Future of Work

Gradually, Then Suddenly

The two main theses of my professional career have been that distributed is the future of work, and that open source is the future of technology and innovation. I’ve built Automattic and WordPress around these, and it’s also informed my investments and hobbies. Just today, we announced an investment into a distributed, open source, and encrypted communication company called New Vector.

On the distributed front, the future of work has been arriving quickly. This week, a wave of companies representing over $800B in market capitalization announced they’re embracing distributed work beyond what’s required by the pandemic:

Change happens slowly, then all at once.

The forces that enable working in a distributed fashion have been in motion for decades, and if you talk to anyone who was working in technology in the ’60s and ’70s they expected this to happen much sooner. Stephan Wolfram has been a remote CEO for 28 years. Automattic has been distributed-first for 15 years.

What’s been holding us back is fear of the unknown, and attachment to the familiar. I can’t tell you how many of the investors I see espousing distributed work once told me that Automattic would never scale past a few dozen people unless we brought everyone into an office. Or the CEOs who said this would never work for them, now proclaiming their company hasn’t missed a beat as tens of thousands of people started working from home.

What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t. Those who thought this couldn’t work have been forced by the pandemic to do it anyway, and they’ve now seen that it’s possible.

It was probably terrible at first, but now two or three months in it’s gotten better. We’ve learned and adapted, and will continue to do so. Necessity breeds invention. I promise you if you stick with it, you’ll progress through the levels of distributed autonomy. Over time people will be able to move houses, tweak furniture, buy equipment, upgrade their internet, and otherwise adapt to being more productive in a distributed environment than they ever could be in an office. Products and services are being developed all around the world that will make it even better. I’m so excited about how a majority of the economy going distributed will improve people’s quality of life, and unlock incredible creativity and innovation at work. (They go hand in hand.)

At some point, we’ll break bread with our colleagues again, and that will be glorious. I can’t wait. But along the way we’ll discover that things we thought were impossible were just hard at first, and got easier the more we did it. Some will return to physically co-working with strangers, and some employers trapped in the past will force people to go to offices, but the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies who embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.

8 replies on “Gradually, Then Suddenly”

I would occasionally work remotely way back in the mid-nineties, and that was over dial-up! It worked then, and it works much better now. We just had to keep doing it. There are many advantages of remote work and, to a greater degree, a distributed society. But I’m afraid our governments will never allow that to be fully realized. A decentralized society cannot be autocratically controlled. Keep this in mind when casting your ballot at during the next election.

As someone who has read your blog for years… I find this phenomenon to be so amazing. We too run a distributed work force and it is going even more that way as we expand our business and hire people on different continents. I love what you stand for and always have. All 3 of my businesses have been built on WordPress and I have always admired your values.

Absolutely spot on… I worked remotely for many years, and found that office working was far less productive, unless for specific customer meetings.

There are so many advantages to home/remote working, but you have to keep a routine and with clear demarcation between work/life.
This gets a lot easier over time, making it more enjoyable, and there is so much more technology available to stay in contact by different means.

Some people take to it, some don’t.

Some companies (or their exec & mgmt teams) will find it very hard to implement if they have existed as a highly controlled entity, or mgmt style.

I would say to them, “fortune favours the brave”, trust in your people, and enable them to flourish.
Your bottom line will be rewarded with staff & customer loyalty, reduced fixed costs through less location assets, increased productivity and profits.

It takes time but the rewards are immense.

Once companies work out what it takes to have a 100% remote developer force, there won’t be any need for developers in costlier countries. What value does an onshore resource add? It’s good news for those offshore — lots of opportunity. For those in costlier countries, salaries will be a fraction of what they are today in the next 10 years.

There’s no onshore or offshore, there’s just people and their wisdom, experience, talent, and work ethic. I think the global demand for world-class developers is going to be higher than supply for at least another decade or two, and will result a lot more in wages coming up than coming down. I don’t think the best developers at the above companies are going to have any problems regardless of where they live.

What will be a challenge is management, because what made most managers successful in the past is different than what makes for effective management of a distributed organization. This is why I started the Distributed podcast.

What will go away is “productivity theater,” or things that looked like work but weren’t actually making things better for customers. We need to work constantly to avoid false proxies