Making Distributed Teams Work: 5 Levels of Autonomous Organizations

You are here:

In a recent episode of his Making Sense Podcast, host Sam Harris talks with Matt Mullenweg, one of the founding developers of WordPress, an open-source platform used by 36% of the web. In 2005, Matt founded Automattic, an Internet company whose brands include WordPress.com, Akismet, Tumblr, and others. 

Since his company is a 100% distributed organization with over 1100 employees in 75 countries, Mullenweg has been thinking for a long time about the advantages and challenges of this way of working. As such, he has unique insight into running distributed teams, something that given the current COVID-19 situation, has become a top priority for many organizations.  

During the podcast episode – which I highly recommend you listen! – Matt distinguishes five different levels of distributed organizations. In this article, we’ll describe each of these phases one by one and we’ll also share some key takeaways from Matt on how to make distributed teams work.

Contents
Level 1 – The company hasn’t done anything deliberate (yet)
Level 2 – Recreating what you do in the office but just doing it online
Level 3 – Really taking advantage of the medium
Level 4 – Becoming asynchronous
Level 5 – Nirvana
Making distributed teams work – 5 key takeaways
On a final note

In case you want to have a listen, here is the episode (from 10:44 Mullenweg starts to talk about the different levels of autonomy until 23:47):

Level 1 – The company hasn’t done anything deliberate (yet)

This the phase most companies (around 98% according to Mullenweg) find themselves in today. As a knowledge worker, if there is an emergency or something you can not go into the office for a day and still keep things moving. You can hop on a call using a cell phone, you’ve got broadband, you can get by.

Related (free) resource ahead! Continue reading below ↓

Organizational Development Metrics Cheat Sheet

Download the cheat sheet designed to help you manage your organization’s ability to change.

You might, however, be more likely to put things off or you won’t be as effective as you would have been in the office. But one way or another, most companies will be able to keep things going today, even if their people can’t get into the office.

Level 2 – Recreating what you do in the office but just doing it online

According to Mullenweg, this is where a lot of organizations are heading right now. Companies are woken up to the fact that their people need to be able to access things when they’re not in the office. As such, they may turn to tools like Zoom or Slack, but at the same time, they’re trying to recreate old conditions of office work at thome.

Trying to recreate a factory model of office work at home where everything is assumed to be synchronous is a common pitfall.

This is also the (Big Brother) phase wherein companies sometimes try to install software on their employees’ computers to make sure certain applications are open, etc. This can be rather counter-productive. 

Help Your Organization Thrive Organizational Development
Certificate Program
Learn to build a better, stronger, and more resilient organization.
100% online & self-paced.
Download Syllabus

Mullenweg’s advise when it comes to phase 2: tough it out and talk about how you can move to phase 3 to 5. 

Level 3 – Really taking advantage of the medium

Matt gives a couple of examples of what he means by this. Let’s say you’re having a team video call. Instead of everyone making notes on their own computers, use a shared Google doc and designate someone to take notes (a very important task!) so that everyone can see the notes that are being taken in real-time. 

This way, note-taking becomes a shared responsibility and they better reflect what’s been said which will lead to better outcomes and expectations. 

Phase 3 is also when people start to invest in better equipment like better audio and tools to make video calls. Krisp.ai, for instance, is a tool that cancels out background noise so that people don’t need to mute themselves during calls (as this can stilt the conversation). 

This is also the phase where you invest in written communication and writing ability. In a distributed organization, the written word is the most powerful for sharing things. Therefore, for distributed teams, writing quality, clarity, and skill becomes more and more valuable.

Equipment for distributed teams
Once you hit level 3 on the ‘autonomy ladder’ people start to invest in things like good audio equipment.

Level 4 – Becoming asynchronous

Level 4 is when things are starting to get more serious in terms of giving people autonomy. So far, you’ve assumed your distributed teams are on a computer at the same time, clocking the same ‘office hours’. In other words, you don’t give them autonomy in terms of how they produce and to design their own days.

Going asynchronous entails giving people the freedom to work when and how they want. It also means you can start tapping into the global talent pool and have people ‘pass of the baton’ in a 24-hour cycle. As a result, the business will run continuously, and what a ‘normal’ company takes 3 days to accomplish you’ll be able to do in 24 hours.

Another advantage of becoming asynchronous lies in the decision-making process. Usually, during a meeting, people are presented with certain information and react to that. Often, the opinion of the highest-paid person in the room gets more weight, or men speak up more than women. This means you lose valuable input. 

Going asynchronous gives space to introverts, people for whom English isn’t their first language, and people who don’t usually say something immediately but need time to think things through to contribute to ideas. So, while decisions may take a little longer, the outcomes should be much better. 

Level 5 – Nirvana

This is the ultimate goal. Once you’ve reached level 5, you could (or should!) be doing better work than any in-person organization. The fun side about level 5, according to Matt, is that you’re able to incorporate things in your day that you wouldn’t usually be able to in the office because they would be socially awkward or impossible.

How T-Shaped are You?

The most successful HR professionals in today's digital business environment have a T-shaped competency profile. Take the free assessment now!

Start assessment

Think, for instance, of doing 20 squads and push-ups in-between meetings. Or some dancing. Be on a treadmill desk. But also, on a slightly more serious note, things like picking your kids up from school or daycare without it feeling uncomfortable ((when schools and daycare were still open of course). Whatever it is you’re doing during your workday, your colleagues have no idea because you’re still producing.

When an organization operates at this higher level, people bring their best selves to work, their most creative work, their most productive time of the day, etc. In this phase, you stop indexing on time spent on the desk. Instead, you start focusing on the output which is a very different orientation than in a ‘normal’ office.

Making distributed teams work – 5 key takeaways

Working with distributed teams requires more than a good internet connection and audio equipment. During the podcast, Harris and Mullenweg highlight a few important things to keep in mind:

Trust & Bias

Host Sam Harris points out that many employers don’t seem to be comfortable with the idea of not really knowing what their employees are doing unless they are in a box with them in an office building

Mullenweg explains that we’ve inherited way of thinking this from the factory work era. Knowledge work, however, actually lends itself for a distributed way of working. He believes it’s easier to slack off in the office than when you’re at home: “At home, no one knows what you’re doing but the results of your input become very apparent. When you’re output isn’t there or diverges from that of a colleague, people will notice. In an office, when you show up early, dress well, etc. you can get by for 3 or 4 months before people notice.”

There is another moral reason why Mullenweg believes distributed could be better for work and society: “By focusing purely on the output, you remove a lot of the built-in lizard brain biases that we all have. When you’re able to remove all that you get something that is much closer to Ray Dalio’s idea of meritocracy which I think all organizations should strive for, where we’re just looking at the work itself in the purest, most objective form and judging that, not trying to bring in all these other things – either consciously or subconsciously – that might influence us about how someone is doing.

API – Assume Positive Intent

When you shift to distributed, a lot of your communication will be written. And usually, when you’re reading something, there are two ways in which something can be read. A way that can get you worked up or mad or feel like someone is attacking you and a way that doesn’.

Mullenweg: “At Automattic, we’ve got an acronym we use a lot internally that’s called API, which normally in tech stands for Application Programming Interface but we use it to say Assume Positive Intent. 99% of the time, in a work environment, the person sending you a message, is not trying to make you feel bad, the person is not trying to attack you, but we can often feel that way and have our lizard brain flair up and get offended. This can devolve very quickly especially when you’re typing back and forth to each other.

Therefore, we like to say assume the best intent in what you receive, we like to say be conserving in what you put out, so try to put some fluffy language or extra emojis or a gif or whatever it is that when you write a message you make it as kind and humane as possible.

Finally, we like to tell people to jump mediums, so if you find you’ve been typing back and forth a lot, see if you can jump into an audio call. Audio is safe because even if people aren’t dressed or ready for a video call, anyone can hop on an audio call. And sometimes getting on a phone can really de-escalate things in a beautiful way.”

5 Reasons Why Diversity Hiring Matters (And How to Go about it)
Adding some extra emojis can be a good way to avoid people reading your message the wrong way.

Communication

While Mullenweg’s organization has a very natural hierarchy with teams and divisions, its communications are totally flat. The beauty of that, he says, is that you get folks who might not be in a meeting with you giving input. Or folks from a different area with the same issue might drop in on the topic.

It’s a double-edged sword, of course. You can also get people with a lot of opinions drop in. You have to deal with that as it happens or say we’re looking for this type of feedback, not this type. And just like with meetings, there are good and bad threads.

Managing distributed teams

Mullenweg believes managers are the biggest barrier to companies moving up the levels. Individual contributors fall into distributed work really easily since so many have experience with freelancing, contracting, etc.

Managers, however, aren’t always used to managing a distributed workforce. Often, they are used to walk around a lot in the workplace and in a distributed set-up, they lose the kind of ambiance intimacy that comes just by being around people.

As a manager of distributed teams, you also have to keep a closer eye. Because in an office you might notice when people are low energy or sad but now you won’t be able to notice these things as easily which means that you need to be more aware.

Also, when you’re fully distributed and able to tap into the global talent pool, the time zones can get a little tricky. At Automattic, they try not to spread teams of 5 to 15 people across more than 8 timezones, other companies go as far as saying say max 2 or 3 timezones.

In-person time

Paradoxically, in-person time is just as important as the distributed time for building trust. There simply are things that happen when you’re face-to-face that is more powerful than any technology. The trust you build during that in-person time can carry you for years without seeing that person because you had that really intense bonding time. In-person time is key 

On a final note

Working with distributed teams has become a reality for many organizations, regardless if they were ready for it or not. And while you won’t be able to go from level 1 to 5 overnight, being aware of the different levels of autonomous organizations – in combination with the key takeaways from someone who runs a fully distributed, global organization – will help you get there.

Are you ready for the future of HR?

Learn modern and relevant HR skills, online

Browse courses Enroll now