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An Evangelist for Remote Work Sees the Rest of the World Catch On (nytimes.com)
47 points by ingve 4 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 11 comments

This is an interview with Matt Mullenweg, the founder/CEO of Automattic, which, according to the article, has 1,000+ fully distributed employees now, 15 years after its founding. This was a fun insight from him to close out the "Corner Office" column:

"This column is called Corner Office, and most people who choose to have offices are usually the bosses. And I’ve been to the offices of billionaire C.E.O.s that have their own private bathroom, beautiful art and couches. But these are all things that you can have in your house. What I love about distributed organizations is every single employee can have a corner office."

Of course, the assumption here is that you live/work somewhere in which you can have a separate, closed-door, home office. This is true for most people who did distributed work pre-Covid (for example, 100% of my fully distributed team of ~25 engineers/PMs/designers has this setup or something close to it) but this may not be true for those who had to adapt quickly in small urban apartments, as is common in NYC or SF, post-Covid. That said, given how software engineers are usually comp'ed and given how much a software career relies on autodidacticism and flow, I think every software engineer should strive to have a serene home office from which to work. It's a good investment in your career and your sanity.

In all fairness, people do choose smaller city apartments so that they (normally) have nearby amenities that they wouldn't have from a house in the suburbs/exurbs. And dedicated space is less affordable even at software engineer salaries if you have an apartment in an expensive city. But quite a few people I know have decided or are considering that more space may be a worthwhile tradeoff--especially if they were getting to a point in life where urban living didn't have as many attractions any longer.

We are looking at selling our house and moving precisely because I do not have anywhere to have an office. I’ve been working from a chair in the corner of the living room (not even a table, laptop earning its name) for the past 3 months.

I had to get creative with our small space. We live in a walk up that has a big vaulted ceiling over the foyer entry and stairs so we built sort of an enclosed loft area over the entry to use as an office. It has been amazing to get my desk out of the living area.

The only thing we had to trade for it was a 20 foot tall ceiling and empty space with a chandelier for a 9 foot tall entry area with recessed lights.

It's a small office, 5x10ft but just having anything out of the way with a door that closes is just miles better.

My point in sharing this is that lots of space, especially in our American homes and condos is poorly allocated. There might be a creative way to add on or convert some existing space in the place you live now.

Kitchen table, and everyone else fucks off somewhere else unless they're bringing in more.

Nah, my kids use the kitchen table for their school work. That is more important to me than my own comfort.

He doesn't really address the biggest issue I (and many of my colleagues) have faced with remote work.

If you're head down on a coding task or writing a document or doing some piece of design... having your own space is amazing. I love that I can work at home (put music on speakers, not headphones) and just go for it.

But it sucks for collaborative meetings. There is really no substitute for getting people in a room with a whiteboard.

Yeah, there are online whiteboards and video conferencing and whatever, but they still aren't as good and likely never will be (at least until we get some kind of amazing VR/AR workspace).

I'm curious as to how other people have solved this.

I work for Automattic and done fair bit of these collaborative meetings.

We settled on something like this: - Write a memo asking for obvious requirements - Get feedback - Ask more questions - Get feedback - Schedule a call, launch into chatting in detail - Write a memo - Get feedback - Prototype - Schedule a call...

There is nothing really you can do live that you cannot do online. You don't get progress thanks to some fantastic insight while "brainstorming". You get progress by chipping away at the idea and having space to think. Having a weekly cycle of memos and Zoom Calls will handle this.

Face-to-face really shines when you have to sync up on priorities and goals. It's a great way to get everybody feeling they communicated and are part of the same group. I don't mean this in a derogatory way - people need this feelings to work and overlooking that part of communication is causing the breakdowns. But after you get all your human rapport building out of the way, async is really effective.

Communicating online is not a natural skill and should be deliberately practiced.

I packaged all my learnings into a free mini-course:


You get good at communicating via other means. Free software developers have been doing this for years and have pretty well established patterns that work.

The guy interviewed here (Matt Mullenweg) has a good podcast with Sam Harris from right after the lockdowns started occurring. One of the biggest takeaways and something that my team is doing now is to use a shared document that everyone can edit in real-time during meetings. Basically anything that people think is relevant gets recorded. It's been really helpful for developing test case plans. The whole podcast is fascinating though - iirc it's 2.5 hours about how to do remote work.

We tended to do this anyway; Etherpad was used by a lot of teams for agendas. But we mostly use GSuite these days and the even more widespread switch to video calls--we were already pretty distributed--has led to a shared agenda doc being a standard practice for all but small meetings. Shared docs are an under-rated "secret weapon" for remote collaboration.

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