Matt has a team of 1,200 staff spread across the globe and there is no office. Everyone is remote working. Twice a year people come together for a couple of weeks, like migrating geese. They spend this time connecting, bonding, planning and strategising. After this, they all take flight again, returning to their home office sanctuaries.
This is remote working by choice, not necessity. This is working from home as strategy.
Lower overheads, higher staff engagement and increased efficiency and effectiveness. These are the benefits Matt is confident the company is reaping by being a 100% remote working company. And given the immense success of the business it is hard to argue against it.
There are lessons here for the rest of us suddenly battling with working from home transitions.
How does it work so well at automattic? What tips or techniques do they use to work from home effectively that we can embrace? But of course, beyond that, what are the implications for work and life in a post Covid-19 world?
Matt is a big believer in the Steven Pinker theory that what humans need most is autonomy, mastery and purpose. In a fully distributed work environment, autonomy is ramped up to the max as staff are free to choose where to live, where to work and for the most part, what hours to work. There are of course scheduled zoom meet-ups and synchronous chat and phone calls, but outside of this, staff are free to just get on with it when they choose. If you want to go for a run at 11 in the morning and there is no meeting set, you run at 11 in the morning and work back later. With remote working autonomy grows exponentially and not at the expense of mastery and purpose in a well run organisation.
What about other important needs such as our need for safety, connection and esteem (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Is this missed when working from home? Sadly, some workplace cultures can often provide just the opposite of this. And many would put some professional firm cultures in this category. For workplaces with difficult cultures, increasing work from home days may actually increase staff engagement, simply by reducing exposure..
More broadly though, perhaps for these needs – safety, connection and esteem – a shift to more distributed working would place more responsibility on the individual to take ownership of these needs and look for them in a life outside of work. In fact, Matt often tells new hires to get a hobby, join a local club or team.
Workplace cultures vary markedly, from nurturing to harmful. The lives of employees vary from rich and bursting with family, friends and activities, to empty, lonely or full of conflict. For some, the social connection a workplace can offer is lifesaving, for others, they could tone it down and do just fine. In any event, it works for automattic, but how? What insights have they learned along the way to help us and our entire organisation work from home effectively.
Many written communications can be interpreted in two ways – friendly or not so friendly. Is this person being kind or not so kind? The social interaction of an office environment can help provide context to unclear emails. At automattic, staff are taught to bias the positive. Always assume positive intent, because this is the most likely intent. So why focus on the least likely possibility.
To reinforce APIs automattic staff are taught to be aware of the emotional uncertainty of the reader and to write kindly, humanely, even to the point of adding an emoji to make your intentions clear. In other words they are taught to consciously deliver non-verbal cues in communications, cues that are delivered non-verbally and unconsciously in an office environment.
To avoid too much back and forth of an email train that is disravelling and becoming increasingly tense, use a circuit breaker and jump on the phone (or audio-only video conferencing).
To work from home effectively, embrace asynchronous communication. Reduce meetings and write more. If people can’t attend meetings have written materials that people can use to catch up and understand what is going on.
Try using a blog as a central hub of communication to connect remote workers, rather than sharing via email. Use the blog for people throughout the company to access key notes, documents, and priorities. Automattic use P2, but there are other tools such as Basecamp. Have a tool for real-time chat, social connection and urgent messages such as Slack or an open source version Matrix.
Poor quality video and audio can seriously impact the working from home experience. So improving video conferencing quality is often a key first step. Use quality headphones with microphones to reduce background noise. Also try a software service like krisp, which masks background noise from you and others (avoiding the need to mute others).
As Matt Mullenweg says: “I’m happy to spread the gospel wherever possible for distributed work. I think it’s better for companies, employees, the environment and the world. There are very few downsides.”