Here at Miro, we set out on a mission to build a universal whiteboarding tool that helps companies to embrace digital transformation, manage remote teams and think visually in order to speed up internal processes and delight their customers.
That’s why we are always curious about the ways leading companies from around the world approach remote collaboration and the challenges of organizing their work in distributed teams. We asked Erin Casali, Product Design Director at Automattic, to share her advice with us.
Automattic famously extolls the benefits of remote work, so all its employees can choose whether they want to work from home or show up in the office. The company has rented co-working spaces in San Francisco, Portland and Cape Town. We asked Erin to share her advice with us and tell us how to maintain a perception of presence in distributed teams.
Make sure your company’s culture is flexible
Automattic’s staff is spread across 45 countries, so when asked about the company’s approach to team collaboration, Erin was hesitant to make any generalizations. “We are a very open group of people, so it’s hard to point out things that we do as a whole,” he says.
However, there are many common practices that help to maintain the perception of presence in groups. “A while ago, we introduced the concept of ‘text stand-ups,’” Casali explains. This means that when working remotely, Automattic employees write brief messages in the team chat when they come online. They usually tell their colleagues what was done the day before and the plan for today. “It tells when someone is online and available to chat; it gives time for reflection on the difference between what was planned and what was done; and it hints at potential discussion points that could be tackled by the team today,” Erin concludes.
Automattic is a web development company most notable for WordPress.com and WooCommerce. It also contributes to a number of non-profit and open source projects, like WordPress.org, BuddyPress, Jetpack, and others.
San Francisco, Portland
Team: 647 people
“Another way is to give space to non-work spaces – what we call ‘water coolers,’” he adds. At Automattic, “water coolers” are chats or activity streams that are specifically created for non-work-related conversations. Erin says they have general interest chats for everything and specific ones dedicated to all possible subjects, from games and photography to family and psychology. “These spaces give a way for people to comment asynchronously between chunks of work, just like at a physical water cooler,” he sums up.
The company also has an open source blog theme for collaboration called P2, which consists of activity streams that are specifically tailored with features for collaboration like notifications, mentions, and cross-posts. “It works exactly as any other asynchronous stream like Yammer, Workplace by Facebook and others; people post updates on the team page to foster discussion, communicate updates or any other kind of communication,” Casali says.
“Another way is to give space to non-work spaces, that we call ‘watercoolers’”
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There is no “one size fits all” solution
Erin’s goal as a leader is to make people comfortable sharing the right amount of information. It can be challenging because for certain teammates, it means tuning down the amount of communication; for others, it might mean sharing more about themselves. “There’s no one-size-fit-all, and as a manager, you have to open the discussion so everyone can find the right and respectful way to share who they are,” he proposes.
Automattic lets every team member bring a different perspective and their own way of interacting. This requires a good level of trust among people and, even more importantly, from the leaders – who aren’t necessary the managers, just the ones people look up to. Erin points out, “It’s not me finding the optimal option for everyone; in the role of a leader I can just facilitate everyone to find their own space.”
It’s important to find the right way to communicate with colleagues with different personalities. “The first profile is the one I found the most common, which is the one that is very afraid of sharing anything not strictly work related,” says Casali. “I think this is the most common one, as too many of us have had the experience of bad managers who forced us to be good pieces of the machinery instead of high-performing humans,” Erin observes.
“Another profile can be the opposite, which is so high bandwidth that they shut down everyone else from the discussion,” he adds. Erin warns that sometimes it can be tricky to evaluate whether this kind of behavior is productive or not. Some people can engage others and invite everyone to participate in the conversation. But others can be just overwhelming. “This behavior as such needs to be reviewed carefully,” Casali alerts. There are also people who tend to be far more comfortable in private conversations and much less comfortable in public, Davide notes. So it’s important to help them build up trust with the others.
“Regardless of the profile, I think one of the most valuable things is to lead by example. Seeing how others interact means learning how we can interact, too,” the design director suggests.
Erin also advises discussing preferable means of communication privately. It can be beneficial to ask, ‘Do you feel comfortable talking to others in the public team channel? Do you want some advice on your communication style?’
“It’s not me finding the optimal option for everyone; in the role of a leader I can just facilitate everyone to find their own space.”
When asked about the main challenges that prevent Automattic employees from communicating effectively, Erin says that she often worries that some styles are at odds with each other. After working in the tech industry for more than 15 years and managing teams with diverse backgrounds, he learned that the challenge isn’t as much in the style itself, but how it is perceived. For some people, a specific way to communicate could be interpreted as having a negative connotation.
“This can have both cultural origins (certain country cultures create different expectations), linguistic origins (certain languages, when translated to English, might subtly change the tone), or personal origins (just how much each individual is different from each other),” he remarks. One of the most common examples? “In some cultures, discussions tend to be very dry and factual; short sentences, sharp language, no acknowledgement of context beyond the specific answer. For someone who comes from a different culture, this can be read as very distant, detached, even rude or impolite; but it’s just a cultural difference.”
Casali suggests addressing these challenges by trying to build mutual understanding. “In this sense, it’s important to create a safe space for discussion,” he adds. Another good option is to have an external mediator who is able to show the team different perspectives. Erin mentions that Automattic has mentors from different teams who are paired up with new employees, so “there’s someone more distant to ask even ‘stupid’ (but very valuable) questions.” At Automattic, all the work is transparent, so a new person can also go back in the team P2 and read the whole team history, from the last year or the last few months.
“All of this relies on another unstated element: trust. Nobody will be able to overcome a relational, communicational challenge if they don’t trust the other people,” he advises.
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