Butts in Seats

I’ve always been a big fan of face-time. Not the Apple messaging app but the concept that people who speak face-to-face are exponentially more productive than people who message in “other ways”. The idea that a group of people working on the same product should be in the same room most of the time. Whiteboarding, non-verbal communication, hallway conversation. In other words – Butts in Seats.

Engineering manager ca 1995

Having said that, I’m also a big fan of Tyrannosaurus Rex, and they’re extinct. Butts in Seats is not yet as extinct as Sue the Dinosaur, but the writing is on the wall. Face to face collaboration can no longer be an expectation.

I do a lot of hiring, and the people I’m recruiting know all this. They know that old people like me want Butts in Seats. They also know that recruiting and retention are two of my biggest problems. So they bullshit me.

“It won’t be a problem” they say, and it isn’t … until it is and then having hired them it’s my problem, not theirs. I had one guy go so far as to ‘forget’ to tell me until after we hired him that he already had plans to move from a 5 minute commute to an hour plus commute. That caused plenty of grief and, as the defender of Butts in Seats, I ended up eating every bit of it myself.

So you hire someone for whom the commute “won’t be a problem”, but they need to do 10:30 once in a while. Of course, 10:30 once in a while becomes 11:00 three times a week which turns into “I need to wfh”. Pretty quickly a job that can often be fun (mine) has this daily corrosive edge to it where you drive in wondering who’s going to be pushing the Butts in Seats Boundary today and how far.

Seriously, what kind of a dick busts somebody for showing up a half hour late when we expect people to be available via Slack from 8AM to 10PM whether they’re in the office or not? Only the kind of dick who believes that a deal is a deal, and who has the support from his boss to enforce it. And let me tell you from experience, since everyone in a startup is a single point of failure, any support you think you have for enforcing Butts in Seats will disappear the minute it threatens retention. Your Jedi Manager skills should paper over the contradiction there.

In November of 2019, in the Boston market for technical talent, there is no graceful way of managing someone who isn’t meeting the Butts in Seats requirement (also known as the agreed upon and totally reasonable shared crossover in-office time of 10AM to 4PM).

What to do about it?  I’m damned if I know.  The tradeoff that seems to resonate with people is availability for flexibility.  If your off-hours time are available to the company, then your butt shouldn’t have to occupy a dedicated space at the company for a company-defined eight hour stretch.

Sure – availability for flexibility – fine. But that solution to one problem – availability – spawns a host of others, accountability, predictability, communication and the ever-popular productivity.

The real problem with Butts in Seats is its primacy – the idea that remote work is a perk that’s doled out to those who aren’t on the naughty list. I’ve managed groups where wfh was a perk, and it worked, but that moment in history has passed.

Butts in Seats is a luxury that startups can’t afford.

If the primacy of Butts in Seats is the problem, Remote First is the solution. Remote First is the organizational notion that online, non-face-to-face collaboration is the norm and face-to-face is the exception. You employ people wherever they are, and ‘figure out’ how to collaborate.

I don’t know how to do Remote First. I’m not even very good at Remote Second or Remote Third, or Remote Only In Emergencies. I hate managing remotes.** But I hate being non-competitive even more so it’s time to figure out Remote First.

** Updated 1/19 – struck through the hate managing remotes line so I can apply for jobs managing remotes.