Distributed Work

I resisted the idea of working outside of an office for a long time. Sure, I didn’t mind working from home now and then, but an office was where real work happened.

Around 9 years ago, my wife and I moved across country and suddenly working from home was the only choice there was.

The lack of choice, combined with the thought leadership of folks like Jason Fried and DHH helped me come to terms and then eventually embrace working outside of an office.

Now? It’s hard for me to imagine a situation where I’d give up distributed work.

Today I work at Automattic where more than 1,200 of us work wherever we want to, all around the world.

So how do we make it work? It’s one thing to send everyone home (COVID-19 forced many organizations to give distributed work a try), but how do you do it well?

Key Principles

In my experience, there are three key principles to making distributed work work.

  1. Trust – This is where it all starts. Trusting your team. Not to be perfect, because we’re dealing with humans. To be responsible, though, to do what they say they’re going to do, and to own up when they make mistakes.
  2. Autonomy – Give your team the resources they need and empower them to make the decisions necessary to get the job done. It won’t be perfect. In an environment built on trust, though, where feedback can be given and received, autonomy helps bring out the best in your team.
  3. Communication – At Automattic, we think of communication as oxygen. It’s the life force of your organization. It’s hard work and communicating well means striving for effective proactive and reactive communication, at all levels of your organization.

None of it works without that first ingredient – trust.

How do you build trust?

As a leader, your responsibility is to create an environment where trust can grow. Start with a clear mission and purpose for the work you’re doing. Provide your team with clear expectations that you then trust them to meet. Embrace mistakes and teach your team to give and receive feedback.

Work Practices

There are a few areas of practice that I’ve found essential to distributed work, particularly in teams:

  1. Asynchronous Communication – For most lines of distributed work, including ours at Automattic, communicating without the need for immediate response is a key practice. Documenting thought processes and decisions, debating strategies, offering guidance, teaching, sharing experiences – it can all happen asynchronously, and usually in written form.
  2. Synchronous Communication – It’s important to have tools for live conversations in written form (e.g. chat), voice, and video (or even virtual reality). While these shouldn’t be the primary method of communication, they’re important for collaboration.
  3. Personal Connections – When we’re not fighting a pandemic, regular travel and spending time together in-person is a critical part of building relationships. Personal connections provide context and shared understanding that greatly enrich collaboration.

Favorite Resources

There are a lot of tools and resources available to help facilitate distributed work. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Remote: Office Not Required – This book helped kick off my journey to distributed work. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. Short, to-the-point, and it has great illustrations.
  • P2 – P2 is an asynchronous communication tool, built on WordPress. We use it for everything at Automattic and we’ve made it available to the public. I highly recommend it.
  • Distributed.Blog – A podcast produced by Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and the co-founder of WordPress. Great interviews and resources.

Distributed work is the future and the future is here.