The makers of WordPress learned the secret to employee happiness years ago.
Tech behemoths and startups alike spend a fortune on creating plush offices with lots of perks. But arguably the biggest perk is allowing employees to work wherever they want, whenever they want.
This is something Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg understood a decade ago when he launched the online publishing platform WordPress. Today his global workforce of 260 still doesn’t operate with a central location (its San Francisco headquarters are nearly always close to empty.) Instead of investing money into office perks, Automattic invests that money into meet-ups for its employees.
Last year at a Lean Startup conference, Mullenweg said the following about the traditional workplace: “We have this factory model, and we think someone’s working if they show up in the morning and they’re not drunk, they don’t sleep at their desks, they leave at the right time. But that has so little to do with what you create. And we all know people who create a lot without fitting into those norms.”
Research indicates employees greatly value autonomy. This is part of what’s driving millennials to leave traditional offices and go out on their own. “It’s a cultural phenomenon,” says Alex Abelin, co-founder of Liquid Talent, a startup that matches creative professionals with local work in real time. “Everything is pointing in that direction. We care more about mobility and independence.”
Automattic started out as a distributed workforce because it was the easiest way to attract the best engineering talent from around the world.
Mullenweg, who took the CEO role in January, spends one-third of his time on hiring and auditions employees before bringing anyone on full time. Automattic hires about 40% of applicants who go through tryouts. “Many of our workers were self-employed or freelance at some point in their careers, which helps them understand how to be self-directed,” he wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
Automattic employees communicate with each other through P2, an online tool similar to Yammer, in addition to Google Hangouts and other services (but mostly avoid email.) Teams meet up every couple of months in a city of their choice, and there are annual all-company, weeklong events. Mullenweg tells Quartz that he’s usually on the road, spending time with different teams around the world. “I’m where the people are,” he says.
Allowing employees to work from anywhere makes it easier to focus on the work itself, without the distractions of office politics. Around 70% of Americans work in open-plan offices, and research shows that the open spaces actually have a negative impact on productivity and overall happiness. In his paper “The Transparency Paradox,” Harvard assistant professor Ethan Bernstein measured the effect of privacy on employee productivity, and concluded that there is a cost to too much transparency. “Privacy is just as important for performance,” he writes in an upcoming issue of Harvard Business Review.
Former Automattic team leader Scott Berkun told Quartz: “We have this belief that most work is not distributed, that it’s local. But people are spending most of their time looking at screens. If you are looking at screens, you could be anywhere.” Still there were moments—about every three or four weeks—during his 18-month tenure when he wanted to “get everyone into a room with a white board” to work on a problem while observing everyone’s facial expressions.
Both Berkun and Bernstein stress that the success of companies like Automattic aren’t necessarily tied to being decentralized or not. Operating remotely is just another way of working. Success is more directly related to the types of people the company hires, including whether they are good communicators, and the underlying power structures at play—factors that influence whether any company sinks or swims. Berkun says that Automattic is “pretty flat, non-hierarchical,” which gives employees freedom to launch product updates whenever they want. Managers (or “leads”) aren’t incentivized with additional pay.
All the benefits of technology aside, the most successful companies trust their employees—whether they’re across the world, or right under the boss’s nose.