Cindy Flynn, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Los Angeles, is founder and managing partner of Hackler Flynn & Associates, a law firm specializing in employment law and contracts to protect and defend the rights of business owners. An employment law expert who has shared her insights as a guest on EO's Wonder podcast, Flynn has a keen interest in what work will look like in the shadow of Covid-19. Here, she reviews a podcast on that timely topic:
What is the future of work? That's the question business owners are asking as we contemplate reopening after extended Covid-19 shutdowns.
As entrepreneurs, we want to do what's right for our employees while keeping an eye on the business bottom line. In determining how best to reopen my business and guide clients on their process, I listened to Sam Harris' Making Sense podcast interview of Matt Mullenweg, a proponent of a "distributed" work setup--which the rest of us call "remote" work. His unique viewpoint made me reconsider how I feel about remote work and the possibility that it may become the new normal.
An early adopter inspiring the future of work
Mullenweg doesn't work in an office, so he can do things like keep a candle on his desk because the flame keeps him centered, and do squats and pushups to get his blood flowing between meetings. All 1,200 colleagues in his company, Automattic, are also "distributed" and work from desks located around the world.
You may not recognize his name, but you likely know his work. Mullenweg was the founding developer of open-source publisher WordPress. Automattic is the company that powers WordPress, Jetpack, WooCommerce, Longreads and The Atavist.
When Covid-19 closed offices around the world, Mullenweg became a prophet of sorts.
Many company leaders are looking to Mullenweg to see what the future of work looks like. Some have decided that his distributed approach is the way to go. Twitter is letting people work from home permanently, Covid-19 or no. Shopify, Square, Spotify and Bitcoin exchange Coinbase are all doing much the same thing. Nationwide Insurance is using a hybrid model, keeping four main campuses and leaving other locations by November.
"I consider it a moral imperative," Mullenweg said of distributed work on Making Sense. It's far more humane for workers, he says. They are free to do many more human things, like pick up their kids from school, or do squats to stay fit, or have candles on their desks.
Distributed workers are more productive
Contrary to conventional wisdom, they are also more productive, Mullenweg says. They have more time to do their work, and they are free from the distractions and annoyances endemic to the office, like the coworker who eats smelly food. And there's no magic to being in an office, with eyes everywhere, when it comes to motivating people.
"I think it's easier to slack off in an office than when you're working from home," Mullenweg states. "If you go for a couple of days without delivering, people notice. If you're in an office, and you show up early in the morning, you're well dressed, you ask smart-sounding questions in meetings, you're not drunk, and people don't see Facebook on your screen, you can get by for three or four months."
Mullenweg has thought a lot about distributed work. He structured Automattic using the work of Daniel Pink, specifically his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The very short version: We're motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose--not by money.
5 Levels of distributed work
To help companies change, Mullenweg describes five levels of distributed work (six if you count level zero, which includes jobs that require a physical presence, like surgeons, construction workers, firefighters and flight attendants.)
Level One is bad. It describes offices where work is done "on company equipment, in company space, on company time." There is little or no infrastructure to help people work from home. These companies were almost totally unprepared for Covid-19.
Level Two is a little better, with video conferencing and Microsoft Teams, but everything remains synchronous: Everyone is still working at the same time. That's a significant mistake, according to Mullenweg. By letting people work at different times, in different times zones, or at night, companies stretch their days. "You essentially get a 24-hour cycle," Mullenweg explains.
Level Three is better still, but Level Four is where distributed, asynchronous work starts to happen in earnest. Employees have powerful home-office setups. Supervisors care about what is produced, not how or when. "Your organization is truly inclusive because standards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way," Mullenweg shares.
Level Five is nirvana: "You consistently perform better than any in-person organization could. You're effortlessly effective. Everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health; people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun."
Sounds better than being in a cube farm, right?
How distributed work empowers all
One of the best things distributed work does is empower introverts and neuter the blowhards who dominate in-person meetings. Research shows that people will follow a jaywalker who is wearing a suit more often than they will follow one wearing ratty clothes, Mullenweg says. The same is true in meetings. Suits rule.
"Most meetings are terrible," Mullenweg says. The highest-paid person's opinion matters most; thoughtful people don't speak. Loud people dominate. But in a distributed situation, where meetings become simple emails (and many can!), people have time to sit with an idea, and then contribute. Introverts, especially, are more willing to chime in.
It may take longer to make a decision this way, but it's worth it.
But what about all the missed signals and misunderstandings in texts and emails? When your boss sounds mad, but actually isn't?
Mullenweg has a company rule: API. Assume Positive Intent. Don't read malice into simple messages. And, when writing, make any message "kind and humane." If that doesn't work, he says, pick up the phone.
"Getting on the phone can de-escalate things in a really beautiful way."