Embracing remote culture: interview with Brie Anne Demkiw

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
March 29, 2018

Automattic is the poster child of remote companies. The maker of WordPress.com, they have worked effectively with a completely distributed workforce for over a decade.

"When the pavement ends, keep going." Photograph and quote by Brie Anne Demkiw.

We caught up with Brie Anne Demkiw, Product and Design Lead at Automattic, to find out how they do it.

Read our interview to find out about their culture, trust, and practical tips for collaborating with dispersed teams.

JIM:  Tell us a little about Automattic and the remote culture there. What's your secret sauce?

BRIE:  We believe that remote work is the future — but one thing I've learned in over 10 years of remote work is that it's not that different than being co-located. Many of the same group dynamics and organizational challenges exist.

For leaders of remote teams, your job is to create a great environment for your team to do their best work. In a completely remote company, this means reframing what a "great environment" means. (Hint: It's not about a fancy office with all the bells and whistles.)  

The first line in our Creed is "I will never stop learning." The foundation of Automattic is a strong culture of experimentation and learning. This is possible because we have autonomy at both the team and individual level to figure out the best way to do our work. And we hire people who thrive in this type of environment.

You can see this every day in the way Automatticians approach their work. Many of the processes and best practices we’ve adopted have come from the "grassroots" side. A team may experiment with a new way of working. They share their experiment, and if it worked well, other teams adopt that way of working. (Or even better, they iterate and try to improve the approach.)

The team at Automattic is distributed around the world

JIM:  Tell us a bit more about that "great environment." Without an office, many people probably can't imagine creating a sense of "team." How do you stay in sync and show progress? How do you foster trust?

BRIE:  Great question. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned trust. Creating psychological safety is probably the most important aspect of a leader’s job — regardless of whether your team is in an office or spread across 60 countries like Automattic.

You need an environment where it’s safe for the team to share and experiment, knowing they will sometimes fail. The key here for me is fostering a culture of learning over blaming. In weekly hangouts, we’ll regularly ask “What did you learn this week? How will that change what you do next week?” Regular retrospectives and reflection make this a normal part of the process, and helps us focus on improvement and learning.

In the “pro tips” category, I’m also a big fan of the McDonald’s Theory. It works great as an icebreaker, but also helps reinforce psychological safety.

As far as staying in sync, one of the most interesting things about Automattic is that we’re not just remote — there’s also the asynchronous nature of the company. A single team may have people spread across multiple time zones — from Australia to Europe (or more). This puts the emphasis not only on strong communication, but thorough documentation.

We use internal project blogs running on WordPress, called P2, to document all of our work — not just the end result, but also the thinking behind how we got there. We have a saying here: “P2 or it didn’t happen.” Interested in how a certain feature came to be? You can go back and read about it, including iterations, debates, and other details, even if it was built 5 or 6 years ago.

Automattic also values transparency and believes that good ideas can come from anywhere. P2 is both async and available to all employees. This allows anyone at the company — regardless of team or role — to give feedback, share thoughts, and keep up to date with any project.

Automattic Grand Meetup 2016 in Whistler, B.C.

JIM:  What about creative work that tends to be visual and interactive in nature? How do you keep your creative momentum going with dispersed design teams?

BRIE:  It's important to find a good balance between much-needed heads-down time for creative work and keeping the feedback loop short.

We use a variety of communication channels. Designers might drop early ideas in Slack for quick feedback before refining. They might present more polished work at design critique video hangouts. Our internal project blogs are ideal for async feedback and different perspectives from a wider audience. (Yes, we even use WordPress.com to discuss and document our project work!)

My general rule: When in doubt, increase the bandwidth of the communication channel.

This is one area where we've found a lot of value in incorporating MURAL into our workflows. MURAL has given us a shared "space" for teams to process information together. For us, it's helped bridge the gap between our in-real-life moments (a few times a year) and our day-to-day work.

Automattic Remote Design Sprint

JIM:  What other advice do you have for remote design teams? What are the key things they should look out for?

BRIE:  At Automattic, we like to say "communication is oxygen," and it's the foundation of how we work. Clarity, in particular, becomes extra important with a remote team. You don't have hallway conversations, body language, or Friday lunches. It can be harder to spot alignment problems. Don't assume everyone is still on the same page. Build in regular alignment touch points to help identify and escalate issues early.

At the end of the day, the best tool we have is a healthy culture of experimentation. We try to approach everything we do as a design problem — from how we communicate, to the process we use, to how we're organized. We want to ask ourselves every day: How might we get a little bit better at this remote design thing?

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.

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