This CEO lets his employees work when they want, where they want
Companies around the world are struggling to determine the future of work. Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, says his employees are already experiencing it.
During the pandemic, many white-collar workers have become accustomed to working odd hours, scrambling their traditional 9-to-5 schedules to accommodate childcare or other responsibilities. Since Automattic was founded in 2005, such flexibility has been the norm. Automattic pioneered so-called asynchronous work, which not only gives workers flexibility in their workplace, but also in their schedules. The company has 1,876 employees in 97 countries who work on an “asynchronous” basis, meaning they set their own hours. If they have to achieve their goals, they control when and how much they work.
Unlike traditional remote work, asynchronous work creates different logistical challenges, including how to communicate in a world with fewer real-time meetings or discussions. Proponents argue that this can lead to better hiring and improved productivity.
To operate, the company relies heavily on written communication, including internal company blogs that keep employees informed of conversations and allow people to contribute across time zones. The Wall Street Journal spoke to Mullenweg about the benefits and challenges of asynchronous working, and why he thinks more companies will inevitably adopt it:
Now that many workplaces have adapted to remote working, or what is often referred to as “distributed” working, is the next step asynchronous?
Yes. Too often we say, “You are responsible for being at your desk at this time of day. ” Who cares ? Your customer isn’t buying the number of hours a day people spend at their desk. they want a hole in the wall The old working model was wasting people’s time.
Also, when you’re remote, but not asynchronous, it gets really annoying, especially across time zones. Do you ask everyone on the west coast to start their day at 6 a.m. and end it at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., so everyone can work at the same time? And even two people who live in the same city can have very different time constraints, whether it’s caring for children or caring for an elderly person.
As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, many companies have embraced a hybrid model. In five years, do you still think it will be fashionable?
I think the hybrid will die out naturally. Many companies pay for office space, and they just want to make good use of it. It’s like gorging yourself at the buffet just because you’ve already paid for it.
Work is all about collaboration, not everyone is sitting at a desk with headphones on, staring at a screen. I think we’re going to come back to this way of doing business, like, “Why did we do this?” Why do we force them all to be in the same building? In our experience, the ability to find and retain amazing talent has outweighed the cost of not being together every day.
From an employer perspective, why do you think asynchronous work is the future?
First is hiring. It opens you up to talent you might have previously excluded, even local talent, who may not have been available when your previous idea of a workday wasn’t inclusive.
Asynchronous also allows people to structure their days to be more productive. Right now, with traditional offices, we force everyone to work to the lowest common denominator. Everything – workspace, environment, schedule – is kind of a compromise, when people can design their own working time, their own working environment and can adapt it to what they know about them themselves to do their personal best work.
What is the biggest challenge of asynchronous operation?
Clarity of writing. If you don’t have that, you can have people who think they’re on the same page when they actually have a different understanding. We have experimented with classes and workshops and, of course, books that we recommend to people to improve their writing skills. We also have an editorial team that takes care of our publications, but also does a lot of internal writing. It is extremely important in an asynchronous organization to invest in your writing.
Every strength is also a disadvantage. A strength of asynchronous work is that work can happen 24 hours a day. A downside is that it can take 24 hours for five people to read and respond to something they could do in a 30-minute synchronous meeting. .
If you don’t have a set schedule, how do you set boundaries and make sure people aren’t constantly working?
I think companies need to make sure people take time off. Some people, you really need to encourage them. I’m curious about new approaches like Coinbase’s where they actually have four weeks a year when the whole company is off. In fact, the synchronous free time, I think it’s a good experience.
Work is not just about efficiency. I think we have to strive to be more efficient because it’s respectful of people’s time, but without forgetting that we are also human.
As remote and asynchronous work becomes more the norm, will workers become less attached to their employers?
When done correctly, it improves retention. The most successful distributed businesses have much, much lower churn than other businesses. Our voluntary churn rate was 7.6% over the past year. It was during the Great Resignation, lower than our peers. And the biggest hidden productivity cost in most companies today is attrition.
The asynchronous model of course only works for certain types of businesses. Do you think this can work for large global companies?
I have two assistants. One is in Texas and the other is in Europe. This is on purpose for us to have greater time zone coverage. Probably in the future I will also have someone in the Asia-Pacific time zone. I think asynchronous work lends itself more naturally to 24/7 operations. And large-scale businesses need to operate 24/7.
What about workers who really enjoy being around their colleagues?
We could witness a sorting. Let’s say 30% of people like distributed, 30% of people like in person, and 30% are in the middle. Maybe what happens is that some organizations say, “We’re just going to be an in-person business,” and people who want to work that way end up there. Others go elsewhere. Markets are fun things.
Many office proponents claim that it’s easier to collaborate and cultivate relationships if you’re physically together. What is your opinion?
I think the #1 tool people need in 2022 is the ability for people to come together in person. In fact, I like being in person. I really like that. Dating is a key part of Automattic’s culture. But we found that even one week a year of people getting together would support them and improve their confidence and bond with their colleagues.
There’s a lot of experimentation in the workplace right now, and it’s hard to know which models will last. What could prevent asynchronous from becoming mainstream?
Fear. How do I know people are working? I think what people mean when they say that is how do they know they’re at their desk at certain times? When really, what’s most important, how do I know they’re meeting their goals and my goals for the business?
You need great clarity about what your employees are supposed to accomplish, and you’ll likely be humbled and surprised by how well they accomplish it, in ways you couldn’t imagine.
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