How Communication Density Fuels Automattic

"I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company"

The need to communicate — and to document and archive our written communications for the permanent, searchable record — is ingrained in all of us at Automattic. Our creed states it and the distributed environment in which we work necessitates it. But for people accustomed to writing out their thoughts as a basic function of how they work, how does meeting in person affect the density of our communication? Before I share the results of my analysis, let’s go over how we prefer to communicate at Automattic.

P2s: Our Permanent Searchable Record

Our main communication platform is, of course, run on WordPress.com. We employ a network of blogs called P2s, that run the P2 theme. P2s allow us to post right from the blog’s homepage to have real-time, threaded discussions under the posts. We can cross-post to other teams’ P2s, mention other Automatticians by name to notify them of a discussion, like posts, and follow discussions. Everything is archived and searchable.

We use Slack for real-time or casual discussions, but once a Slack conversation reaches a certain threshold or conclusion, we “P2 it!” and write a post on the relevant P2, because in Automattic’s world, if an important conversation is not documented on a P2 for the record, it didn’t happen.

We have three types of P2s:

  1. Team P2s: Each team at Automattic has a main P2 “home.” This is where we post project threads, update our colleagues on project progress, share general, relevant knowledge, and field requests for help from other teams.
  2. Project P2s: Some projects end up needing more resources, time, and cross-team efforts than others. For these projects, we create a project P2 so that everything relevant to the project is housed in one place.
  3. Watercooler P2s: We have 78 Watercooler P2s dedicated to office chitchat. Most are organized around specific interests, topics, or locations. For example, we have the Nomadomattic P2 for discussions around leading a (digital) nomadic life, and a Seattlematticians P2 for those in Seattle.

The Grand Meetup Effect

However, our communication doesn’t just rely on text and then more text. We also meet up a couple times a year to enjoy each other’s company. Meeting in person lends a voice and personality to put behind the words we read when we return home.

The biggest of these meetups is called The Grand Meetup (or the GM), where the entire company comes together for a week somewhere around the world to discuss, teach, learn, hike, run, mountain bike, and party (the last few are optional, of course :).

Automattic at the 2016 GM

Automattic at the 2016 Grand Meetup in Whistler, Canada

My colleague on the Data Science team, Boris, previously wrote about the GM for data.blog and showed (with data, of course) how important the GM is in developing and maintaining social ties.

During a series of analyses I did for the HR team about how Automatticians communicate with one another, I found out that the GM is also really good for our communication!

I looked at three-month periods before and after the GM and found that our interactions in team and project P2s increase drastically and significantly in the after period. This is especially true for project and team P2s. With watercooler P2s, the percentage change was very little and it wasn’t statistically significant.

All team and project P2s are classified as Work P2s and activity on a person’s own team’s P2 is classified separately as Own Team P2s. We are more active on cross-team project P2s and other teams’ P2s after the GM.

gm-effect-pctgs

I’ve also looked at the interaction network: who is talking to whom? In the network, each node represents an Automattician and there is an edge between one Automattician and another when one likes or comments on the other’s posts, or mentions them. The more frequent this interaction is, the higher weight the edge between them gets.

To describe the results, I am going to introduce a new network concept: Density. A network’s density is the ratio of all existing connections in the network and all possible connections. It is a way to measure cohesiveness.

Since here, we are working with a weighted network, I modified the traditional density concept a little bit to be able to take strength of connections within the network into account. When a network’s density is high, it means that all nodes are strongly connected. We have a very dense network at Automattic, especially around project and team P2s.

So what happens to our cohesiveness as a company after a GM? It increases a lot (by 11%) when it comes to team and project P2 interactions, and actually, decreases by 14% when it comes to watercooler interactions. We fill up with all the socialization we need for the next three months during the GM and get motivated to work on projects!

dens-change-nets-bef-aft-gm

HR Analytics at Automattic

Companies all over the world deal with issues related to communication and the seemingly overwhelming amount of information that is produced and consumed by separate teams. Teams can end up isolated, or unaware of discussions that are directly or indirectly relevant to them.

At Automattic, as a remote company, our advantage is that almost all of our communication is documented and archived. This gives us a great way to study our communication flow, identify problems, and build tools to solve them. Or in this specific case, identify efforts that are successful in fostering better communication habits.

This was only the first post in a series of communication flow analyses at Automattic, stay tuned for more!

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