Lots of folks talk the talk about being a new/revolutionary/distributed/non-traditional company or workforce, but who’s really doing it? And is it really working?
What about a company with:
- over 100 employees
- employees all around the globe
- only one office, and it’s an office that’s rarely used, even by the folks who live in that city
- every employee working from… anywhere. At home, in a coffee shop, a coworking space…. anywhere they have connectivity
Sounds neat… but you wonder about what this company makes and whether it’s successful.
That Company Is Real and You Can Learn From It
The company is Automattic… they’re the folks behind WordPress.com and they work with the open source community to build and maintain WordPress, the popular web platform that now powers over 17% of the internet. Things seem to be working out.
Experienced project manager, author, and speaker Scott Berkun spent over a year working with Automattic as a team lead for WordPress.com – and one of his terms for his employment was that he be allowed to write a book about the experience. That book is The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work, and it’s now available for purchase. I had a chance to read the book. The tl;dr summary is that it’s really good.
Stories Lead to Observations
There are a few ways Berkun could’ve gone with the book and I’m pleased with the approach he chose. Most of the book is narrative storytelling, relaying experiences (both specific and broad) that he had while leading his team as part of the larger organization. Some of these are specific to a product challenge faced, while others are broader topics such as company culture. As a team lead, he worked with a variety of personalities (on his team and others) and he provides interesting insight into working with various situations in the distributed workforce… something which might have been a quick water cooler conversation is different when your teammate is thousands of miles away.
Most of the narrative chapters contain little observations and analysis weaved into the stories. After several of these narrative chapters, the author interjects chapters that are intentionally higher-level… less storytelling and more analysis. Aptly titled “The Future of Work”, this series of three analysis chapters could stand on their own as a short business book… but interspersing them among the storytelling chapters provides valuable context. The stories support the conclusions and the conclusions aren’t as deep without having read the supporting stories.
I came into this book as someone who knows several Automattic employees; I was previously familiar with the distributed workforce and I knew a bit about some of the tools and processes that allowed it to happen. That said, I was curious about conclusions – what would an outsider say after a year as an insider, and how would it be said? I walk away with these key points being made or reinforced:
- Personality and Skills Trump Job Titles – it’s important to hire smart people. Ideally they have a deep knowledge of a specialty but also a broad familiarity such that they can help with tasks outside that narrow topic.
- Tools Matter – much like traditional workplaces require the infrastructure of an office, conference rooms, parking spaces, and centralized phone systems, a distributed and timeshifted workplace requires an infrastructure of its own. Text and video chat, group discussion software, and other tools allow for team members to communicate both with themselves and with the company as a whole. It’s not just that any tools are needed: good tools are needed. Automattic rarely uses email. There’s a section in the book about that… it doesn’t mean that Automattic doesn’t exchange text communications, they do it in different methods which seem to be more manageable.
- It’s Really About Trust and Communication – while the methods and madness might be different when a company is in one building versus hundreds, ultimately the success of the organization and the teams within it depends on workers’ abilities to trust each other and to communicate. Whether that’s big-picture vision stuff or in-the-weeds details, communication is key, and faciliating that communication, regardless of environment, is essential for success.
If you care about how business is done, I’d highly recommend the book. If you’re a WordPress user and you want some insight into how the sausage is made, there’s a good bit of that as well. Scott Berkun is a smart man and a great writer, and The Year Without Pants is an excellent read.