Toni Schneider – Automattic As A Distributed Work Force

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Last Friday, I took some time out my day to watch Toni Schneider, CEO Of Automattic give a presentation on working as a distributed company. His talk was part of a series called Secrets Of Silicon Valley presented by CreativeLive. Unfortunately, I can’t embed Toni’s presentation because it’s now part of the $199 package to buy the entire video series. However, while watching his presentation, I wrote down a bunch of notes.

Keep in mind that the main topic of the presentation was operating a company that had a 100% distributed workforce. The benefits, downfalls and whether this would be a good fit for other companies. If you have any questions regarding these notes, post them in the comments. I’ll try and get Toni Schneider to answer them.

General Overview Of Automattic:

Lots of Automattic employees within 7-9 months tell Toni that they can’t imagine going back to a regular job.

Automattic has been 100% distributed since day 1.

180 people, 28 countries, 138 cities make up the Automattic workforce.

Interesting point about people working from home. The assumption is that people would goof off. But Toni mentions how they have the opposite problem of people working too much.

Being distributed saves some money, but not a ton. Thanks to traveling expenses, etc.

Being distributed gives you a global pool of people to tap into. Less of a chance of running into scarcity of qualified workers.

Flexibility is one of the best reasons to have a distributed work force. Working when you want, how you want, makes work fun.

Not having a central office where everyone works in cuts down on office drama. Lack of office politics.

Distributed workforce helps flatten the company hierarchy.


Be exceptionally clear with people on what it means to be a remote worker. Being in a distributed environment. Explaining the company culture.

The more public information the company puts out there on what it means to work for the company, expectations, what it’s like and knowing what the core mission is, helps pre-select employees or allows themselves to be pre-selected.

Thanks to the Automattic creed, it’s helped be upfront with expectations of what people will be doing as being part of the company. The creed acts as a formal commitment towards the company culture.

Main mode of communication is text between Skype and P2 blogs.

Employees are usually hired on a contractual basis to build something which gives both parties a period of time to understand whether it really would be a good fit for the worker and the company.

Automattic has an open vacation/holiday policy. When operating under a global umbrella, having a no vacation policy gets around expectations and the fact that holidays are different around the world. It also shows that the company trusts the employees to get their work done.

How To Break In A New Employee:

Usually the first few days of the job are weird. It’s multiplied when you have a computer job at work but then have a computer job at home.

Automattic developed a 3 week support rotation to help ease in employees to get accustomed to working remotely. This support rotation helps new employees to meet established employees immediately, also gets them familiar with the communication methods. It also provides the opportunity to see what their customers are dealing with, to see what their problems are that they’ll be helping to solve.

In general, people come out loving their three-week support rotation.

Intro videos and giving new employees mentors.

Providing a field guide which acts as an employee hand book. Doesn’t have to be 100% serious such as a section devoted to company trivia.

General rule of thumb at the beginning. If you’re going to email someone and it’s not private or personal, post it to the team blog. This helps keep everything in the open, aids in transparency, and people across the team can be on the same page.

Internally, P2 will be called O2 and they are working on a new version. Not sure what the new public version will be called.

Modes of communication
Email -> P2
Hallway -> IRC
Meetings -> Google Hangouts
One on one -> Skype.

People Organization:

Automattic as a company is formed into teams made up of 6-8 people. When more people join the team, it’s split up. Good example is cell division.

Teams are designed to be self-sufficient where they can build something and launch it without the need for approval from the top.

Takes 30 seconds to launch code to production servers.

Each team has one lead which helps keep everyone in synch. The team concept is fluid where the team lead as well as team members change based on assignments and interests.

This helps give a co-working environment so it doesn’t feel like you’re at home, by yourself, you’re working with others.

It’s important to have employees feel connected. Each one knowing what’s going on across other teams and company wide.

Very little in the way of middle management. This helps move things quickly and puts the emphasis on individuals contributions.

Managers primary role is to remove friction for team members to help get their job/project done.

MySQL was a company that Automattic modeled themselves after early on in terms of working remotely.

Toni believes a big part of the reason why a distributed model has worked so well for Automattic is because they started that way and have gone out of the way to remain 100% distributed but he also noted, that companies that started out distributed have failed as have companies that have a partial distributed workforce.

Biggest Downside Of This Model – Loneliness:

Working remotely gets lonely.

Automattic recommends that teams get together a few times a year, to provide social time.

Automattic has at least 1 company meet up a year which brings everyone together.

These yearly meet ups include assigning a small team a small project where at the end of the week, the project goes live.

Flash talks. Everyone in the company has to get up and talk for about 4-5 minutes about whatever it is they want.

The company meet up feels more like a family reunion versus a casual meet up.

Automattic encourages employees to go to conferences/WordCamps together as teams either to present a talk or to hang out and talk to people.

Work Styles:

Automattic loves to support their employees by supporting their work styles whether it’s a home office, a co-working space, a lounge or events.

The lounge offers Automattic an opportunity to provide a place to work, hold as many meet ups/meetings as possible and shows certain people that they have an office.

The number one thing employees say they love most about working for Automattic is the flexibility.

Books About Working Remotely:

The year without pants
New Business Order


6 responses to “Toni Schneider – Automattic As A Distributed Work Force”

  1. Very interesting insights.
    I wonder how rare such a large, successful, 100% distributed workforce company is?

    Obviously Automatic has done something right … but could their success be increased with some part of their workforce being ‘in an office’ together? Of course we’d have to agree to what ‘success’ means first.

    Perhaps it’s just that I’ve worked from home for over 6 years with a small 100% remote team, and I’ve forgotten about office drama and politics, but to me there is no replacing the energy exchange and creativity that comes from being in a room with live people.

  2. @TJ Baker

    but to me there is no replacing the energy exchange and creativity that comes from being in a room with live people.

    This is one of the reasons why Automattic encourages so many of their employees to attend as many meetups/WordCamps as possible, to encourage face to face time. But here is the weird thing. I’ve read multiple times and have even seen screenshots of a bunch of Automatticians in the same room yet they are glued to their notebook screens, chatting to each other in Skype, P2, etc. It becomes so engrained to communicate in that method, they do it all the time, even in the presence of their peers.

  3. I’ve read multiple times and have even seen screenshots of a bunch of Automatticians in the same room yet they are glued to their notebook screens, chatting to each other in Skype, P2, etc. It becomes so engrained to communicate in that method, they do it all the time, even in the presence of their peers.

    Ha! Yeah, I’ve experienced it first hand on our occasions where we were in the same office, doing our work, and chatting on Skype while sitting right next to each other.

    It’s an interesting direction we’re heading in, to say the least :)

  4. @TJ Baker – Being a newly distributed worker myself, I have to say that the Loneliness factor is definitely a buzz-kill of sorts. Despite hating my job for 13 years, I enjoyed some of the people I worked with every night. I miss BS’ing with them and talking about the news of the day or what was going on in the world. Now, working from home, I don’t talk to anybody and I don’t have any co-workers. It’s a tough transition to make.


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