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The Novel Imperative for Physical Distancing at Work | by jurvetson
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The Novel Imperative for Physical Distancing at Work

Matt Mullenweg and Sam Harris are two of my favorite people (a good friend and undergrad classmate) — their new podcast on distributed work is brilliant and timely.


(Not everyone can WFH, but most knowledge workers can. As an aside, I especially like this WFH photo from one of our hard tech companies, bringing the lab bench home.)


As the founder of WordPress— a Level 4/5 fully distributed work organization — Matt has been giving this deep thought since he was 19. WordPress powers 35% of all websites today.


My summary notes:


Happiness at work depends on:

1) Mastery: ability to get better at your job

2) Autonomy: freedom and agency to control the work environment

3) Purpose: working for something greater than the paycheck, intrinsic motivation


Traditional work organizations can do well on 1 and 3, but distributed workplaces can nail 2. So many elements of the office work environment are out of our control: temperature, pets, food availability and smells, desk type, window view, shared restroom, exercise areas, etc. Think “The Office”


Levels of Autonomous Organizations:


Level 1: Unprepared (98% of companies). People can get by remotely, but they are not as effective. Not all work applications are remotely enabled.


Level 2: Heading There. Most recreate the office environment online (in the Marshall McLuhan sense of each new media initially recapitulating its predecessor media). We inherited the 9-5 workday from factory work in the Industrial Revolution. Your contribution clocked closely to your time on the job. In this phase of autonomy, companies often try to track their employees online work time. This Big Brother phase can actually decrease freedom and agency.


Level 3: Leveraging the New Medium. Various new tactics: shared google doc with live note taking. Better equipment like a desk lamp. Better audio equipment: a headset with a proximal microphone and machine learning noise cancellation (for microphone and headphone) can allow for no Muting on calls. Fumbling with mute hinders spontaneity. We mute because we have terrible microphones (here are Matt’s product recommendations). Written communication becomes more important. Companies should screen for written prowess and can hire based entirely on a written evaluation process.


Level 4: Go Asynchronous. Synchronous online work does not boost agency. With asynchronous, the focus shifts to what not how you produce. Managing handoffs, like batons in a relay race, becomes the main point of leverage. Handoffs across time zones enables 24 hours of productivity. You can tap a global talent pool. Decisions can take longer but they are better. Meetings are really terrible. We are finding out now how many could have been an email instead. Meetings are a forcing function to get people’s attention on same topic at same time. But all you get are people’s reactions. You also get biases from gregariousness, gender, and status. You lose a lot of inputs to decision making. Introverts and ESL suffer.


Level 5 Nirvana. Doing better work than is possible in a traditional centralized office organization. It may seem unobtainable, but we can get a taste of it. We can integrate health and wellness into our work flow. We focus on output not time spent in office. This can remove implicit biases. Companies can be more antifragile, like cities – cities give up elements of control to persist and thrive, and productivity per capita grows as they scale (Ref. Geoffrey West from SFI: public companies have a 10-year half-life wheras cities can survive nuclear attack)


Tools: Zoom, Slack or Matrix, some kind of email replacement. Email is private and locked up. We use an asynchronous blogging system instead. Very few work emails remain (<5/month). Communication should be flat and accessible. See headphones and noise filtering software link above.


What do we lose? Those who practice management by walking around; we lose the ambient intimacy and information gathering from being together. Address with: Synchronizing time zones on team allocations. Paying closer attention to visual cues on zoom. Experiments with auto-allocated company meetups.


Fundraising without an office was hard. Matt raised $450M last year and kept a physical office location just for investor meetings!


Sensitivity: there is good woke and bad woke. API: Assume Positive Intent (reminds me of the Bain principle to Presume Trust). Given the ambiguity of emotional overlays to messaging: as a recipient, assume the best intentions by the sender. As the sender, be conservative in what you say. If things get heated, jump to audio to deescalate. And deescalate yourself with exercise.


Inspiring book recommendations: 1) Daniel Pink’s Drive 2) Geoffrey West’s Scale and 3) Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (I agree with 2 and 3; they are awesome. Have not read 1 yet.)


“I hope there can be a silver lining to this crisis, which we all hope is over as soon as possible, that enables people to reexamine how they work and how they interact and improve it. I’m happy to spread the gospel wherever possible for distributed work. I think it’s better for companies, employees, the environment and the world. There are very few downsides.”


Some other gems from the Automattic Gospel:

“Every problem can get a lot better if you think really long term” — Auto Matt

“Don’t play with bats” — Sam Harris

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Uploaded on April 10, 2020