look like today’s cubicle-filled offices.

Again, they would be built around collaboration. They would be open and filled with white boards. They would have tons of wireless bandwidth, and they would have personality.

After all, if you’re going to have a physical office space, why not have it be something that people actually want to come into? Why not have something that is actually inspirational?

You can’t put a price on happiness

This is an often over-looked benefit of telecommuting. Employees will he happier. Many of us have to deal with huge commutes (especially those in markets like New York, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, etc).

Trust me, no one likes spending his life in traffic, and American workers spend unconscionable amounts of time in traffic. So, why not get rid of one of the most stressful and least productive parts of your employees’ day? They’ll be happier if you allow them to skip that commute.

Employees will call out sick less. Heck, they’ll get sick less because A) they won’t be in the office with other sick workers and B) they’ll have less stress in their lives.

Which reminds me, I’ve never been sick since I started telecommuting. I used to get sick a few times a year when I had to make a commute each day (on the metro), be exposed to germs and sick people and then show up in the office and be exposed to people who refuse to take sick days. My health has improved, and I am just plain happier.

Child care suddenly becomes a lot easier and no longer a hassle for employees. Parents can work and spend time with their young children. If their school-age children get sick, it’s not an issue to find child care that day.

If the only reason you require workers to show up daily to an office is because, “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” you don’t get it. You don’t get how modern, Web-based collaborative tools can make your workers more productive and can save you money. And if you’re a manager, and you aren’t interested in making workers more productive and saving money, you’re doing it wrong.

And let’s be honest, doing things the way they have always been done has gotten news organizations into a lot of trouble. How about we make a new pact right here, right now: We’ll do things because they make sense, and that means being willing to rethink everything we do.