Work-from-anywhere: Insights from the Zillow and Automattic CEOs

As remote work becomes mainstream, Rich Barton and Matt Mullenweg share observations and a few ingenious tips.

Click to play excerpt from discussion

Zillow’s more than 5,000 employees have been working remotely since early March; like many people worldwide, we’re redefining how, when, and where work gets done. As part of our new virtual speaker series for employees, we sought the perspective of an expert: work-from-anywhere pioneer Matt Mullenweg. Mullenweg joined our CEO Rich Barton recently in a conversation about the challenges and advantages of the current WFH climate. 

Mullenweg is CEO of Automattic, parent company of WordPress.com, WooCommerce, Jetpack and Tumblr. Automattic has always been a fully-distributed company with over 1,100 employees, based in 75 countries, with no central office.

Below are excerpts of Mullenweg’s conversation with Barton, edited for brevity and clarity.

How to transition to remote work

BARTON: We are in this brand-new work-from-anywhere paradigm at Zillow right now. We have more than 5,000 employees and we’re probably hacking old office-based habits onto this new set of tools. It’s working okay, but we could be doing a lot better.

MULLENWEG: At Automattic, we try to optimize for the “baton pass,” like the Japan relay race team in the 2006 Olympics. They figured out a way to pass the baton in a way that allowed them to beat almost every other country.

In the knowledge work we do, that baton pass [gives co-workers] all the things they need in a nice little self-contained unit. When you send messages or when you communicate, it’s all of the context and all the information that the person needs to pick it up, do whatever they need to do on their side, and pass it back to you. When you get to what I call [distributed work] levels four or five, I think this actually unlocks a lot more wisdom and thoughtfulness.

End all meetings early, at least five minutes. It’s really nice to have that space to get up and stretch, look at nature, do some pushups, do some air squats.

Matt Mullenweg

The key to effective virtual meetings

BARTON: I find it weirdly magical to see nine reactions to what anyone is saying, in real-time. It’s just a way more inclusive medium, in my experience so far. But I am getting sick of sitting in this chair for six or seven hours a day, and finding it hard, almost, to tear myself away, because I can be so efficient.

MULLENWEG: When you’re in back-to-back meetings, it is really tiring. Can I throw out an idea? End all meetings early, at least five minutes. It’s really nice to have that space to get up and stretch, look at nature, do some pushups, do some air squats. Stuff that you might feel weird doing in an office can actually be really great for recharging you and getting you some energy.

Reconsider what office space is for

BARTON: At Zillow, we’re not getting rid of offices, not in the foreseeable future. We’re probably going to live in a hybrid world. 

MULLENWEG: We’re a hybrid as well. In a non-coronavirus world, we do try to get the team together a few times a year. Once with the whole company, and then, probably two or three weeks out of the year, with just individual teams.

As part of the Tumblr acquisition, we actually did sign a lease in New York. [But] our office spaces have gone less into permanent desk[s] and more towards a collaboration space, where, for meetups, people can come together and have a really nice, safe, beautiful environment to work and collaborate.

The distributed workplace as a competitive advantage

BARTON: You’ve been doing this for a long time; you’re a pioneer in this work-from-anywhere concept. Talk to us about how it has been a competitive advantage for you, from an employer branding and recruiting perspective.

MULLENWEG: Yeah, it’s almost a secret I don’t wanna talk about, because part of the advantage is that companies like Zillow aren’t doing it.

If you believe as I do, that talent is equally distributed across the world, but opportunity is not– that is just incredible. And so, I feel it really brings in better people. The reasons for this, I think, are  that people can have a lot more agency and autonomy over their work, which gives them a lot more job satisfaction. And then you can accomplish more as a business.

Matt Mullenweg’s desk at his home office in Houston Texas.

Home takes on a new meaning

BARTON: The signal feature of this stay-at-home stuff is that I’m not traveling, I’m not going anywhere. And it has, for me and for many, I think – begun to redefine what home means, what we want out of a home, and I’m curious how you feel about that. What’s changed about what home means to you or what your – your shortcomings or the things you love about your home.

MULLENWEG: I’ve been doing work from home for, like, more than 15 years, and this has been hard, actually. If you are struggling in this current environment, don’t feel bad. This is not normal work-from-home. 

I’m sure you all have seen these trends – where what’s important about your house maybe previously would’ve been shortening your commute time, or being close to work. And now, that’s not as important, and you’re appreciating so much more that maybe you want a space for you, your partner and your kids to [each] be on a Zoom call at the same time, Internet connection speed is really important. Your priorities change in a way that – I think was probably gonna happen anyway, over the next 10 or 20 years, but it’s just accelerated it.

Most important: Assume positive intent

BARTON: Crises do bring us together and make us feel closer to one another, when we’re all working towards the same cause, and we put aside kind of our historical differences – a little bit. But I’ll have to say that I can’t remember a time where I’ve felt closer to my colleagues, and more connected to my colleagues than right now.

MULLENWEG: Which actually brings us to the one thing I’ll say that’s most important, probably, in this entire talk, which is: assume positive intent. Particularly as a lot more communication goes written, it’s so easy to bring your own insecurities, or worries or mood or whatever, into the words on the screen, which are usually kind of neutral. 

So, if you assume positive intent with every message, that actually greases the communication in a way that removes a lot of friction, removes a lot of misunderstanding, and allows you to respond from a place of empathy and positivity. 

Matt Mullenweg shares his distributed work journey on the Distributed blog. He also gave a TED Talk on the topic and wrote about hiring distributed teams for the Harvard Business Review.