Matt Mullenweg is guiding the world toward 'Distributed Work Nirvana'

Flight Templates are templated flights, or sets of questions, written by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. With Flight Templates, Balloon users get unparalleled access to seasoned perspectives and proven business strategies across all areas of business, including leadership, product, marketing & sales, innovation, employee experience, culture, and more. This feature is part of a series on The Insight that profiles Balloon’s Flight Template authors.

2020 was, undoubtedly, a year unlike any other. While many physical doors—to schools, to restaurants, to the homes of friends and family—shut for nearly 10 months and counting, the new circumstances and constraints of the year pushed many others wide open. Those doors—the figurative ones, the virtual ones, the doors to new opportunities—are the ones on which Matt Mullenweg chooses to focus.

“Expanding the imagination of what's possible, I think, is one of the best things to come out of 2020,” Mullenweg said.

That’s high praise for the year that refused to end, coming from a man who has pushed the boundaries of possibility since he was barely out of high school. At only 19 years old, Mullenweg co-founded the open-source blogging software WordPress and, a few years later, its parent company Automattic. Since the beginning, both WordPress and Automattic, which through the years has also acquired several subsidiaries including Tumblr, WooCommerce, and Gravatar, have been run by distributed teams, and Mullenweg has been a proponent of remote, asynchronous work ever since. Now, nearly two decades later, it seems that the rest of the world is starting to catch up.

“It's like that old saying, ‘People don't want a drill, they want a hole in the wall.’ So often, we're telling folks to use this drill, when maybe there are different ways to get that hole in the wall,” Mullenweg said. “If businesses can make work more about the output than the input, it can become really powerful. Flexibility unlocks creativity and innovation, and it makes people feel more fulfilled and happy, because being able to exercise that autonomy feels really good.”

Autonomy is key to success for distributed organizations, and it is a concept that Mullenweg has spent much of his career exploring. Back in April, as much of the world was beginning to grasp the complex realities of remote work, he posted a piece called Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy on his blog. In it, Mullenweg not only details the qualities of each level as well as the tangible benefits of helping your company climb the rungs, but he also calls optimizing distributed work a “moral imperative.”

Distributed Work's Five Levels of Autonomy

“Not only is it incredibly unlikely that everyone who is interested in and good at the same thing will be in the same city, but it also excludes everyone who can’t physically be in the office,” Mullenweg said. “Geographic inclusion is something that I think is a worthwhile problem for businesses to tackle. Because, like all elements of inclusion, it increases the opportunity for humanity. It makes teams better, and it makes products and companies better—when you do it right.”

So the engineer that the New York Times called an “evangelist for remote work” is teaching the world how to do it right. In his new flight template series, Optimizing Distributed Work, Mullenweg helps you determine your current level of autonomy, progress to the next tier, make informed decisions, and maintain team connection, all tailored to the unique needs of distributed teams. The series includes four steps, with three options for the second, depending on the level of autonomy you discover in the first flight.

  • Determine Your Distributed Work Level of Autonomy
  • Advance Your Level of Autonomy: Level 1 to Level 2
  • Advance Your Level of Autonomy: Level 2 to Level 3
  • Advance Your Level of Autonomy: Level 3 to Level 4
  • Distributed Decision-Making Among Managers
  • Maintain Connection among a Distributed Team

Notably, there is no flight template to help a company to move from level 4 to 5, and for good reason. Level 5, Mullenweg explained, is aspirational and only ephemerally achievable. Even Automattic, he said, operates at level 4 on an average day. There have been moments, however, when Mullenweg felt that his team had reached that elusive Distributed Work Nirvana. Moments when Automattic’s asynchronicity has reached a state of being so technologically advanced that it has come full circle and once again become somewhat of a natural cycle.

“We get glimpses of level five when I see us doing things faster than any of our competitors, not despite but because we’re a global team. First, our US-based team works on a project, then they pass it off to Europeans, and then they pass it off to folks in the APAC region, and so on. So we essentially get three shifts of development where other companies might have one,” Mullenweg said. “We have the same goals and audience as any of our competitors, but we can work with the sun. That can be incredibly powerful.”

Check out Matt Mullenweg’s Flight Template Series

CEO, Automattic