A Longtime Remote Company Shares the Roadmap for Successful WFH

April 9, 2020

Map of world that shows where Automatic employees are located

With some countries predicting that it may be as long as six months before day-to-day life returns to normal, remote work — and how to do it well — is on everybody’s minds right now. For organizations that have suddenly made the shift to work from home (WFH) in light of the coronavirus, the learning curve can be steep. Luckily, we can look to companies that have long since mastered remote work to see how to do it successfully.

One such company is Automattic, the creator of Wordpress.com. With 1,175 staff members spread across 75 countries, Automattic has had an almost entirely remote workforce for years. And according to CEO Matt Mullenweg, one good thing that may result from this challenging period is companies seeing the benefits of remote work — like lower costs related to office space and less time spent commuting — and giving their employees more options in the long run.

“Think how much [time and money] we’ll be able to save,” he says. “That all gets unlocked. And you can then take that commute time, take that part of your salary that's going toward that, and apply it to something that can make a really big difference in your life.”

In a recent bonus episode of Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast, Matt discussed the four stages that companies and their employees need to go through to become a successful remote team. We’ve listed these stages and his tips for working from home below, as well as a few of Matt’s book recommendations to help you navigate these challenging times.

Stage one: Do exactly what you did at the office – but from home

Under normal circumstances, Matt would recommend that companies start by doing a remote work pilot — picking one day of the week where everyone works from home to see what happens. 

Of course, these are not normal circumstances. In a flash survey of 550 U.S. employers done by the law firm Seyfarth in mid-March, 67% said they were taking steps to allow employees to work from home who don’t normally do so. 

The good news is that the first step is simple: just try to re-create your normal workday at home. 

“Take whatever you did in the office,” Matt says, “and now do it at your computer, not in the office.”

This includes both your typical daily tasks and other elements of your workday routine. If you usually work a 9-to-5 schedule, for example, initially try to keep the same schedule. This allows you to assess what can be done easily from home and what can’t and which elements of your daily regime work better or worse than when you’re in the office.

Focus on removing any immediate barriers employees face and continue identifying and rectifying challenges as you go. The U.S. healthcare company Humana, for example, started encouraging its employees to work remotely only to discover that its call center teams didn’t have the right technology — calls could only be recorded at someone’s in-office desk. So, the company’s solution was to go into research mode and find technology that allowed the call center workforce to do their jobs from home. 

Stage two: Look for ways to optimize your processes — and re-examine what you do by default

Once you’ve put basic processes in place to support remote work, the next step is finding ways to optimize them. 

Take virtual meetings. While you’re still getting used to them, your focus will be on the basics —  like ensuring that everyone has a working webcam and knows how to use your chosen video conferencing tool. Then, after you’ve done a few meetings this way, you may decide to take them up a notch — like investing in headsets, better cameras, or desk lamps for employees to ensure your video calls look and sound as professional as possible. 

As you’re evaluating these new processes, you’ll also start looking at old processes with fresh eyes. 

“Use being distributed unexpectedly because of an office closure … as an opportunity to just rethink everything you do,” Matt says. “So much of our lives we live by default. We do something today because we also did it yesterday. And any chance you have to kind of zoom out, reimagine, look at it with a beginner's mind or fresh eyes.”

For example, you may be used to meetings in the office because it’s the way you’ve always done things. But when you’re doing them virtually, you may view them in a whole new light — helping you realize that in some cases, the same result could be achieved with a simple email. One study found 59% of executives say they’re asked to attend meetings that don’t require them and 60% of front-line employees report going to meetings that don’t accomplish anything. 

“You could get the same outcome with a different process,” Matt says. “One that might be a lot more efficient.”

Stage three: Empower employees to design their days to improve their productivity

While the first two stages involve the entire company, the third stage happens at the level of the individual employees. This is when each employee starts designing their day to boost their productivity while working from home. This may involve working slightly different hours than their coworkers or taking breaks at times that are best for them. 

For example, with their children receiving lessons from home right now, some employees may need to take some time off in the afternoon to help them with their homework. Others may decide to dedicate some time to collecting groceries for their elderly neighbors who are self-isolating. That can be easier to do when working remotely, because productivity can be measured on output. So, as long as you’re getting your work done, there’s less pressure to be seen at your desk. 

“I let myself get distracted throughout the day,” writes Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a religion reporter for The Washington Post who has long worked from home. “Sometimes I fold laundry (gasp!) on company time, so I can give myself a few minutes to chew on an idea. Sometimes I take a walk or a nap if I don’t have an urgent deadline. . . . I’m very purposeful about this ‘downtime,’ and I make up for it later. I know I’m not fooling anyone if I don’t get my work done.”

Matt also highlights that some flexible policies are actually easier and more acceptable to follow once you’re working from home. For example, even if a company has a policy that allows employees to leave the office during the day for an appointment, they might feel like their coworkers will judge or resent them. But with everyone working from home, that pressure disappears. “Once you’re not in that office environment,” says Matt, “those [social norms] go away.”

Getting to this stage requires a high level of trust in your employees. But by empowering your employees to design their workdays around their lives, they’ll ultimately be happier, less stressed, and more productive. And one of the most powerful ways to signal that you’re looking for employees to design their own days is to do it yourself. Be a remote work model for your team.

“When you can become asynchronous as an organization,” Matt says, “it unlocks so much productivity and so much autonomy for you and your colleagues.”

Stage four: Embrace micro-habits that improve your workday 

Working hours are not the only aspect of an employee’s day that they can tailor to boost their productivity. For Matt, one sign that your work-from-home experiment is thriving is when employees develop what he calls “micro-habits” — small strategies that enable them to do their best work. 

In many cases, these are things that they couldn’t do in the office for practical reasons. They may find they prefer to work standing up at a high counter in their kitchen, which they couldn’t do in the office because they don’t have a standing desk. Or maybe they find they’re more productive in the afternoon if they cook a healthy lunch from scratch. 

Matt likes to burn candles when he’s working to relax him. In the workplace, this might be discouraged, because if every employee had a candle on their desk, smoke alarms would go off. But when everyone is working remotely, this ceases to be a problem.

Others may customize their home workspace with ergonomic chairs, soft-light desk lamps, or even a yoga mat. Maria Pahuja, founder of Vayas Consulting, wants to be surrounded by music while she works so she purchased Sonos Play:1 Speakers. “The first thing I do when I begin my workday,” Maria says, “is to log into my Sonos app and select music to pair with my mood.”

“When you're working from home,” Matt says, “you can design your environment to be what suits you really well.” 

So, that might be as simple as adding plants or as involved as creating chalkboard walls or a giant wall calendar.

Remote workers can also use their breaks for things they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in front of coworkers. Matt likes to do short bursts of exercise throughout the day, like squats and pushups between meetings.

“Could I do that in the office?” he jokes. “Yes. Would I feel super weird? Yes. So take advantage.”

Use this opportunity to excel at remote work — because these lessons are incredibly valuable

While nobody saw this global remote work experiment coming, you can take this opportunity to get more comfortable with remote work and its ensuing culture. That way, when things get back to normal, your company can feel more confident offering flexible work options.

“When you return to the office, reimagine what you're doing,” Matt suggests. “Try that one day a week where everyone works from home. Maybe open up a little bit — say, one day a week in the office versus five.”

To help you get even better at working with remote teams and navigating these unprecedented times, here are a few books that Matt recommends that you can read on your tablet or find in audiobook form:

  • The Daily Drucker by Peter Drucker — though much of it was written in the pre-internet age, it’s full of tips around topics like time management that are still vitally relevant today
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser — great for perfecting your written communication skills, which are essential for managing a dispersed workforce
  • Words That Work by Frank Luntz — an eye-opening look into how different people may perceive your words in different ways, which is important to keep in mind when communicating with remote employees
  • The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb — Matt credits Taleb’s writing with helping him make Automattic more resilient during times of adversity, so these books may be especially useful right now

For more tips about mastering remote work, listen to the full podcast.

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* Image from Automattic

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