The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit that manages much of the day-to-day business behind the open source operating system, maintains a small office in San Francisco. Stop by, however, and you probably won't find anyone there. That's because the organization's 30-something employees work virtually. It's like the anti-Yahoo: Just about everyone, including Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds, works from home.
"We really wanted to have that effectiveness and nimbleness of a virtual organization," said Amanda McPherson, Linux Foundation's VP of marketing and developer programs, in an interview. The results have been so strong, McPherson added, that she rarely goes in to the San Francisco office even though she lives in the Bay Area. Ditto for her boss, executive director Jim Zemlin, who lives in the city but still works remotely. "We all work remotely," McPherson said.
Cost was a big initial driver behind the decision to build the organization without building a traditional office and infrastructure. When McPherson and the group's co-founders looked at some of the common traits among successful non-profits -- or any small, lean business, for that matter -- low overhead was paramount.
"Some of these other companies are spending so much money on their office space or on, say, data centers," McPherson. "Then their funding goes down and they're really in trouble."
[ Should employers monitor their workers? Read Watching Workers: Where's The Line? ]
Working from home isn't a new phenomenon, but the recent explosion of mobile, cloud and similar technologies has made it easier than ever to do so. It also remains a hot, even divisive topic in the corporate world. Most recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer reignited the debate with her decision to ban employees from working from home. McPherson noted that the choice may make sense for a large enterprise in Yahoo's position, but she thinks many organizations -- especially hers -- would lose big if they instituted a similar policy.
"We just kind of disagree with that notion that you all have to be in one place to collaborate or innovate effectively," McPherson. In fact, even if budget was no issue, the Linux Foundation would probably still run its operations virtually. "We've just found that this is a really great model to get more performance out of our people, to give them more flexibility," McPherson said.
McPherson pointed to the Linux developer community as an example of a virtual success: "They don't seem to have any problem innovating or collaborating," she said. "There's probably a faster rate of change in the Linux kernel than any other software product or project out there." Likewise, McPherson said the Linux Foundation, which has employees in the U.S., Canada, Japan and elsewhere around the world, has improved its programs and tools rapidly and consistently with a virtual workforce.
Another benefit of the virtual office, according to McPherson: Better hiring. Virtual offices can indeed cast a wider net for talent and hire the best person, rather than the best person in a specific area. Post-hiring, McPherson also finds it's easier to keep talented people around for the long haul.
"One of the best benefits I've seen is around retention," McPherson said, noting that hiring and training are expensive and often painful necessities for just about any organization. One reason remote work can boost retention: Employees have more freedom to make life decisions that might otherwise require a job change.
"I've had an employee who for personal reasons wants to move across country, and by not getting in the way she doesn't have to quit," McPherson said by way of example. "I think you get more commitment back from your employees because you're giving them all of this freedom and saying, 'I trust you to work, you don't have to log in and punch a time clock. I trust you and rely on you to get your work done.'"
An added bonus of successful virtual offices? "Less politics," McPherson said. Her theory on why: Virtual offices require more personal, one-on-one interaction between employees, whereas traditional offices may tend more toward groups -- which can quickly become school-like cliques -- sometimes dictated simply by where people sit in the building. "It seems like it becomes much more political just by [virtue of]: 'Oh, that group has the better offices,' or 'that group gets to use the better conference room,' or something like that," McPherson said. "Maybe this proximity of people builds contempt in a way."
There are tradeoffs -- it's tougher to read body language in a virtual environment or to get the team together for after-work drinks, of course. Meetings are by nature, well, different. But for anyone who has worked in a meeting-obsessed office, even that has a silver lining. "We only do meetings that we need to have," McPherson said. "There might be something to that. Virtual organizations just have a little less of the day-to-day political negatives that I think most people have seen in offices."
Not surprisingly, Linux Foundation relies heavily on Web-based and open source technologies to run its operations, keep costs in check, and maintain high levels of productivity. It uses the Oregon State Open Source Lab in lieu of managing its own servers, for starters. McPherson listed Google Apps as "number one" in terms of mission-critical tools. Linux Foundation employees use it for email, IM, voice, productivity, collaboration, you name it. So while the organization does have systems administrators, they're not spending time rebooting servers or troubleshooting an employee's email account.
Among the other applications that the foundation uses regularly:
-- Communication & Conferencing: Skype, UberConference, YuuGuu
-- Customer Relationship Management: SugarCRM
-- Human Resources: Trinet
-- Project Management & Collaboration: Basecamp, Trello
-- Finance & Accounting: Bill.com, Expensify