Last week, I spoke on a tech in sports panel for the NCTA over at the EMC2 facility in Apex. For those not local, Apex is kind of southwest of Raleigh. Also for those not local, stay with me, because you’ve been there.
The kickoff for the event was at 8:30 am, and since I needed a little bit of prep time, I wanted to get there around 8:00. Knowing that trying to navigate Raleigh metro during morning rush hour has now become akin to trying to navigate Class 5 whitewater rapids on a pool float, I decided getting there by 7:30 would probably be the way to go.
Now, I live in Chapel Hill and work in Durham. Ever since Automated Insights moved to the Durham Bulls Ballpark (come work here), my commute has been a joy. No I-40, no 540, no Durham Freeway, no 15-501. It’s basically all back roads, and my biggest concern is garbage day.
I don’t get to Apex much. So the morning of my talk, I let Google decide from the three or four toll-free options (more on tolls later) to get from A to B. Yeah, I should know better, and as it turned out, not even Google could have predicted that my 32-minute drive would become a 68-minute drive.
And of course, being the super-spoiled backroads Magellan I’ve been for the last three years, I dropped a lot of F-bombs every time traffic stopped. For. No. Good. Reason.
Oh, and then there was also the four-to-five-mile backup on 64 West into Raleigh that, thankfully, I only had to spectate.
Am I right, Apexers?
Anyhow, my point is that this is a bigger mess than I thought, and it’s a bigger mess than it should be.
But toll roads, mass transit, HOV lanes and busses having the sole right to travel ON THE SHOULDER OF THE HIGHWAY, WHERE ALL THE DEBRIS IS, is not going to fix things in the interim. Throw whatever anecdotal evidence you want at me and I’ll just point you to Doswell, VA, a town 90 miles south of Washington, DC and the first oasis in a massive conga line of commuter traffic out of NoVa. It’s also the last oasis before the more drunken-seeming conga line starts for Richmond, VA.
If you work at EMC2, I have nothing for you. In fact, if you work at any of the massive, sort-of-randomly-placed mega-corporations with badges and time clocks and meetings to talk about when to schedule meetings, I can’t help here. I wish I could, because I feel for you. But your bosses will never go for this.
However, if you work at a startup, you have a chance to do something proactive, and it has nothing to do with moving downtown and biking to work.
Despite Marissa Mayer’s 2013 proclamation to the contrary, the era when you needed to have an entire staff congregate in a major metropolitan center for seven-point-seven-five hours a day is over. Long over.
The corporate workday is the problem, traffic is the symptom. Fossil fuels are burning, tempers are flaring, productivity is waning and hordes of soccer parents are perpetually late for everything on their calendar.
You can keep lobbying for light rail, Google buses, blimps and advancements in teleportation, but if you want to fix the problem, you need to attack the root.
You are a startup. You can and should fix things on a dime. But like any entrenched problem, especially one like this that not only impacts your entity, but every entity around you, you can’t just snap your fingers and implement new policy. You have to think about it and do it right.
Here’s how you do that:
Implement a Distributed Workforce, Not a Telecommuting, Policy
There’s a huge difference between a distributed workforce and a telecommuting policy—the former works and the latter does not. A distributed workforce mandates infrastructure to support it, while a telecommuting policy is usually a half-hearted “Meh, we won’t miss you” kind of thing.
Either everyone can work remote or no one does.
One of the reasons we don’t have a telecommuting policy at Automated Insights is because we didn’t start with a distributed workforce (we would today if we did it over) and we don’t have the infrastructure in place for it to work. However, it’s on our ever-growing list of things to do.
We realize we can’t just do this for one or two people or a few new hires. We’ve been there and seen this not work, because if you have a situation where someone has to regularly dial into a meeting, you have to make sure that every meeting has the option to dial in and that the bridge gets opened every single time. This is a cultural shift, not a policy. Even at our still-startupy size, this is not a snap of the fingers.
But at about a dozen people or less, it can be easy to implement. And once you have a distributed workforce, you can keep it for as long as you like and as large as you grow.
Failing That, Throw the Concept of Office Hours Out the Window
I actually learned this from Dr. Michael Capps when he ran Epic Games, where they basically run 25-hours-a-day cranking out and polishing multi-million-dollar titles for the most hyper-critical customer base in the history of business. They have an army of young folks and a smaller army of old folks (anyone over 30 and/or who has kids).
We do too, so we took their program and modified it thusly:
- Everyone has to be in the office for eight hours a day.
- Everyone has to be in the office from 10 am to 3 pm.
- Don’t work past midnight unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- Don’t work more than 12 hours in a day unless it’s absolutely necessary.
- You can and should work from home one day a week.
This works. Kids get to and from school and soccer, night owl coders sleep into their mornings without fear of disemployment, fewer people burn out. Oddly enough, most people chose Wednesday as their work-from-home day, so we’ve learned not to schedule heavy employee collaboration for that day. Other people (me included) chose other days, but again worked it out so they don’t miss a lot of face time.
Failing That, Relocate
Certain people would kill me for saying this, but not every startup has to be downtown.
We’re starting to see the turning point at which, unless you live downtown, having to commute downtown is a detriment, not a perk. And as real estate becomes harder and harder to afford (see Palo Alto), more and more people are going to choose not to live downtown.
This is a reality. Heading off the Palo Alto nightmare starts now.
I’ve worked just about everywhere you can in the Triangle, from the hearts of downtowns of Raleigh and Durham, to dreaded North Raleigh by Crabtree and at the Forum, to the Park both over by the airport side and by the Durham side, to offices bordering the campuses (campi?) of NCSU, UNC and Duke. Even Cary, and once for a little while in Greensboro.
There are plusses and minuses to each and every single location. Some of them you couldn’t pay me enough to do again, but none of them do I straight-up miss. There are advantages to all of them, but at some point you have to weigh the true merit of something like having your startup office within the heart of the startup community against the number of people in your startup who can’t easily get there.
It’s not a great option, but I really feel like we’re a year or two off from Atlanta/DC level traffic.
So let’s not do what everyone else did, because there is no single success story to point to. Instead, let’s think differently about HOW we work, not HOW WE GET to work. And it’s going to have to start with the startups, because no one else will do it until we prove it can work.
I mean, the Triangle is known for quality of life, so let’s be proactive about maintaining it.