The Five Levels of Distributed Work: Lessons from a 100% Distributed Company with 1000+ Employees

The Five Levels of Distributed Work: Lessons from a 100% Distributed Company with 1000+ Employees

December 30, 2021

Building a culture, working effectively, and staying motivated are all challenging when you’re not in the same room. But there’s more to building an effective distributed company than just using Zoom and Slack. Just because I have Nike running shoes and a Fitbit doesn’t make me an elite athlete.

Right now you may be asking yourself:

Is work really sustainable when we’re remote most of the time? How do I manage my team? How do I stay motivated?

There are companies who are doing an excellent job of this, which we can learn from. But first of all, let’s stop calling it telework or working remote. When there’s no central place of work and everyone is around the world, the term distributed is more accurate.

Matt Mullenweg has created a fully distributed company at a massive scale. He is the founder of Automattic (a play on words on his name), and they are the company behind WordPress which powers 35% of all websites on the internet. They have 1,100 + employees globally across 75 countries and have raised over $600 million dollars in funding.

Oh, and they don’t have an office!

Matt says that companies move through Five Levels of Autonomy, which he discussed on a podcast with Sam Harris (worth a listen here). They are:


Level 0: Impossible

It’s physically not possible to  do your job remotely. For example, a construction work, massage therapist or a firefighter.

Level 1: Unprepared

This is 99% of companies before COVID-19. Their systems and security were not set up to work remotely. There might be some freelancers who did, and employees would do Skype calls every now and then, but it was largely an office-based org.

Level 2: Trying to Recreate an Office

This is where most companies are right now. Instead of taking advantage of the possibilities that come with distributed work, they try to copy what they did before. Companies track when their employees are online and expect instant responses between 9-5. They want 20 people to all be in meetings, just like in the office. The bad habits from the past now appear in the digital space.

Level 3: Leveraging the New Medium

Teams at this level start to finally adapt their work to the medium. They create a shared, live Google Doc during their Zoom calls so everyone  is literally  on the same  page. They invest in a better headset and better lighting for video calls (best WFH tech). They use video and audio recordings, on top of written communication. Meetings become obsolete and only if absolutely  necessary, and if so they’re usually 15 minutes long. If you’re at this level, you are well on your way.

Level 4: Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous means that you don’t have to all be online at the same time. You’ll do your work when you’re most effective, and will be measured on your result, not your attendance. In truth, most things don’t require an immediate response. They can be dealt with by email or a Slack message, and if it’s urgent then you can call. Asynchronous communication opens up a couple of amazing opportunities.

First, it allows you to get into your flow state more easily. Without the necessity of constant meetings or communication, you can focus on getting things done, and your sense of agency/autonomy increases. Meetings, by the way, are usually not about ideas — they are just people reacting to each other. You blurt out whatever you are thinking, and all sorts of factors influence that (who’s in the room, your mood, etc). When meetings are no longer needed, you have more time to think objectively and come up with a better decision.

Second, it lets you tap into a global talent pool. You can have teams across multiple countries working around the clock. Matt says that teams who are truly distributed can get 3x as much done than a local team who depends on people being in the office 9-5. The key to this efficiency is how well you **“pass the baton,”** that is, how teams manage hand-offs between tasks around the world.

More benefits of asynchronous communication here.

Productivity is no longer tied to presence, and hours are no longer tied to output. The focus now shifts from ‘how you produce,’ to what you produce.

Level 5: Nirvana

This is what we should all be striving for. Health and wellness are integrated into the workflow. Companies at this level are working more effectively than a traditional organization of the same size. They focus on designing the best workplace. Matt says his company is somewhere around a 4, but wants to get to this level one day.

As you move up these levels, you begin to maximize the happiness and output of each employee.

Remember, happiness at work depends on three things:

  1. Mastery: the opportunity to get great at your job
  2. Autonomy: freedom and agency to do your best work
  3. Purpose: working for more than money; finding your intrinsic motivator

When these drivers are fulfilled, says author and psychologist Daniel Pink, “people achieve more and live richer lives.”

Traditional companies can do well with number 1 and number 3, but not with 2. Most work environments are like a scene from The Office. It’s completely out of your control: what time you come in, where you sit, what you wear, the room temperature, open floor plans, the lighting,  shared bathrooms, random distractions, exercise areas or lack thereof, lunch areas nearby, etc.

But distributed organizations can really nail it with number 2.

“Every problem can get a lot better if you think really long term” — Matt

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