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Pants Not Required: A Seattle writer spends a year without pants in dream work environment


When I got back from my recent two-week vacation I was having a hard time sitting at my desk. Literally. My body squirmed around the seat and my back felt sore sitting in the chair. Finally I realized, after two weeks of tromping freely around Thailand, that sitting at a desk for eight hours a day is not what humans are meant to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. But some companies are actively making the daily grind a lot less grind-y. One of those companies is WordPress, the 8th most popular website in the U.S., a free and open source blogging tool. Seattle author and former Microsoft employee Scott Berkun worked there for 18 months and then wrote the book The Year Without Pants about his experience.

“They have no offices, they don’t use email and they let employees act like adults. So there’s very little supervision, for better or for worse. It is very unusual, but an important and very cool company.”

WordPress also offers unlimited vacation. Scott says employees are evaluated solely on what they produce, so there’s no manager to monitor how many hours you put in every day.

“They hire people who love what they do and then get out of their way. So unlike most work environments where managers have to fight to get people to work hard, it’s the opposite environment. Just the culture, naturally, everyone likes their job and likes to make stuff. So the vacation policy just lets people maintain a much happier, healthier work life balance.”

How does a tech company not use email? Scott says WordPress wanted to avoid all the unnecessary interoffice emails that take so much time to read and respond to.

“Instead they use chat rooms, they use Skype and they use blogs. So a lot of the things that get sent around in email, specs or documents or proposals, that just goes up on a website where people can look at it at their leisure and comment on it just like you’d comment on a blog. So a lot of those discussions that tend to be really frustrating to deal with in email are a lot easier to deal with through blogs.”

Scott says the result of this work style is a very high retention rate and very happy workers who work hard for the company that gives them this freedom. This level of happiness is very rare.

“The Gallup Poll from this year, they measured workplace engagement and 70 percent of American workers are not engaged. About 30 percent of that number are people who are actively disengaged. That means that they are actively not working. I think that number is a staggering number! That’s three out of four people! And I hold management accountable for that because they’re creating an environment where even if people’s work isn’t interesting, the way that they’re allowed to do it and and how much autonomy they have about doing it is poor.”

Now, of course working, from home or a cafe or from a beach in Jamaica with minimal management isn’t for everyone or every industry, but Scott thinks anyone who does digital work is a candidate. To make sure it’s a good fit, WordPress spends time weeding people out through their interview process.

“There’s very little evidence that the way we hire in the work place is effective. Phone interviews and asking people about their strengths and weaknesses, we all kind of know that stuff is phony. What they do there is they hire by trial. So once you go through a preliminary process they say, ‘OK, you’re probably qualified. Here’s actually a project to do that is representative of the actual work you will have to do when you’re hired and we’ll judge you on that.’ And that hiring process, because it’s actually based on work, filters out a lot of people who wouldn’t do well in their environment.”

Scott thinks this system can work just as well in big companies, as it does in this smallish one, since large companies are often divided into smaller divisions and teams anyway.

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