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Automattic Future of Work

Coronavirus and the Remote Work Experiment No One Asked For

“We’ll never probably be the same. People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way. Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

Jennifer Christie, Twitter’s head of human resources, in BuzzFeed News

This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold.

It has been a challenging time around the world—from how we live our daily lives to how we keep our kids safe in schools and our family members healthy in assisted living communities and hospitals. 

And then there’s how we work. Seattle (and all of King County in Washington State) is encouraging companies to have their employees work from home. Given that Automattic is already distributed, we’re receiving requests from the press and other companies about how to navigate what is turning into a massive global work-from-home experiment. 

It’s not ideal on any level. Even at a remote-friendly company like Automattic, we rely on in-person team meetups and conferences to strengthen our connections and get work done. For now, we’ve canceled all work-related travel.

But as the BuzzFeed story notes, this might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility. Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick. 

Or even when you’re sick yourself. How many people in America go into an office even when they’re feeling under the weather, because of pressure from the company or managers, or because their sick days come out of their vacation days? This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work. 

For those asking for tips, my Distributed Podcast has a wealth of advice and stories about how we operate. But here are four good ones to start with: 

  1. Operate as if everyone works from different time zones, because one day they might. This means more communication, likely written, that is accessible to people even if they can’t attend a specific meeting or be in a specific place. If you can minimize the number of real-time meetings, do so. Embrace asynchronous communication.
  2. If you are hosting a real-time meeting, improve the audio (and video) quality. Don’t use conference call lines with grainy phone audio. Sign up for Zoom, which allows for crystal clear audio calls or videoconference chats. Make video participation optional unless it’s planned well in advance. Record these calls so folks who can’t attend can catch up on what they missed. Everyone must use good headphones with mics (I love Sennheiser) to minimize external noise. Krisp.ai is also cool. Need a quiet place without distractions? Try a parked car or a closet.
  3. We use our own WordPress blogs, called P2, instead of email as our central hub of communication so people throughout the company can access every team’s long-form notes, documents, and priorities. We’re bloggers by heart, so we blog a lot. There are other similar tools, like Basecamp. Make it your new office.  
  4. We also use Slack for real-time chat, social connection, and urgent conversations. Check out Matrix for an open-source, distributed version. Use it to chat and connect with your colleagues, but don’t let it replace your long-form planning notes in No. 3. Also create an etiquette that doesn’t force people to become chained to it all day and all night. When you ask a question in DM, do not expect that person to respond immediately, and ask your question upfront. Never write “got a sec?” and let it hang there.

The truth is, there are a thousand ways to do remote work, but it starts with committing to it at all levels of the company. If you assume positive intent and place trust in your coworkers and employees—knowing that if they do great work in an office they can do great work anywhere—then you will all succeed. 

20 replies on “Coronavirus and the Remote Work Experiment No One Asked For”

Thank you Matt, Your initiative towards remote distributed work is awesome. You always sharing your thoughts, support to whole World to move towards distributed work either with podcast, good post like this and many more way. I am sure you will find more positive way to share across globe to take remote distributed way in many more area apart from work with help of Automattic global team technical ideas. You and your team always doing outstanding to make whole world more awesome through idea and technology. Thank you for connecting whole world using WordPress community.

Came to the blog through Kevin Roose’s NYT article and I see both sides: we do need flexible options and working in an office can be fraught with challenges (right now, 4 of my colleagues in our open-office plan are eating smelly lunches and talking at the top of their voices which is why I abandoned work and started reading blogs) but I would miss the creativity, fun and simple human contact one gets in the oft-maligned office environment.

Hi, Matt. I hope you’ll also consider publishing a post about the intentional approach to culture at Automattic. I think other organizations dealing with this period of social distancing would find it helpful. Aside from how to work remotely, I think y’all have a lot of insight to share on how to support your humans when their situations require flexibility at work. Thanks!

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