distributed work

Tech entrepreneur and Houston native shares why flexibility is the future of work

Houston-born Matt Mullenweg joined the Greater Houston Partnership for a fireside chat on his tech company Automattic's success of distributed work. Photo via ma.tt

The pandemic and the measures companies have taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have opened employers eyes to non-traditional ways of working. An increased percentage of the workforce pivoted to remote working this year — in some cases, this was the first time employees were allowed to work from home.

But not having a traditional office setup is far from new to Houston native Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress. He started his company with remote team members basically from day one. In a virtual fireside chat with Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B Food & Drug, for Greater Houston Partnership's Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit last month, Mullenweg describes why he feels confident that a remote — or distributed, has he defines it — workforce is the future.

"Words are really important, and when I hear the word 'remote,' I think there's a central office and then there's someone who's not part of it," Mullenweg says during the chat. "So, we were trying to think of something that captured the fact that we were close to each other in our work — we're just not physically in the same place most of the time. 'Distributed' is what we came up with."

For Mullenweg, this way of running his business was advantageous for the company at its founding in 2000. Since those early days, Automattic, WordPress's parent company, has raised around $700 million in venture funding and made around 20 acquisitions. This success, Mullenweg says, is in part due to distributed work.

"All of this is designed to create a really robust network so that the work can continue regardless of location or anything," Mullenweg says on his workforce structure. "This especially during the early days, allowed us to work two or three times faster than our competitors because when they were doing five days of work a week, we were doing 15 days of work a week."

Mullenweg's plan for distributed work has been the subject a series of blogs, a podcast, and even a TED Talk. As passionate as he is that it is the future of the workforce, he realizes there's a process to getting there, and it's going to take time. He explains a five-tiered process that focuses on strategic culture changes and tech optimization.

"I think you need to have a culture and a way of working that allows people who aren't physical co-present with their colleagues to be productive," Mullenweg says. "The truth is not every company is there yet."

While Mullenweg always believed the rise of distributed work would reach milestones throughout his lifetime, the pandemic might be accelerating crucial steps toward the growth of this type of workforce. Especially since, as Mullenweg explains, this isn't the last major event that's going to occur and prevent in-person work.

"We're all hoping COVID to be gone as soon as possible, but this isn't the last thing like this. I'm sure there are going to be other issues that require us to be more decentralized in the future," Mullenweg says. "If you can get good at that as an organization, you'll be primed to succeed in the coming decades as a business."

Ultimately, distributed work has a lot of potential in the modern workforce, and the structure can do wonders for business advancement as well as employee moral.

"One thing we've found is that when people are really happy and fulfilled, they bring their best selves to work — they're more creative and have more energy," Mullenweg says.

Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit - Fireside Chat with Matt Mullenweg www.youtube.com

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Rice has developed a COVID diagnostic test that uses a cell phone. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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