Attract People To The Office With People and Purpose, Not Perks

Unreasonable Forum Americas at Autocamp Catskills, New York on October 15, 2023

David Barrett of Expensify is a smart entrepreneur and leader, which is why it is interesting that he recently declared, “The office is dead.”

Unlike most public figures who have picked a side in the remote vs hybrid vs traditional office debate, David actually put his money where his mouth was, and conducted an experiment to see if he could attract people back to the office.

Expensify launched the Expensify Lounge–a high-end space with coffee, cocktails, and nightly champagne sabering, all for free. It sounds like he was inspired in part by my old friend David Weekly’s SuperHappyDevHouse events. In one sense the Expensive Lounge was a success; there was always a line of people waiting to come in. But in another, it was a failure. Here’s what David Barrett had to say:

In practice, the lounge was a place that people would generally visit, marvel at, work for a bit, and leave. They would tell their friends, who would come in (typically around happy hour for a cocktail), they would be astounded… and then leave. Yes, we had a hard core group of daily visitors. But by and large, it was an ever changing group of people who viewed it as perhaps the best place in the city (in the world?) to work – but by no means the only place to work, and not the place they want to work every day.

The fundamental problem with attempting to get people to return to office five days per week is that an office, no matter how nice, with no matter how many perks, is likely a lot farther away than your home office or local coffee shop. Geography still matters, and people who get a taste of avoiding a daily commute are loathe to go back.

When I first started working with David Weekly on PBworks (then known as PBwiki) one of my conditions was that I was unwilling to work at any company whose office was located north of San Mateo. Conveniently enough, David moved the company to San Mateo, and I made the commute to San Mateo for nearly a decade. But in this post-pandemic world, I likely wouldn’t commit to going to any office that was more than 3 miles away from my home.

However, this is not to say that I am unwilling to spend time with people face-to-face. In the post-pandemic world, I value it more than ever. Which brings us to the photograph that adorns this post.

That’s me and my friend, entrepreneur Kelly Kimball at the recent Unreasonable Impact program in upstate New York. Not only did I have to fly across the country to participate, I had to pay for my own flight and suffer through a 2+ hour ride from JFK to the site of the program. Yet I was willing to do so, because I knew that once I got there, I would be surrounded by amazing people (like Kelly) working together towards a common purpose of accelerating the progress of startups that are having a positive impact at scale.

This is a principle that David Barrett understands well; Expensify has been covered in the past for its Offshore program in which the entire company (which is normally remote-first) gathers together in person for three weeks in an international destination. Employees can bring their entire families, and Expensify pays for the travel costs. Seem expensive? Consider that the average cost to provide a dedicated office space for an employee in the San Francisco Bay Area is about $20,000 per year for rent alone; those travel costs don’t seem quite so high in comparison.

And I bet that Expensify doesn’t have too much trouble convincing its employees to sign up for the Offshore program.

When an in-person experience offers the chance to spend time with great people and serves a valuable purpose, it’s not hard to get employees to sign up. And sure, the perks help, but they are merely the icing on the cake. If you can’t justify in-person time with people and purpose, the perks will never make up for it unless they are economically irrational (e.g. “Come in to the office and get a $1 million bonus”).

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