I worked at WordPress.com, the 15th most popular website in the world to write The Year Without Pants, a book about what we can learn from the amazing and progressive culture they use to get work done.
One major challenge I faced at the blogging website was learning how to work without e-mail. That’s right. While all employees had e-mail accounts and were free to use them, they rarely did. I didn’t either: 95 per cent of the e-mail I received while employed there was from people at other companies. How, you may ask, can any modern organization function without e-mail, much less one as successful as WordPress.com? I’ll explain everything you need to know.
But first it’s important to recognize that despite our constant complaints about endless piles of useless e-mail, most people I tell about WordPress.com’s e-mail liberation are dubious. We have a deeply engrained fatalism about alternatives, which is odd given how prideful we are for being early adopters of new ideas. E-mail is an old technology, older than the Web itself by more than a decade. If e-mail is broken, why do we cling so tightly to our cc: lines and attachments?
The reasons have little to do with technology: All technologies are good for some tasks and bad for others. If a technology annoys you, it probably has more to do with how the people around you use it than the technology itself. Consider this: For all our technological progress, we’ve yet to invent anything that makes co-workers write clear, jargon-free paragraphs, or that gets them to actually read, and not skim, the well-crafted things we send their way. It’s culture that defines these habits, not the tools. Culture bends technology to its will and not the other way around.
Most of the annoying e-mail in the business world is sent for two reasons:
1) Cover your ass. E-mail is broadcast to entire divisions simply to ensure no one can say they didn’t hear about a decision. E-mail is a weapon used for pre-emptive political strikes by the sender, attacking everyone on the “to” list or distribution list. We hate e-mail because we feel like e-mail victims, at the mercy of self-interested people who do not share our goals.
2) Showing off. For people who don’t actually make things for their job, e-mail is the only visible, tangible thing they make all day. Dysfunctional, insecure cultures confuse the meta-work of e-mail and PowerPoint decks for the actual work of helping customers. In these environments, people feel obligated to send much e-mail and create larger and larger documents to give the perception they’re working hard. It’s a downward spiral of anti-productivity.
These problems are avoided at WordPress.com because most of their 170 employees do actual work, writing code, designing features or directly helping customers. And they’re empowered to be aggressive in their jobs, making live changes to the service dozens of times a day with no approval chain or executive review board. There’s little fear of crossing political turf, and no need to show off, as their work speaks for itself. The result is the communication channels have a high signal-to-noise ratio.
The single tool used most often instead of e-mail is, surprise, blogs. There’s a WordPress theme designed for teamwork called P2 and it’s the dominant type of blog at the company. All the specifications and spreadsheets that might be sent over e-mail at your average company are simply posted on blogs for each team or project. Most discussions happen in comment threads, chat rooms or on Skype. If you care about that project, you follow the blog. If you don’t, you don’t.
Putting WordPress.com aside for the moment, e-mail has fundamental disadvantages that are rarely discussed:
•E-mail empowers the sender. They can put in your in-box whatever they like and as many times as they like (many receivers use filters and rules as countermeasures).
•E-mail is a closed channel. There’s no way to see an e-mail if you are not on the “to” list, forcing work groups to err on the side of carpet bombing entire project teams, or companies. We all feel only a fraction of e-mail has direct relevance to us as individuals. E-mail tends to bury people in FYI communication, messages unworthy for in-boxes.
•E-mail decays over time. If someone writes a great e-mail, an employee has to do something to preserve it. Otherwise it sits in an in-box, hidden from new employees. Over time, that organizational knowledge fades away.
Blogs, and P2s in particular, are designed to invert these assumptions:
•The reader, not the sender, chooses what to read. At WordPress.com, I picked which project blogs I wanted to follow and ignored the ones that had no value for me.
•The reader chooses how often and in what form he or she wants to read. There are many different tools available for reading blog posts, including, if you really want it, e-mail.
•Blogs are easy to access, search and reference. That great list of ideas you wrote a year ago won’t get buried and lost in people’s in-boxes. As a blog post, it will always be available as a URL, and can be searched and skimmed just like all the blogs on the Web you read every day.
Of course, there’s more to the story. At WordPress.com, there were no schedules. There were few meetings and fewer rules. And the kicker to all of it was every employee worked remotely from anywhere in the world they wanted. How can this work at all, you might ask. I had the same question, which is why I bravely dedicated a year to finding answers.
Scott Berkun, a former manager at Microsoft Corp., is the author of The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work.