Welcome to the Chaos: The Distributed Workspace


I am a heavy WordPress.com user (this blog, learningscenarios.org, Gamechanger 3.0 and have been impressed with way that Automattic has organized itself. Two of their staff talked about how they can hire the most talented people and let them work from where they are already located.

Lori McLeese is the HR lead of Automattic (she is the only HR person at the company of about hundred people now). Nikolay Bachiyski is a developer. The company is 100% distributed and has been like that from day one. They are located in 24 countries and 79 cities. In only 7 cities do they have more than one “Automatician” living and working. They do not have offices and no set working time. Most people work on a single big project: wordpress.com

One thing that they’ve found is that it is hard to build personal relationships. They test new staff in a trial project to see if they are a fit for the culture of the company. The trial can last for a few weeks or even a few months. Once you finish it successfully you are “welcomed to the chaos” and will have to do your first three weeks working in “happiness” which is their customer support team. This helps you learn in a safe environment and teaches you to respect the happiness engineers. You are also learning that it is always ok to ask questions, to bug people and to over-communicate.

Not a lot of technical people are used to this type of communication, so they give new people a mentor (or a buddy). This can sometimes lead to some negative feedback. They have done three things to manage this well:

  • Hire the nicest people.
  • Just communicate more.
  • Face-to-face time is still important, so they have a grand meetup once a year where they all get together for a week and mostly work in temporary teams. Each individual has to prepare a 5-min flashtalk about themselves or about something they are interested (they really can be about anything). They also use this time to get to know eachother. They are now with 100 people so they can’t really have quality time together anymore. So each team comes together 1-4 times a year and do mini-projects and brainstorming (which is hard online).

P2 [pi tu:] is their main form of communicating with each other. It is just a WordPress theme geared for collaboration. It helps make things transparent: all P2s are public inside the company and many decisions have started in some form at a P2. Another advantage is that they are permanent and searchable. There is a culture of oversharing in which P2s very often get personal (there are a lot of “water cooler” P2s). This has led to a lot of company memes. The official company meme is “blank in a blank” in which people photograph themselves inside something small. More examples: an AFK P2 on which you can find out if somebody is away from their keyboard for a while and why. Next to P2s they also use a lot of voice and video chats and hangouts.

They also encourage Automaticians to attend their local WordCamp so that they can really get involved with their open source community. They also often meet at conferences were all staff is encouraged to speak. People are also encouraged to visit each other.

In Automattic’s company creed it says: “I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company.”.

They would say that their productivity as a company is dependent on how well they communicate. There is also the aspect of personal productivity: there are many examples of how liberating it can be to be able to really make your own schedule and be flexible. It can also be challenging to get to focus sometimes. In their employee-edited employee fieldbook they have collated a set of advice on how find focus for your work. The best way to help people focus is to have them work on something that is challenging and meaningful.

If you like how all this sounds, then maybe you will want to apply for a job with Automattic.