4 years ago today I started working full-time for Automattic.
Four years seems like a lifetime, but it’s a pretty short time in my work history, and it’s been the most life-changing job so far for me. I’ve had years where I spent 40+% of my year away from my home base (with only two weeks off), and I told you how I almost stopped myself from applying and sabotaging my own success. Working at Automattic and working in a distributed team has changed how I will look at work and being productive for the rest of my life.
I wanted to share some of my own reflections, lessons, and scenes of working for a startup with an entirely distributed team for the past four years, in no particular order. Some may say Automattic is no longer a startup, though we just raised more funding, but 4 years ago when there were only 50 of us, it definitely was, and we’ve grown together.
You are your own boss; aka set expectations, and meet them. Or get better at setting expectations.
At Automattic there’s a lot of responsibility pushed to individuals to get things done. We don’t have traditional managers, and team leads are responsible for their own output, too. No one’s checking you’re at your desk in the morning, so it’s up to you to show up and be ready to work. And you should know what you’re working on, too.
At the beginning you’re pretty much expected to decide what you’ll work on, and how fast, and off you go. You tell people what you’ll do, and you do it. It’s pretty simple.
Besides the fact that keeping someone in sight as a means of ensuring their productivity is immature and archaic, it’s also ineffective. If a person can deliver quality work, consistently, does it really matter where they are? Letting people deliver work when they say they will, by forging their own path & timing to get there, is ultimate sign of a company trusting its employees. Don’t you want to be trusted at work?
Most meetings in the traditional business world are useless.
Meetings in the business world are often mistaken for “getting work done.” I know people who have had full-days of meetings to provide status updates a simple email would have sufficed for, and tales even of a team sitting on the phone together watching a single person work so they would be assured the project would be done on time. I had a phone call meeting recently that took a combined half hour of the participants’ time to find a good time for the meeting, and then the call lasted less than 5 minutes. And yes, we could have done it by email.
Status meetings are the worst use of collective time. Collective time should be used sparingly, to either help the group get to know each other and build camaraderie, or to arrive at a documentable or actionable decision (which I would argue decisions can still be done asynchronously). Instead of meetings, we publish our status updates every week for the whole team to see, where you say what you will do, and what you have done. Twice monthly, every team rolls the highlights of those updates up to the rest of the company, though any Automattician can visit any team’s internal site at any time to get a peek of what they’re working on.
So do you need a meeting? I think your question should be “do we need to make a decision?” or “what needs to get done?” and do what is necessary, and how, to make that happen, without forcing everyone to be in the same virtual space at the same time.
You need a routine to start the day, wherever you are.
For the first few months I worked from home, I struggled to find a time when I should start working, especially since the majority of the company was in a different timezone. Having the flexibility to design my day also meant I didn’t have as many constraints or reasons to leave the house to catch the metro before it got crowded. I could work all day from home, in pajamas, never even leaving my house if I wasn’t careful.
Finally I got into a routine which always helps me get into work mode no matter where I find myself: I get up every morning, get dressed & presentable (brush teeth & hair!) and leave where I’m staying to get a coffee, ideally an espresso. My ‘commute’ is self-enforced and is as far as the nearest coffee shop. When I step back inside, I’m ready to work.
My little routine is multi-purpose: making sure I get completely ready and presentable every day (so I can be ready to go to lunch or join a friend at a moment’s notice), helping me to connect with my surroundings no matter where I’m traveling, and of course, I get to drink espresso (if you follow me on instagram you know I love it). When I’m traveling I even go as far as to Google map out my surroundings including my morning routine coffee stop.
You need to prioritize your health.
Health should be a priority no matter how or where you work, but it’s even more important when traditional work structures are stripped away like commute times, lunch hours, and even quitting time. When I lived in California I would go to the gym at 5am because I had to be at work between 7 & 8am. Working from home or elsewhere, I’m now the one who decides when working out (& eating healthy) is what I should be doing that day.
Having access to your kitchen can make things easier to eat healthier (or harder if you stock your pantry with junk food), and working from the road can make it harder. It took me several months to make sure I was making time for staying healthy. Once I started scheduling out the week with those healthy appointments on my calendar, I was able to make my work schedule adapt rather than the other way around.
It’s rather easy to see when people aren’t working, even when we don’t see each other physically.
This is the concern I hear first from anyone who is skeptical about having a distributed team. ‘Won’t someone slack off? Won’t someone just go to the beach everyday and not work?’ The reality is, sure, a distributed company will always have someone who isn’t working, like most normal companies.
But knowing when someone is working or not is even easier when you’re working remotely.
When you work with a distributed team, the only way you measure if they are working is on their output. Did they do what they said they would do? Where is the result of that work? Did they even say they would do anything, or have they gone dark? It’s frightening easy to notice when a distributed coworker checks out or becomes disinterested in what they’re doing…they stop communicating, they stop creating. There’s no output.
Their lack of output may not be as visible to the whole distributed company as it would be to a company which shares an office and sees that person come in late & leave early, but it’s very visible to the distributed team that person works with. And they don’t usually remain long, whether by choice or by invitation to leave.
Emoticons are really important when you can’t see facial cues, and the burden is on you to make sure people understand your brand of humor (or lack thereof).
When we were a smaller company, it was easier to know that X person has a dry sense of humor, and Y is easily offended, and Z is always cracking bad puns. As we get bigger, it’s harder to really know each other (though our Day 1 intro videos help), and through communication we have to make sure we’re extra sensitive about being understood. I think as a company we put the burden of being understood on the speaker, and in many cases that’s correct. If they are trying to solicit feedback and wonder why they don’t receive any or receive the opposite reaction of what they expected, they need to make sure they’re being understood. As a speaker you hope someone asks for clarification if there’s some confusion.
And if there’s conversation where you disagree, either wholly or partially, it’s important to convey that diplomatically and carefully, though many fallback on emoticons to lighten their words.
We’re distributed, but we’re still very highly and constantly connected.
If you imagine a company of 250+ people all working solo and lonely on their little slice of the company, you’d be wrong. We “go into the office” every day when we log into our various communication channels – we use a mixture of 170+ internal blogs split by team or project (on WordPress, naturally), and use IRC, Skype, and now Slack for other private or instantaneous conversations.
We can ping anyone in the company in seconds (faster than you can look up their phone extension in your company directory, I assure you) and in many cases, you can ping an entire team for feedback vs. just one person to get a faster answer. It’s a lovely mix of immediate and asynchronous communication which allows for us to be apart and connected at the same time.
The goal of working remotely is not to work alone. Hardly! You’ll still crave interactions, chatting, and just riffing on ideas.
It can be a lot harder to have casual conversations in a distributed environment, because of the timezone differences, and the fact that when we see each other online, a good assumption is we are all working. It’s hard to know when to have a casual chat to check in on how someone is doing, ask what they had for breakfast, to talk about an idea, to vent, or perhaps even get their opinion on something not work-related.
We’re getting better at creating and using our online watercoolers – we have something like 40+ internal blogs where people can share their interests in gaming, music, books, children, pets, fitness, and even beards. You have to admit, sharing the latest meme and animated gif is even easier if you’re all in front of a computer.
I definitely thrive on and get energized from casual conversations and even cross-company conversations about work, and those I think are the hardest ones to orchestrate if we’re not at a meetup together. Personal and play conversations are getting easier to define and enjoy, but casual conversations on work topics can be just as hard, and sometimes it’s where great ideas come from.
It’s hard to choose just one day as my favorite day working for Automattic, but I would say most of the best days I have had at Automattic have been during our in-person company meet-ups. You might think that this means we should work together more often, but on the contrary I think because we’re a distributed company we enjoy our time together in-person that much more. (from my interview with Daily Tekk)
You need less of an ‘office’ than you think.
You need less gadgets and things to make a workspace than you’d think. A great internet connection. Headphones with a microphone. A Moleskine and pen. And charging cables (always be charging).
That’s about all I need for my office. 4 years later, I’ve worked on the beach sitting on a chaise lounge, on a terrace with a plastic chair & table, at picnic tables, on couches, at desks, in numerous hotels, in co-working locations, and even in bed.
And though we have the opportunity to trick out our home office through our home office allowance, I know these will be my staples, including multiple external drives for backup. The most important thing I constantly need to pack with my traveling office is concentration, and that’s something which is consistently needed, no matter your location.
Remember to take holidays…at least on one country’s schedule.
I’m American, but I’ve been living in Italy for 11 years. Since I travel so much, I’m bouncing around countries a bit and sometimes I lose track of which national holidays I should be taking and whose holidays are being celebrated. This year, I’ve already worked 5 weekend days at events & traveling to them, and when I started thinking about national holidays, I realized I had only taken one of the 7 Italian national holidays so far this year (New Year’s Day). Oops.
Luckily we have a flexible vacation policy, but sometimes those national holidays are there for a reason. A reminder to take a break. Take those national holidays, and some real vacation, too.
Interested in learning more about working in a distributed company? Check out my Daily Tekk interview, my interview here about working at Automattic, or just apply to work with us (yeah, we’re hiring).