Fifteen years before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly forced most companies to let employees work from home, Matt Mullenweg relied on a company without an office.
Automattic, which he founded in 2005, runs the digital publishing platform WordPress and the recently acquired Tumblr. From the outset, Mr. Mullenweg built a remote work force, hiring engineers and designers irrespective of their location. Automattic now has more than 1,000 employees working across 77 countries.
Over the years, Mr. Mullenweg has become an evangelist for remote work, and recently developed a framework that outlines the five levels of distributed work. “It’s one of my life missions to have more companies be distributed,” he said. “It’s good for the environment. It’s good for opportunity. It’s good for the economy.”
The virus has been horrific. But Mr. Mullenweg has been impressed by how nimbly most companies adapted to having people work from home.
“To see how that’s accelerated across really every company in the past few months has been astounding to me,” he said. “I would have imagined it being much harder, but it’s gone way better than I expected.”
This conversation, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was part of a series of live Corner Office calls to discuss the pandemic and the protests. Visit timesevents.nytimes.com to join future digital events.
Automattic has been a distributed company since its inception. What made you go that route?
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.
Did it even cross your mind to have a main office? It’s hard to overstate sort of what a break from tradition this was 15 years ago.
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.
What was their main argument as to why this couldn’t work?
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.
How do you hire?
We do take a few approaches that some companies would find quite radical. For the vast majority of our roles, the hiring process is done entirely over chat. So you could be hired and start a job at Automattic without ever seeing or talking to a person in real time. In fact, one frequent thing people hired at Automattic tell me is that their spouse or partner didn’t believe it was a real job. They were worried they were getting scammed.
Hiring through chat removes a ton of opportunities for unconscious bias. We’re always looking at what we can do to make it as much about the work, and not extraneous stuff, like how you’re dressed, how you showed up, how you sound, how you look, where you live. All those things ultimately don’t matter, particularly for an internet company. So let’s just remove it from the process entirely.
Is there not also a risk in creating some unconscious bias or against those who might not be as proficient communicating in the written word? Or is that something you look for as a prerequisite to a successful career at Automattic?
I think clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. And it is something that we look for in the people we hire. If you were going to apply for a job at Automattic, probably the most important thing you can do is the cover letter.
Why did you buy Tumblr?
Tumblr was a contemporary of WordPress.com, then was sold to Yahoo for $1 billion, then Yahoo merged with AOL and then that was sold to Verizon. Then we heard it might be shut down, and we figured out a deal. We’re doing our best to really revitalize it, and hopefully we can create a place on the internet that’s safe, fun and creative — a good alternative to other social networks.
Is that a criticism at a certain level of some of the dominant platforms out there? Do you believe Tumblr could be a viable alternative and could be structured in some fundamentally different ways?
I do wonder if fundamentally, an advertising-driven business model is incompatible with democracy. Automattic is primarily a subscription business. I’m very curious to explore if we can make Tumblr not solely dependent on ads, and what incentives that creates for the product to evolve. Could that provide a third space, a space where the algorithms aren’t driven to show you the thing that’s going to get you the most riled up? Or the advertising is not targeted in a way that shifts elections? The good news is Tumblr is very active. It’s getting 60,000 to 70,000 sign-ups per day from its mobile app. So I think we have an opportunity to create that other place, that could be something that people go to feel that creativity, kind of like Instagram did in its early days.
Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook suggested that if people move to lower-cost areas, they may see their compensation adjusted downward. When you’re hiring across such a wide variety of countries which have different costs of living, how do you deal with compensation?
I have a lot of empathy for companies that do cost of living adjustments, because we used to as well. But over time, when I started to think really critically about that policy, I realized that there’s so much more than location that determines your cost of living. You can spend millions of dollars in Houston, or you could spend very little in San Francisco. There’s a lot of personal choice that goes into it. So it felt a little almost paternalistic for the company to say that you should make more or less in one place or another and have sort of weird incentives for moving someplace. The other thing that began to feel fundamentally unfair to me was that two people on the same team doing the same job, say one in California and one in Alabama, should make different money.
So what we’ve done over the past few years is actually offer the same compensation bands globally. So wherever you’re doing the work, you can have the opportunity to make the same amount. It’s not perfect, because we pay people in the local currency and sometimes currencies can move quite a bit and we have to adjust for that.
Some companies I’ve talked to have said that their employees are more productive since the pandemic began. Others say the inverse is true. What’s it been like at Automattic?
I believe that if you do distributed work well, you’re a lot more productive. But the pandemic has affected a lot of people’s lives. School is canceled. People are working from home that might not normally work from home. So we definitely have seen a hit to productivity, not to mention the stress, which has been even compounded by the social unrest.
One of the biggest problems you have with distributed work is typically over-work, not under-work. We track vacation time and what we call “A.F.K.” or “away from keyboard” time, to notice when people aren’t taking enough. And we started to notice that people weren’t taking enough, because they were canceling their trips.
Some people say they can actually get a whole lot of work done in a much more condensed amount of time when they’re working remote. They can be just as efficient while working fewer hours, because so much of their work day previously was filled up with things that ultimately weren’t productive. And some say they can spend the same amount of hours working and accomplishing even more. What’s your view on the appropriate amount of time people should be working?
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.
What is your office like there in Houston?
I have had to adjust during the pandemic, because I’m used to working at home alone, and I have other people here with me. So I actually moved upstairs to a room that was unused and just set it up as a closed office with a door. I have lots of art around me, because I find art really inspiring. I have some Sonos speakers to listen to music, and a cool wood desk that connects me to nature while I’m here, and a meditation cushion here.
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.