This tumultuous year, two things really helped me get through it: my colleagues at Automattic and the community of WordPress.
At the end of the year I usually deliver a speech to the WP community we call the State of the Word, that celebrates what we accomplished the previous year and shines a light on what we could focus on in the coming year. There’s always a great energy in the room and I love mixing with the audience before and after the talk. This year we did it online, which meant we could produce the talk a little more, and we made extra time for the Q&A afterward with answers not just from me but folks across the community.
One thing I’ll call out WordPress 5.6 had an all women and non-binary release squad of over 50 people, a first for WordPress and probably any large open source project. Also the market share of WordPress grew more in 2020 than it has in any year since it started being tracked!
If you’re curious about what’s next for WordPress, check it out:
This column is called Corner Office, and most people who choose to have offices are usually the bosses. And I’ve been to the offices of billionaire C.E.O.s that have their own private bathroom, beautiful art and couches. But these are all things that you can have in your house. What I love about distributed organizations is every single employee can have a corner office.
Sometimes my corner office has been the corner of an airport floor next to a power outlet! I’ve also heard from colleagues that feel like their office feels like an unsupervised day care center since the quarantine started. The point I want to make is there’s a world of possibility that opens up when you move from the finite space of a shared office, and all the politics of dividing up the scarce resource of desirable space, to the infinite game where people can define their own “office” as the place where they will be most productive, and do so however they like with no penalties or restraints.
If you had the best space in the legacy office, you probably liked it and may even have had motivated reasoning around ineffable things that happened in the office like “culture” that would be impossible without it, but the average experience of an entry-level worker was not as positive. Now there can be a much more even playing field. At Automattic we have a home office allowance people can use to buy equipment they need to make their home work area comfortable and productive, and it’s the same if you’re leading a team of hundreds or if it’s your first job.
Kathleen Morrison, in News & Views (“Failure and how to avoid it” Nature440, 752–754; 2006), notes that societies have often prevented collapse by adopting new technological strategies. In today’s world, where one of the most-talked about prospects for collapse is an epidemic of infectious disease, it is worth remembering that perhaps we already have the technological strategy to avoid it — the Internet.
Remote working, made possible by the Internet (‘telepresence’), is already a key component of national and business pandemic plans. Telepresence can inhibit viral transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. Prepared organizations can leverage telepresence to allow continued productivity and functioning of supply chains during an outbreak.
He explores these ideas as well in his Long Now talk in April 2010, in which he talked about Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization. Here’s an excerpt from that talk covering telepresence and telemedicine. Both videos have had under a thousand views so far. When you watch this remember that it was April, 2010!
The quality improved, however something was still missing: I felt like I wasn’t connecting with the person on the other side. When I reviewed recordings, especially for major broadcasts, my eyes kept looking at the person on the screen rather than looking at the camera.
For normal video conferencing a setup this nice is a distraction, but if you’re running for political office during a quarantine, a public company CEO talking to colleagues and the press, here’s a cost-is-no-object CEO livestreaming kit you can set up pretty easily at home.
Basically what you do is put the A7r camera, shotgun mic, and the lens together and switch it to video mode, go to Setup 3, choose HDMI settings, and turn HDMI Info Display off — this gives you a “clean” video output from the camera. You can run off the built-in battery for a few hours, but the Gonine virtual battery above lets you power the camera indefinitely. Plug the HDMI from the camera to the USB Camlink, then plug that into your computer. Now you have the most beautiful webcam you’ve ever seen, and you can use the Camlink as both a video source and an audio source using the shotgun mic. Put the Key Light wherever it looks best. You’re fine to record something now.
If you’d like to have a more two-way conversation Interrotron style, set up the teleprompter on the tripod, put the camera behind it, connect the portable monitor to your computer (I did HMDI to a Mac Mini) and “mirror” your display to it. (You can also use an iPad and Sidecar for that.) Now you’ll have a reversed copy of your screen on the teleprompter mirror. I like to put the video of the person I’m talking to right over the lens, so near the bottom of my screen, and voilà! You now have great eye contact with the person you’re talking to. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out is how to horizontally flip the screen in MacOS so all the text isn’t backward in the mirror reflection. For audio I usually just use a headset at this point, but if you want to not have a headset in the shot…
Use a discreet earbud. I love in-ear monitors from Ultimate Ears, so you can put one of these in and run the cable down the back of your shirt, and I use a little audio extender cable to easily reach the computer’s 3.5mm audio port. This is “extra” as the kids say and it may be tricky to get an ear molding taken during a pandemic. For the mic I use the audio feed from the Camlink, run through Krisp.ai if there is ambient noise, and it works great (except in the video above where it looks a few frames off and I can’t figure out why. On Zoom it seems totally normal).
Here’s what the setup looks like all put together:
After that photo was taken I got a Mac Mini mount and put the computer under the desk, which is much cleaner and quieter, but used this earlier photo so you could see everything plugged in. When you run this off a laptop its fan can get really loud.
Again, not the most practical for day to day meetings, but if you’re doing prominent remote streaming appearances—or if your child is an aspiring YouTube star—that’s how you can spend ~9k USD going all-out. You could drop about half the cost with only a minor drop in quality switching the camera and lens to a Sony RX100 VII and a small 3.5mm shotgun mic, and that’s probably what I’ll use if I ever start traveling again.
If I were to put together a livestreaming “hierarchy of needs,” it would be:
Solid internet connection (the most important thing, always)
The main feedback we got at the time was that the blogging software market was saturated and there wasn’t room or need for anything new.
WordPress did have a philosophy, an active blog, a license that protected the freedom of its users and developers, a love of typography, a belief that code is poetry, fantastic support forums and mailing lists and IRC, and firm sense that building software is more fun when you do it together as a community.
We have relentlessly iterated across 38 major releases since then, and here we are.
If you’d like to celebrate with me, put on some jazz, eat some BBQ, light a candle for the contributors who have passed on, help a friend or stranger less technical than you build a home online, and remember that technology is at its best when it brings people together.
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.
Traditionally, cities looking to spur their economies may offer incentives to attract businesses. But at a time when Americans are moving less frequently than they have in more than half a century, and the anticlimactic race to host an Amazon HQ2 soured some governments on corporate tax breaks, Tulsa is one of several locales testing out a new premise: Pay people instead.
I love this idea, and hope that after the permanent step-up in remote work from the virus we see much more internal mobility between cities in the United States.
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.
I’ve really had enough of this term “social distancing.” That is not at all what we are looking for, is it? It should be “physical distancing.” In these times of rampant loneliness (especially for seniors), disconnection, and lack of empathy and compassion, we need the opposite — social connecting. And we need it under these circumstances more than ever. Let’s be creative in finding new ways to come together.
Adam Gazzaley, M. D., Ph. D, University of California, San Francisco
Update: On March 20th, the World Health Organization has officially updated it’s recommendation to “physical distancing.”
A survey of American workers by the polling firm Gallup found that in 2016 43% of employees worked remotely at least some of the time, up from 39% in 2012. Of those remote workers, almost a third spent 80% or more of their time working remotely in 2016, compared to 24% in 2012. In computer-related professions, 57% did some remote work in 2016, according to Gallup.
That includes tech companies like Automattic, which makes WordPress and other software products and has been almost entirely remote since it was founded in 2005. At one point, it opened a large office in San Francisco for employees who preferred a more traditional work environment, but it got rid of that space in 2016 because of how little people used it.
“We had this 15,000-square-foot place with only five people coming into it,” said Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, which acquired Tumblr last year.
Now Automattic rents only one small co-working space in a WeWork suite in New York and uses another small office in San Francisco exclusively for board meetings. It manages its remote workforce using Slack and Zoom and gives new employees $2,000 so they can purchase home office equipment.
Employees can also get up to $250 per month for access to a co-working space or for daily coffees at a local coffee shop. But Mullenweg says only about 300 of the company’s 1,200 employees chose to work somewhere other than a home office.
“I hope there can be a silver lining to this crisis, which we all hope is over as soon as possible, that enables people to reexamine how they work and how they interact with things and improve it,” said Mullenweg. “I’m happy to spread the gospel wherever possible for distributed work. I think it’s better for companies, employees, the environment and the world. There are very few downsides.”
The Information is a worthwhile subscription if you’re in the tech business.
“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.
We’d all much rather be in person, but I do think there is a silver lining in us learning how to do official WordPress livestream events that can be accessible to everyone all over the world, following in the footsteps awesome virtual events like WordSesh.
I am now solidly entering my late thirties, and fortunately I am in good health, good cheer, and doing one of my favorite things — exploring a part of the world and culture I haven’t experienced before (Maldives and Sri Lanka).
Partially because of the schedule those milestones required, this ended up being my year with the most travel ever since I started tracking: I flew over 515k miles, to 124 cities in 24 countries. I was able to incorporate a good amount of running in my routine, started picking up musical instruments again, and learning more about sound and its impact on our lives. I found small daily habits, like a little bit of exercise or stretching first thing in the morning, to be sustainable and high-impact.
Personally my main goals this year are for the health and wellness of my family, incorporating more playing music and photography into my life, and strengthening my meditation practice. If you’re reading this, I hope to run into you online or in person and this year let’s do our best together to leave the world a little better than we found it.
As a follow-on to my lists in 2017 and 2018, here are the books I completed this year. I’ve linked all to the Kindle edition except the Great Mental Models, which is so gorgeous in hardcover you should get that one, and the The World is Sound isn’t available as an ebook. Bold are ones I particularly enjoyed or found myself discussing with others a lot.
What’s interesting is that if you were to purchase every single one of those books, it would be about $349. You could get them all for nothing from your local library, even on a Kindle. The money I spend on books is by far and away the best investment I make every year — books expand my mind and enrich my life in a way that nothing else does.