The work from home revolution has arrived...but is that a good or bad thing for the business world? Let’s walk through the pros and cons.
Today on Business Casual, we’re putting all of that in context with Matt Mullenweg. Matt is the founder and CEO of Automattic, which is the parent company of WordPress.com. He built Automattic to have a completely distributed workforce—1,200+ employees working from 77 countries and no HQ.
As Matt sees it, “the sun never sets on Automattic.” He’s adamant that the environment, the economy, and distribution of opportunity could all meaningfully change for the better in a widespread remote workforce world.
So it works for Matt and his team, but can it work for everyone? We’re about to find out. Matt thinks the companies like Google and Facebook that have announced WFH through the rest of the year will find it hard to go back to in-office work.
So is this the new normal? And can it change corporate America for the better? Listen to find out.
Business Casual - Matt Mullenweg.mp3
Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:09] Hey, everyone, and welcome to Business Casual, the podcast from Morning Brew, answering your biggest questions in business. I'm your host and Brew business editor, Kinsey Grant. And now, let's get into it. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:00:21] Chances are, you are not listening to this podcast from behind a giant monitor and an industrially lit open floor plan office with your work best friend from accounting sauntering over to see if you caught the game last night. And that's probably because many of us are still working from home, for better or for worse. I've always prioritized keeping it real and being honest with all of y'all, so I'm going to come out and say it right now. I really don't like working from home.
Kinsey [00:00:46] My Morning Brew colleagues know how I feel and know I am not alone in preferring the sweet, sweet sounds of other people when I'm doing my work. And living in New York, it might be nice to escape the small shoe box I now call my home, my gym, and my office every now and then. But, that said, these are different circumstances. I am more than happy to stay home to keep other people safe, and I'm incredibly lucky to have a job that I can do remotely. I just hope that once we get a handle on this whole pandemic thing, we might get back to regular.
Kinsey [00:01:14] But not everybody agrees. For many businesses, this is just the beginning of a much more, or, in some cases, all remote future. That would represent a very, very meaningful change in the way we think about corporate America. Never has that been the norm. Our cultural paradigm would indeed shift if the future of work were more remote. My question: Is that good? Can a distributed workforce give a company a leg up over the competition? So, Matt, yes or no, what do you think?
Matt Mullenweg, Founder and CEO of Automattic [00:01:44] I think distributed is the future, so if you can get good at it, you'll be part of the future.
Kinsey [00:01:48] OK, that sounds like a yes. And that was Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of Automattic, which is the parent company of the open source software WordPress. Matt was the founding developer of WordPress, which is used by about one third of the internet. A hugely influential software. In addition to engineering the power behind so many of the sites that we use today, Matt created his company to be distributed. If you work for Automattic, you can do it pretty much anywhere. And Matt, you've been very busy in the last several months as sort of this sudden poster child for a distributed [chuckles] workforce. So thank you so much for coming on the show.
Matt [00:02:23] It's a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Kinsey [00:02:25] So Matt, Automattic is an entirely distributed company. You've got over 1,200 employees in 77 countries. No physical headquarters. So explain to me a little more why you decided to build Automattic to be distributed in this way, other than you are clearly a psychic who all this coming?
Matt [00:02:43] For us, it was very practical. So, the first few people who I was working with to create WordPress, which proceeded Automattic and WordPress.com, were all over the world. They're volunteers. A lot of open source projects have been run this way for, honestly, decades. So we weren't even that new to it. So in 2005, when I was starting the company, first to try to make a paycheck doing what we loved.
Matt [00:03:07] You know, we loved living in different places. With my first [indistinct] was in Blarney, Ireland, Vermont—you know, places all over the world. So it just made sense for us to continue working that way. What I didn't know at the time was whether it would scale, which is a common question in technology—will it scale? And so in the back of my mind, I thought perhaps this will break down to 50 people or maybe Dunbar's number 150 or 500, [laughs] but, at every point, we just were very practical. We said, is this still working? If so, let's keep doing it. And if not, let's change tacks or try something else.
Matt [00:03:39] We're now over 1,277 countries and honestly, I think we've never been more productive. The ability for us to bring together diverse talents from all over the world, to access the sort of global pool of talent so you get the best people, no matter where they choose to live, and to work together in a synchronous fashion, which allows work to happen—kind of the sun never sets on Automattic. There's things happening all over the world as people wake up and go to sleep on their normal hours.
Matt [00:04:08] That has been fantastic. And then that also gives a lot of flexibility to people wherever they want to live. So a lot of people who start out like yourself in a shoe box in Manhattan might say, well, if I could be just as productive someplace else, maybe I'll move 30 minutes away. So when I want to go into the safe or fun stuff, I can. But my day-to-day, I'm not trading off commute time for living quality.
Kinsey [00:04:29] Right. The sun never sets on Automattic is such a great little saying, and I think really representative of what you guys are doing and how it's very different from what we're used to when we say a 9:00 to 5:00 [chuckles] on the East Coast is a very different breed. And I want to talk more about the competitive advantages of Automattic's setup. But before we get into that, let's just talk a little bit more generally about distributed and remote workforces on the larger scale. Now, I know that you are careful to use the word distributed with what Automattic does, because from what I can understand, remote suggests that there are people who are not working remotely.
Matt [00:05:02] Exactly.
Kinsey [00:05:03] OK. OK. So you wrote, though, you were in a New York Times piece, Corner Office. Congratulations, it was a wonderful piece. But that this kind of work, this distributed workforce, could be good for the environment, good for the economy, good for opportunity. Let's run through those, each one. And can you explain a little bit more context around what you mean when you say this could be good for the environment. How so?
Matt [00:05:25] Sure. Well, people aren't commuting each day. And we asked people to tell us the amount of their previous commutes. And so there is, at this point, I think it's tens of thousands of kilometers a day, people aren't commuting. So that's nice. They're also able to reuse their home space. There's just less big empty offices sitting empty [chuckles] two-thirds of the day. It's a little more efficient use of resources. I also love that they're able to be wherever they want. There's not an expectation. So you could choose to live someplace which is eco-friendly.
Kinsey [00:05:59] Right. What about good for opportunity? How so?
Matt [00:06:03] It's kind of ridiculous that, in the internet age, when we all [indistinct] broadband literally in our pockets, that we only offer certain jobs to people who in or are willing to move to a certain city, like Mountain View [chuckles], or Redmond, or cities that are cool, but not where 99.9% of the population lives.
Matt [00:06:21] So, as an organization, if you can open yourself up to that talent that is in the rest of the country or the world, you don't even need to make it worldwide. You're just to open it up to all 50 states [chuckles] in the United States. Man, there's so many smart, talented people who, thanks to the internet, have learned [chuckles] and read the same books and everything else as the people in Mountain View. So we found that they are just as talented, capable.
Matt [00:06:44] And I do believe that talent and intelligence is equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. So I do believe that morally, anything we can do to increase opportunity, people who might not have had access to it before, is a good thing for humanity.
Kinsey [00:06:57] Right. Absolutely. And we'll get into more of all of these. But I just want to run through the headlines here. Last one. How do you think that it is good for the economy—a distributed workforce?
Matt [00:07:08] I think it's an interesting shift of the economy because, of course, if you look at how jobs and economic growth has shifted over the past 20 years, is it's largely been a coastal phenomenon. So there's huge swaths of particularly—I'm talking from an American perspective here—huge swaths of the country have been just left behind.
Kinsey [00:07:26] Right.
Matt [00:07:26] And we see that play out in economic disparity and injustice. We see that play out in the opioid epidemic, which, you know, [chuckles] there's so much other stuff going on, we're not talking about that, but still a huge tragedy of human life. And just in things like brain drain, where small cities, the top valedictorians, the smartest people, move elsewhere. What if they stayed in their city and then brought a coastal salary to that place? Because as companies evolve in a distributed fashion, you end up not doing what old-school companies do.
Matt [00:07:59] Old-school companies would say, you know, if you're in Alabama instead of San Francisco, we're gonna pay less. For us, [chuckles] if we did that, our competitors would just hire the person in Alabama because lots of other companies are doing this too. So we pay the same rates regardless of where you are. The same pay for the same work, regardless of geography. So, it starts to mean that there's a lot of amazing tech salaries flowing into places that might not have had those types of companies or opportunities before.
Matt [00:08:28] And that can create a ton of jobs [chuckles] at all the local stores, the restaurants, the service providers, everything.
Kinsey [00:08:34] Right. Absolutely. It's very interesting, Matt. And all these things sound really, really good. But there are obviously arguments against these distributed workforces. One that we hear a lot about is the impact on human connection, on getting together with your colleagues after work. You know, your boss high-fiving you for a job well done or even on the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are going to lose your job or you are going to get reprimanded in some way, you dehumanize it almost a little bit if you're doing it through a computer screen. So what do you have to say to the critics who say that we lose human connection when we're not sitting face to face?
Matt [00:09:08] For a communication, for certainly anything work-related, you can have a lot of connection through a screen, like you and I are having right now. You sound like you're sitting right next to me. I see your face. I see your expressions. This is actually very powerful. And I don't think this is novel. We're all using Facetime [chuckles] and Zoom to keep up with our friends during the quarantine and everything. And you can build trust and you can stay close to people even if you're not physically in the same room with them.
Matt [00:09:33] Now, that said, I do hope that we are able to be physically in the same room with people a lot more than we currently are. It just might be a different [indistinct]. Where today, if you've decided to live very close to your work and maybe trade-off living close to the friends you grew up with or your family, then you're just connecting with the folks at your work. What if all that social time, you know, the lunch that you used to have with your colleagues, you can now have lunch with your family or your kids or your best friends from high school or whoever it might be, that, for me, lives in Houston.
Matt [00:10:05] So [chuckles] when I'm in San Francisco, a lot of my social network is technology-based. Some of them are good friends. But when I'm in Houston, it's the people I've grown up with and who are kind of people who've known me across decades. And that's just a special and different connection. I still think it's huge to be able to connect with their families. How cool would it be?
Matt [00:10:24] If you were going to design the perfect office, you would say, well, I want my own space [laughs] where I can have my own art, my own decoration, the temperature I want it to be, the food I want, that maybe my pets will be there. Oh, wouldn't it be cool if I could hang out with my kids during lunch and give them a hug and kiss and then go back and stuff. Yes, you probably do want to office that's separate from the rest of the house [chuckles] so you stay sane, which I realize that especially in a big city is difficult. But you would kind of design something that looks a lot like working from home. You're designing the perfect corner office as a CEO.
Kinsey [00:10:57] Yeah. All of those things sound like the perks that we hear from, you know, the Google campuses and places like that. They do these things like offer you meals that are cooked on premises [laughs] and coffee and places to take a nap. Well, I've got a perfect place to take a nap—your bedroom. [laughter]
Matt [00:11:16] It's also just nice, you know, when companies invest, if you join a company and they're putting you in an office, they're going to spend thousands of dollars, or have at some point, to get all the equipment that you need there. What we do is we just take those thousands of dollars and say, spend it on your home office. And so you can get the chair you want, the desk you want, the monitor you want. And really something that's customized for you versus the kind of standard operating procedure where the company does.
Matt [00:11:38] And by the way, we're not going to ask you to ship back your desk if you [indistinct] for Automattic. It's just yours. [chuckles] These things end up just kind of being things that are hopefully permanent improvements to your home.
Kinsey [00:11:48] So, another one of these big arguments when we talk about—and maybe I shouldn't frame it as an argument—another facet of the conversation when talking about distributed or remote workforces is innovation versus productivity, that oftentimes we found that workforces that are distributed or remote are more productive at times. You can be more productive at home without some of the distractions that we have in the traditional ideal of what an office is, but there are a lot of questions that remain around innovation that you're missing those conversations. You run into somebody in the lunchroom, you know, like Steve Jobs famously was a anti-distributed workforce kind of guy because he thought that some of the best ideas were just when people ran into each other. So what do you say to that?
Matt [00:12:31] I think that works. So I'm not going to say that doesn't happen. [laughs] But there are alternatives. And I think we see lots of innovative companies. I mean, any technology company, Automattic included, would not be relevant. We wouldn't be having this conversation if we hadn't innovated quite a bit over the past 15 years.
Kinsey [00:12:46] Fair.
Matt [00:12:46] And so, it's not that—I wouldn't even say one is better than the other. I just say it's very different. And so it is absolutely true that if you're used to working one way and you start working distributed, there's a learning curve, just like the first time learning a new instrument or a new sports, or maybe your first day of work [laughs] if you can think way, way, way back to like you just graduated and walked into the office for the first time. That was strange. And it probably took you a few weeks or months to get your bearings.
Matt [00:13:14] Distributed work is the same way. It's also worth having a lot empathy for the fact that many of us were thrust into this without planning for it.
Kinsey [00:13:21] Yeah.
Matt [00:13:22] You didn't choose your apartment and your desk and all that planning to do this. You just were told you had to stay home one day. Now, if you're at a company, including Google, [chuckles] Facebook, some of the biggest company in the world, said, hey, we're gonna do this for at least a year, which, if you read between the lines, means basically forever, because [chuckles], you know, so many of their people are starting to move in things that they're not going to be able to bring them all back. It's kind of a one-way switch to go distributed, to be honest, unless you're a really kind of draconian company.
Matt [00:13:50] But if you're talent-driven and your talent has lots of options, like every technology company does, they're going to demand this. And once they have a taste of the freedom, they won't want to return to the previous state. So now people can start to move a little bit further out of the city or back near their family where they have free childcare [laughs], all these other things they can they can optimize for. And that's, I think, where you really start to unlock the benefits.
Matt [00:14:11] If you're really unhappy right now, probably it means that either you haven't had a chance or an opportunity to adjust your home situation yet. It's not ergonomic, it's not comfortable. It's not interruption-free, or your organization is still trying to replicate the office online. So they're putting you in eight hours of Zoom meetings a day, and that's just draining your soul. So [laughs] hopefully both of those kind of solve in the coming months.
Kinsey [00:14:34] OK. Matt, I want to talk more about the switch that is or is not flipped toward remote and distributed work. We're going to do that. But quickly, a short break to hear from our partner. —
Kinsey [00:14:46] And now back to the conversation with Matt Mullenweg. So, Matt, we have experienced a very weird couple of months, I think is a very light way of putting it here. But going remote, you know, at Morning Brew, I looked before this conversation to see what the first email was saying that we were gonna be going remote. It was on March 11th. We were going to test our remote system to make sure that we could do it.
Kinsey [00:15:09] And I haven't been back to the office permanently since then. That was a long time ago. And we are, for many months, looking into the future, going to be a remote workforce. So, let's dive in a little bit to what that means. Is it really that case that [laughs] if you go remote, you really can't go back? Is that what the future of the workplace looks like?
Matt [00:15:31] You can go back, and particularly if you were a small company where you all had a really nice office setup or something, of course you can. Now, part of my question is, is it worth it?
Kinsey [00:15:44] Right.
Matt [00:15:45] When I see how these officer are being modified to be almost like, you know, hospital-looking things, [laughs] where you can only walk one direction, and you have screens in between the cubicles, and only three people could be in a conference room at a time—as long as that—I think the office is going to be way worse. [laughs] I don't want to be in that office. And I think maybe you lose a lot of that [indistinct]. And that's sort of like, you know, beautiful intersections that makes an office a place you'd want to be in the first place. When I see these kind of people forcing themselves back into these, you know, what we have to do to stay safe in offices before we have a widely available vaccine, they're not places I would personally want to be.
Kinsey [00:16:23] Yeah. And I think the concept of scale is important to note here too, that for a company like Morning Brew, we have fewer than 50 employees right now. It is a little easier to make these changes and pivot when we need to and be flexible. But if you're a large, big company with thousands of employees all over the world, I imagine it's a little harder to turn on a dime and figure out a new strategy. So how was the issue of scale something that you took on when you were building Automattic? Was that ever a concern? You mentioned that you kept just saying, well, we hit this number and things are still going fine, might as well keep doing what I'm doing. Do you think that you'd hit a number at which this is not a feasible option anymore?
Matt [00:17:01] Well, now that we're north of a thousand people, I don't really see a ceiling to this. For all the things that scale you to be a 1,000-person organization, I think you can apply as you get to 5,000, 10,000, hopefully 100,000 someday. I would love—with Automattic, we're trying to create the next generation of the web and it would be open, free, open source, distributed, decentralized. And that is both a lifelong mission for myself—I've been doing it for 17 years—I hope to do for the rest of my life—and I could easily see that being an organization or mission which employs something the size of Google or Facebook.
Kinsey [00:17:38] OK. And it doesn't matter where they are.
Matt [00:17:39] That's the greatest part.
Kinsey [00:17:41] But also, and part of what you're doing Automattic is quote, changing the way we work. Why do you think that that needs to be changed in the first place? I think we've hit on it a little bit. But maybe, what exactly broke this traditional idea of what a workplace should look like, at least here in the United States, that you go into your office, usually an open-floor plan, have your little cubicle, work 9:00 to 5:00, go home. What is broken about that to you?
Matt [00:18:05] I don't want to use the word broken because it's obviously working for a lot of people and the vast majority of the economy up until this point. [laughs] I think that every organizational structure is a series of trade-offs. So, the trade-off you make when you choose to have people be in a centralized office is geographic. So you're excluding the 99.9% of the population that might not be able to be there or make that commute. You're excluding some resiliency. Decentralized organizations are more resilient.
Matt [00:18:37] Now, [laughs] whether it's pandemic or a meteor hitting or earthquake or a hurricane or whatever it is [Kinsey laughs]—you know, it's funny because with colleagues in 77 countries, there's actually something happening almost all the time in one of these countries. If you name 77 countries in the world, you know, I have colleagues in Lebanon, I have colleagues in places where there is usually something going on all the time. But the organization as a whole, COVID is really the first thing you can imagine that would affect all of us at the same time, because it truly is a global pandemic.
Kinsey [00:19:08] Right.
Matt [00:19:09] But because of how we work, we were able to keep working. Now, I would like to take this opportunity to note that we've had to change a lot of things too. Many of my colleagues had spouses that maybe went to offices, their kids that went to schools. We used to do meet-ups. So where we'd fly people together to get together for a few weeks a year, you know, teams would hang out together. Not saying—I mean, I love being in-person. [laughs] I really like it.
Matt [00:19:36] We decided to make the trade-off to do that only a few weeks out of the year versus doing it 40 weeks out of the year. And that was something that's worked well for us. It's also been a huge competitive advantage for hiring because we are able to access a lot of people. Now, that's probably gone away because now every company is going to do distributed—or almost every company—including the big tech giants that us being distributed was almost like a David and Goliath we could use against them before. But we're still really good at it and have a great mission, so we've been able to attract a lot of people.
Matt [00:20:06] And I think a lot of people who would have never considered working distributed before have seen the advantages. Before you might have only imagined the hypothetical downsides and underweighted the advantages. But now that people have been experiencing it, and maybe can see the light at the end of the tunnel for how it can actually be really great, a lot more people are applying to companies like Automattic, Getlab, and Vision that work in this way.
Kinsey [00:20:29] Yeah. Let's talk about this competitive advantage. Your hiring process is one that is pretty interesting. I read that there's a possibility you could be hired entirely based on, like, written communication. Never talk to somebody face to face, even over a camera. That's really, really interesting and absolutely not normal. [laughs] How do you think that that gives you a competitive advantage and how are you going to maintain that competitive advantage now that, like you said, these Goliath figures are entering the picture?
Matt [00:20:58] Hmm. Well, we're always clearly one one-hundredth the size of the people we're competing with. [laughs] And so we have to look for things that can be different. One thing I'm always doing is saying, what is kind of a blind spot or an area where a different organization is so attached to their process that they're missing out on something really huge. And so with our potential to be hired completely via text, [laughs] so Slack chats and things like that, I bet there's a number of people listening to this right now that are smart, talented, hardworking, curious—exactly the type of people we want to have it Automattic, but for whom, if they're in an in-person interview, they freeze up.
Matt [00:21:40] It's high pressure. Or someone's asking you to write code on a whiteboard or whatever these things are that where you have to fly in for a day and interview with 15 different people. I mean, these are perhaps effective for the companies that use them. But I think they also exclude a huge number of people who those companies probably should be hiring. They would be great at the job. They're just bad at that artificial interview process.
Matt [00:22:03] So we try to look at how could we get the same outcome. We're discerning who would be really talented and effective at Automattic, contributing to our mission, but might be excluded by most normal hiring processes. And some of that's geographic. We hire people in countries where Google and Facebook don't have any presence, but some of it as well is just like our process for how we do it. So I feel like that turns into a competitive advantage if you can do it well. And we're always iterating on our hiring process.
Matt [00:22:33] It can even be different for different roles. For many of our roles, your job is mostly going to be [chuckles] written communication, so that's really all we care about. But if we were going to hire a salesperson, for example, we probably would want to do a video call or something like that, because that's how they're going to be talking to either current or potential customers.
Matt [00:22:50] So if we're able to kind of break down the first principles of what makes you effective at the job, we can try to filter for that and build that into the interview process in a way that hopefully can be as objective as possible. And just honing in on the things that are really going to matter for you doing the job well enough, and not all that sort of extraneous stuff that a lot of the hiring process is filtered for unintentionally.
Kinsey [00:23:13] Right. And I'm trying to remove my own personal biases from this conversation. As somebody who literally gets paid to pick up on other people's body language and their cues in their voice and what their expression says about them, that to me it's so much easier to do in person. And luckily, we exist in the kind of time where we have this technology where I can see all of those things right now talking to you in this conversation. Maybe it's a little different in person, but for the most part, it's just readjusting my attitude [chuckles] about it, I think, in a lot of ways.
Kinsey [00:23:43] But I just kinda have to wonder, though, if this can filter the hiring process in the right way. If this can be better for the economy and the environment and the people who make all of those things up, then how come this hasn't been the norm? You know, if this is so good for business, why did it take so long?
Matt [00:24:02] Inertia is one the most powerful forces in the universe. [chuckles] I think Bruce Sterling, the sci-fi writer, has a quote. It says: The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed. So there's pockets of what maybe the world will be doing 20 years from now that exist today in some company, in some city, in some area, and maybe in some industry. I think it was Bob Metcalfe who said that sometimes progress happens one generation at a time, [laughs] where people have to retire for a new way of working to really be embraced.
Matt [00:24:32] I always try to look for silver linings and remain optimistic. And one silver lining I've seen about the pandemic is that it's forced a lot of us, myself included—we were successful in the past, and so we were attached the ways we had done things—to really re-examine is there a different way to get it the same or better outcome than what we've been doing before? Because we're all literally forced not to do what we've been doing before. And once you get past that hump, sometimes you see opportunities.
Matt [00:24:57] So, for example, maybe our conversation would be like 10% better if you and I were in the same room, although I think that studios are really artificial. [laughter] So what do you have—the mics and all that sort of stuff? I don't know if it flows super-naturally. This might actually be more comfortable. But I might not be able to be a guest if I had to be in New York to be on this. And so probably, perhaps for your podcast, you found that you're able to access more guests than you might otherwise.
Matt [00:25:21] I've certainly spoken at events—there's been events that I've not been able to attend for like five or six years because it's in New Zealand or [laughs] someplace that just the travel costs would be really high for me, especially as the company's grown. But I can hop on a Zoom for an hour, even if it's at 9 or 10 p.m. That's not that bad. So I've actually started even speaking more [laughs] at things that I'd wanted to do for years, but just have been unable to because of that—physically getting there was a barrier.
Kinsey [00:25:47] Yeah, absolutely. And I also just think that, especially earlier in the quarantine, so many people had more time to do things like this. Getting you as a guest is a fantastic opportunity, that like you said, probably wouldn't have happened [laughs] under normal circumstances. And even just people who were like, you know, I got an hour of just sitting on my couch. Sure. Why not? Has happened more than I probably should admit on the record right now. [Matt laughs] So I want to talk a little bit, Matt, about the specific timing of all this happening with COVID in mind and how the transition has gone so far. We're going to do that in just a second. But first, a short break to hear from our sponsor. —
Kinsey [00:26:27] And now back to the conversation with Matt Mullenweg. Matt, this has been an incredible season of acceleration and I feel like accelerating trends is up there with use of the word unprecedented during these times. [laughs] But it's true. We have seen things happen in a much more rapid manner than they typically would across the board here. Work from home obviously being one of them. So with this acceleration, what do you wish could have gone differently? What do you think would have better prepared us to implement work from home in a more, I don't know, a better, more resilient way from day one early March when this all started.
Matt [00:27:06] That's a tough question, to be totally honest. I wish we hadn't had this issue in the first place. I would have been just as happy if work from home had taken 20 years to [laughs] get to where it was today, if it meant that even one life could've been saved. I think a lot of what comes to mind when you ask what could have gone differently, I think of how we've addressed the epidemic. And I do have a lot of wishes around maybe that we had locked down sooner, or the information about masks could have become clearer sooner, or the danger of indoor versus outdoor contact.
Matt [00:27:38] All those things I wish would have been different. In terms of work, I think that, of course, it would've been nice if more companies had done this before or been set up for it before. But honestly, they didn't really have the incentive to. Like I said, inertia is the most powerful force in the universe. If things were working for people before, particularly if they were very successful, like a Google or Facebook or Amazon [indistinct], they probably don't have a huge incentive. And the cost to them to fly people from all over the world to move them to their headquarters was de minimis. You know, they make millions of dollars in profit per employee.
Matt [00:28:12] So it's not a huge deal to uproot people's lives and pay them a ton to force them to come to live in the Bay Area or something. But I think about the human cost of that. People moving away from their families, their hometowns, their loved ones, the living conditions in the Bay Area, which have become overcrowded, the housing cost. So much of tech companies' salaries just go right back to landowners. [laughs] And it's sort of the incentives that [indistinct], the sort of generational gaps that creates wealth and social justice and everything.
Matt [00:28:45] So everything being more spread out and more decentralized, I think it's just an interesting trend for humanity. If we can simultaneously become more geographically decentralized, more digitally connected, informationally communication connected. That is, it feels like the best of both worlds.
Kinsey [00:29:03] Right.
Matt [00:29:03] Where we can become more interconnected, which hopefully decreases war, decreases prejudice, decreases segregation, but more physically robust [laughs] and that we're all over the world. That feels like a good thing.
Kinsey [00:29:20] Yeah, it absolutely does. I just know the best of both worlds can be impossible. I lived in a small town most of my childhood and I moved to the big city, and I changed my world view in a lot of ways. I met new people. I learned new things. And I have to wonder if I would have the same attitudes that I have today toward the world around me if I had stayed in Tallahassee, Florida, for my entire life.
Kinsey [00:29:44] Do you ever wonder about that? Does getting people to decentralize [laughs] away from these big East Coast and West Coast hubs is a good thing. I think it's a net good. But I also have to wonder that there are opportunity costs that you exist in a vacuum and maybe don't open yourself up to the information that in a perfect world, we would open ourselves up to far more.
Matt [00:30:06] I think the counter to that would be—and this is where I think business could be really a force for good—is let's say you're on a team of five people and those five people, none of them were in Tallahassee. Let's say maybe one was in Brooklyn or something. One is in Pakistan. One is in Argentina. People from all over the world. You're kind of in the trenches building something with them every day. You get to know those colleagues on your team really, really well.
Matt [00:30:33] And they'll bring in a worldview to you that I would say is better than you would get, either only being in Tallahassee or only being in Europe. You get someone waking up and going to bed every night with a different social context, with a different history, with a different set of friends, with a different family structure. And I've seen that both in my own life. Again, being just a kid from Houston, which was an amazing and diverse place to grow up because it's, you know, the most diverse places in America, but nothing like having a colleague who really lives [laughs] every day someplace else. And that's really powerful.
Matt [00:31:09] I think it's more than that we're in 77 countries, but the number of languages spoken at Automattic is something like 95 or 100, which is so humbling to me because I don't even think I could name 95 languages. [laughs] And so what you learn from your colleagues can be really huge because the connections do happen and these people do become your friends.
Kinsey [00:31:27] Yeah. Absolutely. Matt, I want to take a minute here to think a little bit critically about what the future of work looks like. Take out our crystal balls for a second and try and wonder what it might be. I think we've been talking a lot about inertia and how that will impact the future of work. One thing that I found really interesting in preparing to have this conversation with you is that you said any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion can and should. It's a moral imperative.
Kinsey [00:31:56] Moral imperative is interesting and I think pretty eye-catching. Can you explain a little more what you mean by a moral imperative to offer this opportunity post-COVID? Say we do have a vaccine, we can go back to work safely. Why does it remain a moral imperative to offer this—to put this offer on the table?
Matt [00:32:12] I think if you're in a position of influence in business—whether that's a manager, a leader, a company owner—if you have a way to work, people's work is a huge influence on the rest of their lives. If you have a good day at work, you're going to treat your family better. [laughs] If you have a bad day at work, well, the old joke, like they kicked the dog on the way in—I hope no one actually kicks their dog. [laughs] People might bring that frustration to the rest of life.
Matt [00:32:34] It's for many people, it's a third of their living hours, you know, eight hours a day, 40 hours out of 160-hour week. 168-hour week. So it's a huge part of people's lives. So if you have the opportunity to allow them to work in a way which is more fulfilling, provides them more autonomy, more flexibility, allows them to do better work, which you benefit from, but then also allows them to be more engaged at work, which then they'll bring to the rest of their life.
Matt [00:32:58] And of course, then the economic opportunity as well for these companies that are productive and doing well, they will be more successful. They can pay their people better. There's a virtuous cycle that you get into there. Why wouldn't you want to do that if you could have that sort of impact on every single person you work with? Why not? Now, this is the argument for creating a great work environment. Full stop.
Kinsey [00:33:18] Right.
Matt [00:33:19] And I believe that distributed is an amazing way to do that. You could also do that in an office. But if you're able to do in a distributed fashion, I think that asynchronicity, that sort of a lot of people—more autonomy—you can provide a level of autonomy that you could literally never do in an office. You have 50 people. Those 50 people have different opinions on pets, allergies, food, music, temperature.
Kinsey [00:33:42] The temperature's a big one for Morning Brew. [laughter] Do you think, Matt, though, that post-COVID, this might be a little bit of a tech-centric inertia, [laughs] that this is maybe a little more possible for a company that is born of the internet? And I say this as an employee of a company that very much straddles the line between tech and media, and we can do it remote, but not every company can. Not every sector should. Do you think that this is a little tech-centric?
Matt [00:34:10] That's a really good point to bring up. If your job is going to an office and looking at a computer or talking on the phone, then yes, you can do it remote. [laughs] No problem. If you're a dentist, perhaps that becomes a little trickier. Although it is amazing to see the growth of telemedicine during the pandemic.
Matt [00:34:30] Turns out a lot of what we used to go into the office for, and touch all those services and be around all those sick people [laughs] and wait with these bad magazines and TV for 30 minutes, a lot of that could happen via video. And that's kind of amazing. So there was inertia why that didn't happen before. It doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea. It just meant that there are laws and regulations and reasons why people weren't doing telemedicine.
Matt [00:34:51] But now that we've been forced to, we're seeing the benefits. And by the way, that's probably great for me and the doctors as well. Now their jobs aren't going away. In fact, maybe even demand increases because people can contact them when they wouldn't have had the ability to go to the office before. But there will always be some things that you maybe need to do in person.
Kinsey [00:35:09] Right. Absolutely. I've got one more question for you before I let you go here. I just, out of curiosity, have to know: we're all familiar with the video of the man doing the interview from his home office. The little kid comes in and the [Matt laughs] woman comes—everybody has seen it before. Do you have one of these moments that has happened throughout your career as somebody who has built a company from wherever you want in the world? You have like an oh shit [Matt laughs] distributed remote work moment, your biggest embarrassment?
Matt [00:35:39] To me, the embarrassments come when it when it breaks down. So if I lose internet or something like that, I do a lot of work to make sure that's consistent. All the other interruptions have actually been really pleasantly surprising. I was actually once doing a company town hall. So we do a monthly town hall where I speak to the entire company. You can ask a question in real time. And this was a time when my mom and sister happened to be visiting and they passed. And so it was like, who's that? It's my mom and sister. And they're like, can we ask them questions? [laughter]
Matt [00:36:05] I was like, oh, my goodness, [laughs] I was a little terrified. [indistinct] And so they came on the broadcast and people asked them questions, which I was terrified of, but it ended up being really amazing and warm and people really enjoyed it. And I think my mom really enjoyed the opportunity [laughs] to speak to my colleagues. And there was funny stuff in there too. I generally go by Matt and she calls me Matthew. So it was like, why did you call him Matthew? She's like, well, that's his name. [laughter] Just funny things like that.
Matt [00:36:37] And it ended up being one of the more fun town halls that ever happened. So, you know, the things like the kids coming in, the pets coming in, all that sort of stuff is actually an incredible opportunity for your colleagues to see a side of you that they might not see in the office.
Kinsey [00:36:50] Yeah, absolutely. And as one of the families that ended up getting a quarantine puppy, [Matt laughs] we had lots of puppy appearances [laughs] when I was back in Florida. And people love it. And it's been really cool, I think, also to just see inside people's homes, like you said, that you are inviting someone into your room, wherever you're taking a call. And there's a lot to be said for that. And I think empathy is definitely a lesson that we will walk away from this shared experience with, I hope.
Kinsey [00:37:17] And thank you so much, Matt, Matthew, [laughs] for coming on Business Casual. I said at the top of the episode that I wasn't totally sold on the work from home concept in the long term. But I think that there is a lot of merit to this conversation. And on the larger scale, from diverse hiring to making the environment safer and better for everybody to even just juicing the economy, there is a lot to unpack, and I'm grateful that you came on to do it with me. So thank you.
Matt [00:37:44] It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Kinsey [00:37:54] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. Our conversation with Matt answered a lot of questions, but it also opened the door to a whole lot more. One of the big questions for me: remote work on the individual level. Matt told us why it's good for business, but is it good for you or your work-life balance or your social life? On our next episode, out Thursday, we're answering all of those questions and tons more. Subscribe so you don't miss it. And I'll see you next time. [sound of a ding]