Automattic’s Unorthodox View On Productivity Tracks Output, Not Appearance

The company applies its open-source philosophy to its hiring practices, encouraging experimentation, autonomy.

Last month, Matt Mullenweg, founder of San Francisco based Automattic (the company behind open-source blogging platform Wordpress), spoke at the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco about his company’s non-traditional work schedule and hiring practices. Here’s how Automattic does it:

1. Allow for experimentation.

At the end of 2013, Automattic had 225 employees in 190 cities. The company applied the same open-source philosophy from its software to its growth, noting that it didn’t make sense for a startup to send talented employees from around the globe to company headquarters in San Francisco. Along the way, naysayers told Mullenweg the open-source model was bound to break: he heard it when Automattic reached 30, 100, and 150 employees. Automattic has, however, surpassed each supposed "benchmark," hiring 120 people in 2013.

It’s that type of experimental attitude that gives employees the freedom to try new things. "We’re not going to tell you how to do your job. If you find a better way to do it, try it," Mullenweg told conference attendees.

2. Surround yourself with a great team.

"Nothing has the impact of getting the right people around the table. You can’t manage your way out of a bad team," Mullenweg said. That’s why he estimates devoting at least a third of his time to hiring new employees. The hiring process at Automattic is quite different from other job interviews: Potential hires are offered work on a contract basis, making $25 an hour, regardless of whether they’ve applied for the CFO or design team position. They’ll work on a trial basis, allowing applicants to maintain their day job while moonlighting at Automattic. Applicants are assigned the type of work they’d be doing if they were hired full-time.

"There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone and actually working with them," Mullenweg said. At the end of the trial period, Automattic hires 40% of applicants, a process which Mullenweg noted is responsible for its low turnover rate. (In 8 1/2 years, only 10 employees have left the company, and 25 to 30 were let go.)

3. Permit autonomy, measuring output as opposed to appearance.

"In a company, what matters is output," Mullenweg told attendees. "We think someone’s working if they show up in the morning and they’re not drunk, they don’t sleep at their desk, and they leave at the right time and they’re dressed nicely … but that has so little to do with what you create. We all know people who create a lot without maybe fitting into those norms," Mullenweg said. Perhaps someone could do the work it takes the rest of the team eight to 10 hours to do in one hour, and good for them, Mullenweg noted.

Many Automattic employees enjoy the autonomy of working from home and getting the work done on their own schedule. "I don’t really care what hours you’re working, how late you sleep, whether you pick up your kids from school in the afternoon, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about your output ... It’s about accountability. What are you creating?" Mullenweg asked.

Hat tip: Business Insider, Harvard Business Review

[Image: Flickr user Kate Ter Haar]

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  • To enhance daily productivity, it helps to use the simple egg-timer technique to create "time-pockets" for various tasks. This improves focus and blocks out distractions. "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." (Parkinson's Law) so setting incremental time-limits of your tasks lets you get more stuff done. TimeFly is a not-for-profit app that can help you do this: http://tinyurl.com/kgn57hk