Remote Work Done Right

I live in the future. My work environment is contained within a computer screen, and I can put that screen anywhere I want. I can have important discussions with co-workers while I treat myself for a foot fungus, and unless they read this blog they would be none the wiser. I don’t have to shower, change my clothes, or ever leave the house, and I often don’t. It’s heavenly. How can it be that I have found myself in such a wonderful, albeit unsanitary, futuristic world? Because I work for Automattic, and we do remote work right.

Opinions about working from home are all over the map — for every horror story you can find a matching anecdote of glowing praise. Some big tech companies have recently reduced or even eliminated remote positions, citing the need for more face time and in-person collaboration. My experience after six months working remotely is the exact opposite. I feel a level of involvement that surpasses that of normal drag-your-ass-into-the office work. Not only with the projects I’m working on, but socially as well. It’s not the same as hanging around the proverbial water cooler gabbing with coworkers, but in the important ways it’s actually not that different.

A big reason working remotely at Automattic is successful is because we are completely distributed. Everyone is a remote employee. This levels the playing field. Work-from-home folks are not missing out on some perceived interaction that only physical proximity to a central office can supposedly provide. At any given time teams may be meeting up at a company get-together or a WordCamp event, and a handful of people make their way into our San Francisco office space on an irregular basis, but those are the exceptions. Our culture is based around being a team of remote employees scattered across the globe. The way we communicate and interact works because it is built on that premise.

Another thing that makes being a remote worker here so effective is that a lot of effort (and expense) is put into doing periodic “meet-ups”. I have had the pleasure of attending two meet-ups since I started: a smaller get together focused on growth techniques earlier in the year; and the big company-wide meeting about a month ago. The company meet-up brings every employee, from over thirty-eight countries (and counting!) together for seven days of work and fun. I have never met so many interesting people in such a short period of time in my life. It was exhausting, overwhelming, and for someone who is not exactly a social butterfly, a bit frightening. After recovering from a meet-up it’s hard not to feel newly energized and inspired. As much as I enjoy the solitude of working from home, I can honestly say I am looking forward to the next time we get together.

There is no secret sauce to providing cohesion to a diverse group of remote employees. Success is less about the tools you use, and more about the way you use them. Making it easy to collaborate on work objectives is not enough. Our environment makes it easy to collaborate on anything. Read a great book lately? Played a cool game? Found a funny cat picture? Chances are there is already a group of like-minded people interested in hearing what you have to share. Using company resources to share cat pictures might sound like the kind of thing a traditional business model would frown upon, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes the remote work experience at Automattic exceptional.

We are often hiring at Automattic, maybe you should find out for yourself what it’s like and come work with us!

At WordPress, Happiness is Automattic

On the first of May, I started a new job at Automattic, the company behind I was hired as a “Code Wrangler,” but to date I have not written a lick of code. This is because for the first three weeks new employees must participate in a customer support rotation. I know what you are thinking: “Let the software engineers communicate directly with customers? I saw Office Space, so I know that’s a bad idea!” or maybe “Bummer, customer service is a thankless soul-sucking quagmire of loathsomeness.” Surprisingly, neither one of these normally valid assumptions is true in this case. So what makes working at Automattic so special that software engineers can enjoy communicating directly with users and customer service ends up being rewarding and fun? Quite a few things actually.

The customer service team is known as the “Happiness Team,” and its members are “Happiness Engineers.” When I first heard this I thought, “Cute, a little silly, but no sillier than my title of Code Wrangler.” Now that I have worked on this team for a while, I have come to realize it is anything but silly or cute; in fact, it’s quite brilliant. The impact of having this title is subtle but powerful. The Happiness Engineers truly do an incredible job helping WordPress users with every problem they report, even ones not related to WordPress. There is an infectious helpfulness that permeates the interaction between team members that can best be described as the exact opposite of the “not my problem” attitude. Your problem is their problem and they want to help resolve it. For my part, it has become a personal challenge to find the most disgruntled user and try to find a way to inject some happiness into their life. When you slide the keyboard back at the end of the day, it’s very satisfying to know you did your best to help people with their problems, even trivial ones.

During my training on how to handle user issues we walked through a few real-life problems and talked about how to approach them. One in particular had two possible responses: one in which we suggested a solution that would also generate a revenue stream for Automattic, and one that did not. I took this opportunity to ask the trainer how important customer retention and revenue generation was to the Happiness Team. His answer was as refreshing as it was surprising. He told me to always judge each case independently and recommend a solution that best matches the user’s needs, no matter what the outcome to our bottom line. This really captures the essence of the Happiness Team’s approach to customer service, and it is reflected in the conversations I have with other engineers every day. To date I have not once heard an employee disrespect or disparage a user, even in private, even when their question is inane and deserving of ridicule. By stripping away the need to follow a script or try to up-sell someone, Automattic has made it possible for its Happiness Team to address users not as customers, but as people. The effect of this is striking, both on the engineers and those seeking assistance.

When you combine the surprisingly powerful psychology of the Happiness Engineer title, the talented personalities on the team, and a culture of courtesy and respect, you end up with something very special. Automattic has done just this, and it really has been an honor to participate. At the time of this writing I have two more days of support rotation left. In all honesty when I started I was not looking forward to these first three weeks. I have a genuine talent for pissing people off, so trying to make people happy has been an interesting learning experience. Turns out I’m having so much fun, I’m going to be a bit sad to move on. Just a bit though. If Automattic can make it such that even I enjoy customer service, who knows what’s around the next bend.