Matt Mullenweg of WordPress: How a Fully Distributed Company Keeps a Team Engaged

If you’ve had to adapt to working from home in the last few months, you could learn a few things from Matt Mullenweg.

Co-founder of website-building platform WordPress and Automattic, its parent company, Mullenweg lives in Houston while overseeing a fully distributed team of about 1,100 employees operating in 77 cities around the world. 

During a Real Talk Business Reboot webinar on Wednesday, Mullenweg told Inc. editor-at-large Tom Foster that any person–or company–can adjust to post-office-life if they try. “It can work for everyone, but I’ve seen people give up before they’re there,” he said. 

Working outside of the office, Mullenweg explained, has “an incredible impact on the individuals,” and ultimately empowers them to lead richer lives. That, he says, “leads them to be able to bring more creativity to the work.”

Here are more takeaways from their conversation:

Beware “false proxies.”

Asked how businesses can track the productivity of employees working from home, Mullenweg noted that even in the office “measuring productivity is actually really, really hard.” 

“It’s way easier to slack off in the office as opposed to home,” he continued. “When you’re working from home, and all your colleagues are seeing are the results of your work, if you don’t do the work, it’s very obvious.” 

Mullenweg considers certain habits employees may use to signal hard work in a traditional office environment–showing up early and staying late, for example–as “false proxies,” saying that “where you work and how you work don’t really matter.”

The most important thing: “Can you create something great in an amount of time?”

Make meetings worth the time.

While most meetings aren’t great, Mullenweg said, “a great in-person meeting is a little better than a great remote meeting, but not much.”

Here are Mullenweg’s tips for effective meetings: 

  • Have a clear agenda.
  • Invite the right number of people and no more. 
  • Ensure no distractions or people looking at their phones.
  • Make sure it lasts as long as needed and has some outcome.

Mullenweg is also a fan of meetings with some movement. When he can be in person, he likes to walk and talk. When he’s remote, he suggests meeting participants get good headphones and meet on the go.

Find the tools that work for your company.

According to Mullenweg, Automattic barely uses email except to communicate with people outside the company. Instead, the team uses an in-house blogging platform called P2, which it’s beginning to make available to other companies.

Blogging “really elevates the written word and allows writing to be the way of collaborating,” Mullenweg says. It also cuts back on the interruptions from email and Slack notifications. 

That’s not to say Automattic doesn’t use the popular chat app: Mullenweg said he was an early adopter of Slack and cites it–along with Zoom, Google Docs, and other apps–as part of a functioning distributed workflow. Ultimately, it’s about “whatever is effective for y’all,” Mullenweg said. “It’s all about managing these tools so they don’t manage you.”

Create a distributed culture.

“Your culture is not the Ping-Pong table,” Mullenweg says. Instead, it can be found in the principles and values of your company. Even without an office and in-person meetings, those can and should be shared.

“My belief is that your culture is always happening,” Mullenweg says. Working from home under extraordinary circumstances for the foreseeable future, that’s something to keep in mind.

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