Five years ago, sitting out front of a West Hollywood coffee shop, Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, the operator of WordPress.com, asked me if I believed the best employees for LexBlog were located within forty miles of our Seattle offices.
I didn’t think much of the question, and shrugged Mullenweg off. He was serious though. Automattic was operating without an office, and had employees around the world.
Rather than calling employees, remote, Mullenweg called his team a distributed workforce.
I’m old school and had always believed an organization’s employees needed to work onsite, “together,” to build a culture, train new employees and be productive.
Mullenweg showed me that was not the case.
LexBlog has always been partly “distributed.” In addition to our Seattle headquarters, we’ve had full time employees across the country for over a decade. Some we never met before they were hired.
But over the last few years we moved to a pretty much all distributed workforce.
We post our open positions nationwide, heavily screen and hire full-time seasoned professionals with benefits without meeting them face to face.
In the last six months or so, we’ve hired team members from Austin, Los Angeles and Portland. In addition to these teammates, we have teammates in Massachusetts, Portland, Maine, Yakima, Washington, and Cincinnati.
We’d have our accounting manager in the U.K. had she been able to move before the pandemic. She already sold her house, and is now renting before she moves.
Like Mullenweg does, in February, I started to go out and visit my team, where they live and are most comfortable. It felt good, we got work done and I demonstrated that I valued their contribution to the “cause.”
When the pandemic lockdown hit Seattle in March, we let our remaining office space in WeWork, used by teammates who wanted to come in, go. We have no rent expense.
Mullenweg was featured in yesterday’s New York Times’ Corner Office column as an evangelist for remote work who’s now seeing the rest of the world catch on.
“I co-founded WordPress with a gentleman named Mike Little, who lived in the United Kingdom, who I had never met in person. So from the genesis, we were connected by a shared passion and online community, not the fact that we had ever physically been in the same place.
When Automattic started, the first-ever employee was in Ireland, then we had Vermont and Texas. I was in San Francisco. It was just very natural to bring people on from wherever they were, and not move them to San Francisco, which, even in 2005, was an expensive place to be.“
When asked if he ever considered having a main office:
“It crossed my mind all the time, because pretty much every investor I talked to, including all the ones that said “no,” said, “You can’t do this. It’s not gonna work.” Or, “It’ll work up to 20 or 25 people, but there’s no other super successful company that’s been built this way.” I thought they might be right. I didn’t know.”
Their argument for an office:
“There’s a very intangible magic that people imagine happens in an office that’s necessary for innovation or design. Or maybe they think that not being in the same place is fine for engineers, who at that time were perceived as being in closets drinking Mountain Dew and eating pizza, but that it wouldn’t work for designers or finance people or other roles.
So there were a lot of biases and to be honest, it’s hardest to change when you’ve been successful doing something in the past. Prior to the ubiquitous availability of broadband, most companies were built in person.”
Unlike lawyers, for Mullenweg, it’s about productivity, not how many hours you work.
“For most roles at Automattic, what you’re accountable for is a result. You could work 60 hours and not do a lot, or you could work 20 hours and do a ton. It’s really about result. And I do believe beyond a certain point, there is a diminishing marginal return to work. I also believe below a certain point, you’re probably not going to be able to keep up with people who are working something around like a 40-hour week. But in the middle of the bell curve, there’s a lot of flexibility.”
Like Automattic, LexBlog was founded in the days of broadband (mostly).
I worked out of my garage. We hosted our customer’s sites on servers in Michigan. My designers and developers were in California, Georgia, Oregon and Ohio. We used web-based Salesforce to log all customer and prospective customer matters.
I did my marketing and business development by blogging, sometimes two or three posts a day. All sales and fulfillment were done via phone and the net.
Practicing law seventeen years myself, I’ve come to appreciate that lawyers tend to be Type-A’s, and by nature, look to do what’s harder. That can include going to the office, and asking everyone in the firm to join them.
But the pandemic has shown us that working remotely – with a distributed workforce – can be highly productive.
Those of us who relied on the workplace and travel for work for a lot of our social engagement may go a little crazy working from home, but it can be done – and it can be comfortable.
As Mullenweg says:
This column is called Corner Office, and most people who choose to have offices are usually the bosses. And I’ve been to the offices of billionaire C.E.O.s that have their own private bathroom, beautiful art and couches. But these are all things that you can have in your house. What I love about distributed organizations is every single employee can have a corner office.
Living in a condominium in downtown Seattle, I’m surrounded by office towers and these towers run a couple miles North of me to South Lake Union. They’re all empty now – including the offices of major law firms.
I doubt they’ll ever be fully occupied again. Leases will run and companies like Facebook, with a large office presence here, will give their employees the option of working remote, forever.
Mullenweg has shown us that a company with a valuation of over $3 Billion and twelve hundred employees can work, grow and prosper without a office.
Expect to see many companies follow – including many law firms.