unit and acceptance testing, automation, productivity

On the benefits of distributed work

Screenshots of the title and first lines of my article for

Working While My Colleagues Sleep: A day in the life of a distributed software engineer is my latest post for Automattic's

In the article, I touch on the difference between remote and distributed work. I look at how I organize my day to show that working from home doesn't have to be lonely. I know that well: as Automattic's only mobile infrastructure engineer in Australia and the larger group of APAC time zones, I have but a few hours overlap with my teammates. Yet, I feel connected and engaged at all times.

Moreover, I point out that the flexibility a distributed and asynchronous workplace offers is conducive to the kind of focus that software engineers, and knowledge workers, more broadly, need to be effective.

The distinction between remote and distributed is not mere semantics. Working remotely means working from home but with all the systems and rituals present in the office. It's the unfortunate situation many knowledge workers found themselves in during the pandemic, with day-long Zoom meetings, an endless stream of instant messages, and lots of frustration.

Distributed is a different way of working altogether, deploying processes fine-tuned for asynchronous communication. Distributed teams don't work under the assumption that everyone is online at the same time and available to ask questions. Instead, knowledge is spread and written down, individuals are empowered to make decisions autonomously, and there are systems in place for text-based discussion and decision making.

That's not to say that everything happens asynchronously. There are still synchronous meetings, but they are not the prime tool for communication and decision-making. As a result, real-time meetings are actually far more efficient because they are special events, a tool deployed with intention.

Automattic has been a distributed company since its inception. I started working there in March 2020 after 3+ years of working primarily from home with a team clustered around an office 1.5h away from where I lived. Compared to my previous experience, the benefits a well-crafted distributed organization has on employees and company productivity are outstanding. The numbers speak for themselves: Automattic has been in business since 2005 and is thriving. Many other companies are successfully leveraging distributed work, including Basecamp, Buffer, and GitLab.

Another massive benefit of distributed work is that it shifts the focus from social signals and politics back to the craft. From the post:

Nobody judges you for the time you start or finish working. When you strip away the busyness and other social signals of the office environment, the only remaining metric is the quality of your work.

Distributed work has brought many good things into my life, but autonomy over my schedule is the one that I enjoy the most. Not only can I organize my day to have long uninterrupted deep work blocks, but I can also take the time to bring my little kids to activities, spending precious, irreplaceable bonding time together.

For sure, there are downsides to distributed working, too. Like every other design choice, it has its tradeoffs, the biggest one being the lack of face-to-face in-the-same-space interaction with colleagues. People that draw energy from other people may struggle with this. Working from home can also be difficult if you don't have a dedicated space to call your office.

Remote and distributed working might not be the best fit for everyone, but it certainly is for an introvert like myself. If you enjoy people, but also like time alone with your thoughts and your work, if you don't feel the need to commute to an office, if you can compensate for the lack of in-the-same-space interaction with your colleagues by going to caf├ęs, libraries, and other public places, then distributed work might be a great fit for you.

The pandemic showed the world that work doesn't have to happen in the office. The time is ripe to shift towards distributed work, and society can finally reap the benefits of a diverse workforce spread worldwide.

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