Published Oct 15, 2020 by A.J. Mistretta
In an entrepreneurial career that's helped spawn some of the most recognizable company names in the tech world, Matt Mullenweg has become an evangelist for the concept of distributed work.
Mullenweg realized as a young adult growing up in Houston that the internet offered a means of connecting with some of the smartest people in any given field around the world. And you didn’t have to be in the same physical space to actually create things together.
The co-founder of Wordpress, the wildly successful open source content management system and website building platform, knew he was on to something when programmers worldwide worked to help build and improve upon that platform. Roughly 600 programmers worked on the most recent version of WordPress, only a fraction of which work full time for the company.
Today, Mullenweg’s open source tech company Automattic, which he founded in 2005, has a distributed workforce of 1,300 people in 77 countries. He spoke this week with HEB President Scott McClelland about distributed work, diversity and inclusion and the need for companies to adapt to a changing landscape, in a fireside chat. The conversation was part of the Partnership’s annual Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit.
“Words create reality,” Mullenweg said, describing how he differentiates between remote and distributed workers. “Remote suggests that there’s someone central and someone remote who isn’t. We tried to think of a word that captured the idea of being very close to each other in our work, but not physically in the same space. Distributed is the word we chose.”
That distributed approach gives employees a great deal of personal freedom and autonomy to get the job done in a space of their choosing and in their own way. “When people are really happy and fulfilled in the rest of their life, they bring their best self to work,” Mullenweg said. “They’re more creative, they have more energy, and for every person what that looks like is different.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a lot of companies that might never have seriously considered allowing employees to work remotely to do just that. And for many who’ve seen productivity and quality actually increase, it’s been a wakeup call, Mullenweg said. “This has allowed us to break out of the ossification of ideas,” he said, adding that companies need to be able to adapt to both crises and gradual change or risk becoming obsolete.
Building a More Diverse Workforce
Automattic is well-regarded for its diversity and inclusion efforts, and Mullenweg touched on why. “Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not, and we can see that,” he said. “If our company is able to provide that opportunity where it hasn’t existed, then we benefit.”
Automattic has also upended the traditional hiring process. Managers don’t look at where a candidate went to school or even their employment background. Rather, Mullenweg said, jobs are open to anyone, regardless of their background, if they are able to exhibit the necessary skills through a trial run at the job.
He said even before the pandemic struck, the company actually did a lot of its hiring remotely via chat, sometimes not even seeing the individual. “Some people don’t do well in a traditional interview, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good at the job,” he said. “Our approach has been great for creating a more equal playing field for everyone who wants to join the mission.”
The number one thing businesses need to do, according to Mullenweg? Embrace change. “We have all had to adjust with COVID,” he said. “If you really try to hold on to the way things worked before, it’s going to be really tough. And it’s going to be tough for the people on the front lines of your business. Open things up more.”