WordPress.com is the 15th most trafficked website in the world. It is run by Automattic Inc, a company that is 100% distributed. That means everyone works from home, or more precisely, from wherever in the world they wish. They’ve been amazingly successful with this strategy, but I was skeptical about how a distributed company really works. Being curious, I decided to do the obvious: Work there for a year as a team leader and find out for myself.

Here’s what I learned:

Creativity thrives online. Recently James Surowicki at The New Yorker claimed remote work inhibits creativity. This is absurd in the age of the web, where thousands work on brilliant projects, collaborating with people around the world. It’s true that in a distributed company you can’t just walk down the hall to find serendipity, but chat rooms, social media, and blogs provide many chance encounters and serendipitous ideas. Dozens of times a day, WordPress.com releases new features and updates, and they collaborate intensely around them on internal blogs and in chat rooms. Remote work certainly changes the nature of interaction, but to assume this inhibits creativity is ridiculous.

Not all remote work is the same. To evaluate remote work as a singular idea is a paper tiger. There are many policies to choose from and those choices matter. Managers of remote workers at older companies need to make adjustments to enable remote workers to thrive, especially during a trial period when everyone is experimenting and learning what will work for them. But to try remote work without making any allowances or adjustments is foolish. Any progressive idea can be made to fail if the people in charge don’t support it.

Culture is critical. Automattic has many policies designed to empower employees and remote work is just one of them. They believe individual workers know best how to be productive and that management’s job is to provide choices and get out of the way. If employees are self-motivated and empowered, remote work can accelerate productivity. However in autocratic or bureaucratic organizations the freedom of remote work runs against the culture. Of course remote workers will be less productive if they’re in environments that depend on centralized, rule-oriented, or committee heavy processes. But even then it can work if managers care more about results than pretense.

It should be up to the employee. Workplaces often treat employees like children. Any wise manager evaluates employees on their results, not superficially, and physical location might just be one of them. If a worker proves they can perform as well, or better, from home there’s little reason to complain. Even at a bureaucratic company, a motivated worker may be able to find ways to do their job productively in a remote environment. Why not let them try? If they’re right everyone wins. The mistake Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer made was to focus on the means, rather than the ends: The problem she’s facing is abuse of remote work, not remote work itself. Automattic has found they can hire better people, since they do not need to relocate — an advantage more than worth the challenges, if any, that enabling remote work has cost them.

Tools make a difference. Automattic employees rarely use email. Instead they use internal blogs, chat rooms, and Skype. A special kind of blog, called a P2, solves many of the annoyances of email, and simultaneously facilitates remote work. Conversations on P2s can be easily linked to via URL, are searchable and are visible to all, making it easy to catch up on what you’ve missed. At Automattic, even when employees meet in person they use the same tools as when working apart. This helps ensure no one feels left out or misses conversations, regardless of their time zone.

There are many 100% distributed companies. Dozens of real business thrive with remote workers. Before abandoning the idea managers should study how so many successful companies not only allow remote workers, but also make it an advantage.