On Creating a New Workplace Standard
Listen as Robin’s Zach Dunn chats with Dave Witting, partner at Rocket Insights, about reimagining how we approach work. Witting talks about clubhouse models, his own experience with implementing new work strategies and why trying to go back to pre-pandemic schedules is not going to work.
Dave Witting: I've seen a lot of stuff published about the changing nature of work, and a lot of stuff talks about furniture configurations, or how to make the space more adaptable. But in a lot of cases they're still talking about this hub and spoke model. And I like the fact that we're going to go a little further than that and just say, "Forget it, we're blowing up the model, and we're going to try something very different."
Zach Dunn: Welcome to In The Works, a podcast with people who are building what the next era of work in the workplace looks like. Me, I'm Zach Dunn, founder and head of customer experience at Robin, a workplace software company in Boston. This episode, I talked to Dave Whiting, he's a partner at Rocket Insights, which is a digital agency. And Dave shared his approach to rethink offices as clubhouses. What are those? Listen in and find out. You now lead up a large squad of folks over there at Rocket Insights. And first of all, what is it that you do all day at Rocket? And how is that collaborative environment that maybe started in the animation days carried through to your workplace today?
Dave Witting: Well, Rocket first and foremost, we are a software agency and we build custom apps and custom websites for a bunch of different clients, right? So we are a contract software agency. We were founded by four friends. I'm one of the four, Josh, Ashley and Jesse are the others. And basically we're all SaaS people that left the SaaS world behind and we started an agency, so that's basically how we began. Presently we're about 230 people just Rocket around the world, most of which are in Boston. And about two years ago, we sold the company to a Dutch firm called Dept, D-E-P-T. And they're based in the Netherlands and Depth is probably about 2000 people, and so that's Rocket at a glance. To answer your question, if you look at Rocket, we don't have sales people. We don't really have any lawyers, or... We have one marketing person, it's a traditional agency just filled with makers, engineers, and designers who make stuff for other people.
Dave Witting: And so I think there's a parallel there. With the beginning of my career in animation in that I've always liked to be surrounded by makers, I wish I had that talent. And I love the idea of having environments that encourage work while balancing productivity and fun, right? And so I think that is a through line, it's just that in the beginning of my career it was a bunch of artists making cartoons. And now later in my career, it's a bunch of engineers building software but it's a similar dynamic.
Zach Dunn: You probably face a problem that a lot of our audience does as well, and that is when you have a lot of this workforce that's doing this creative work or maybe work that can be done focused, looking at a screen and maybe doesn't require that you're in meetings all day. Those are the sorts of folks that may lean towards working from home a lot more than working in an office. So I guess, first of all, does that sound familiar? And too, how have you dealt with that?
Dave Witting: We said, "You've got to be on site two days a week, the rest of the week. If you want to be home, great. If you want to come into our office, great. No problem." And that was pre COVID and that worked well, right? That was a competitive advantage to us, that flexibility, it fit the business we're in, it worked pretty well. And it allowed folks to balance client facing time and focus time. Also, I'll add pre COVID, we very much had a hub and spoke model to our office strategy, where we had the giant office in Boston and then a bunch of satellite locations outside of that, that were either smaller offices that we rented or just like WeWork setups, right? So that was all pre COVID.
Zach Dunn: Now, when you say small, I got to ask because we have a wide range of folks that will probably end up hearing that. And how many square feet are we talking about?
Dave Witting: So the Boston office was about... call it 5,000 square feet. And that was what we considered to be the big office, which I know is not big for everyone, but for us it was. And then the smaller offices were more like two to 3000 square feet, whether that be private office within WeWork or something that we rented privately, that was the setup we had pre COVID, central spot, people coming in and out all day and then a bunch of smaller offices, when we hit critical mass in other areas.
Dave Witting: So that's what we had pre COVID. It worked great. It worked for five years perfectly fine. COVID hits and basically what we found was we did a poll of our employees and we said, "Okay, how many of you are coming back to the office?"
Dave Witting: And we said, "We don't quite know if we're going to have the requirement to go onsite to the client twice a week, because we don't know what our clients are doing yet, but just forget that for a moment. How many of you are coming back to the office and how many of you are going to stay at home?" And basically 20% said, "Oh my God, I can't wait to go back to the office. I'm going to be there every day." And then 20% said, "I am never coming back to the office again." And then basically the remaining folks that remaining 60% said, "I'm coming back, but it's going to vary between one to three days a week, and I may not be there the whole day."
Dave Witting: And so I suspect that this is a common issue that a lot of companies found themselves in post COVID, we were like, "Great, how the heck we know what to do with the folks, the 20% that are coming back, we know what to do with the 20% that are staying home." How the heck do we accommodate 60% of the people that said, "I'll come in somewhere between one to three days for some amount of time." How do we plan for that?
Zach Dunn: With those 20 percents on either, "Hell no, no more office for me. Thanks. I'll live off the land on my couch." And then the other side being, "I'm maybe tired of having coworkers and family members that are one and the same." Did you notice any trends of demographics or what sorts of people fell in there? Or was it just all over the place?
Dave Witting: There are some trends that we noticed. Personality type and life stage influenced the response. I'm a father of two kids who are older. I don't think it's any surprise that a bunch of folks that had younger children are like, "Oh my God, I need to come back to the office just to have a quiet spot to work because my house is in chaos right now." Right? So that was a clear demographic, or we had a bunch of folks that had a tough commute, that was the other obvious one and what it really showed us is it's funny for the 20% of the folks that said, "I am not coming back." It wasn't that the office was too loud. It wasn't that they didn't like the office. It was actually quite the opposite. They liked being in the office, but the commute was killing them. And so there were definitely two trends there of like, "Oh, it's not the office that you're sick of. You're sick of sitting on route one and the hour drive into Boston and the traffic, that's what you're sick of." Got it.
Zach Dunn: Were people trying to find work that they could bring with them to the office? Or was it more of just like, "I know I got to be there out of obligation or just because I haven't been in a while?"
Dave Witting: We're a services business that said, "Hey, if Bose has hired you to do something, you should be in their offices two days a week to sit alongside their engineers." So there was a practical piece to it. But what we found for the folks with the long commutes, and I'm included in this cohort, we all moved away to have a certain quality of life at a certain price point that required a long commute, right? And I remember tallying up the amount of hours I spent on the train versus the amount of hours I spent with my sons, and it was a grim realization that my commute was far too long, but it's something that I had to do to make the economics work. And so I think a bunch of people broke at COVID on that piece. They were unwilling to continue to make that investment.
Zach Dunn: Facing all of this seems like a lot of people had this wake up call like, "Hey, what is my commute worth to me? What do I actually want the office for?" What did you do?
Dave Witting: So first we had the realization. First things first, one of our competitive advantages as a company was we offered a tremendous amount of flexibility. We were hybrid from the start, very comfortable with it and very open to it. And so that was a competitive advantage in hiring in a tough talent market that disappeared, that advantage went away. Then we had this weird realization, some people are comfortable, some aren't, most are coming back in this weird... couple days, I don't know how long mode, so how do we accomplish that? And we also realized it wasn't the office people hated, it was the commute. And so where we landed and we're in the middle of doing this and we'll see how well it works. We had done the traditional hub and spoke model that I mentioned, big central office in the city, everyone comes in and then maybe we have spoke offices in other locations as needed, right?
Dave Witting: And that's basically what everyone did for a while. And so we basically said, "Forget it. We're not doing the hub and spoke model anymore. We're going to just do spokes with no hub." And so what we decided, we call this the clubhouse model. I've seen a few others use the term, but we basically said, "Okay, we're just going to have smaller offices that are close to where we have collections of people, close to where people live and we're going to intentionally create these smaller, warm, personable offices that are part of a community, that are close to where someone lives to basically support our staff who actually do want to come back and how often they come will vary," but they all hate the commute and their needs have changed.
Dave Witting: So we basically said, "Okay, forget the hub and spoke. We're just going to do spokes." And then it became a matter of figuring out, "Okay, where do you put the folks?" And I will say, not toot our own horn, but I've seen a lot of stuff published about the changing nature of work in hybrid workplaces and that type of thing. And a lot of stuff talks about furniture configurations or how to make the space more adaptable. But in a lot of cases they're still talking about this hub and spoke model and I'm proud, and I like the fact that we're going to go a little further than that and just say, "Forget it, we're blowing up the model and we're going to try something very different." And so we'll see, it may be a failure, but we are in the process of doing this and it feels right so far.
Zach Dunn: If it's a failure and I really don't think it would be, it would at least be a cool failure and people would learn from it, yourself included, right? Pretty rad, right? So across these 200 some odd people, concentrations of them living in various parts of Eastern seaboard here in the US. And you've basically gone out and found locations that can support, what? A dozen of them at a time. And tell me a little bit more about that.
Dave Witting: Yeah, sure. So we look for areas where we have ideally 15 people in that area. Sometimes it's a little under, but never over if we can help it. And we're still learning the exact metrics, but that's basically what we're starting with. And a lot of this, besides the logistics of it, was the math. When we originally started the agency, we started in NewburyPort, which is a small seaside town, about an hour north of Boston. And we started there because all four of us lived in that area and it was just selfish. We just wanted-
Zach Dunn: You didn't want the commute. I get it.
Dave Witting: No, we didn't want the commute. Right. And it's funny, even as we grew to 230 people, NewburyPort still had the best feel to it, it was still everyone's favorite office. And we thought about, "Why is that?" And what we came to is, oh, it's basically warm and welcoming. It's a regular group of 10 to 15 local employees who have a good community bond. It's in the middle of downtown, it's literally between the orthodontist and the ice cream shop, there's kids running around everywhere. It feels like a clubhouse versus a cold and personal office, even as we invested more time and energy into the central hub, this one still felt the best for everyone that visited.
Dave Witting: And we basically said, "Okay, let's try to replicate that." And it's funny, I recently took my son to college in Boulder, Colorado, and I was walking down the main street of Boulder and it's like, "Oh, here's the puzzle shop and the toy store and the bookstore, and the ice cream shop." And then like, "Here's Salesforce, here's Twitter, here's VMware."
Dave Witting: And I remember just stopping and looking at it and was like, "Son of a gun, if Marc Benioff is putting a little clubhouse in the middle of downtown Boulder, which I bet is a blast to work out of, there's no reason we all can't do this." I had that epiphany of, geez, everyone loves Newburyport. They love it because it's small. It's the usual gang of regulars. It's part of the community, the rent's way cheaper than Boston. Why are we doing a central hub that no one wants to travel to? Let's just do a bunch of these folks. And there's a bunch of people that are doing this, I think there's something there.
Zach Dunn: With these clubhouses, are they basically the same but in different locations with a slightly different brand feel? Or have you found that the people in those areas have different types of work to do and therefore the clubhouse, you have to design it a little bit differently, more conference rooms, fewer desks, things like that.
Dave Witting: There is obviously a baseline of commonality to have a professional office for the type of work we do that is required, right? But that stuff is boring. So there is a baseline, right? And it's the same that anyone else would have. Where they differ and this is intentional is, "We're giving each office something special that is unexpected and just silly or goofy as a way to entice people to come visit."
Zach Dunn: Tourist traps. You're describing tourist traps. Okay.
Dave Witting: Newburyport, it used to be a church. It was a Christian Science Church. We took over the whole building and in the church's basement, we built a tiki bar. And so we'll put aside whether or not that's a good idea, but-
Zach Dunn: We'll hear in the comments.
Dave Witting: We have a badass full tiki bar in the basement with secret doors and a lightning storm and tons of cool stuff and it's awesome, right? And in the Salem office, we're building a vintage arcade and in the Portland office we've got this fishing thing planned and each office will have something that has no utility, is just fun and silly because one of the things we are concerned about is having fragmentation or even competition between us and-
Zach Dunn: Well, let's go deeper on that because that's, I think, one of a couple places that I think someone hearing this idea for the first time might go, "Well, wouldn't that create tribes or..." How do you make sure that doesn't cause you to end up with a dozen different mini companies that don't feel part of a connected hole?
Dave Witting: Yeah. Totally, that is definitely one of the risks we're mindful of, we could create tribes with each office. We could create clicks, and especially if you have competitive colleagues, that is definitely a risk. So we're going to try to guard against this in a couple of ways. The first thing that we're doing is we're making sure that all company communications happen in Slack, right? So every announcement, all hands, any chit chat or banter, that all happens in general channels that cross offices, right? We still do have office specific channels and all the office channels are open to everyone else, they're not closed.
Dave Witting: And so that's one way we're trying to guard against clicks. The second is that we have hosted open house parties in each of the offices. So there's a bed race in Newburyport, and it's just like this local little silly bed race. We invited everyone to come up and had drinks and food and these little giveaways, and everyone came in and then the last piece is what I mentioned, we have the tiki bar, we created this job of layer in our fireplace. We have a working ghost in one office.
Zach Dunn: I'm sorry. You're going to need to pause on that one, a working ghost.
Dave Witting: Yeah. So when we-
Zach Dunn: Dave have you taken life? Is there an issue here that we need to... Are you describing crime?
Dave Witting: Not yet. But...
Zach Dunn: Okay, cool. You can be driven there. Okay, great. If this goes poorly, we'll see you on the local news. I got you.
Dave Witting: So when we moved into this building the day we were closing, the previous tenant was like, "Oh, by the way, just to tell you the place is haunted." And we're like, "What? It's haunted." And like, "Why are you telling us this now?" And so long story short, we hadn't seen the ghost. So we have a bunch of engineers who were like, "Well, we better build a ghost through some-"
Zach Dunn: It's an amenity you all promise the ghost.
Dave Witting: I won't play with the exact details, but through some combination of a projector and a raspberry pie and some coding, at 1:03 in the morning every night this ghost floats across the front facing windows of the office for any poor drunken passer by that happens to stumble across it. So yeah, we built a ghost.
Zach Dunn: There's probably more flavors of workplace out there that companies can make a decision on, try and it will attract probably people that are like-minded on that. And I'm interested to see if you see that too.
I'm not suggesting the clubhouse model is the only model. There is no shame in sticking with a central hub or doing something else or ditch in the office, right? There's large-
Zach Dunn: Yeah. Fully remote.
Dave Witting: Yeah. Fully remote, go for it. I would just encourage everyone to be intentional about that decision. Don't just stick with what you've always done because the change has happened, right? COVID has forced us all to rethink it. So just take a minute and think about if you've always done a hub and spoke model, is that still appropriate for your team? And when was the last time you asked their opinion? And I think if you just answer those things and the answer is still, "Well, we should do a central hub in New York." And totally cool. But if you haven't asked those questions, you might want to.
Zach Dunn: We find that some of the most successful folks are realizing, "Hey, we've hired half of our company since this whole thing began, they aren't familiar with an office and if we invited everyone into the office on the same day they wouldn't fit. And somehow that doesn't stress me out, why?" And I think that's the workplace mindset that is allowing, I think some of this experimentation, knowing that the model's already broken. So why not play with it?
Dave Witting: Totally. But one other thing I just... The risk of selling a shell for Robin, our biggest expense is payroll, right? People. Our next biggest expense is office space. There's a big financial difference between planning for X amount of square footage versus Y amount of square footage. The amount of people who plan to be in the office, how long they plan to be there, how they intend to use it. There's a giant price variable we're seeing now at least in our org where it's like, "Wow, we were optimizing for this many people per week and that has changed radically." And our costs have gone down as a result or they should, we're in the middle of doing business, right? But the point is that the thing that I like about Robin is like, "I'm going to get a bunch of data that's going to tell me how much I really have to spend on offices, and my hunch is it's a lot lower than spending today."
Zach Dunn: I hear in that story and what we hear a lot is folks are realizing that certain decisions that they used to make on a annual basis, or maybe once a decade, they now have to be able to analyze and make decisions about their real estate, their office, their workforce on a week to week if not monthly basis. So the iteration speed has changed and that's a good thing, but only if you're paying attention and you can actually respond to it.
Dave Witting: And you have the leverage to make changes. But yes, I think that is true but whatever your decision, we don't have that data really. We have key cards so we know who comes in every day. So we have some data, but how they're using the office and what aspects of the office they're using and how long they're staying, we really haven't had that data. And so that to me is still interesting because who knows, maybe we find out like, "Oh my God, we need another office that we didn't budget for and blah, blah, blah." But just to base decisions on real time data versus just winging it on assumptions, feels like a good move.
Zach Dunn: What has you excited about the future, especially as it relates to the workplace?
Dave Witting: The first reason I'm excited is I get to build a bunch of cool environments that are funky and cool and close to where people live, and personally that's going to be very satisfying. The next thing that I'm really excited about is it opens up the talent pool, right? We have a bunch of colleagues in Croatia. We have a bunch of colleagues in Argentina. We've been working with them for years. They are amazing. And the ability to open up further across the world and further across the United States, super excited to do that. The last thing I'll leave you with is a quick personal story. I was working at a SaaS company, the height of my career there, and I lived about an hour away and I had to leave at 04:00 o'clock every day to catch the train and I worked like a madman.
Dave Witting: I worked 24/7, but I just physically had to get on the train to get home in time for dinner. And I remember my boss there at the time who was old school, he pulled me aside and he was like, "You leaving to go catch the train at 04:00 o'clock is hurting your career." And I was like, "Well, that may be true, but it takes me an hour and a half to get home and it's the only time I can make it for dinner and see my kids, and I'm still on every night. And so it's just something I have to do." I am psyched that that conversation shouldn't ever happen again.
Zach Dunn: Links to Dave Rocket Insights and all of their work can be found in the show notes. If you want to learn more about the work I'm doing, go to robinpowered.com. I'm Zach Dunn. Thanks for listening and see the next episode of In The Works.