Automattic Freedom: A Fully-Remote Team Talks About Remote Work
Over the past 12 years, Automattic has managed to power more than a quarter of the web (27.5%, to be exact) with the primary arm of their business: WordPress.com. They also offer popular products such as WooCommerce & Jetpack which contribute to their 165 million unique visits per month and $1.2 billion valuation. And they’ve managed to do so as a fully-remote team without any offices.
An Automattic design team is in Lisbon this week for a quarterly get-together, and they decided to host public meetup at Beta-i, a local coworking space and accelerator. Ola Olusoga, originally from outside Atlanta, Georgia, hosted the event after joining in January of this year as a product designer.
Ola eagerly shared how Automattic operates as a completely-distributed team with employees in 66 countries and counting. Thanks to his presentation and questions from the audience, we heard about their communication habits, culture, workspace restrictions (or lack thereof), software recommendations, and keys to success.
Even though some Automatticans (as they call themselves) had never met in person before, they’ve communicated around the clock for years. In their words, “Communication is oxygen.” Communication skills, specifically written, are non-negotiable. Each and every team member is expected to produce written reports to update everyone else on what they’re doing.
But that’s just the beginning. They also have weekly calls, one-on-ones with managers, and town hall meetings like most other companies. Automattic, too, has successfully cultivated a culture like other tech giants such as Apple and Google. It’s just that their buzzwords are a little different: Trust, Freedom, Autonomy, Inclusion, Focus.
By eliminating what doesn’t matter (physical workspaces, on-the-way-to-work traffic jams, and groggy morning syndrome), team members can focus on what does: doing good work. After joining the team, every member is trusted and given complete freedom. He or she is autonomous and works anytime, anywhere, anyhow. Whether in an RV or an airport terminal in Rio, it doesn’t matter.
Employees are even given a $250 stipend each month to foster the perfect work environment. Some purchase access to a coworking space while others buy a latte from the local coffeeshop. Once again, as long as employees are focused and produce quality work, everything else doesn’t matter. They don’t track hours, they don’t have hourly check-ins, and no one cares when or where you work. Surprisingly, though, only 15 of their employees use this freedom travel full-time as Digital Nomads. Most employees prefer to either stay at home or take smaller 3–4 month “workations.”
To find people who can manage their time while working remotely, Automattic has a both a rigorous and deliberate hiring process. After the initial resume review, candidates work on a part-time project that lasts 2–3 months. They must communicate with the team, submit deliverables, and act like a team member — all while they keep their current jobs.
Then it’s easy. They keep the people who work well remotely, and they drop those who don’t. Automattic brags about its “value-based” compensation system where employees are paid for the value they bring to the organization, although it’s a little trickier on the ground. Both the cost of a developer and the cost-of-living are significantly different in San Francisco than, say, Serbia.
Once an employee in on board, he or she is, “Given the keys to the kingdom.” After reading the new employee field guide, they’re treated like any other member of the team. No introductory tasks, and no trial runs — just trust and freedom.
Automattic has found the best software, tools, and tips to optimize both their efficiency and effectiveness as a fully-remote organization. While you can easily guess some of these tools (such as Slack & overuse of emojis), others may surprise you: 2,600 custom emojis for the team, weekly cat gif battles, and “public ledgers.”
Since everything happens in the bits and bytes, everything is recorded. Forever. Rather than running from this, they embrace it. Every employee’s notes, concerns, and accomplishments — since the formation of the company in 2005 — can be found in their P2’s.
What’s a P2? We didn’t quite get it at first, either. Imagine a hybrid between a daily standup, project management software, and a personal blog. All Automatticians write blogs — or, reports — for what’s going on and call them P2’s. They then follow other blogs: team members, managers, support, etc. Whenever they begin work, they can instantly see what everyone has been working on and pick up where they left off. If there are any questions or concerns for HR, just go back and check the P2’s. If it’s not in a P2, it didn’t officially happen. It’s the jury, judge, and public ledger.
In addition to their written reports, employees make use of Slack and Zoom for all other communication: phone calls, messages, shared files, video conferences, bots, analytics, support requests, and the list goes on. Communication is vital to their success, but these tech tools will only take them so far.
After doing this for more than a decade, Automattic has identified that meeting in-person, even once, helps the organization run more smoothly. They need to, literally, put a name with a face. To accomplish this, teams meet up in-person quarterly thanks to bots and computer programs that optimize flight prices and travel times to pick a central location. There’s also a company-wide meetup once a year — not to mention their unlimited vacation policy.
While Automattic is very successful with a completely-distributed team, not everyone agrees on the merits of remote work. Some companies embrace it, others hate it, and some flip-flop. For example, after being a pioneer in the remote work arena for years, IBM gave its remote employees an ultimatum this past May: get to the office or get off the team. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer did the same thing with 12,000 remote employees back in 2013.
Whether or not you agree with these decisions, it doesn’t stop the fact that remote work continues to grow. The workforce is becoming more global and mobile with each month. Companies across the spectrum, from small startups to Fortune 500 giants, are hiring remote employees. Forbes even recently produced a guide to the Top 100 Companies Offering Remote Jobs.
As more and more companies hire remotely, Automattic will be a great industry standard and example for others. They were ahead of the curve, and as pioneers, they have proven it’s both possible and productive to live and work from anywhere in the world. It just takes some careful planning, communication, and custom cat emojis.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Williams is the CEO and Co-founder of NOMADX with his base in Lisbon, Portugal. Dave is a US pioneer in the digital marketing, advertising, and ad tech industries as a serial digital entrepreneur over the past 20+ years with multiple exits in the early formative stages of the search engine marketing, social media, and ad tech industries.