INTRODUCTION

Automattic, Inc. is “a distributed company, democratizing publishing and development. [They] are the people behind WordPress.com, which serves more than 15.8 billion pages a month, as well as a host of other popular services, such as Akismet, Jetpack, and VaultPress. [Automattic’s people are] strong believers in Open Source, and the vast majority of [their] work is available under licenses like the GPL.” (Automattic)

WHY IS IT AN INTERESTING CASE STUDY?

The company behind WordPress is run as a distributed enterprise, with employees mainly working from home across widely distributed geographies, enabling round-the-clock coverage and productivity based on different timezones (although the company does have a San Francisco office in case the odd meeting needs to be held, or if people are in town).

The founder and CEO, Matt Mullenweg, remains heavily involved with overall company output, but he does so remotely through the various internal blogs used to coordinate activity among employees, which is not untypical of many tech-development focussed internet businesses, although this has become part of the company’s overall ethos in a very conscious and conspicuous way.

In addition to blogs, employees use Skype and other instant messaging tools. Each year the entire company (currently 328 employees) meet up for 7 days in a common location to discuss the strategy for the business. Individual teams also often meet up for a week or so of bonding in various locations around the globe. Using internal platforms, the Mullenweg manages the business remotely, whilst remaining available for calls and chats over IM as needed.

The autonomy granted to Automattic’s employees gives them a sense of empowerment and also grants them huge degrees of flexibility, which are repaid when the company needs them to stay on projects until they’re done, regardless of traditional time utilisation. The distributed nature of the operations also leads to a flat management structure and encourages employees to take ownership of tasks with minimal supervision.

Given that much of the communication takes place on internal platforms visible to everyone, the company is highly transparent and employees are always keen to contribute their ideas and volunteer their time.

The lack of physical offices also cuts costs drastically, although this is partly offset by an atypically large travel budget. Moreover, geographical constraints on hiring are removed and as such it is possible to hire from a much larger talent pool than would usually be possible.

Everyone interviewed is given a paid trial project to see how they cope in the environment and, in order to understand the company’s customer-centric culture, each new hire also spends their first 3 weeks in a customer service role.

KEY LESSONS

  • A widely-distributed, tech-enabled workforce can be empowered to take responsibility, complete routine tasks and generate innovation with minimal supervision.
  • The operational role of the CEO in this type of structure is part project-manager, part mentor, but leadership is essential in steering the business in a common direction, which is also assisted by regular all-hands ‘come together’ sessions.
  • Service culture is essential to overall efficiency and provides a common thread across all employee activities, which is more powerful than leaving this to a dedicated customer experience function.

MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES

  • Distributed workforce. Automattic is a great example of a company that has managed to quickly grow its revenues and operations while retaining a distributed workforce as a key element of its business model.

SOURCES