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:
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.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Harris, author and host of the Making Sense podcast, for a wide-ranging conversation. Given the moment we’re currently living through, we naturally touched on the way companies are adapting to a new reality — one where remote work is a model to which they must adapt in a matter of days, rather than years.
As I mentioned to Sam on the podcast, “any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond after this current crisis has passed.” It’s a moral imperative. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces are getting right now is one that inspires them to keep trying.
To make sense of this journey — from a company’s cautious exploration of remote possibilities to a fully realized distributed experience — I like to think of how it plays out through the concept of levels of distributed work, which I modeled after self-driving car levels of autonomy. I’ve seen some solid recaps of my conversation with Sam from Steve Glaveski and Steve Jurvetson, but here’s my gist of how distributed companies evolve:
Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine construction worker, barista, massage therapist, firefighter… Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it has turned out they really did.
The first level is where most colocated businesses are: there’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people can keep things moving for a day or two when there’s an emergency. More often than not, they’ll likely put things off until they’re back in the office. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. You don’t have any special equipment and may have to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often have people in the same building or campus dialing into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.
Level two is where many companies have found themselves in the past few weeks with the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve accepted that work is going to happen at home for a while, but they recreate what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting, like Marshall McLuhan talked about new media mediums initially copying the generation before. You’re probably able to access information from afar, you’ve adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything is still synchronous, your day is full of interruptions, no real-time meetings have been canceled (yet), and there’s a lot of anxiety in management around productivity — that’s the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also: Don’t stop at level two!
At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people invest in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings. It’s also the point at which you realize just how crucial written communication is for your success, and you start looking for great writers in your hiring. When you are on a Zoom, you often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so you can take and check real-time notes together. Your company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world you plan meetups so teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.
Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. You begin shifting to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making, and you empower everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, to weigh in on major conversations. You tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of your legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy. You have a rich social life with people you choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work. If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world. Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.
Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an ideal that’s not wholly attainable — and that’s level five, Nirvana! This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You’re effortlessly effective. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun. 🤠
A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.
Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment. Close your eyes and imagine everything around you in a physical office: the chair you’re in, the desk, distance from a window, the smells, the temperature, the music, the flooring, what’s in the fridge, the comfort and privacy of the bathrooms, the people (or pets) around you, the lighting. Now imagine an environment where you can choose and control every one of those to your liking — maybe it’s a room in your house, a converted garage, a shared studio, or really anything, the important thing is you’re able to shape the environment fit your personal preferences, not the lowest common denominator of everyone an employer has decided to squish together for 8 hours a day. The micro-interactions of the hundreds of variables of your work environment can charge you and give you creative energy, or make you dependent, infantilized, and a character in someone else’s story. Which do you want to spend half of your waking workday hours in?
One heterodox recommendation I have for audio and video calls when you’re working in a distributed fashion is not to mute, if you can help it. When you’re speaking to a muted room, it’s eerie and unnatural — you feel alone even if you can see other people’s faces. You lose all of those spontaneous reactions that keep a conversation flowing. If you ask someone a question, or they want to jump in, they have to wait to unmute. I also don’t love the “unmute to raise your hand” behavior, as it lends itself to meetings where people are just waiting their turn to speak instead of truly listening. I’m always hesitant to disagree with Seth Godin, but that’s been my experience.
So what should you do? Use the latest and greatest hardware and software to have the best of both worlds, a fantastic auditory experience for you and your interlocutors and little to no background noise.
The rest of this post I’m going to try out eleven different microphones and headsets, ranging from $35 to $1,000+, and record a short file on each, and intersperse some software tips for people on MacOS. You may want to listen to these samples with good headphones on to really hear the differences. I apologize some are louder than others, I didn’t edit to even out the levels, which Zoom or Skype would do automatically.
My previous top recommendation was the trusty Sennheiser SC 30, in my previous bag posts. It’s cheap and effective, but the cord was too long and it was USB-A. If you read no further, get this one and revolutionize how you sound on Zoom calls. Here’s how it sounds:
You can plug the USB-C into your iPad or Android phone as well and it works great, though the headphones can be a bit quiet on Android. Either of the above will spoil you for making calls, and you won’t want to go back to the old low-fi way of doing things.
In order to have a bit more flexibility I tried out the much more expensive ($134) Sennheiser MB Pro 1. I liked the freedom of wireless Bluetooth, but you can hear that the sound is much worse. Connecting over Bluetooth lowers the quality a ton, and also occasionally means you need to disconnect, reconnect, etc.
All three of the Sennheisers above come in two-ear versions, which I prefer if I’m in a noisy environment, but at home I find the one-ear a bit more comfortable. I got excited about this $70 TaoTronics “Trucker Bluetooth” headset because it had Bluetooth 5.0 so I foolishly assumed it would have better quality, but it sounds really terrible:
But does wireless have to mean terrible quality? The Apple Airpods Pro ($249) are actually pretty decent, and you can easily switch them between your phone and your computer in the audio menu. If you haven’t tried the Pro version, the noise canceling is actually pretty amazing for something so small and light — I jog with them.
And one of the best sounding mics in this entire roundup was the wireless $119 Antlion Audio ModMic Wireless, which sound amazing, but you have to provide your own headphones to attach it to, and the entire thing ends up being fairly bulky and has its own wireless adapter. On the plus side, you can bring your own super-fancy headphones and get amazing audio quality. With certain headphones it did cause a buzz in the ear of the headphone I attached it to.
But hot dang that sounds good. If they made an over-the-ear USB-C version with an earbud, and had the mic be a little smaller, it would be work-from-home nirvana.
I ventured into the gaming headset territory for this SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Gaming Headset, which at first felt totally ridiculous with its own connector box, a million cables, etc, but goshdarnit grew on me. It has this really cool boom mic that extends out, and I think it’s the most comfortable headset I’ve worn for an extended amount of time. I tried it out via its proprietary 2.4ghz wireless connection + USB, and Bluetooth, and unfortunately the results weren’t great, including the Bluetooth being a little garbled. I hope Steelseries does another iteration because they’re so close, it just needs to be USB-C on the headphones, the cables, the everything, and super high quality recording.
Next up is the Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic, which is what I usually use to record the Distributed podcast, and costs about $400. This is milky and smooth. (I accidentally called it a Sennheiser in the recording.)
It’s a great sound, but the part of the house where I recorded all of these is pretty noisy with an AC unit on the other side of the wall, and there’s a ton of background noise in this.
Software eats the audio world
Just like photography has been completely transformed by software enhancing images to the point where the top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung smartphone camera is better than all but the very top pro SLR cameras, I think the same thing is going to happen for audio.
None of these clips are processed, which is why some of the volume levels are different, but I thought it would be fun to demo a tool I’ve been recommending to a lot of people.
Now the audio quality is not as good, it sounds a bit clipped, but throughout there is no more distracting background hums or noise. Krisp can be a little awkward to use but they’ve made it a lot more user friendly. You could mix Krisp with almost any option here and it would make it sound much better, in fact when I’m in a pinch my favorite go-to is Airpods Pro + Krisp.
With everything, a pro tip on MacOS is to hold Option when you click on the sound icon in your upper right taskbar, and it will let you select both input and output devices. Sound Preferences, linked at the bottom of that menu, are your friend. If a mic is too soft you can boost the input volume in the preferences. To choose a camera or mic in Zoom, click the arrow next to the mute button in the bottom left. In Zoom audio settings, under Advanced, they are starting to expose a number of new options for real-time audio processing.
“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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
If y’all haven’t caught up recently with my podcast Distributed, this is a perfect moment to do so—the past several weeks have been full of insights from folks like InVision CEO Clark Valberg, attorney and advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown, Stephen Wolfram, and some of my own Automattic colleagues in-person at our Grand Meetup.
I’ve been a fan of Shane Parrish and his indispensable Farnam Street for many years now. Shane is a fascinating person — he’s a former cybersecurity expert for the Canadian intelligence agency and occasional blogger who turned his website into a full-time career. Oh and fs.blog is on WordPress, too. 😎
Distributed work is becoming a reality for more companies. Automattic has been operating in a distributed-first fashion for more than 13 years now — we’re now up to more than 850 employees in 68 countries. But even in companies with physical offices, more employees are distributed around the globe and working together. Google just shared some fascinating stats about its work culture, with 100,000 employees working across 150 cities. Two out of five work groups have employees working from more than one location:
We’re a more connected world, so it makes sense that global business wouldn’t be confined to just one physical space. I often use Google as an example because I’ve been in meetings there where people were one building away from each other but still using video chat because of the time required to walk between meetings on their campus.
With that in mind, the team at Automattic has decided to start sharing our expertise and the technology that makes it all work. Introducing Happy Tools:
Our first product is Happy Schedule, which helps teams manage flexible schedules across time zones. Right now we’re rolling it out in a consultative way with just a few early customers to make sure the team can be totally responsive to their needs. We’re excited about this and other upcoming tools, because we believe that this is the future of work. We’re excited to have other companies give it a try.
Keep an eye on this space: There’s an entire suite of tools that make up the operating system of what has helped Automattic scale so effectively over the years. I’ve always believed it’s important to invest in your internal tools, and I’m excited to release more of them. If there’s something better in the market, we won’t release a tool for it—I’d rather use something external than have to build things ourselves—but where the industry still has a gap after such a long time, we’ll throw our hat into the ring.
It has over 130,000 views already! What I really love about this video in particular is that we get into the specifics of how a company can start to embrace a culture of letting employees work from anywhere, even if it started out as a traditional office with everyone in the same place. Automattic never started that way, so even as we’ve scaled up to more than 840 people in 68 countries, there’s never been a question — it’s now built in to our entire culture.
For distributed work to scale up, it’s going to require more CEOs, workers, and managers to test the waters. Any company can experiment with distributed work — just pick a day or two of the week in which everyone works from home, I suggest Tuesdays and Thursdays, then build the tools and systems to support it. Yes, that may require some shuffling of meetings, or more written documentation versus verbal real-time discussion. But I think companies will be surprised how quickly it will “just work.”
If the companies don’t experiment, workers may force them to do it anyway:
I recently returned from Orlando where Automattic hosted its annual Grand Meetup where nearly all of our 800 employees from around the world, spend a week together in the same place. (And yes, we’re hiring.)
Despite being a fully distributed company, I believe it’s still important to meet face-to-face — just not every day, in the same office. The Grand Meetup is our chance to get to know the people behind the Slack avatars and build relationships that can carry us through other 51 weeks of the year, when we’re working from more than 65 countries. It’s so much easier to hear the nuance in someone’s chat messages or p2 posts if you’ve hung out with them at Harry Potter World, or learned about their family, pets, and hobbies during a flash talk.
This year we were proud to welcome some incredible keynote speakers: Wild author Cheryl Strayed talking about creativity and writing; Automattic board member Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in U.S. Army history to achieve the four-star officer rank; Ari Meisel on delegating and automating your life; and Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, on the panic attack that led him to embrace meditation and mindfulness.
The shift is particularly surprising since the Armonk, N.Y., company has been among the business world’s staunchest boosters of remote work, both for itself and its customers. IBM markets software and services for what it calls “the anytime, anywhere workforce,” and its researchers have published numerous studies on the merits of remote work.
If “IBM has boasted that more than 40% of employees worked outside traditional company offices” and they currently have 380,000 employees (wow), then that’s 152k people on the market.
As I said when Yahoo did the same, it’s hard to judge this from the outside. A company that was happy about how they’re doing wouldn’t make a shift this big or this suddenly. It’s very possible the way distributed folks were interacting with their in-office teams wasn’t satisfactory, especially if they were forced to use subpar in-house tools like SameTime instead of Zoom or Skype. Yahoo didn’t have the best trajectory after they made a similar move, and hopefully IBM isn’t going to follow the same path.
In the meantime, Automattic and many other companies are hiring. If you aren’t going to work in a company’s headquarters, it is probably safest to work at a company that is fully distributed (no second tier for people not at HQ) rather than be one of a few “remote” people at a centralized company.