On the (Cool) Tools You Need for a Smooth Distributed Experience

The basic toolkit for distributed teams has stayed fairly stable in recent years — a real-time chat app, a robust video conferencing platform, and discipline-specific collaboration systems for engineers, designers, and support teams, to name a few. On his recent appearance on the Cool Tools podcast (hosted by Mark Frauenfelder and Kevin Kelly), Matt Mullenweg dives deeper into the world of distributed tools, talking about the ones that streamline and optimize his work as the CEO of a company that employs around 1,200 people across dozens of countries and multiple time zones.

Matt covers several fronts, from better webcam setups to messaging apps, and gives a special nod to P2, the WordPress theme that powers Automattic’s internal blogs:

We use actually a free theme called P2, which turns your internal blog or any blog, really, into kind of a real-time system. It sort of puts a posting box on the homepage, so anyone who’s a logged-in user can see a posting box right on the homepage. You don’t have to visit a separate admin. And then it has fully threaded comments and posts also on the homepage. And by real time, I mean if a new comment or post comes in, it’ll actually pop up on your screen without you having to reload. It’s great for asynchronous conversations. We use it instead of email actually, and it’s been definitely the thing that’s allowed us to scale to now 1,200 people.

Listen to the entire conversation on Cool Tools

Episode 23: Lara Hogan on the Secret to Being a Successful Manager

Subscribe to Distributed at Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen.

Are companies setting up their managers for success? What are BICEPS? How do you assemble your colleagues like a management Voltron?

Lara Hogan is the founder of Wherewithall, a firm that specializes in management and leadership training — a company that Automattic has worked with in the past. She’s the author of Resilient Management, a must-read for anyone who is a manager, wants to become one, or generally just wants to learn how to be a better teammate.

Lara spent a decade growing emerging leaders as the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and an Engineering Director at Etsy.

Related links:

Management Voltron Bingo Card

Core Needs: BICEPS (Paloma Medina)

@Lara_Hogan on Twitter

Full episode transcript is below.


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.

The Things You Learn about Leadership after 10 Years at a Distributed Company

For many, remote work is a recent phenomenon — a nascent practice brought about by public health concerns. By now, however, there are also quite a few companies that have used various distributed models for years, and the people who’ve been part of their journeys possess deep knowledge about what makes (and occasionally breaks) a fully distributed workforce.

Case in point: Sara Rosso, WordPress.com’s Director of Product Marketing. Sara recently celebrated her 10th anniversary at Automattic, and to mark the occasion she took to her own WordPress.com blog to share 10 leadership lessons she’s learned over the course of a decade working with and leading distributed teams.

Sara’s insights span a wide range — from ways to foster psychological safety in the absence of shared physical space, to tips on how to successfully separate work hours from personal time when they both take place in the same house (if not the same room). One of her standout lessons? Optimizing remote meetings to work for people with diverse communication styles and preferences:

Though written communication is a very strong skill needed in a remote company, there is likely a wide variance of personalities and work styles in the company. A remote company can attract both clear extroverts (like myself) and introverts who would be fine not to meet up even twice a year.

One of the ways I’ve had to learn how to lead team and project synchronous meetings is to be sensitive to all types of personalities. As Automattic has grown, it has gone from a company where I knew who had kids and where they each lived, to video calls with people whom I’d never met, never worked with, and in some cases I wasn’t even sure what country or city they’re sitting in.

As an extrovert I am especially aware I need to make space for others to contribute in a synchronous discussion. However not everyone wants to be included in that moment, especially when that means calling on someone spontaneously. Some of the advice I’d heard in the past for meetings was “call on people who haven’t spoken up” to make sure diverse voices are heard on the call. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and can definitely backfire.

To explore tools and strategies based on Sara’s deep experience at Automattic, head over to her blog to read the full post.

Illustration by Lily Padula

Episode 22: Raj Choudhury Sees a Future Where You Don’t Have to Move Your Family for a Job

Subscribe to Distributed at Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen.

“We have introduced so many frictions to people’s lives by forcing them to move.”

Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, the Lumry Family Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, studies the future of work — specifically the changing geography of work. What happens to cities, to immigration policies, and to issues around gender equity when more companies let people work from anywhere?

Choudhury earned his doctorate from Harvard, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management. Prior to academia, he worked at McKinsey & Company, Microsoft, and IBM.

For more on Choudhury, go to HBS.edu or follow him on Twitter (@prithwic).

The full episode transcript is below.


Are We at the End of the “Culture of Presentism and Micromanagement”?

Back in April, when entire sectors of the economy had just recently — and abruptly — transitioned to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Matt Mullenweg shared an aspirational roadmap, describing the five levels of autonomy companies go through along their journey from fully colocated to truly distributed. With increasing signs that we might never go back to the old normal, Enrique Dans, at Forbes, reflects on what executives and employees alike have learned in the intervening months. He takes Matt’s five levels as a starting point to ask how our collective understanding of remote work has changed as well, and what the near future might hold.

Where are we headed? Toward levels 4 and 5, characterized by the optimization of working practices, which means changing the synchronous-asynchronous balance: fewer rounds of endless video conferences and more short videos recorded for later viewing, much more Slackand similar communication tools, along with less time spent sitting in front of a screen listening to other people. Shared documents people can work on synchronously — coordinating in the chat window — or asynchronously are infinitely more effective than a marathon video conference. A spreadsheet, text document, or presentation that requires input from several people is an ideal solution for Google Docs, Office 360, or any of their competitors.

Head to Forbes to read the rest of Enrique Dans’ article.

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.

Episode 21: Morra Aarons-Mele on Introversion and Anxiety in Remote Work

Subscribe to Distributed at Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RSS, or wherever you like to listen.

Is working from home a breakthrough for introverts?

The answer, of course, is not so simple. Matt Mullenweg’s latest Distributed conversation is with Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever podcast for HBR Presents from Harvard Business Review, and founder of award-winning social impact agency Women Online and its database of women influencers, The Mission List.

She’s also the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home).

To learn more about Aarons-Mele’s work, go to womenandwork.org.

The full episode transcript is below.


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.