Soma employees during WFAW
For one week each quarter, members of the Soma team take off -- literally. Some head to faraway destinations like Italy and Australia. Some crisscross the United States to visit friends and family. Some simply head to their backyards or favorite coffee shops in our hometown of San Francisco. But we all share a common goal: To get out of the office for a while.
It’s part of an initiative we call “Work from Anywhere Week.”
And it’s exactly what it sounds like -- an opportunity for everyone in our company to work from anywhere they want for a period of time, to help expand their horizons.
The inspiration for Work from Anywhere Week, or WFAW, came from a trip I took to Tokyo in 2015. After a few days of being on vacation, I realized I didn’t want to spend the whole trip being a tourist. I wanted to experience what it is like to live in Japan’s capital, to have a daily rhythm that included meaningful work. I realized that if I timed my flights well, travel didn’t have to be disruptive to the work week. I could leave San Francisco on a Friday night, land in Tokyo on Sunday morning, work Monday through Friday, then leave Tokyo on Sunday and arrive back in San Francisco on the same day. Most importantly, I learned that I could get my most important calls and projects done from a cool cafe just as well as I could in our office, and then have the evenings free to explore an inspiring new city.
I wanted to share this experience with our team, to help them see the world beyond the four walls of our headquarters -- and, in turn, make Soma that much more of a vibrant work environment when we all return.
You might be saying to yourself, "Sounds nice, but what's the real benefit?"
Here’s what Work from Anywhere Week has taught us so far:
Flexibility creates value.
The No. 1 benefit for WFAW reported by Soma’s team has been flexibility. Everyone loves the opportunity to work where they want, how they want. Removing the daily commute to the office and most meetings allowed people to design their own unique workdays. For some, that means starting work early from home, taking a long lunch that includes exercise, and then tackling one big project at a cafe before signing off for the day. For others, it means sleeping in, going for a run, and then having a nice breakfast in a beautiful location before diving into their daily tasks. For me, on my most recent getaway to Australia, I typically worked at one cafe from 7 a.m. to lunch, then headed to a new cafe to work until 3 p.m., kiteboarded until 5, walked or biked Melbourne’s neighborhoods, then took in a nice dinner with friends.
A change of scenery drives inspiration.
My favorite thing about WFAW is finding inspiration in new environments. The calculation I made when developing the idea for WFAW was that if I could be 80 percent as productive as I would working in the office, but find inspiration that would drive new innovations for Soma’s product, brand, culture, or communications, it would be entirely worth it. I find inspiration specific to design and branding by shopping at boutiques and discovering new products. I find cultural inspiration by wandering neighborhoods and talking to locals. And I find personal and spiritual inspiration by immersing in nature and attending worship services.
Freedom boosts productivity. (Yes, really.)
What surprised me the most was that nearly everyone on the team reports being more productive working remotely than working from the office. Flexibility to work however they prefer, rather than a mean average of what works for the group, was the primary reason productivity has increased. Each person can find a way to get into the zone, whether that has to do with location, timing for certain types of work, or simply not having the distractions inherent in any office. Having fewer calls and meetings also contributes to increased productivity. In my case, since I had a limited time (one week) to enjoy a new country, I worked shorter, but more productive, days that focused on big wins. Spending an extra hour clearing out my inbox or doing small tasks became low priorities knowing I could just as easily be kiteboarding the Australian coast.
So how can any company work from anywhere?
Here are a few tips we’ve discovered:
Cancel all meetings that aren’t 100 percent necessary.
One mistake I made in designing the first WFAW was that I initially thought the best way to be productive was to maintain the status quo of a normal workweek. This was a mistake because WFAW is about being productive on personal projects, not usual real-time collaboration. WFAW is about having large blocks of interrupted time to tackle things that can’t be done in the 30 minutes we often have between meetings. Creativity and productivity thrive in uninterrupted time. And I believe both can be supercharged by inspiring environments. And let’s be honest -- most meetings can wait a week. Therefore, all standing meetings should be canceled, unless everyone involved agrees that a meeting is absolutely necessary. If an internal call needs to be scheduled, it can be done ad hoc.
Plan your day (and nearest Wi-Fi hotspot) the night before.
There are two things that zap productivity during WFAW. The first is bad Wi-Fi. The solution to this is identifying dependable Wi-Fi in advance and confirming hours of availability, especially in faraway places. I always download my email in Gmail Offline so that if I don’t have Internet access, I still can clear my inbox. The second productivity killer is not knowing what to work on. A few times I found myself checking email and Slack, which are rarely the highest ROI activities, because I hadn’t identified in advance the most important project to tackle.
Communicate when you will be unavailable.
If time zones, travel, or another good excuse will have you away from your computer during the typical 9-to-6 workday of your local time zone, simply mark that down on the company calendar. Like I said, flexibility is key -- for everyone.
The only downside of WFAW, we’ve found, is that there are some things you just can’t do virtually. For example, if you’re developing a product and need to review prototypes, there’s no substitute for reviewing them in person. If you’re working domestically, FedEx may be a solution for one person, but it doesn’t achieve the same result as everyone being in one room interacting with and discussing the same thing. In most cases this will be fine, but if something truly can’t wait for one week, arrangements need to be set up before everyone starts traveling.
But don't take my word.
Here’s what members of the Soma team had to say during our most recent Work from Anywhere Week:
“Everything seems to be working great. Everyone has been easily available like they are in the office, meetings are on schedule and on time, and work is moving along as normal.”
“To me, it doesn't seem like our whole office is working remotely, which is a good thing. I’ve been having lunch in my backyard, enjoying the weather. I'd like to go somewhere next time! I think we should do it again. Little things like this go a long way.”
“There's some extra flexibility to sleep in a little longer, if needed, because I don't have to travel to the office, hit the gym at lunch, and come home and shower. And I'm free to really crank out work with limited distractions.”
“It’s going great! I like the flexibility and am actually being more productive despite working 80 percent of the time. Some clarity around meetings would help with planning, but for the most part, that's been working really well.”
“I’m really enjoying it. I’ve been getting a lot done and it has been nice to spend time with my family and manage my own time (aka waking up early and taking a break in the afternoon). Jumping back on later time zones can be hard, but I think we can improve that by being really clear on when people are available and when they’re offline on the calendar.”
“WFAW is going great. I think it’s such an amazing perk. I’m feeling ultra-productive being in a quiet, new setting. And have tried to make it as much of an execution week as possible. For me, I think limiting the number of meetings and allowing for zero distractions makes for a rare opportunity.”
“My only recommendation for next time would be to have consistent one- to two-hour blocks that can be reserved for taking internal calls, if necessary. And traveling to a beautiful new setting! Overall, I love it and am grateful we’re able to do it.”