September 23, 2013
No Office, No Boss, No Email: A Look At

What does the future of work really look like? Despite b-school professors preaching about the need for empowered workers and flexible teams, few companies have even begun to replace their industrial age command-and-control models.

So I was fascinated to hear about the experience of former Microsoft manager, Scott Berkun, who spent a year working inside Automattic, the company behind Less than 10 years old, Automattic’s online publishing and blogging platform already runs 20% of the websites on the planet. Berkun in his new book, The Year Without Pants: and The Future of Work, describes a unique culture that thrives with few rules or other traditional corporate staples like offices, bosses and emails. Berkun’s key lessons learned include:

1. Team leaders aren’t the boss.

Bureaucracies, rulebooks, protocols and processes all presume that the rule maker has the hard job, but that’s rarely true.  There was no hierarchy at all until the company passed 50 employees. Then they were broken into teams with each team choosing their own team leader. At team managers see their jobs as facilitators, not dictators. People are hired for their talents and the job of management is to stay out of talent’s way and guide it only when needed.

2. Your location matters less than your output.

All 170 employees at Automattic work from anywhere in the world they wish. They’re in more than 40 countries and nearly every time zone. Some people join the company and then travel the world while working. Berkun points out that the typical office worker spends much of their time interacting with coworkers via email, the web and the phone. If that’s the case, why does location matter? Provided the results are great, why should anyone care where someone works?

3. You can escape from email hell.

In the 18 months Berkun worked on, most email he sent or received was to people outside the company. For internal communication, workers used Skype, chat and blogs to provide most of the communication a healthy, productive team needs. The company’s founder, Matt Mullenweg, hosts a monthly town hall via video stream and takes questions through a chat window.

4. Hire by trial.

There is little evidence that resumes and interview loops are effective methods for hiring staff. The job interview itself is dubious since few interviewers are truly skilled at doing it without bias. We use these questionable methods because they’re familiar and relatively easy. Instead of the traditional method, Automattic hires by trial. They don’t care what degree you have or what skills you list. Instead they ask candidates to do actual work on a trial basis. This takes more time, but they’ve found those willing to put in the extra time are better candidates.  

It’s one thing for an ivory tower academic to preach about giving employees more freedom and autonomy, but it’s entirely different to actually practice it. While the makers of may be an extreme example, it’s a case that can be used to begin making changes in any organization.

  • Let’s begin giving people the freedom to work remotely.
  • Let’s add work samples and trial projects as a key part of the hiring process.
  • Let’s begin reducing our reliance on email.
  • Let’s reinforce to our managers that we want them to be coaches first, and task-managers second.

Scott Berkun’s, The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work, is an enlightening guide for leaders of startups and traditional companies alike.


Kevin Kruse is a NY Times bestselling author, speaker and serial entrepreneur. His latest book is Employee Engagement for Everyone.