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The end of the office Add to ...

Mob4Hire is a Calgary start-up with a global work force.

The company has assembled an army of 43,000 people worldwide who test mobile-phone software. If you've written a mobile app you think will be the next bestseller, you give it to Stephen King -Mob4Hire's CEO - and he sends it out to his testers, who are sprinkled across 150 countries and possess thousands of different handsets. They'll tell you in days whether it works well on their handsets, or whether it's riddled with bugs.

Testing phone apps is important, but it's curiously hard to do, because it's difficult to tell if an app will work the same on different versions of the same handset. "Software that runs fine on a BlackBerry 9000 might not run well on a BlackBerry 9700 or a Curve or a Pearl," King says.

Things get even more difficult if you want to release a mobile app globally, because wireless carriers often have quirks in their networks that change how phone software performs. As a result, app developers are now rushing to Mob4Hire to vet their wares. After only two years in business, the start-up is testing 50 apps a month, at rates ranging from a few hundred dollars to nearly $20,000.

"Growth has just been explosive," King says.

But there's one thing Mob4Hire doesn't have: a big headquarters to run the show. King's dozen full-time employees all work primarily from their homes, in Calgary and Victoria, but also further afield, in London, England. His team stays constantly in touch, using instant-messaging applications and talking on Skype, often leaving channels open for hours at a time as they work, virtually, side by side. "I liken Skype to water-cooler conversations," King says. "You can get quite distracted by it, but it's good."

They also use Dimdim, a Web-based collaboration tool that lets workers share online whiteboards for sketching ideas and brainstorming.

King detests wasting his time in traffic, so he primarily runs the firm from his basement in a suburb of Calgary. Next to the big desk that holds a printer and computer is a rack of electric guitars and a drum kit. He's recorded several albums in his spare time. ("As soon as we finish talking, I'm going to play a bit," he told me when I called him up.)

Working from home is nothing new, of course. The self-employed have been doing it for years. But with Mob4Hire, King is engaging in something different. He's running an entire global firm - a "micromultinational" as he calls it - without any serious real estate. And he is not alone: Today's start-ups increasingly delay getting an office for months or even years; they'll have double-digit employees and millions in revenues yet still be surfing from a table at Starbucks.

Going "officeless" - or nearly so - is a sea change in business attitudes. It's driven by technological and cultural shifts as the Web-literate Generations X and Y become the driving force behind entrepreneurship. The trend is so advanced that architectural experts think it will even alter the way future corporate spaces are designed, as office-free companies vault into the ranks of the Fortune 500.

Are we facing the end of the office?

Decades ago, if entrepreneurs started a company with several employees who needed to collaborate daily, they pretty much had to get an office. There was no other way to achieve the level of constant communication that a firm needs, other than sitting in meetings and poking your head in your co-workers' cubicles and rooms. Collaborating with employees outside the city - or in another country - was even harder, since long-distance calling was a serious expense.

Beginning around the mid-2000s, that reality suddenly inverted. A new generation of tools began to emerge that gave start-ups free (or dirt-cheap) ways to achieve "co-presence:" a constant sense of what co-workers are doing and thinking, even when they're halfway around the world. "Status updates" - like those on Facebook, Twitter or its corporate cousin Yammer - let team members share insights and describe what they're doing, for everyone else in the firm to see. Chat tools let team members instantly ping each other with questions, and voice-over-IP software has reduced the cost of long-distance conferencing, even with video, to zero. (The birth of Skype in 2003 might be considered the single biggest driver of the officeless movement.)

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