Remote working evangelist sees the rest of the world take over

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Some companies I have spoken to have said that their employees have been more productive since the start of the pandemic. Others say the opposite is true. How did it go at Automattic?

I believe that if you do the distributed work well, you are much more productive. But the pandemic has affected many lives. The school is canceled. People work from home who would not normally work from home. So we have certainly seen a blow to productivity, not to mention the stress, which has even been aggravated by social unrest.

One of the biggest problems you face with distributed work is usually overwork, not underemployment. We track vacation time and what we call “AFK” or “away from the keyboard” time, to notice when people are not taking enough. And we started to notice that people were not taking enough because they canceled their trips.

Some people say that they can actually do a lot of work in a much more condensed time when working remotely. They can be just as efficient while working fewer hours, because a large part of their working day was previously filled with things that were ultimately not productive. And some say they can spend the same number of hours working and doing even more. What do you think of the appropriate time that people should work?

For most roles at Automattic, what you are responsible for is the result. You could work 60 hours and not do much, or you could work 20 hours and make a ton. It is really a question of results. And I believe that beyond a certain point, there is a marginal return to decreasing work. I also believe that below a certain point, you probably won’t be able to follow people who work something like a 40-hour week. But in the middle of the bell curve, there is a lot of flexibility.

How is your office in Houston?

I had to adapt during the pandemic because I used to work alone at home, and I have other people here with me. So I moved upstairs to an unused room and installed it as a closed office with a door. I have a lot of art around me because I find art really inspiring. I have Sonos speakers for listening to music, and a cool wooden 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 went to the offices of billionaire CEOs who have their own private bathrooms, fine art, and couches. But these are all things you can have in your home. What I like about distributed organizations is that each employee can have a desk area.

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