We admire journalists today more than ever. Whether getting their start as a solo blogger on their own beat, or growing up in a thriving newsroom, journalists must forge their own unique work life as they write the first draft of history.
So it’s no surprise that this episode of the Distributed podcast with Matt Mullenweg and special guest Erica Pandey, business journalist and writer of the What’s Next newsletter at Axios, moves fast and covers a lot of ground, from Erica’s career, to how she works with her Axios colleagues in different cities and bureaus, to what she is seeing as she covers the intersection of technology, business and people.
Erica has recently written about how workers are discovering their own ‘Third Workplace,” and shared insight on how HR departments can improve childcare benefits for working parents. “Childcare has always been a problem. The pandemic just spotlighted it, and hopefully now something will be done about it,” says Pandey.
She balances Axios’ Smart Brevity style with authoritative reporting on complex topics, seeking multiples perspectives, from data to experts to people on the ground. Says Erica, “One of my greatest joys is being able to talk to people.”
The lively conversation centers on how we’re all returning to work after so much change and adaptation, including the rise of hybrid workplaces.
“The best possible form of hybrid – and this is not just me, this is what HR experts are trying to game out here – is everybody meeting, and (then) everybody at home, at the same time,” says Pandey. “The benefits of being in person, which are social interaction, which may be rubbing shoulders with leadership, which may be the innovation that happens on the spot when you are talking with someone at the coffee maker, happen when everyone is there. And then when everyone’s home, they can work on solo projects or get longer term projects done.”
“When you make it so that there is no penalty for not being in the office,” Matt later agrees, “you’re not missing opportunities, you’re not missing socialization, you’re not missing anything. That is to me the superpower (of distributed work).”
The duo see that this moment may represent – as Erica names it – a ‘code switch’ from prioritizing a job near your family and social life, to adjusting your work to where you live. But it’s an adjustment for everyone, she adds, including journalists:
“Journalism is also so much about the energy of the newsroom. There’s the camaraderie of it too. When you’re always distributed…and you don’t get to come back to your desk with all of your colleagues typing away furiously, you do lose a sense of the team sport of it.”
And that may be what we can all learn from journalists: at home, out for an interview, writing from a Third Workplace or with the team in the newsroom, figuring out how and where we work our best, deadlines and all.
“We’re not work from home evangelists. We’re kind of like ‘Work from wherever you’re going to be most effective’ evangelists,” says Matt. “I can’t wait for people to experience a good version of work from anywhere – not where you’re isolated, and fearing for your life or your family, but where you can actually really get out and enjoy your community.”
Thanks to Erica for joining and sharing her insight. And thanks for listening.
The full episode transcript is below
MATT MULLENWEG: All right, howdy everybody and welcome to the Distributed podcast. I’m your host, Matt Mullenweg. Today’s guest is a hard-working reporter covering the intersection of business, technology and people.
Erica Pandy is a business writer for Axios and author of the What’s Next newsletter. The last few months of her coverage has included biometric tracking, pandemic-driven migration patterns and a subject near and dear to my heart, which is the fried chicken shortage. We follow her most closely for her extensive coverage of the changing workplace, including diversity hiring, gender inequalities and other trends surrounding the return-to-work discussion.
Erica has been writing a lot about hybrid office culture, hybrid schools and even hybrid concerts and weddings. So you can imagine we’re going to be talking about one of our favorite topics – distributed work. Axios is an exciting publisher as well and Erica is right in the middle of some of the most relevant trends in reporting. So I’m excited to learn from someone whose work is all about learning from others in business, tech and beyond.
So, Erica, thank you so much for joining today.
ERICA PANDY: Thanks, Matt. It is awesome to be here.
MATT: So, where are you joining us from today just out of curiosity?
ERICA: So I actually am living out the trends that I’m writing. I lived in Brooklyn, New York, I was a classic millennial living in Brooklyn having that perfect hipster lifestyle. And after the pandemic hit, I have since moved to Hoboken, New Jersey. So, New Jersey has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic era exodus from New York and I am definitely part of that. I never saw myself as a New Jersey person but there’s more space and if I’m not going to be having to go to the office every single day I don’t mind being in a different state.
MATT: How did you choose Hoboken?
ERICA: A couple reasons. It’s just cheaper, first of all, than Brooklyn and I wanted to.. Also I’m one of those people who decided to buy during the pandemic. I had rented before this and for the price of something in Hoboken, I’d be living in a studio in Brooklyn. And there’s a little bit more space, there’s a little bit.. it’s a little quieter, a better place to raise a puppy. I also got a pandemic puppy. I’m really hitting all the stereotypes here. So, yeah, a plethora of reasons but yeah, not.. New York kind of shutting down for a year made me realize that I didn’t need to be in the thick of it all the time.
MATT: How is it feeling over there? I’ve heard New York is feeling a lot of energy and almost back to normal.
ERICA: Yeah, it really is. I mean, everything from the restaurant scene to the entertainment scene is back. And some of the things that the city is holding onto I think are great too. You know, all of those outdoor dining set ups that people really grew to love are staying up through the summer. And I think there is a real desire for that space that restaurants and people took over from cars in cities. So I’m hoping that the New York of the future will be a little bit more community driven and a little bit less just cars and parking.
MATT: It also feels like restaurants that happen to have street front have disproportionately benefited from that from like a restaurant in a basement or a second floor.
ERICA: Absolutely. It’s nice to see those kind of speakeasy type spots coming back too now that people aren’t really afraid to be in a cellar somewhere, in close quarters with others. Because that’s also quintessentially part of the New York experience. But that outdoor dining set up is basically like free advertising. You walk by, you see a well decorated outdoor dining set up, it’s covered, you go right ahead.
And one interesting thing that I’ve seen in New York, I don’t know if it’s happening as much in other cities, is restaurants, which as you and I know have been battered by the pandemic, are using this new world to make money in new ways. Like, there’s some cafes here in New York that opened for dinner at five or six but during the day they rent out their table space to remote workers so you can work from a place that’s not the home or the office.
MATT: Wow, and have you tried this yet?
ERICA: Yes. I tried it at a cafe in the East Village called Kindred. They’re like Eastern European food at night and a classic dinner spot but during the day, for $25 you get a table for eight hours, you get to have free Wi-Fi access, you have outlets right there and free coffee all day. And they’ve built in the outlets into the outdoor dining set up so you can sit outside but in a sort of closed, less-chaotic space.
It’s this rise of the third workplace. I like the flexibility of working in isolation on my own times sometimes, but you get sick of being in your house, especially if you’re a New Yorker and being in your house means being with three roommates.
MATT: Are there any studies or surveys you’ve come across that say how many people want to do this or how often it’s happening?
ERICA: Well, there aren’t really studies on this call it the third workplace yet because it’s so new. But the overwhelming majority of people, like around 60 or 70 percent, across different studies, want to do hybrid work. And what we’re learning is that hybrid work doesn’t really mean just home or the office, it means all sorts of things.
So, maybe you want to go to L.A. for a couple of days and visit friends but you only want to take one of the days off and you work there. Maybe you want to rent some space in a WeWork that’s closer to where you live rather than commute 40 minutes to the office. So, hybrid just encompasses all of these things where you’re just taking your laptop and sitting down and work happens where you are.
And then there’s only about 10 or 15 percent of people who want in-person all the time or at-home all the time. So it’s very much those are the two extremes and everybody else kind of wants to be a floater.
MATT: What feels tricky about the term ‘hybrid’ is you can kind of bring to it almost anything. Like, arguably, Automattic, which has been distributed for 15 years, was hybrid because we would do meet-ups. So we would try to see colleagues sometimes, it was just once year for the whole company and then a few weeks a year for each team. So I guess that is a form of hybrid. But I’m curious, if you were to describe the best possible form of hybrid and the worst possible form of hybrid, which would each archetype be?
ERICA: So, the best possible form of hybrid, and this is not just me, this is what some HR experts are trying to game out here, is every.. like you’re saying with Automattic, everybody meeting and everybody at home at the same time. So, if you’ve really going to do a hybrid work week what that would look like is everybody comes to the office on Mondays or Wednesdays, for example, and everybody is home on the other three days. The worst possible form of hybrid is when people just come and go as they please, which is unfortunately what a lot of companies are leaning towards.
And I will explain why each of those is. The best works the best because then the benefits of being in-person, which is that social interaction, which may be rubbing shoulders with leadership, which may be the innovation that happens on the spot when you are talking to someone at the coffee maker, happens when everyone is there. And then, when everyone is home, they can work on solo projects or get longer term projects done. If people are just coming and going as they please you might come to an empty office or you might stay home on the day where everyone else is there. So it doesn’t really work for anybody.
If you’re trying to make it a little bit more structured then you please your employees who want the social interaction but you also make your employees happy who want to be home more. If you just let people do whatever, you end up in a situation where maybe someone really wants to come to the office and then they arrive and they realize I’m coming in on days when no one else is here, I don’t like this energy, I’m leaving and going to a different company. But obviously it’s not as simple as that.
MATT: Can you just ask your colleagues, like, hey are you going to be there on Wednesday?
ERICA: I’ve kind of been doing that with Axios, trying to set up days where everyone comes in. But again, it’s not that simple because there’s some folks who want to work from home all the time and hybrid policies do let them do that. So I have honestly no idea what the future is going to look like.
I do sympathize with my colleagues who have kids or who have moved deeper into Brooklyn or further away and they don’t want to commute to an office in Chelsea every day, or ever. So we’ll see what it looks like. But I do think there’s going to be some redistributing of people towards companies that have work philosophies that align more with what they want.
MATT: That’s funny because what you said is the best, that few days a week in, a few days out, I would actually say is the worst of all worlds. [laughter]
ERICA: Yeah. You have a point too because if you have a days in, a few days out, then if I’m someone who really wants to move far away, I have to kind of have one foot in the door all the time. So that doesn’t have its (perks either?).
What you’re saying is great too. I mean, if you want to be an all-remote company but then do very intentional, big budget retreats where you bring everyone together in a way that’s fun and cool, that also works. So yeah, we’ll have to see where different companies land. Yeah, I don’t think anyone really knows. That is such a good example of how convoluted it all is that we have opposite ideas of what’s good, what’s bad.
MATT: [laughs] Yeah, for me so much of the power of working from anywhere is that ability to, like you said, travel for a week or two or even for a few days, or just leave that kind of commuting, what’s it called, like the commuting geographic boundary of where that office happens to be. Because then you unlock access to all the talent that either never lived there in the first place or all the talent that is thinking about something different, something further afield in Hoboken for optimizing their life and integrating their life with their work and their family as best as they could.
MATT: So, when you make it so there’s no penalty for not being in the office – you’re not missing opportunities, you’re not missing socialization, you’re not missing anything, that is to me the superpower of it and something companies have to do anyway, by the way, as soon as they get big enough where they’re going to have multiple offices or even multiple floors in the same office. Like, how much of that benefit of in-person work if your team is spread across three different floors and only sees each other every now and then are you really getting?
I’m curious, like, the really objective challenge of the sort of hand wave-y benefits of in-person work, especially after we had a year, a year and a half, of companies doing some of the best ever, certainly by stock market performance, at a time when we literally couldn’t see each other.
ERICA: Yeah. I think also going a little bit back on what works.. I think my perspective is a little bit warped just by my age too. I’m in that kind of mid to late twenties contingent and I really like the office. I mean, 25 percent of people are still meeting their spouses at the office. And I think there’s a lot of.. I talked to a lot of recently minted college grads who are finally ready to venture out into the world and have that daily commute in L.A. or New York and suddenly it’s like, oh, people don’t really come in anymore, you can if you want to but no one is really here.
So, I think you’ll see a little bit of tension there too between people who have families, who have established networks, who are very much happy to work from anywhere, stay home, or do their own thing, and then people who really are relying on coming into the office, finding a mentor, building a network because they just don’t have that yet.
MATT: Hmm. What does that say about the paucity of our social life as well, the whole idea of bowling alone, that the third place also has to be work related? Maybe it would be a good measure. Certainly as a manager, I’d prefer if less people met each other at work and had romantic entanglements. So maybe if that 25 percent went down, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing. It could also mean that we’re connecting more with community organizations, churches, volunteer organizations, sports, music, fun stuff that could be more interest or passion based than necessarily happening to work for the same company.
ERICA: I mean, that’s such a good point. So many of our other relationships, like our friendships and our family relationships, we conduct remotely just so we can have our work relationships in person. So, maybe it’s a code switch that we as a society, as a country, have to go through where work becomes a remote thing and family and friends and hobbies and interests become the in-person thing.
MATT: That is a really interesting way to put it. I wouldn’t have used those terms but I like it a lot.
MATT: I feel like journalists and reporters have always been a little more adapted to distributed work because often your beats or your reporting is going to take you away from the office. So how did you see that with your work and your colleagues?
ERICA: Absolutely true. I mean we’ve always had to have different bureaus and the tech reporters are out in San Francisco, some of the businesspeople are up in New York and then you’ve got politics in D.C. So we’re definitely used to that. And also, reporting involves work trips.
But journalism I think also is so much about the energy of the newsroom. A lot of people grow up watching those movies and TV shows about all the journalists on deadline, at computers. So there is a camaraderie of that too. So I think when you’re always distributed and you don’t have.. maybe you do the work trip and you don’t get to come back to your desk with all your colleagues typing away furiously, you do lose a sense of the team sport aspect of it.
And journalists have been through a lot. I mean, covering crisis after crisis, whether its political crises or public health crises with the coronavirus, has been really, really taxing on journalists’ mental health. And I think the sense of community being lost was not great. But we have Zoom, we have all of these technologies that let us connect again. And I’m sure newsrooms will be among the first to kind of have retreats and bring everyone together as soon as it’s safe to do so. And some are already doing so.
MATT: I can’t wait for people to experience a good version of work from anywhere. Not where you’re isolated and fearing for your life with your loved ones but where you can actually get out and really enjoy your community because that is a, at least I would say a qualitatively, like, order of magnitude different than certainly what I and many of my colleagues experienced in the past year.
ERICA: That is so true. I hear this when I talk to people who have been doing remote work and remote teams before the pandemic and I hear them but I can’t really relate because I haven’t been there yet. But yet people have said it’s very simple – working from home doesn’t always mean working from home during a public health crisis. It’s not always like this.
So I think once people start to loosen that negative association they have it could be really great. And realizing that you can do retreats and meet up whenever you need to.. For example, we have this great thing happening at Axios right now where our editorial leadership, our editor-in-chief and other top editors are doing a tour to our different bureaus and coming to the reporters instead of all the reporters having to fly out to headquarters. And that has been great for them to have an ear to the ground and it has been great for people to have the editor-in-chief come to their city.
I mean, Axios has expanded into local coverage. So we’ve got a bureau in northwest Arkansas now, we’ve got one in Des Moines. So, having the leadership come there is great.
MATT: As a leader I also found it also just.. you get a sense of the place so much more from being around the people in their home territory than you would if they were visiting a headquarters or making a pilgrimage. So I’m excited to hear that.
I actually, I guess it was last month now in New York, I was on a visit for a separate reason and I realized that so many of the folks I worked most closely with in the company were in the New York area or within an hour flight. So, I was actually able to have like ten one-on-one lunches and dinners and things with some of these colleagues who I’m very, very fond of and we work very closely. But it was almost.. We probably talked about work less as a percentage than we normally do in meetings just because it was so nice to connect again as humans and I really appreciated that.
ERICA: Yeah, that is such a big part of it too. When those interactions with leadership happen in your hometown, when you’re showing them the local spot to eat rather than everyone at HQ and at a company retreat it is a lot more generative and a lot more.. Like you said, it’s a lot more fulfilling than just all right, the CEO is at the headquarters, everybody report there and sit for meetings or seminars.
MATT: You had mentioned the verve of a newsroom and it sounds like you might be based with.. Axios has an office in New York?
ERICA: Yes, we do have an office in New York, right in the Chelsea, right by Penn Station area. And one of my fears in the middle of the pandemic was that we were going to shut that down because our headquarters is D.C., New York was always a side office. But I respect that our founders seem to have a great desire to have a presence in New York and even if most people want to work from home or they just..
Because the New York office here at Axios tends to be more design and tech and engineering folks, so not necessarily people who are craving the energy of a newsroom. But we’re going to keep it open and I think we’re going to keep expanding the team up here. So that’s great for me.
MATT: Yeah. I think especially New York is one of those cities where a lot of people are working from home or their workplace options are not the best.
ERICA: Yes, exactly. And you’re seeing new things. Like, WeWork has tried to become the Uber for the office market, which I think is interesting. You can book WeWork space by the hour now instead of getting a long-term lease for lots and lots of money for your company, you can just go in as a single person and say I’m going to have a desk there for four hours today. And then this restaurant model that I’m telling you about.
So I do think there are some opportunities for businesses to get creative here, to accommodate the rise of the third workplace. You might see it improve. But for now, trying to set up shop in a coffee shop in New York where you’re probably not going to have an outlet, you might get glares from people saying why did you buy one croissant and now you’ve been here for three and a half hours.. [laughter] So, as of now it’s not great but I am hopeful for the future.
MATT: I also think about the privacy of conversations. Like, what if you’re having a sensitive conversation with a source or something like that? Do you want to do that in a coffee shop where there’s ten people listening to you?
ERICA: Absolutely not. And even if you know that no one can listen or no one can hear you, just having the source hear the hullabaloo in the background and realizing you’re in public is just not a great look.
MATT: I have always been such a fan of journalism and journalists and you mentioned watching movies or the idolization that might have caused people to get into it. I’m curious what was your moment where you decided this might be something you’d want to pursue as your career and as your passion?
ERICA: It’s really interesting because it wasn’t really a movie that got me excited. Most of the movies that I watched the journalists were the annoying guys or the bad guys, I’m thinking about The West Wing, which I loved and the journalists were always the ones that came and spoiled all the fun by telling everyone the secret thing that was happening at the White House. [laughter]
But for me, I just kind of.. I never really latched onto one subject at school, I kind of liked a little of everything. And that made me confused, you know, what am I going to go into? And then I realized that journalism is the kind of profession where you can become an expert in a different thing every week and then just completely move onto something else and revisit it when you want to. And that idea of just floating around and diving into these micro passions I think really landed well with me.
Like you were saying, I mean, I wrote about weddings a couple of weeks ago, I’ve written about surveillance, I’ve written about China, I have written about stuff that I personally find interesting. My family is from Nepal, I wrote a story for Axios about Nepal’s geopolitical role in Asia as between these stalwarts, India and China. And then I moved onto a business beat and was able to cover remote work and all kinds of stuff. So, fun stuff, serious stuff, and just the range of things you can do rather than just doing the same thing every day I think was what really appealed to me.
MATT: As a funny aside and a correlation I have realized.. We’ve hired thousands of people over the years and we definitely have hired some who thought why would enjoy distributed work and ended up really wanting to be in a company with an office, which I think that is a completely fair reason and a good reason to leave Automattic. But I noticed that a really high percentage of the folks who wanted that office experience were obsessed with the show West Wing. Like could quote the episodes.
MATT: I love the show as well but there is something about that energy of that fictional West Wing, which was definitely infectious. Like, who wouldn’t want to live in a place where.. or work in and spend all your hours in a place like that environment?
ERICA: We were just talking about work being life. And that show was about work being life and they made it look pretty cool.
MATT: And there was such fun.. I did notice on those folks as well, they would just make everything a little more exciting on the good end and a little more dramatic on the bad end, kind of like the show does. You know? Like normal stuff would happen and it would be clever and funny. It wasn’t running into a tree; it was a sudden arboreal stop. And you’re like, oh that’s so good.
ERICA: Right, exactly, exactly. You become kind of entranced by office politics with that show and there’s a few others like it but it’s just so.. yeah. And journalists are like that too. When you are a reporter and your whole job is about seeking out information and learning things, you realize that you want to do that about your own colleagues and your own company. So I think the office politics and office gossip in newsrooms is a cut above everywhere else.
MATT: And how the media covers media I’ve noticed as well is I think with added vim and vigor than almost any other topic.
ERICA: Absolutely. Some of the most voraciously consumed content by journalists is media journalism because what is more interesting than your own life? All of my colleagues have become obsessed with the show Succession for the same reason. It’s about media, it’s about the business of media, which is just so interesting.
MATT: Is that the one loosely inspired by the Murdoch family?
ERICA: Yes, yes that’s the one.
MATT: You mentioned moving between these topics, which is very different than many, many roles because you are writing authoritatively as part of the first draft of history on.. it could be a different thing every week. So how do you approach boot strapping your knowledge in the (fundamentalism area?) to write about it in that authoritative way?
ERICA: So, I think it’s just about talking to the right people and you have to go from the top down. So, say you’re writing about the effects of virtual learning on students with learning disabilities, which is something I’ve done, and you have two weeks to pull together a story on it. Obviously, my beat is not education primarily so it’s not something I’m too well versed in so I’d start by talking to education professors who are really looking at this from the big picture view.
Then you go a level below that and you talk to teachers and non-profits, people who run non-profits on this issue. And then you go right to the source and you talk to families or students who are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. And I think getting those three perspectives from the 30,000-foot view to a level down to right on the ground really helps you form a picture in a way that you can write authoritatively on any topic.
That method has worked for me well and I also love talking to people. And I have friends who say I could not cold call all day or I could not spend my day talking to strangers but it’s I think one of my greatest joys is being able to talk to different people, especially the families, who are dealing with this. Or, you know, for my story on the future of weddings, I spoke to an actual couple who had a hybrid wedding. And people just sharing their stories is the most interesting part of it. And so many reporters now just talk to the experts and ignore the people so I think doing both is the perfect balance.
MATT: What do you do when the experts and what you’re hearing on the ground isn’t congruent?
ERICA: That’s why you keep the numbers and you go back to them. I’ve had experts tell me remote work works for everybody, it’s great. And you take that, this person has been studying remote work, they’ve been studying remote teams, they probably know what’s what. Then you talk to someone saying remote work is driving me crazy, I’m sitting and my two roommates are taking meetings, the wi-fi never works, I feel like I’ve lost my sense of self.
You go back to the experts and say but some people are saying this, what do you say? The experts can usually riff right there on the spot and say well, it might not work for everybody, here’s some examples that I found that I didn’t share with you on that first call. So, just taking your sources back to each other so they are almost having conversations through you also I think makes any story better.
MATT: The role of studies and surveys, it seems like when an article comes out, it gets covered very extensively in journalism and that becomes common knowledge. But also studies are constantly being reversed, like social science findings that maybe they don’t replicate or that changes and often that doesn’t get picked up as much. Or surveys might have flaws in their methodology. So, how do you balance that? Do you have to be an amateur statistician as well?
ERICA: I think with the rise of Twitter we’ve just become such headline-oriented news consumers. So you see so many people just taking a stat from a study, pasting it at the top and publishing that. And that has its place but I always think studies should be reported with a lot more context. I don’t think they should ever be.. in the first sentence of the story, you shouldn’t.. if you have that study you should add in a few more, unless it’s something like a big paper that came out in a scientific journal.
But there are so many studies that are done, for example, saying how many people want to do remote work versus hybrid work and there’s different stats on each one, including a few.. I like to wait until there’s a few that have the same headline and then you can write about it in a more qualitative way. And most newsrooms now have dedicated people on staff who are on there to gut check and make sure that what we are reporting is.. the methodology stands and is reportable and has integrity.
And newsrooms are also doing their own surveys. So I feel like surveys should be taken with a grain of salt but once you start seeing four or five surveys that are saying the same sort of thing then maybe it’s okay to lean into it a little bit.
MATT: Yeah and also as a journalist you know the incredible power of a question. And I’ve seen it while running surveys. Phrasing a question even a word or two differently can drastically change the outcome and how people respond to it.
ERICA: Absolutely, yeah. So, sometimes you ask people do you like hybrid work, for example, and they will say no but you forget to ask them, like you say, would you like hybrid work if you weren’t stuck at home because of the pandemic and then it completely changes.
MATT: Yeah. I wonder that about the 15 percent that say they want to be remote all the time. Does that truly mean never, ever seeing your colleagues, ever?
MATT: [00:28:40.22] (Attributing?) that to 15 percent of us seems high there. Like, who would..? You want to see them at least maybe once a year or once a decade, something.
ERICA: Yeah, well I mean you’re so right. Do those people think that this is a world without any retreats or do they think this is a world where the holiday party still happens, I just don’t have to go into the office? And you don’t know that until you conduct the survey yourself. So I think you’ll see more and more newsrooms do that, too.
But my feeling is that the people who say they want all remote are people who say I don’t want to even live within commuting distance of my workplace. I want to be able to be anywhere, whether that’s move across the country or move to a different country and still be a part of this. But I’m sure, like you said, those people do want that occasional meet-up even if it’s once a year or once every six months.
MATT: We have experimented so much with this over the decades really and ended up in a place where we said hey, work from anywhere, like literally we could care less and we want you to be able to be productive but expect three to four weeks of travel per year. And it was really important to communicate that up front because people might need childcare or pet sitting or someone to water the plants – they might need a plan for being away from home for three or four weeks.
And I also want them.. we don’t have any special subsidies around that so I want them to take that into account with their compensation, like at this salary, knowing that you’ll need to be away from home for three or four weeks per year, is that something you want to accept? Because we’re not going to, say, pay for pet sitting or any of those other things that.. costs you might incur from being away from home.
ERICA: And speaking of subsidies like you’re saying, we also have to figure out the new model for how we pay for the actual office. Because a lot of people have dealt with the cost of their office being offset onto them, whether that’s through wi-fi or electricity or having to buy a desk or a set up or whatever it is. And lots of companies have given stipends for this kind of thing. But if this is going to be, if remote work is going to be a big part of the working moving forward, companies are going to have to figure out what helping people set up their offices and keep their offices running looks like when they’re not in the central office building.
MATT: Yes. We’ve actually for many years had remote ergonomics consultants as well, so people who you can go on Zoom and walk them through your home set up – the monitor, the chair, everything like that. And it can make a huge difference. You get that stuff for free in an office, sort of, but the downside is you also get lowest common denominator of the desk, the chair, etcetera.
So we just say a budget, I forget exactly what it was, maybe it’s a $1000 or $1500 or something to set up your home office, and you can get whatever chair you want, whatever desk you want, etcetera. So there is a lot more variety and personalization in how people can configure it, given that they have the space and the timing to do so, which if you have to commute into a certain location, you might be making tradeoffs to be within a reasonable commute time.
I don’t have the survey here but almost no one is like wow, I love my two hour a day commute. [laughter] It does feel like one of those under.. or overrated things about any sort of office work is that commute time.
ERICA: Yeah, that’s kind of become the truth of the times is that people might like the office but they definitely hate the commute. And so I think that’s going to influence decisions going forward too.
I’m curious though, from what you’re saying, have you thought about the third workplace before the pandemic? I’m sure it’s come up. Because I’m thinking about employees of yours that may be sharing apartments with people or not able to set up the ideal home office. I wonder what strategies they have.
MATT: Yeah it’s worth saying because we do very few paid stipends or benefits at Automattic partly because it’s difficult to administer across 80 countries but we just also want to give people a choice. We don’t want to be too paternalistic so we want to pay people fantastic salaries and then they can direct that as they choose.
But two exceptions are obviously the retreats or meet-ups, which we have a $250 per person, per day budget for lodging and everything while you’re there. And the $250 also shows up one other place, which is we have a co-working stipend. So, up to $250 per person, per month you can put towards a WeWork equivalent. Or we have had a lot of people do exactly what you described in the past – find a bar or a restaurant that’s closed during the day and just get access. Or we allow you to put that $250 towards if you need to buy that croissant to not get kicked out of the coffee shop, that’s kind of all included.
Remarkably, it’s not used as much as you would think. But we’re not work from home evangelists, we’re kind of like work wherever you’re going to be most effective evangelists and giving people the choice and autonomy there. So if that is a WeWork for you, awesome. And I actually love that there can be creative juxtapositions of folks working on not just different teams but different companies but interacting, grabbing lunch together and what those creative collisions can inspire.
ERICA: Absolutely. I think that the other hard part for a lot of people during the pandemic experimenting with remote work has been every day is something new. You wake up, your dog might be feeling particularly loud today and that throws a wrench in your plans, your kid might be having a particularly tough day at school, you might try to go to a coffee shop and find there’s no seats. So I think the more people are a little bit more intentional about this and figure out what they like and figure out a routine for them, the better it works.
My parents recently moved to Manhattan during the pandemic, they were the rare move in. And I have been picking a day a week to go and work from their apartment and be with them and just knowing on Sunday that I’m going to do that on a Tuesday makes me feel better than waking up and just seeing where the day takes me.
MATT: That must be really beautiful for them as well. So that’s cool you’re able to do that.
ERICA: Yeah, that’s another trend I’ve been following is the evolving of family relationships during all this. It was kind of a renaissance for families at the beginning of the pandemic with.. you had multi-generational households for the first time in a long time, at least in the U.S., and people were loving it. Grandparents were loving spending time with grandchildren even if it was just because parents didn’t want to deal with childcare during remote school.
And you had a lot of young kids obviously, recent graduates having to move back in with mom and dad rather than to start life. And some families hated it but others loved it. So there were definitely some perks there. So I think it has been a good time for families.
And I think you’ll see a lot of those boomerang folks, those people who moved away before the pandemic but then maybe moved back home to a smaller town so they could be close to their parents for childcare, you’ll see a lot of them stick around because childcare is expensive and hard. And if your mom and dad are close by and you trust them and they’re good with your kids and both parties are happy, then why move back, why not just keep working remotely from your hometown?
MATT: Yeah. One thing you’ve written about that I actually found very alarming was the difference in experience between genders, men and women, on experiencing the pandemic, wanting to return to work, remote work, etcetera. So, what’s the latest there? What have you found and what do you think that bodes for this return to normalcy that hopefully we have over the coming year or two?
ERICA: The big trend right now that people are talking about is this idea of the great resignation, upwards of 40 percent of people might leave their jobs or are considering leaving their jobs and that has been painted as such a positive story, it is an era of worker power, there’s open jobs, you can decide to go to a different job if you like a working style better or if you want to switch careers.
But the dark side of that is, like you said, a lot of women have really suffered. About a million mothers have left the workforce due to the pandemic and due to child-care burdens and it is unclear if many of them go back. There’s a remote school that’s continuing that’s keeping people at home. And a lot of times, specifically for women, I mean, we’ve seen this with maternity leave, it can be hard to reenter at the same salary or at the same level if you leave and try to go to a different job. It’s maybe hard to get back into the swing of things if you have a kid now and you can’t go to that after work drinks or those happy hours where a lot of networking and rubbing shoulders happens.
So the pandemic has made that worse. And I think if you’ll see a future in which families have realized that staying home is better for childcare and they decide only one parent is going to go back to the office and the other parent is going to pursue remote work, it’s typically going to be, in heterosexual couples, the husband going back to work and the wife staying home with the kids. And I worry about an out of sight, out of mind culture in these hybrid workplaces where typically women are staying home and they’re losing out on raises or promotions or worse.
MATT: Well that would be terrible. Definitely we don’t want a regression in that, we’ve had a lot of progress in the past century there.
ERICA: Mhm. And one more thing on this, that’s why I think one of the biggest challenges HR departments are going to have to tackle, and one of the best ways to recruit and retain is going to be beefing up your childcare benefits in the workplace, giving parents actual money to put towards childcare or giving them flexible schedules and making sure that having a kid isn’t something that you just don’t talk about anymore, it’s more front and center.
But that’s been one of the sad things about covering specifically childcare during the pandemic is I don’t have a kid but I have talked to so many colleagues and sources and they’ve said, yeah, this is just how it is, finally people are paying attention now because the numbers are so stark and people are on Zoom calls and they’re seeing what my kids are like in the background. But childcare has always been a problem, the pandemic just spotlighted it and hopefully something now will be done about it.
MATT: I think there’s also an opportunity there for companies that can be truly distributed where you don’t need to be at the after-work drinks to get ahead. And we have seen the flexibility being the key thing there.
Even a hybrid, you know, one version of hybrid is you don’t have to be in an office at all but you have to work the same hours, kind of like nine to five, standard hours in a given time zone. And I think that also loses a lot of the benefits of that true flexibility. So if you are able to design.. accomplish the same in a given week as someone who works at the office nine to five but slice and dice it however best fits your schedule, maybe that means off a bit in the morning, off a bit in the afternoon to take your kids, pick your kids up, those types of things.
But we’ve found people do that very naturally. I think this is something parents have always done, which is figure out how to make things work. But it’s.. in an office environment, I think just culturally, the social mores of leaving the office in the middle of the day, even if the company was supportive of it, would feel weird to do because people equate being in the chair or being in meetings with working.
ERICA: Right and that was such a given up until the pandemic. I really do think that a lot of these norms are breaking down. Who knows if they’ll stay that way. But it’s a good thing to see not just are we rethinking where we work from, we are also rethinking the hours we work.
One great point I saw made in The Economist by Adam Grant, who is a work psychologist at Wharton was why is it that the workday ends at five and the school day ends at three? That makes no sense. We have had this forever where parents have these two hours, three to five, where they are constantly worried – where do I put my kid, do I pay for after school? Why don’t we just have the workday end at three and start earlier if it needs to or just have a shorter workday? I think just rethinking just everything from the place to the times to the structure of teams that the pandemic has allowed us to really do is a great thing.
MATT: Yeah, it’s not often where you get the opportunity to make these experiments, go through it all at the same time. Right? Usually it’s like – I’ve heard this so many times – like, ohh that stuff works for Automattic but it would never work for my company or something like that.
But I was amazed actually at how quickly so many companies that had probably never thought they could operate without people going into the office were able to adapt in this emergency situation. And I think it’s actually something I’m just really proud of the world on is that, given a crisis, so many people really made it work.
ERICA: Yeah. We think about it in the news, like, the New York Times still came out every day. They never missed a beat and no one was in the office. So it really can be done under pressure.
MATT: What do you see around the corner? You cover so many things, you probably get hints of what’s in the future more than most. So what do you think listeners should keep in mind for what’s coming up?
ERICA: There are so many little things but the big thing is just we are just going go lead much more tech-infused lives than we did before. And we have done it in the pandemic a lot but it is because the pandemic has accelerated it. When you think about things that you didn’t think of having a tech component in the past, they will in the future.
One of my most favorite stories I’ve written most recently is the one about weddings, like I told you. So many people want to have a small, intimate wedding and they can’t because their parents or their relatives want all these people to be invited and they feel all this pressure to have the wedding that everybody else wants them to have rather than the one that they want. So now you have that intimate wedding and then everybody else gets to be a part of it for free, via Zoom. You don’t have to pay that per-plate cost.
Concerts is a huge one. Dua Lipa had five million viewers at her concert. She is the next big thing in pop. Five million viewers at her virtual concert. And not only was that a great success and it had a huge budget but just that online concert raised tickets sales for her in-person concert by 75 percent. So, not only was it a way to get her music out there but it was a way to market her in-person show, which is how artists make money, through tours and shows.
So you’ll see a lot more virtual events for people to raise the hype and get the word out there and get more people to be a part of their music without putting all of that effort into a stage and close quarters and a limited amount of tickets.
And the other side of this is think of all the charity galas where they spend almost as much money as they raised because it’s all fancy and you’ve got a big venue booked. There were a lot of charity galas during the pandemic that raised the same amount of money just over Zoom. So you’ll see a lot more of that too, you know, more of the money going towards the cause rather than towards the fancy dinner.
So, I feel like tech is going to be a part of everything we do more and more. Another big area I cover is the future of payments in stores and contactless payment was this niche thing and you saw more and more people downloading Apple Pay or getting touch-less cards because they didn’t want to.. they wanted to minimize their touch points at a store for safety. That’ll keep going. More of that Just Walk Out, Amazon Go technology. Really, the pandemic has been an accelerant for tech everywhere.
MATT: Yeah, I started to see the Just Walk Out in I think it was JFK or Newark, I forget which one. But they had it at one of those airport convenience stores. I was like, wow, I expected this from a tech company, I didn’t expect this from Hudson or whatever it is that always has those little stores.
MATT: I guess the concert thing is also really counterintuitive to me because, as a musician and also a lover of music, there’s always been that energy of being in the room.
But now when you started saying that I also started to think about movies. I used to love going to movie theaters. I guess I still do a little bit. But that at-home experience, if you invest a little bit more in a TV and sound and then you could have your friends, your own drinks, your own food, your own comfort, you can pause it, all that sort of stuff is actually much, much nicer. And I’ve become so attached to that, I don’t feel like I’m missing that much from the slightly bigger screen or better sound.
ERICA: Right. It almost becomes two different experiences. Obviously going to the concert is a big night, it’s fun in and of itself. But Brandi Carlisle did this Christmas show where she was in her living room in the Christmas sweater and everything and live streaming into other people’s living rooms. So that’s a whole other type of experience where it’s way more intimate. The artist isn’t in this crazy cool costume on a stage, they are right there with you, it feels a lot more like I’m just in your house with you. So, fans of hers can enjoy her in that way and also go to a show and enjoy the big production of it.
MATT: I also hope that makes, you know, as a lover of people learning to make music and being participatory in music, I hope that also makes it a little more accessible, right? You see a Beyonce show and it just seems so unattainable. But you see a few folks sitting on a couch in the living room and it feels like something you and your friends can do too, which I think would maybe be a good outcome as well.
ERICA: Right, it really lowers that barrier to entry.
MATT: It makes it more accessible. Well I appreciate it that we were able to end on that note of some exciting things coming around the corner. And Erica, thank you so much. Already your coverage has been influential and I really appreciate following your work. Thank you so much for coming on the Distributed podcast.
ERICA: Thanks. Thanks so much, Matt. This was a lot of fun.
MATT: All right, have a good one. Take care. And all the listeners, we’ll see you see you next time.