Episode 7: Matt Mullenweg on Working Remotely

March 30, 2013 // News, Podcast

Communication technology has long teased us with a vision of the world where our ability to share, experience, and work with others is not be restricted by geography. Given the right application of the right technology, it shouldn’t matter where on Earth we choose to be; we can effectively communicate and work with whomever we choose. Yet, that’s not how the world works. At least not most of it, and at least not yet.

In this episode, Matt Mullenweg, Founder of Automattic, the company best known for the wildly-popular WordPress blogging platform, talks with New Robot Overlords host Myk Willis about what it takes to make working remotely work. He should know a thing or two about it: his company now has over 150 employees spread across more than 100 cities around the world.

View a transcript of the conversation  here.

It’s interesting to see just how natural a distributed workforce is to someone like Matt, and how he sees it strengthening his organization and contributing directly to its growth, and then at the same time to see how someone like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer finds it a fundamental roadblock to making progress in rebuilding her company. Matt sees this as essentially a generation gap: old companies will continue to act like old companies, new companies will be free to take full advantage of what a distributed workforce can offer.

The conversation talks about different kinds of workers, and whether different functions are better (or worse) suited for working remotely. Sales teams, in particular, are discussed as traditionally being out in “the field” while the rest of the organization is inside the building. Do salespeople have a reputation for being more individually-motivated (for example, more interested in incentive bonuses than stock option plans) because of their relative isolation in the field, away from the hub of the organizations? Or do people who are more individually-motivated from the start gravitate toward jobs like field sales where they can be on their own much of the day? These are interesting questions we touch in as we wind through the conversation.

It seems that perhaps remote work scenarios work best in organizations, like Automattic, where the majority of the workers are working remotely. Everyone is essentially “in the same boat,” and the tools and habits for collaboration and communication are mostly the same for everyone. Remote work tends to not have as good a reputation in large organizations where a majority of the people work at one or a few central office buildings, and a minority of them work remotely. In these cases, the people in the home office get a lot of communication through traditional, face-to-face meetings, glances across the room, and bumping into each other in the kitchen. They’re not in the practice of pinging on IM or firing up Skype on a regular basis just to keep up relationships with coworkers, so the remote people can gradually get grouped with “them” as opposed to “us.”

All told, a really interesting conversation with Matt, and one I think you’ll enjoy – especially if you’ve only heard the cliched opinions of the talking heads on cable TV responding in soundbites to Marissa’s Yahoo decision. Have your own opinion? Share it in the comments, or fire it off to @newrobotlords.

 Links and other things referenced in the episode:

  • Matt mentioned Paul Graham’s essay, The Accleration of Addicitiveness
  • Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine has the story of Steve Jobs’ influence on Pixar’s HQ design – specifically the “one bathroom rule”
  • The How To…Have a Virtual Meeting article on Fast Company discussed in the episode is based on a conversation with Matt.(He says he “vaguely remembers” it!)

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