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. 😎
His book, The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts, has been tremendously valuable to me in my work. So valuable, in fact, that Automattic is now sponsoring the next printing of the hardcover edition. You can pre-order it here, then learn more about the mental models outlined in it.
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.
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.
The week can be mentally exhausting, given that you’re often meeting many people for the first time. But we urge people to take it at their own pace, and the results are well worth the effort. Our data team actually studied the impact of the Grand Meetup on our work relationships — the connections established between coworkers using our “Meetamattician” tool were demonstrably closer after the meetup:
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.
Like Yahoo a few years ago, IBM, an early pioneer of distributed work, is calling workers back to the office.
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.