But other officeless workers argue that working virtually avoids one of the big pitfalls of a physical office: time-wasting idle chat and pointless confabs that people hold just to make it feel like they're doing work. "In a regular office, you have those meetings and meetings and meetings," laughs Ivan Paramonau, a 30-year-old entrepreneur in Ottawa.
Two years ago, he and a partner co-founded Itteco Software Corp., a company that provides instant development teams for firms that need software built quickly. Itteco now employs almost 80 programmers worldwide, and Paramonau thinks they work far more efficiently because they're not physically together. He finds Skype meetings more direct, possibly because the situation is inherently more awkward and less conducive to small talk.
"You drift less, you discount things that aren't essential," he says. For his part, Mirzaee thinks face-to-face time is overrated; most of the time when one of his employees needs to do something that is really hard, they prefer to do it at home so they won't be interrupted.
"I don't think more than two or three hours of sync time a day is necessary, if the company is structured well."
Some of the shift away from the office is generational. Many virtual entrepreneurs are from Generation Y, the twentysomething children of the baby boomers. As workplace experts are discovering, Gen Y holds radically different ideas than their parents about what an office ought to look like - and how work ought to be done.
Mike O'Neill has studied this generation of workers closely. O'Neill is senior director of workplace research for Knoll, an office-furniture firm based in Pennsylvania. In recent years, he has polled more than 15,000 current employees across different generations - boomers, Gen Xers (who are currently in their 30s and 40s), Gen Yers, and even the workers who are a generation older than the boomers. When O'Neill asked each to rank the importance of a formal office as the place to get work done, boomers ranked it highest. They were also the strongest proponents of keeping one's office and home life separate.
This, O'Neill says, is because in the formative early years of the boomers' careers, an office was the only place they could work: Computers and phones were huge and immobile, so boomers hunkered down the instant they got to the office and cranked away.
"Your office reflected your status, and you had to do everything there," O'Neill says. "So there's a lot of heavy lifting that the office had to do for boomers. The unit of work for the baby boomer is the formal meeting - 'Bring on the coffee, and we're going to sit here for three hours and have a meeting!' "
The quintessential boomer space is a large conference room with a huge table, where a dozen people can gather and do deals.
In contrast, Gen Y ranked the importance of a formal office much lower than did the other demographics - and they ranked big, traditional conference rooms as their least favourite choice. "They see meetings as being vaguely confrontational in nature," O'Neill notes. "Why? Because Gen Y prefer to have meetings in short bursts, in small gatherings in informal spaces. The boomers are like, 'Come on, we're going to have a meeting!' But Gen Y is like, 'We already had a pre-meeting. I talked to my guy while we were at the coffee machine.' "
What's more, Gen Y was the most likely to prefer working outside the office. In O'Neill's surveys, 26 per cent of Gen Y employees telecommute, and 17 per cent of them work at "unassigned spaces" in offices, picking a different spot to plop down with their laptop when they drop by. Gen Y also preferred casual work environments like cafés. It is a neat paradox of their generational upbringing: Having grown up in the era of the MP3 player, they're accustomed to wearing headphones to screen out the outside world, so Gen Y workers often head for a public space when they want privacy. Gen Y also expressed its dislike of commuting, an activity that boomers had taken for granted, because, back then, there was no way around it.
Some of the entrepreneurs I interviewed argued that the desire to work officeless reflects the changing relationship between firms and their employees. Gen X and Y entered a work force in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, when the social contract between a firm and its employees - the guarantee of lifetime employment, so long as you didn't screw up - died, and was permanently buried. Nobody expects full employment any more, as Scott Annan told me; indeed, he and his peers began their careers assuming that all jobs were provisional, and the goal was to manage the shape of your career.
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