Automattic NYC Meetup

For the past nine years I’ve worked at a fairly unusual company called Automattic; the folks behind a bunch of online platforms including WordPress.com and Tumblr. A8c (as it is affectionately known) is a fully distributed company – meaning that all of our 2,000 odd staff work remotely from… well, wherever they like in the world.

I started at a8c back in 2013, when there were less than 200 of us dotted around the globe. Long before other organisations were abruptly forced to hack together remote working options, we were dab hands at it. You can’t just treat remote work as a bolt-on, or as some kind of ‘privilege’; it has to be baked into your culture and the way you communicate.

One key element in building a successful remote company is prioritising some kind of opportunity for folks to actually meet in person. As great as global distribution can be, and no matter how great a team you might have, you still occasionally need to be able to breathe the same air as each other to understand how people actually operate. Being able to place somebody’s face and real life accent with their Slack messages makes an incredible difference.

The pandemic of course ruined all of this, and whilst Automattic was better prepared than many companies for such a shift, the restrictions on travel meant that we lost access to that key chance for human interaction. Due to the way scheduling falls, that meant that in practice there were teams of folks who had worked together for three or four years without ever meeting. I think that this had a much greater impact than we’ll ever realise – or at least – be able to quantify.

In the last few weeks, the Trust and Safety teams for Automattic met for the first time since 2019, in New York City. In that period we have grown exponentially from 6 or 7 people, up to almost 40, making this ‘face time’ even more important.

One of the perhaps counter-intuitive quirks of the way the past few years have unfolded is that we currently have an actual office space in Manhattan. Spanning a full floor of a NOHO building, it has all of the things you might come to expect from a startup space, with fancy monitors, adjustable desks, a fully stocked fridge, and even these weird 360 degree video ‘owls’ which are a bit creepy but also really awesome to use.

Oh, and a whole bunch of cool art. Did I mention that?

This space was our base for the week, and it was great to have a physical form to this otherwise ephermal entity that is Automattic. Something I felt keenly when I visited our old spiritual home ‘Hawthorne’ in San Francisco back in 2013. It gives a bit more weight and tactility to something which you otherwise are connected to solely through your laptop.

We spent a lot of time doing a lot of different exercises as a group, but as with all of these things, the real value was to be found after the schedule was over. The kind of impromptu discussions that you have over tacos; while walking to find a particular coffee shop at lunch; or the shared camaraderie found and forged outside a $1.50 pizza shop at 5am.

I had one of the latest flights out from the meetup, which meant that I had to watch folks gradually filter off, the chorus of hugs and goodbyes getting smaller and smaller until there was just a couple of folks left. What became really clear was that no matter how well-equipped or situated the office might be, or how useful it is to have a space like that, it lost a lot of its magic and intrigue once everybody had gone; feeling very empty all of a sudden. The people were what made it special, not the shiny interior. Who’d have guessed it.

As I sat in London’s Gatwick airport (where I typed up most of this post), I couldn’t help but reflect on how surreal it is to be part of this odd distributed network, that despite being so diffuse, also has this deep connection and commonality due to the work we do, and our ability to tap into it at any time, anywhere. I like that.

I’m pleased to still be part of Automattic almost a decade after I started, and feel really fortunate to have found (and maintained) a job working alongside such interesting people, and a place where I feel so at home.

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