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Ever since that day in the 1980s that I first connected my Apple II computer to the online service CompuServe, I’ve had a distributed social circle. While I have a concentration of friends in Boston — people I know from grad school, contra dancing, or multiple sclerosis — I have just as many friends throughout the country and world. These are people I’ve met from conventions, online video games, podcasts, Twitter, and more. As a nomad, I now find that social circle growing to encompass my workplace as well.

Automattic, the company I work for, has been entirely distributed since its founding 15 years ago; my co-workers are scattered across 79 countries and almost every state. Most of our asynchronous text communication occurs in Slack, which is divided into “channels” based on topic or team.

There are also channels dedicated to geographic regions. Before I moved to Montana this spring, I knew I’d want to meet my local co-workers, so searched for an appropriate Slack channel but couldn’t find one. Since I was heading to Missoula specifically, I looked for that city in our employee directory and found one co-worker, Dan, who lived there. I asked him, where’s the Slack channel for all the Montanans?

“I’m it!” he said. Dan alone represented the entire state! Together, the two of us formed the #montana channel.

Once I arrived in Missoula, we moved our banter offline with a hike to “The M“, a letter emblazoned into the side of Mount Sentinel. As Dan, his daughter, and I criss-crossed the mountain’s switchbacks, we discovered we had a lot in common — well, mostly that he and I are the same age and love old Nintendo games. Which is really all that bffs need!

Ken and Dan on Mount Sentinel
Automatticians, unite!

A few weeks later, I cycled over to Dan’s house to play video games. Over the course of the evening, he, his wife, three kids, and I all took turns going head-to-head in such Nintendo Switch games as Killer Queen Black, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Tetris 99. Later, Dan showed me his classic gaming parlor, with artifacts and imports I hadn’t seen in decades or had only ever heard of.

Ken on a couch playing Nintendo with a young girl
An evening of fun for the whole family!

Prior to nomading, Dan and I had never met; our company is big enough that we never would’ve worked together. Yet my nomading had demonstrated that it’s not unusual for co-workers who are only acquaintances or even total strangers to take advantage of these opportunities to meet up. In Salt Lake City, I had breakfast with Jary. In Pittsburgh, I went contra dancing with Liz and out for coffee with Bethany. In Washington, D.C., I attended a Moth storyslam with Kate. In Durham, Deborah and I visited the lemur center. In Baltimore, I checked out a comic-book shop with Annie and Derek. In Boulder, I arrived for a team meeting a day early so Peter, Jack, and Destiny and I could go skiing. Almost every Sunday night, I play Nintendo with Kaitlin, Mary, and Tess. And even before I hit the road, all my Bostonian colleagues and I would regularly get together for lunch — the only time our paths would cross, professionally or personally.

Such openness is unprecedented in my career. In my previous job, I worked at a hospital. If a radiology technician I’d never met had emailed me out of the blue and asked me to join them for a weekend hike, I would’ve been skeptical at best. So what is it about working at Automattic that lowers those barriers and makes us receptive to socializing outside the job?

For me, the reasons are twofold. One is that, since every one of us is a remote employee, we have no shared office environment beyond Zoom. There are no chance encounters in the hallway, no water cooler moments, no impromptu luncheons. Given the absence of those experiences, we overcompensate. We have Slack channels to discuss movies and games, dogs and cats, parenting and homeschooling, mental health and COVID-19. Even our professional communications blur the line between co-worker and friend. And when the opportunity presents itself to continue those interactions in real life, we leap at the chance.

A five-by-five grid of headshots in a Zoom video conference
Zoom and Slack are nice, but they’re no substitute for the real thing.

The other reason for our camaraderie is the subject of our work: WordPress. We endure Word, Excel, and other programs foisted upon us by circumstance, but WordPress is more elective. Many of us first encountered this content-management system in our personal lives, driven by a desire to create our own websites and discovering WordPress was the best way to do it: we were using it we were paid to do so, and we’d be using it even if it stopped being our job. As an open-source project designed to democratize publishing, WordPress inspires passion. That’s a strong commonality with which to build a friendship.

I asked my colleagues what other factors contribute to our social nature, and Juancho emphasized our work-life harmony. One of the first things my team lead told me was, “Don’t ever feel you need to miss something personal due to work.” With our unlimited vacation time policy, we can take personal days and mental health days as needed. When we are working, I have the flexibility to choose my own hours, adapting them to accommodate my personal schedule. I never subconsciously begrudge my teammates for occupying time I’d prefer be spent elsewhere. Since I don’t have to spend time with my co-workers, it frees me to want to spend time with them.

Annie also cited our hiring policies. At a former workplace, I had a co-worker who was cruel and vindictive to their peers. My manager permitted this conduct, explaining that “They’re a genius, like Steve Jobs — and like Steve Jobs, I can excuse their behavior if their work is good.” This shortsighted perspective neglected to consider that an individual gain is a net loss if it negatively impacts the entire team.

By comparison, writes Annie, Automattic “seems to be really intentional about not hiring jerks, because I genuinely like everyone I work with, and everyone seems to be interesting and have very full and interesting lives.”

Thanks to the distributed nature of my hobbies, I have friends in almost every state. And thanks to the distributed nature of my work, I have co-workers in almost every state — and that’s much the same thing.

What about you — do you prefer to keep work and play separate? Or will you take whatever friends you can find? Let me know in the comments!

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

2 Replies to “Making friends through work”

  1. Awesome post! I love the distributed nature of our work. Aside from knowing people in the states, it’s also helped me to expand my horizons and learn more about cultures and people in other countries which has been incredible. Let me know if you’re ever in the Atlanta area! Would love to meet up with you 🙂

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