The Year Without Pants: An interview with author Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is the author of four previous books and a sought-after speaker. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, National Public Radio, and The Huffington Post. From 2010 to 2012 Scott led Team Social at Automattic. The Year Without Pants: and the future of work recounts his experiences and reflections on leading a distributed team at Automattic. We recently got the chance to ask Scott a few questions about the book and his time at Automattic.

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun

Give us a little insight into the title of the book, The Year Without Pants: and the future of work. What does being pantsless, or pants-free have to do with the future of work?
Scott Berkun: A recent Gallup Poll showed 71% of workers are not engaged in their jobs: it’s a disaster! The book is a wake-up call to the business world and the title reflects that. There has never been any evidence dress codes or nine-to-five hours make people smarter or more productive, yet most workplaces demand these rules: why? The book uses my first-hand experience at to challenge what’s broken in the working world and how to change it. 

In Chapter 4, you say, “A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results.” What are the hallmarks of culture that could allow a company to flourish with a distributed workforce?

Berkun: Trust. It’s a five-letter word but you won’t find much trust in most workplaces, which explains that 71% number. I’m certain the 29% of people who are passionate about their work have bosses who trust them enough as adults to decide for themselves how best to be productive.

YWP-COVER-FINAL-200x300In Chapter 4, you cite transparency, meritocracy, and longevity as three principles of WordPress’ development as an open source project. How do these principles apply to the culture of Automattic today?

Berkun: Automattic rarely uses email, which means most communication is visible to all, not locked away in email inboxes. Because most employees can launch updates to whenever they wish, launches are frequent and people can see who is productive and who isn’t. And since (Matt) Mullenweg and (Toni) Schneider constantly favor the long term in their decisions, there’s rarely stupid, demoralizing, short-term firedrills. 

Of all the things you learned about Automattic, what are the three most important lessons companies can take away from how we work?

Berkun: The single most important lesson is you have to dig deeper to be good. For everyone reading this: you and you coworkers are probably in that 71%. Cherry picking tips and tricks — as managers are prone to want to do — will fail if it’s not paired with creating a culture that can support them. To replicate Automattic’s success demands going deeper into the story of how they hire, how their values impact their choices, and how they use (or don’t use) tools and understand the culture intimately. Only then can people see the steps needed to improve things where they work.

As a manager, you’re experienced in traditional, in-person software creation teams. What was the most important thing you learned from your experience working as part of Automattic’s distributed workforce? What surprised you?

Berkun: I was most surprised to rediscover that it’s the fundamentals. If you can build trust, provide clarity, and hire well, every other obstacle can be conquered. My story in The Year Without Pants follows how I tried to achieve those things despite a decade age gap, 100% remote workers, radically different culture, and more, any of which would be terrifying to most managers on their own, including myself. 

If you ran Automattic, what would you change?

Berkun: I’d make sure all my WordPress blogs got more traffic. Just kidding. As the book explains through my own success and failures while working at Automattic, I’d think about how to encourage people to make bigger bets and do bigger experiments.  

What’s next for Scott Berkun?
Berkun: Right now, after three years working on this book, I have months of promotion of the book ahead! Writing books is hard but spreading the word about books is even harder. But I’m convinced everyone with a job will find the book, and Automattic’s story, fascinating and useful in thinking about how to change work for the better. I’ll be on book tour in Seattle, NYC, Boston, and other cities. 

Check out the book trailer for The Year Without Pants:

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Intrigued by the future of work? Want to become a part of it? Automattic is hiring. We want people who are willing to work hard, share their ideas, learn from their colleagues, take initiative to get things done without being told, and those who aren’t afraid to ask questions. Think you fit the bill? Toss your hat in the ring to work with us.

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