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.

24 thoughts on “Gradually, Then Suddenly

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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

  5. I have 17 years training for this situation. Accidentally. I am very glad now that I made a decision 17 years ago to do ADHD coaching over the phone at home vs at a rented office room. In hindsight it was great prep for a global pandemic:)

    But for people with ADHD, who are more distractible, impulsive, and by the nature of the condition often have difficulty planning, prioritizing and organizing and dealing with overload and overwhelm who are employees, working at home can be sometimes harder for a variety of reasons.

    Give that I think that there are higher rates of people with ADHD in the tech field, see my post Top 10 Advantages of ADHD in a High Tech Career

    I wonder if Automattic has any guidelines or suggestions for ADHD employees working at home?

    Or do you know of any other tech companies that have suggestions for ADHD employees working from home?

    I know all employees will have some problems working from home, I’m sure your companies have general guidelines or suggestions on working at home for all employeess.

    But arguablly people with ADHD may have more problems than most becasue they also have to learn how to organize themselves vs an external boss in a physical location. But there are obvious benefits too if you can make it work.

    One thing I sure miss is working on my website and other business activities things from the coffee shop with the tea, much easier to focus, less distractions etc. Couldn’t coach over the phone from there, but am am very glad I moved over my old non http, not mobile friendly 17 year old dreamweaver HTML website to WordPress and redesigned it before the pandemic shut down the coffee shops.

  6. Working from home or anywhere we choose with a good internet connection is the new normal and nothing new, to your point. If our work does not involve moving physical objects, it can be done out of any office environment. Remote work for solopreneurs and distributed work for employees as well as employers is still work. It is not Netflix and Chill time as some thought it was. Results still matter. We just have more time to focus when it is scheduled in our calendar. Attending scheduled virtual meetings to communicate and collaborate are even more important now. Matt, thank you for pioneering the distributed workforce and creating the Distributed podcast.

  7. When you say “Some will return to physically co-working with strangers,” is that referring to co-working spaces? If so, strangers is the wrong word. They might be strangers on day one, but they soon become more. I am a remote worker who chooses to work at a coworking space for many reasons, but the top one is to spend my day in the presence of friends and acquaintances whose company makes me happy (one of whom is an Automattic employee).

    1. Any work space has people coming in and out of it that you don’t know and didn’t choose. They may be clients or friends or potential employees of the other folks in the space. In a company it’s that plus whoever the company hires.

  8. I’m late to the game of sharing the remote love.
    I’ve worked remote-first for the past five years (and regular remote for 15), initially driven through home needs, but then as a natural evolution of productivity.

    I’ve a strong passion to support the opportunity we’ve now been presented with and make remote-first the norm for roles which historically opposed.
    Your blog/podcast and some good books, have imparted a lot of wisdom and I agree the main challenge is management and the perception they share. Secondary are the set-up costs which are same as any good project worth doing.

    I haven’t quite worked out my playbook on this, but I’m massively motivated to try. Continued thanks for the thought stream

  9. I always thought there was something to distributed work, but never took the leap. Being forced to work remotely has been eye-opening and an amazing learning experience. I think the world will be a better place if companies increasingly adopt the distributed way. It’s very exciting 🙂

  10. I would like to see more people can work from home. The traffic in my city is really bad that I need to go to my office at 5.30 am.

  11. My wife, who is not in the workforce outside of the home, but has watched my frustration over the years with companies who have insisted on workers being on site, consistently asks “why?” and this article answers that simply and dispassionately. I love it. Thanks to Covid-19’s impact, I’m having to search for a job for the first time in over a decade and I am seeing so many jobs posted with “remote until after Covid-19, then on-site” and and I cannot fathom it. Covid-19 and the attendant social distancing that it has forced upon companies has proved that remote work simply works.

  12. I have to agree that it’s coming quickly and as usual tech companies are first on this bandwagon. I think the real test will be other slower moving industries. It will be interesting to see what financial, legal, etc. companies do with similar knowledge workers and probably seeing what is capable now it has been forced. I imagine rather reluctant leaders in those fields but hope to be wrong!

  13. Thanks Matt, I hope you do publish more of them. If you ever do put something out there on remote working for ADHD please let me know, I’ll help spread it around.

  14. Hey Matt! Your vision of building an “OS for the web” is closer to completion. The acquisition of New Vector is a huge step forward for number of reasons. WordPress provides a robust publishing platform and with New Vector’s Matrix – we get a solid communication platform. The open standard and encryption by default is exactly what distributed workforce, governments and citizens need. It’s finally a solid alternative to privately owned and proprietary comm and social media systems currently dominating the globe.

    I’m happy to see that Automattic is looking for developers who’ll be integrating WordPress with Matrix. Beyond built-in web chats I envision things like:
    – group video calls with most active members of a particular blog
    – sharing documents with business partners
    – communication continuity regardless of devices and apps used by multiple parties

    As a person that often stays in regions with slow and unreliable Internet I’m glad that Matrix is stress-tested on all kinds of connections. In other words, it’s massive to finally see emerging alternative to SMS, commercial messengers and business suite services. Can’t wait for the day it becomes a standard.