The Importance of IRL in a World of Screens

Since launching the Distributed podcast, we’ve learned that most distributed companies host in-real-life (IRL) meetups in order to promote social cohesion and a sense of collaboration among colleagues who might not otherwise ever spend time face-to-face. As much as leaders at distributed companies value the many benefits of remote work, they also recognize the importance of meeting in person. Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg has blogged about the connection between meeting up IRL and the health of a distributed company, and has encouraged individual teams of Automatticians to meet every year in various locations around the globe. 

Distributed Podcast: Inside the 2019 Grand Meetup. Read the transcript.

Automattic’s biggest IRL event of the year is called the Grand Meetup — the GM. It’s a weeklong gathering where hundreds of Automatticians descend on a city in order to collaborate, learn from one another, and hang out. This year’s event was held in Orlando. Attending the GM is often both exhilarating and exhausting: There’s so much to do, and so many people to meet, that attendees commonly describe a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out). 

Megan Marcel, Automattic’s Director of Global Events & Sponsorships, leads the GM organizing crew that pulls it all off, kicking off the process two years prior to the meetup’s scheduled date. They look for locations near international airports, and scout hotels that can accommodate nearly 1,000 guests — each in their own room. They aim to book locations for two consecutive years in order to reduce overhead and improve the experience from one year to the next. At six months before the big week, the team starts to tackle crucial steps like visa applications for international employees, booking flights, and planning the week’s packed schedule of activities. 

“It’s a huge undertaking and definitely not one I could ever do alone,” she says. She collaborates with two other full-time workers, as well as an on-the-ground staff of about 10 who prepare the location in the weeks leading up to the event. They then ensure that everything moves according to plan during the GM itself. 

Spending a week away from home can be challenging for many reasons. Some Automatticians are caretakers or parents who leave kids, dependents, and pets at home. Some might be overwhelmed by large crowds. Others fly in from distant locales and must navigate not only severe jet lag, but also nonstop communication in English, which might not be their native language.

From the company’s perspective, the GM is an expensive, demanding undertaking. It requires years of planning, the booking of thousands of flights and hotel rooms, planning meals that meet attendees’ diverse dietary needs, and loads of other considerations, like meeting rooms, WiFi, and… over 600 yoga mats. 

Given all of these challenges, why does Automattic continue to host the GM year after year? On this week’s episode, we spoke with a number of Automatticians to find out what makes the event so special, and why it serves as an indispensable capstone for a year of distributed work. 

Company Culture That Lasts All Year 

Company culture is the sum of values and behaviors that make up a business’s social environment. It’s a nebulous construct, and it appears in all sorts of ambient, non-tangible ways. Large companies go to great lengths to reinforce their culture through team-building events, employee education, corporate social responsibility, and other initiatives — like the Automattic Creed, a statement of the goals and motivations each Automattician should strive to live by. 

It can be especially difficult to foster a company culture when workers aren’t co-located. It can’t  be forced into existence in an employee handbook. The people who make up the company have to live it and embrace it.

The GM addresses this challenge in several ways, including a number of traditions that have developed over the years. For example, the all-company photo — this year, it included so many people that resident photographer (and Automattic’s first employee!) Donncha Ó Caoimh had to take it from a roof overlooking the crowd. Each event ends with a big party, where an all-Automattician band provides the soundtrack. Matt Mullenweg holds an hours-long Town Hall where anyone from across the company can ask the CEO a question directly. These highlights help to cultivate a sense of togetherness and shared values. 

The GM is also an opportunity for a new employee to learn from more seasoned colleagues what it means to be an Automattician. It’s a time for people to immerse themselves in the company’s history, but also to define their own role in its future.

“These are my people,” says Excellence Wrangler Sheri Bigelow, describing the sensation she first felt while attending a WordCamp, one of the WordPress community’s local events. “I feel a strong connection and a special place in my heart for everyone before I even meet them.” 

Recharging social batteries

Attendees describe the GM like a refresh or a recharge. When a relationship is mostly mediated by screens, meeting face-to-face feels like a way to catch up with people on a deeper level — even with those you’ve been regularly Slacking and Zooming throughout the year. 

Josepha Haden, who leads Automattic’s .Organization Division, expresses the value of the GM in social terms: 

When you work in a distributed company, every time that you interact with your colleagues via text… you are taking out of your social bank account with them. So when you get people together, that’s when you have the opportunity to see each other face-to-face, and remind everybody that you’re all human beings. And fill that social capital back up because it’s so hard to communicate via text. 

Community Wrangler Rocío Valdivia agrees. “I love the energy,” she says. “I come back home with all my batteries charged for the rest of the year. I’m very aligned with the values of this company and I’m very aligned with the kind of people that I find here in general.”

Meeting in person is a chance to engage in a higher-fidelity form of communication. Slack and Zoom are excellent tools for distributed work, but even the most crystal-clear video meeting can’t pick up on the subtle body language, facial expressions, and other nuances of face-to-face communication. 

Building Better Mental Models 

On a recent episode of the Distributed podcast, InVision CEO Clark Valberg talked about how we build mental models of the people we interact with, and how spending in-person time with those people allows us to crank up the definition — not just of the communication medium, but of our mental models of our interlocutors. 

When we’re online you get to a certain level of precision. [I can] take a long time to get to know you as a person and get to know how you behave and act in different contexts, how you react to certain things as individuals or as groups. When we get together, the fidelity of that model increases exponentially. And we take that mental model into the online environment. 

When Mobile Wrangler Aaron Douglas hasn’t met someone in person, he assigns them a generic “Automattician Voice.” By this he means the voice of a helpful colleague with good intentions, but with an undefined individual personality. When Aaron’s able to put a face to a name at the GM, that generic voice starts to take on the quirks and characteristics of that individual, giving way to a more precise mental model. 

“It really helps make me not feel like I’m alone at my house when I have all the Automatticians’ voices when I’m interacting with people through electronic means,” says Aaron. “So to me the Grand Meetup is essential for me to feel successful working at Automattic.”

Automatticians can carry their new-and-improved mental models with them throughout the year.

“What I value the most about the Grand Meetup is the connections that I create in person, then I can use them,” says Rocío. “It’s like I take advantage of all the connections I create in person during the Grand Meetup the rest of the year.”

Expanding the Horizon of Distributed Work

The benefits of the GM aren’t limited to the social realm. It’s also an opportunity for cross-functional teams to dive into short project sprints that co-location can accelerate. 

Just as the GM serves as a social refresh, it also functions as a professional recharge. Happiness Engineer Will Brubaker (self-given job title: Chief Mechanical Officer) describes the GM as a chance to realign his own expectations and goals with those of the company.

I get here… and I ask questions that are on my mind… I get a real answer, and I get an answer that inspires me and makes me want to go home and work harder… I’m empowered now to fix the things that have exhausted me, and we’re going to start over, and we’re going to move towards the next year’s goals, and I’m very clear what those are. And that’s what this does for me. It’s a reset. It energizes.

More than anything else, perhaps, the GM is a striking display of diversity, and a reminder that people from all over the world and all walks of life make Automattic what it is. A geographically diverse workforce is common in distributed companies, but the meetup also highlights the wide range of backgrounds, identities, and work styles that Automatticians embrace. 

The GM’s structure encourages everyone to meet new people. For example, many meals have assigned seating, bringing together colleagues who’d never met each other in real life, and making room for serendipitous learning. Such encounters can lead to exciting outcomes. A number of new projects and cross-functional partnerships started as casual interactions at the meetup.

Since distributed teams don’t connect visually on a regular basis, they can often become siloed. In contrast, a co-located GM creates opportunities for workers to talk to one another about their problems, frustrations, opportunities, skills, and available resources. An employee struggling with a problem might meet someone who knows someone who knows someone who can provide a solution. The network effects of everyone being together in one place — even for just a week out of the year — are significant. 

Even shared hobbies can be a valuable way to find meaningful connection within the company. The GM brings together people who’ve established a digital bond over an extracurricular interest or passion. 

“We have Slack channels for every level of interest, and I have never felt more included in my life,” says Achaessa James, who works on Automattic’s Legal team. “I have people coming up to me at the gym, ‘I know you from this channel,’ ‘Oh yeah, I love what you said here,’ ‘Are you going to do this?’ it’s like a family reunion.”

Putting on the Grand Meetup is a tall order, but Automatticians’ stories show it’s well worth the effort. And if anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, Automattic’s own Data team has found quantitative proof that the meetup fosters internal cohesion. The event helps develop less isolated and more dense, inclusive social networks. By the time hundreds of GM attendees fly back home, they’ve already built enough meaningful relationships to fuel the next year of distributed collaboration. 

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