Finished reading The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I picked this up as I’ve started to think about the potential shift back to the office as the pandemic abates here in the UK.
I’d previously read and enjoyed Berkun’s Confessions Of A Public Speaker. He has a very readable style with an honest approach to his writing, and that is also true of this book. It’s a quick read.
The book documents his life as an employee of Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com. He worked there in 2011–2012, a time which feels like it was only yesterday, but clearly isn’t. I think this is a consequence of me getting old. Everything feels like yesterday as time speeds up.) At that time, the company had grown to 50 staff, an inflexion point where they felt that they needed to move away from a completely flat structure to having small teams. Berkun was appointed by the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, as team lead for group that developed the social features of WordPress. He’d agreed to join for at least a year, on the condition that he could write this book about his experiences. It’s interesting to note that ten years on the company has now ballooned to 1,486 employees.
The book gave me food for thought, but not always in the way that I was expecting. It isn’t a book of tips and tricks. As one Goodreads reviewer said:
It’s interesting that a book about the author’s experience working for a company with a distributed work model focuses so much on his time spent with his team during in person meet-ups.
In our Teams, Zoom and WebEx-fuelled existence of today it is difficult to remember how things worked ten years ago. In the book, the Automattic teams depend on IRC text-based chat, Skype and writing on their team blogs (known as P2s), as well as a little bit of email. Back in 2006 when I was working at a large investment bank I remember some of the executives getting desktop videoconferencing; a very expensive affair involving dedicated hardware at their office desks. We now carry this capability wherever we have a computer, tablet or smartphone. It would be great to understand what impact this technological shift has had within the company.
Almost nobody at my current firm would consider themselves to be a blogger, but writing has snuck in the back door in the form of threads on Teams channels. I see people using Teams chats and channels very differently, with the former being ephemeral, ongoing conversations similar to Automattic’s IRC, and the channel posts being longer-lived items under a common topic. Any further chat on that topic is effectively a comments thread.
There were a few passages in the book that really resonated with me. In the past I’ve said to team managers that “the reason the team are laughing at your joke is that you’re the boss”, something that nobody likes to hear but is often true. The power wielded by people in charge can be wielded on chats and blogs too, and there is a real danger from dipping in and out. It’s not clear whether the CEO was conscious of this:
An example was something that came to be known as “Matt bombing.” This was when a team was working on something on a P2, heading in one direction. Then late in the thread, often at a point where some people felt there was already rough consensus, Matt would drop in, leave a comment advocating a different direction, and then disappear (not necessarily intentionally). Sometimes these posts were cryptic, for two reasons. First, it wasn’t clear if he was merely offering an opinion for consideration or giving an order, and even if it was an order, it wasn’t clear what the order was. Other times it was unclear how much of the thread he’d read or what his counterarguments were that led to his disagreement. Matt was brilliant, but it was hard to believe he had the same depth of understanding on every aspect on the thread that those on the project did.
This isn’t quite as bad as the Jeff Bezos ‘question mark email’, but it would still leave staff guessing about what was meant. I assume that if everyone had been together and weren’t working asynchronously via blogs there would have been room for some quick clarifying questions. Could you just call Mullenweg up to ask? I assume not, and Berkun identifies the lack of co-working space as muting the understanding that develops in an organisation in terms of how to go about challenging and questioning those people in positions of authority:
Most companies have confusing politics about who is allowed to disagree with whom and how they’re allowed to do it. However, in conventional workplaces, everyone gets to observe how their boss handles different situations and how other leaders challenge and convince them.
This past year of home working has left me feeling both better and worse about different aspects of my day-to-day life. Berkun nails it when he talks about remote work resulting in the highs and lows being more muted than before:
But the best things about workplaces, like sharing an epiphany after working for hours at a whiteboard, were gone too. Working remotely mellowed everything out, dropping the intensity of both the highs and the lows. Depending on your previous experience, this made things better or worse.
Being at home when there is an occasional drama going on has been much healthier, but I do miss collaborating with the team and the little jokes and amusing incidents that peppered the days.
I did make emotional connections with my team, just as I would if I were working with them in the same building every day. But that connection was fueled and recharged by the intensity of our meet-ups. Rarely did I think our work suffered because we were working remotely. But I did have times where I thought our work would be even better if we were in the same place and time more often.
There’s definitely something about being in the same place with everyone on a regular basis. However, pre-pandemic my existence mainly consisted of sitting on desktop video calls in our office for most of the day, talking to our global team. I am hoping the days of doing this five days a week are now in the past. For me the advantages of working from home — exercising every day, seeing my wife and children, saving money on commuting and avoiding the stress of the terrible train service — makes it my preferred option.
Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.
I think his conclusion nails it, but doesn’t leave any easy answers for companies looking for a model to turn to post-pandemic. If we agree that remote can work, how much choice should employees get? It’s one thing to decide for a company where everyone is a technologist and does a similar job, but quite another with a less homogenous workforce — should it be one rule for one team and something different for another?
A worthwhile read, and one that I regret getting to so late. I’d love to read a follow-up ten years on.