Automattic and the ‘distributed workforce’, let’s reinvent the way we work

Maybe the company name Automattic doesn’t immediately ring a bell, but I’m sure WordPress does. Automattic is the company behind WordPress and also other web services such as Gravatar, Akismet, Polldaddy, … If you were to look at traffic numbers for all websites running on WordPress combined, they would be the 3rd biggest in the world, right after Google and Facebook. This website represents only a very tiny part of that :-)

It’s not WordPress as a product I wanted to talk about however. During an interview at the Golden Drum Festival about a week ago I was asked about how I saw the evolution of our business and the new challenges that might arise while competing more and more with tech companies, attracting the right talent and everything. I said first of all that I think one of the biggest challenges we face in attracting talent is no so much that we compete with tech companies but that we compete with companies that think very differently about how they are organised and maybe also how they are evaluated. It made me think of a conversation I had with Sara Rosso, responsible for the VIP services at WordPress, at LeWeb last year. She explained me how they are organised as a distributed workforce and I thought that was massively impressive.

Web_AuttomaticMap

Think about it. More than 130 people work at Automattic, spread over 27 countries or 80 different cities. You cannot not be curious on how they make that work. In case you’re a small startup you probably can image something like that for your own business but once you’re talking about several dozens or in this case hundreds of people that’s not so easy to do. Even if I look at myself, when I was still working at Microsoft they launched ‘The new world of work’ and when we moved into the new office around that time proof was there that technology can really help you organise your work in a different way. Since I worked for the London office but out of Belgium I often worked from home and there was nothing holding me back from doing my work just as fine as if I were to spend all that time in the office. And that was really not even that advanced back then compared to Automattic today.

The way they make it work is even more impressive. All internal collaboration is based on WordPress. They make little use of email internally, most of the communication happens on WordPress blogs. A result of that is that they’re also extremely transparent since pretty much everything on those internal WordPress sites can be consulted by everyone (internally). All other communication runs via IRC and on occasion a group conversation via Skype when IRC doesn’t suffice. Very little of the communication happens over the phone. All internal WordPress blogs are based on the P2 WordPress theme, a kind of mix between Twitter and Facebook. The expression “P2 it” is used by everyone, it’s a reminder to put information from a meeting, chat, … on the P2 platform. This way all decisions and information is well documented.

Tasks are organised in so-called ‘fire teams’ of 4-6 people and those teams have their own charter and their own objectives for the given tasks. They don’t work based on time tracking (something that would anyway be difficult based on how they are structured) and evaluation is fully based on reaching the goals that were set. And we all link evaluation based on goals but still how it’s organised here is very different than what’s commonly used. The smaller teams will maybe meet each other in real life maybe 2-3 times a year and once a year the whole company gets together.

The company also has an ‘open vacation policy’. This means there are no pre-defined number of holidays for an employee, they think that everyone should have the possibility to take the time for themselves and family and as a result should be able to plan their own time off.

It’s clear that the model Automattic is using probably is not workable within every industry. Looking at my own industry a lot has been written already about the importance of people sitting in the same space (or not). And I get many of the arguments but a lot of times they also sound very defensive towards the current structures and procedures and we all know you can only start innovating when you challenge that status quo. It does inspire me to think about different ways of working with people and I do see a clear benefit, the world basically opens up when looking for talent in when you could make that work. Location becomes a secondary consideration, whereas today it feels that for many people location is actually becoming more important than it used to be.

Photo credit Automattic.com

Want something new? Ask a talent without experience.

About a year ago one of the founders of the agency Duval Guillaume I work for wrote a post in which I recognized myself quite a lot. I looked it up again this week since I was recently contacted to help on an innovative project which in the end didn’t go through as the prospect ended up going for someone with a long life experience in the industry they were in. And I didn’t think that was a particularly good choice. Especially since that industry has seen only little innovation in the last decades, so why chose one with a lot of experience in that industry for an innovative project? Still don’t get it.

Guillaume wrote a good post about this ‘phenomenon’ after getting similar questions from advertisers at the time he was still in the agency:

“How many times advertisers have asked me: "do your people have experience in our market?". I would answer: "Why? You want them to do the same as all the others?" When your prospect has a yoghurt brand, they’ll be so happy to hear you’ve worked for Danone or Nestlé. Even if you were only running around with coffee in the same building. They need it as reassurance. They want to make sure that you understand the yoghurt consuming human being. Actually, what they want is that you understand the Danone or Nestlé eating consumer and if you say yes, you’ll be doing me-too ads for a couple of years, until your prospect has decided it is time for someone else with the experience.”

He also made a good analogy with nature to explain even more why this isn’t a good idea:

“I use an example from nature to explain this phenomena and a solution. Listen to the frogs on a summer night. The frogs call. What they actually do is trying to get selected by a sexual partner. The frog that produces the most decibels probably has the best genes for the offspring. What happens after a while is that the frogs synchronize their calls. It gives them all individually the feeling they are loud callers. Just like small brands, they are happy to be part of something bigger. Off course, it misses its effect, because it will only confirm the big frog’s dominance. But keep listening, and you’ll see nature has found a solution to this. While all the frogs croak together, one little frog croaks off synch.

CRRRROAK!! croack. CRRRROAK!! croack

That is what you hear. And all the attention goes to the little frog.”

A lot of companies want to be different, want to zig when others zag, … but when it comes down to business they don’t act that way. They don’t hire people to zig.

“The lesson is this: If you want something new to happen, ask it to people with zero experience. Chances they come up with more of the same are small.”

Thanks again Guillaume. For this lesson and for getting me on board of the agency without having an agency background.