In the early 1940s, companies like Bell Labs started a modernist revolution of the way employees experience their eight hour workday. With their sprawling Murray Hill, NJ facility designed by the now-defunct Voorhees, Walker, Foley and Smith, Bell was instrumental in introducing the now-classic structure of American knowledge laboratories: spacious, leafy campuses to improve morale, flexible interior spaces designed to enhance interdisciplinary work, and in general an emphasis on satisfying their employees’ human needs. You can see this kind of thinking at play most obviously at places like Google, with their San Francisco campus.
Today, companies like Automattic are taking the revolution a step further by getting rid of the campus entirely. Automattic is most famous for developing WordPress.com, a free blogging service, and contributing to the open-source platform it’s based on that goes by the same name. The employees of WordPress, as most widely documented by Scott Berkun in The Year Without Pants, almost universally work remotely, collaborating with each other through a special type of chat room called a P2. Each new hire gets a $2,000 stipend to deck out their own home office, or they can choose to rent out a desk at a co-work space, and WordPress will reimburse it. About ten of the company’s nearly three hundred employees choose to work at their gorgeous and spacious San Francisco office, but the rest work from all over the world.
That’s the most obvious and visible way that Automattic does things differently, but it’s not the only tenet of this new idea of corporate culture. All communication, at all levels of the company, goes through their P2, and all employees are privy to it, which means that everything going on internally at WordPress is completely transparent. Every new hire spends some time working in customer support before they specialize, which gives every employee an intimate understanding of that all-important interface point, the one on which all the company’s business ultimately hinges. There are no formal schedules, no hierarchy aside from the guiding hand of founder Matt Mullenweg, no office politics and no unproductive competition.
In the eighteen months Scott Berkun spent at Automattic, only six employees left. That’s an absurd attrition rate. And they recently raised $160 million in venture funding, reaching a valuation of $1.16 billion: Mullenweg referred to these numbers when he came out and said, frankly, that WordPress didn’t need an IPO.
So what can we take from Automattic’s success? A few things.
- Having a transparent workplace gets you happy and motivated employees. The so-called “transparency trend” among start ups today is well-documented. Not only does transparency (by doing things like allowing all team members to see all e-mails) enable perfect communication, it is the best way to avoid destructive office politics, as stated best by Keith Rabois: “One of the key drivers of politics in an organization is information asymmetry.”
- Involve everyone in the most basic, essential task at the company. At Good Eggs, each employee spends one day a month working in Operations, packing cold sleeves and grocery bags side-by-side with new hires. Levelling the playing field like this is a great way to ensure team cohesion and make sure everyone, no matter how high-level they are, remembers what the company is about on the ground level.
- Keep calm, be patient. Berkun notes that Mullenweg had watched start-up after start-up make the mistake of chasing profits too fast. Automattic appeared, to many, to be leaving easy money on the table. But they’re profitable now, and that’s what matters. This is a cornerstone of the Automattic creedo.
I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.
Here’s Matt talking about WordPress at SXSW 2013: don’t worry, he’s wearing pants.