Distributed FAQ: Should Companies Use Software Tools to Monitor Remote Workers?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. At distributed companies, managers can’t always see when — or if — employees are working. Do you recommend using monitoring software to ensure people are productive?

A. No.

I don’t advocate for using this type of software at all. Instead of monitoring progress, you should focus on outcomes. Respect the outcome and trust that your employees will do their jobs.

Culture is what you do when no one is looking — it’s something I firmly believe in, and it’s especially true in the context of trust in a distributed setting.


Even in companies that thrive on mutual trust, different communication styles and social-interaction preferences can lead to friction. Listen to Matt’s conversation with Morra Aarons-Mele about introversion and anxiety in distributed companies.

Distributed FAQ: What Does the Ideal Remote Office Setup Look Like?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. Who at Automattic has the best office setup — and what does an ideal remote office look like?

A. The short answer is: nobody and everybody.

When people join Automattic, we provide an allowance they can spend on setting up their home office. They can invest in an ergonomic chair, a standing desk, a good monitor, or almost any other item that would make their workspace more comfortable.

One of the best things about working from home, however, is that everyone gets to have a corner office — or their version thereof. You can avoid compromises that you would have to make in a shared office. This goes beyond the choice of furniture; for example, music is something that can help some people when they’re feeling low and need to change a mood or mindset. In a traditional office, they’d need to use headphones. In their home office, they can do whatever works for them.

Having complete agency over your physical environment is incredibly empowering and can inspire people to be more creative and productive.  It also makes us more inclusive as a company, and allows us to attract a talent pool that includes people for whom an office isn’t the best environment.


Check out our Tools and Gear page for specific recommendations, and listen to Matt’s conversation with Lydia X. Z. Brown about flexible and inclusive work environments.

Distributed FAQ: How Did P2 Become Automattic’s Signature Mode of Communication?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. Automattic is known for using internal blogs called P2s for most work-related conversations. How and why did that happen?

A. In Automattic’s early days, we collaborated a lot directly in the code, or on IRC (Internet Relay Chat), a Slack precursor. We quickly realized that it wasn’t great for asynchronous discussions, and when we tried email instead, it didn’t allow for the transparency that is the hallmark of open source (it also brought a lot of noise with it). Finally, we ditched email and moved to an internal blogging system. P2 is the evolution of the blog for the purpose of working within and across teams. It’s organized much like a Yammer or Facebook stream, but on the back end it still operates like a blog, allowing for archiving, advanced search, and rich media embeds. 

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Distributed FAQ: How Do You Create Company Culture When You Rarely See Your Colleagues?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. Trust and a strong shared culture are two ingredients that help companies thrive. How do you build either when coworkers don’t meet each other in the hallway every day?

A: Culture is what people do when no one is looking. Companies redefine their culture in real time whether they’re distributed or colocated.

In more normal times, meetups are key to Automattic’s culture — employees expect 3-4 weeks of travel per year, one of which is devoted to the company-wide Grand Meetup, and the rest to team and division meetups. We’ve seen that you can build trust and create bonds when you break bread across a table and meet in person, and then use that momentum to power relationships for years when everyone’s back in their home base.

But even these days, when travel is suspended for the foreseeable future, there are many ways to foster trust and to reinforce Automattic’s values and culture. We put a lot of emphasis on social communication at the company, leveraging the same tools we use for our work — P2, Slack, Zoom — to encourage informal interactions. For example, many teams start weekly meetings with a fun, non-work-related question. We created automated systems that can pair people up to chat about any topic they wish, and recently launched Connectomattic, a series of video calls based on shared interests and experiences, from meditation to baking.

Ultimately, we believe in giving teams autonomy to create a culture that works for them.


For more thoughts on culture and trust in distributed settings, listen to Matt’s conversation with Glitch CEO Anil Dash.

  

Distributed FAQ: How Does Crisis Management Work in a Remote Context?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. How do you tackle crises and tough situations in a remote setting, when it’s impossible to gather all the relevant parties in one room?

A. The number-one priority is communication. Communicating often and transparently is key. At Automattic, we have a company-wide Slack #announcements channel that will link to a P2 blog post for additional context. We advocate for a framework of radical candor. 

We’re a distributed company, but we deal with the same challenges as other companies, including security breaches, hacks, downtime, fraud, and employee issues. I believe that conversations that happen in written form can be very helpful — they’re archived, so we can refer back to them, and they facilitate learning. One person can share a written summary with their interlocutor so they come to a shared understanding.

While working distributed, you can de-escalate yourself easily. You can take a break. A micro-habit you may want to introduce is to take a mindful minute and breathe.

And one final guideline we’ve adopted over the years, after seeing it defuse tough, challenging moments: assume positive intent (lovingly dubbed API) in all communications. Take the extra moment to consider how you might have misinterpreted a colleague’s words, or how they may have misread yours.


For more on communication and chaos, listen to Matt’s conversation with Automattic’s Sonal Gupta.

Distributed FAQ: What Are the Key Tools for Creating an Effective Remote Work Environment?

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. What are the necessary tools and processes to create an effective remote work environment?

A. There’s a lot to say here, of course, so let’s start with a few fundamentals:

  • Choose a small set of core applications for the entire organization, for example Zoom for video calls, Slack for day-to-day conversations, and G Suite for documents, spreadsheets, and (if you choose to use it) email. 
  • Foster a strong sense of autonomy. Give individual teams a lot of freedom to choose the rest of their stack, whether it’s GitHub for development, Asana or Trello for project management, InVision or Figma for design, and so on.
  • Try out a no-email approach. At Automattic, our secret sauce is that we don’t use email within the company. Instead, we have an internal blogging system called P2. P2 displays all conversations on a team or project’s homepage, updates in real time, and comes with the built-in benefit of being a searchable blog. You can also tag individuals and teams on P2. This system creates rich conversations that happen asynchronously and then become the collective wisdom of Automattic. We publish well over 1,000 posts and comments every day.
  • Default to public. At Automattic, we’ve developed a very valuable instinct: always default to everything being public (within the company, that is) — always default to trust.
  • Invest in solid video conferencing tools. Having a good setup for video calls is very important. Audio quality is essential if you’re on a lot of calls, so go for a good headset or use noise-cancelling software. A good desk lamp to illuminate your face can make a real difference. And give some thought to the background people will see behind you — it can have personality, but you’ll want to keep it from getting too cluttered. 

For a comprehensive list of recommended hardware and software for remote workers, check out our Tools and Gears page, as well as Matt’s “What’s in My Bag?” posts.

Distributed FAQ: How to Transition to Remote Work

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies, executives, and individuals face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q. With the rapid rise of distributed work, what are your top pieces of advice for someone going through the transition from a traditional work environment to a remote one?

A: There are many things individuals can do to make the switch successful, but here are five pointers to get you started.

  • Make a list of all the things you like and don’t like about previous work experiences and use it to design — and implement — micro-habits to increase your health and happiness. Remote work comes with the autonomy to build your own bespoke work environment.
  • Writing ability is crucial, and distributed work only amplifies its importance. Assume positive intent when using written communication.
  • Look at the outcomes you’re producing, not the time you spend at your laptop. It can be powerful to self-track and document what you’re working on. At Automattic, we encourage self-analytics — taking agency over the assessment of one’s own outcomes.
  • It’s important to structure your day. A little more schedule actually helps, whether it’s to keep a normal grooming routine in the morning or to set a firm time at which you turn off everything. Set a time to stop as well as to start, and find a dedicated workspace. Implement systems that help you maintain focus (e.g. the Pomodoro Technique for time management).
  • Implement self-care and opportunities to interact socially.

For more insights on how to design your own distributed work environment, listen to Matt’s conversation with Lydia X. Z. Brown, or browse our gear and tools recommendations.

Distributed FAQ: Hiring

In Distributed FAQ, Matt Mullenweg addresses some of the most common issues companies and executives face as they consider transitioning to a distributed model.


Q: When interviewing candidates, are there any tactics you recommend to better assess candidates’ fit with a distributed workforce?

A: At Automattic, one thing we try to do is set our expectations publicly so they are obvious. We stress our company-wide travel expectations (3-4 weeks a year), and highlight our benefits. We do this to add a layer of self-selection to the process. We also do trial projects, which last a few weeks and are incredibly valuable when making hiring assessments.

Transparency is key. We put a lot of thought into our hiring process to ensure that it reflects our culture in order to manage job applicants’ expectations. For example, we include our Creed as part of the standard offer letter.


Q: We are currently hiring for a few roles and it’s quite likely that the entire process will be remote. Is there anything we need to look out for, or do differently than in a non-distributed context?

A: Our entire hiring process can oftentimes be conducted over Slack.  Every new hire starts with two weeks of support, which is a hands-on opportunity to learn about our products and to develop empathy for our customers. Our support folks — Automattic’s Happiness Engineers — are our welcome wagon.


To learn more about distributed hiring:

  • Listen to Matt’s conversation with Automattic’s Head of Developer Experience, Cate Huston, here on the Distributed Podcast.
  • Read a recent interview with Automattic’s Global Head of Human Resources, Lori McLeese.