This is a 1st in a series of articles that Soma’s leadership team will be writing over the next year. This first one is by John Bergquist who has been part of the Soma leadership since 2008. John runs marketing and is also the company chaplain and heads up Soma SoftWorks initiatives like Tempus Divum.
May 21st, 2020
It was a snowy afternoon as our leadership team met at a remote cabin to map out Soma’s strategic plan for 2020. One big item on our agenda was the decision to begin testing a partial remote office schedule starting in April. We had no idea that our planned timing would pay off greatly in just three months’ time with COVID-19 lurking around the corner and us needing to move to a work from home option.
We had been planning many items for discussion as well as reports on finances, staffing, and the next phase of what we have come to see as the outcome from a vision quest God had taken us on in the Spring of 2019.
Among the items to discuss was the need for a better workspace for our growing team. In the last year, the local team doubled, creating a loud, cramped, stuffy office. On a busy day, an office that comfortably fit five people now bustled with twelve to fourteen individuals. Most days are filled with boisterous team discussions. On any given day a visitor would be overwhelmed by a noisy mix of game design and art collaborations, marketing decisions, and business strategy. Throwing in just a small amount of office banter and the atmosphere becomes unbearable. Since January of 2019, we had looked at many potential spaces but each fell short of what we envisioned as a good space for our team to thrive and grow in. For me (JB), as the company’s chaplain, I was beginning to witness heightened stress among the team. Was it noise levels? Was it the lack of good desk space and many needing to hot-desk (sharing a desk with others on alternating days or hours)?
With our open office plan, we had to rent local meeting rooms for each meeting that didn’t involve the whole team. Many other meetings were held at restaurants over meals or coffee. All of these add to operations costs.
Soma is a very social community by design. We see Soma, as the name denotes (Soma in Greek means “body”) as a reflection of God’s community much like a church as a whole is referred to as the body. So, it wasn’t that Soma was highly social that bothered me, it was the fact that I was beginning to see signs of stress, even in the midst of a very close community. What was missing was balance. Think about college campuses or monasteries. Great ones have both great common spaces designed for people to gather, eat, and celebrate. But just as important are quiet study areas as well as wooded paths and hidden quiet places where one can think and create. Communities need variety. We are not meant to be thrown together in tight spaces without opportunities to retreat to our own spaces or areas where we can focus and even recharge. For Soma It was the space itself that was evidently not ideal or a match for our culture.
Shortly before Christmas, Soma’s office coordinator Bethany Leslie and I stumbled upon a study about open offices.1 What surprised us most was that the study found that open offices had proven to accomplish the opposite of what proponents had hoped they would. Even now I remember looking back on many giant office spaces I had visited in cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco filled with hundreds of desks. It looked trendy and words like “community” and “collaboration” even come to mind. But as I remember back, something clearly now was evident: Most people in those settings resorted to headphones and chat tools in an effort to reclaim what they had naturally had in offices. A space to call their own, boundaries, and ability to work undisturbed. Worse yet, deep work was impacted and so they would go home worn out, stressed, and frustrated because their days were ending up fragmented resulting in objectives and goals not being reached.1
Open offices first started to gain popularity with Designer Frank Loyd Wright’s office designs.2 The popularity mainly centered around the purpose of encouraging collaboration and community. In my own career, I experienced the open office work setting first at a small scale and then at the same firm in a larger setting where stylish Ikea desks were arranged in a manner that allowed ten of us to be located in a large room surrounded by offices where our superiors all had private settings. Any type of political discussion or conversation was impossible to ignore. It was common to have these occurrences disrupt our deeper work and ultimately cost productivity.
As I moved to Soma I noticed that being in a creative setting lent itself to even more boisterous discussions and noise. Testing a game, trying out a new game sound, whistling, humming and even the smallest conversation caused stress on those needing to focus. Having a phone call was impossible. Even in almost a decade when the office only had six of us, I rigged up a light to signal that silence was required. It sort of worked.. Loud announcements were common when a conference call was needed and other team members unaware had continued to speak. Worse was when the common kitchen space was used for private conversations or conference calls barring team members from grabbing coffee, a snack, or their lunch.
There were even times I had considered using the bathroom for calls and most of us have spent hours in our cars to take conference calls.
We have also twice considered remodeling the space to accommodate a mix of private and open spaces. Each plan fell flat as we considered the cost as well as something just not feeling right.
At the cabin, we prayed and considered the data. It became apparent that it was not the space that was causing us frustration, but the symptoms. An easy and low-cost solution would be to go partly remote; giving people the option to work from home part of the week and having designated office days where teams could come together and purposefully hold critical in-person meetings as well as community time.
From the meeting, we created a plan for best practices, things to test, the technology needed as well as the philosophy behind it. We would begin the test in April.
Here we are: eight weeks into a world pandemic. Soma has in many ways increased productivity, stayed connected, and smoothly transitioned into a partial remote setting. Legally and safely five of our team members have been able to work from the office while the rest of us have transitioned and in many cases, early signs show that we have been able to increase our productivity from home. Our test so far has been successful and we have learned so much from it. We knew that recent studies have shown that productivity increases 3 with the opportunities to work from home but it was great to see this play out even in the midst of a pandemic and less than desirable conditions. It was not how we had hoped to test a remote model but we are so glad we had diligently planned for it in advance. One great benefit has been the ability to focus on my part with the greater community of Soma since we have contractors who work for us all over the globe. Are there still gaps to fill and tweaks to be made? Of course, there are.
We wanted to take better care of our team members and create a work environment that didn’t breed stress for them to take home to their families. We believed working from home part-time would be the answer, but we didn’t know how to test it. We believe we felt convicted that we needed to have a plan so when the time was right, we could try it. And wow, talk about a dive in the deep end.
While “normal” will never exist like it was back during our strategic meeting in early January as we planned and took breaks to marvel at the beautiful snow falling outside, the new normal we hope to return to at Soma is a beautiful balance between work, life, and play. A mix of a home workspace where a break involves a walk, pulling weeds in the garden or a quick nap and the work can be focused and deep and community time in an office that instead of being stuffy, loud and stressful is something we all look forward to a couple of times a week.4 Our cars are driven less meaning less gas and a toll on the environment and budget, our families see us more, and our productivity and creativity increase.3
One thing is sure, we will continue to plan and strategize but not without seeking God’s direction in the midst of it.
We hope this story has been helpful. If you have any questions at all please reach out to us at [email protected]com.
We have also listed here some great resources that have helped us plan for a remote model.
Remote Book. Oh and if you have read this far we have a treat. The first two people to sign up on both of our newsletter lists (both Tempus Divum and Soma Games) AND leave a question about going remote in the comments, will get a free copy of Remote: Office Not Required by Basecamp Co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.