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.

On the Psychology of Remote Meetings

Anyone who’s spent a few minutes on Zoom (by now, who hasn’t?) must have intuitively grasped that remote meetings via videoconferencing come with distinct textures and dynamics compared to in-person conversations. But what is it that underpins these differences? Over at Google’s The Keyword blog, UX Researcher Zachary Yorke explores the scientific explanations for the way our face-to-face communication changes as soon as it switches from colocated to distributed.

Even minuscule details, like milliseconds in audio lag, can make a Zoom call feel radically different from a hallway chat:

When the sound from someone’s mouth doesn’t reach your ears until a half second later, you notice. That’s because we’re ingrained to avoid talking at the same time while minimizing silence between turns. A delay of five-tenths of a second (500 ms)—whether from laggy audio or fumbling for the unmute button—is more than double what we’re used to in-person. These delays mess with the fundamental turn-taking mechanics of our conversations. 

Read the rest of the post at The Keyword

Photo via Pexels

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.

Episode 20: Adam Gazzaley on the Distracted Mind During a Crisis

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Matt Mullenweg speaks with neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley, co-author of the 2016 book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, about how our brains work, particularly during times like the current pandemic. How does the brain handle internal and external stimuli, and what do we know about the effect of practices like meditation, exercise, nutrition, and sleep? 

Gazzaley obtained an M.D. and Ph.D. in Neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, completed Neurology residency at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the David Dolby Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center at UCSF.

Gazzaley co-authored The Distracted Mind with Larry D. Rosen, and he’s a scientist who enjoys seeing his work solve real-world problems. He’s also founded startups, including Akili Interactive and Sensync, to build technology products that enhance learning, mindfulness, and well-being. More can be found at his website, gazzaley.com

A full transcript of the episode is below.

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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.

To Improve Videoconference Calls, Choose the Right Gear for Your Home Office

Tech news site The Information recently launched a new series, “Out of Office,” focusing on the rapid growth of remote work. Automattic CEO and Distributed Podcast host Matt Mullenweg appeared in the inaugural column, talking to reporter Nick Wingfield about his home-office setup and gear preferences:

Naturally, he has a perspective on what technologies to invest in to improve the quality of video calls, a key part of working from home. “I definitely think of a hierarchy,” says Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, which operates WordPress[.com], Tumblr and other digital properties. “For me, it goes internet, audio, lighting, video.”

Read “How to Zoom Like a CEO” over at The Information

Share Your Distributed Work Stories and Questions

As the world continues to react to the global pandemic, we want to hear from you about your work experiences.

Share your stories or questions for Matt in the comments below, or you can send us a voice memo. Just use your voice memos app on your phone or computer to record your question, then email the sound file to podcast@distributed.blog.

If we choose your question we’ll feature it on the Distributed podcast. You can also include your name and where you’re calling from.

Thanks for reading and listening.

Photo via Pexels

Matt Mullenweg with Sam Harris on Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy

Distributed host Matt Mullenweg recently appeared on Sam Harris’s excellent podcast, Making Sense, sharing the “five levels of autonomy” when it comes to distributed work. Listen to their wide-ranging conversation on how companies transition to remote work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We love Sam’s podcast, Making Sense, so for more go to samharris.org/podcast/ and you can also subscribe to get his premium content, which is totally worth it.

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

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.

Vanessa Van Edwards on Navigating the Virtual Workplace in Stressful Times

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The world has dramatically changed in just a few weeks. As companies around the world shift to remote work, how do we navigate this crisis? Distributed host Matt Mullenweg talks to Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author, speaker, and founder of Science of People, about how we communicate with our friends, family, and coworkers during a time when Zoom and Slack are our primary tools for understanding each other.

To learn more about Vanessa’s work, visit scienceofpeople.com.

The full episode transcript is below.

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