A critical part of making the employees of a distributed company work effectively on their own is occasionally bringing them together.
A great many companies allow their employees to work from home now, but few are as committed to the concept at Automattic, the software company behind WordPress.
Automattic’s more than 700 employees are spread across the globe in 62 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. Last year, it closed a San Francisco office because not enough employees were showing up. Instead of offices, Automattic provides workers with a $250 a month stipend to spend at co-working spaces, or in a Starbucks.
Matt Mullenweg, the company’s founder (his first name gives Automattic its two Ts) argues that a distributed workplace, as he calls it, is not just good business but is more ethically responsible, as well. Offices he said, “are very exclusionary environments, by definition, and the only people who can contribute are people who can physically be at the office and at certain hours of the day.”
One one level, that excludes anyone who’s life circumstances mean they can’t commute to work in a conventional office, Mullenweg said. “At a larger level, there’s the 99.9% of the world that isn’t physically located in a place where they can make it to that office,” he said.
The Grand Meetup
Paradoxically, a critical part of making the employees of a distributed company work effectively on their own is occasionally bringing them together. Automattic flies team members to meet in small groups, and once a year it brings the entire company together in a gathering called the Grand Meetup.
The Grand Meetup is where new employees are brought into the fold and make face-to-face connections with their colleagues from around the world. Using data visualization on the company blog, Boris Gorelik demonstrated what the company looked like on the eve of the 2016 Grand Meetup at Whistler, British Columbia.
In the image, each dot represents an Automattic employee, and the lines between them indicate if they’ve ever met in person. The colors represent broad clusters of people who have more ties between each other than with those outside the color . New employees, who had only met a few others, are on the periphery of the denser employee networks. But after the Grand Meetup, the map looked like this:
Most of new employees had been closely drawn into the network. The secret, Gorelik says, is carefully planning the seating assignments at meals. No one sits wth the same co-workers more than once, forcing even the most reclusive new hires to make dozens of connections. “You may think that such an arrangement would be emotionally exhausting,” Gorelik writes. “You are absolutely right. However, in the long run, this exhaustion pays.”
Mullenweg launched WordPress 15 years ago and now the open-source platform is used by about 30% of all websites, and 60% of content management systems. His goal is to serve 85-90% of the web, and expects Automattic to grow as well. That could make future Grand Meetups much more elaborate and costly undertakings, but Mullenweg is unfazed by the prospect. Any gathering beyond five employees is already complicated, he said.
“You can take five people out for dinner anywhere in the world, but when you get to 10-15, you need a reservation,” he said. “The jump from five to 15 is a bigger jump than 200 to 2,000.”