Returning to the Office

“The way that we run our company – which is very asynchronous, people in timezones all over the world – written communication is very important. We maybe over index in our hiring process for people who are really clear writers, which I think sort of begets clear thinking,” said Matt Mullenweg, when asked about managing co-worker relationships at Automattic, during a Fast Company Innovation 360 event sponsored by Upwork. “Maybe if we were all in an office, it wouldn’t be as key, reading and writing for each other. Part of what I love about distributed is that it does allow people who might flourish in different types of environments to show their best work.”

The panel, also including Upwork CEO Hayden Brown, Harvard management professor Joseph B. Fuller, and moderator Chris Denson, offered reflections on work during the pandemic from each panelist’s point of view, workplace models they’re working on, and of course, their tactical advice on things like finding serendipitous moments when a team is fully distributed. Digital tools and a culture of transparency, Matt offered, combine to change power dynamics and allow broader contributions, such as a support engineer offering a point of view as a comment on an internal post about pricing changes.

With many companies and leaders weighing the pros and cons of plans to return to offices, especially in the US, plenty of other thought-provoking pieces caught our attention in recent weeks. Here are a few.

Claire Cain Miller writes in the New York Times about whether working together in an office improves creativity, or diminishes it. She taps into something we believe in strongly at Automattic: “Remote work, though, can enable ideas to bubble up from people with different backgrounds. Online, people who are not comfortable speaking up in an in-person meeting may feel more able to weigh in.”

On Twitter, Derek Thompson of the Atlantic cautions that hybrid work integration could be ‘janky,’ linking to his story on the winners and losers in working from home, and the unprecedented investment in remote productivity.

Erica Pandey, author of What’s Next at Axios, writes about a gender imbalance in remote work. While the pandemic sparked much-needed conversation about childcare and benefits, women prioritize remote work more highly, and could miss out on additional opportunities as more companies adopt hybrid cultures. Miller incorporates this important aspect as well.

Every organization has to do what works best for itself and its people. Automattic’s view on distributed work, vs. hybrid teams or office-centered companies, is clear; as Matt says in the Fast Company panel, “It’s not better or worse. I would never say one way is better or worse. I just think it’s different…But if you fast forward ten years into the future, companies that are able to be as productive or more productive when their employees are everywhere are going to outcompete companies that require everyone to be in an office.”

For more, check out Matt’s recent podcast episodes with Jack Dorsey and Sid Sijbrandij of fully-distributed GitLab. Both conversations touched on these themes and many more aspects of Distributed work, including the 5 Levels of Autonomy, and even Matt’s favorite tools for streaming. And for a retrospective, revisit a digest Automattic published last March, in the pandemic’s earliest US days, offering personal perspectives from many of our own colleagues.

Whatever you are weighing for your own work setting or your company’s decisions, we wish you the best, and hope you’ll continue to follow the conversation right here.

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