The five levels of autonomy

March 20, 2024

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As remote working becomes more mainstream, Matt Mullenweg breaks down the possibilities of remote working into five levels of autonomy.

In early 2020, as COVID-19 began to shift the way people and companies work, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Harris, author and host of the Making Sense podcast, for a wideranging conversation. Given the moment we were living through, we naturally touched on the way companies were adapting to a new reality — one where remote work was a model to which they had to adapt in a matter of days, rather than years.

Distributed works’ five levels of autonomy

As I mentioned to Sam at the time, “any company that can enable their people to be fully effective in a distributed fashion, can and should do it far beyond this current crisis has passed.” It was a moral imperative. But that doesn’t mean it was going to be easy, or that the chaotic and stressful first taste some workplaces were getting at the moment would inspire them to keep trying.

To make sense of this journey — from a company’s cautious exploration of remote possibilities to a fully realized distributed experience — I like to think of how it plays out through the concept of levels of distributed work, which I modeled after self-driving car levels of autonomy.

The following is an overview of how I see distributed companies evolving.



Level Zero

LEVEL ZERO autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Imagine a construction worker, a barista, a massage therapist, a firefighter, and so forth. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than it turned out they really did.

Level One

LEVEL ONE is where most co-located businesses were at the time. There was no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly, though in the case of many knowledge workers, people could keep things moving for a day or two when there was an emergency. More often than not, they would likely put things off until they were back in the office. Work happened on company equipment, in company space, on company time.

You didn’t have any special equipment and may have had to use a clunky VPN to access basic work resources like email or your calendar. Larger level one companies often had people in the same building or campus dialing into a meeting. Level one companies were largely unprepared for this crisis.

Level Two

LEVEL TWO is where many companies found themselves in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. They accepted that work was going to happen at home for a while, but they recreated what they were doing in the office in a “remote” setting.

Employees were probably able to access information from afar and they adapted to tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but everything was still synchronous, the day was full of interruptions, no real-time meetings had been canceled (yet), and there was a lot of anxiety in management around productivity. This is the stage where companies sometimes install surveillance software on laptops. Pro tip: Don’t do that! And also, don’t stop at level two!



Level Three

At LEVEL THREE, companies are really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. That’s when you see people and companies investing in better equipment — from a good desk lamp to solid audio gear — and in more robust asynchronous processes that start to replace meetings.

It’s also the point at which companies realize just how crucial written communication is for their success, and they start looking for great writers in their hiring. When on a Zoom, teams often also have a Google Doc up with the other meeting participants so they can take and check real-time notes together.

The company has a zero-trust BeyondCorp security model. In a non-pandemic world, meetups are planned so that teams can break bread and meet each other in person a week or two a year.

Level Four

LEVEL FOUR is when things go truly asynchronous. People’s work is evaluated on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Trust emerges as the glue that holds the entire operation together. A shift to better — perhaps slower, but more deliberate — decision-making takes place where everyone, not just the loudest or most extroverted, is empowered to weigh in on major conversations.

Companies tap into the global talent pool, the 99% of the world’s population and intelligence that doesn’t live near one of their legacy physical office locations. Employee retention goes way up, as does investment in training and coaching.

Most employees have home-office setups that would make office workers green with envy, and they have a rich social life with people that they choose. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, and almost always have agendas in addition to pre-work or post-work.

If you get good at baton passes, work follows the sun 24/7 around the world. The organization is truly inclusive because stan- dards are objective and give people agency to accomplish their work their way.

Level Five

Finally, I believe it’s always useful to have an ideal that’s not wholly attainable — and that’s LEVEL FIVE, Nirvana! This is when your company consistently performs better than any in-person organization could.

It’s effortlessly effective, and everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health. At this level, people consistently bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to do the best work of their careers, and just have fun!



Motivating people

A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy.

Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.

Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, to have agency over ourselves and our environment. Close your eyes and imagine everything around you in a physical office: the chair you’re in, the desk, distance from a window, the smells, the temperature, the music, the flooring, what’s in the fridge, the comfort and privacy of the bathrooms, the people (or pets) around you, the lighting.

Now imagine an environment where you can choose and control every one of those to your liking — maybe it’s a room in your house, a converted garage, a shared studio, or really anything, the important thing is you’re able to shape the environment fit your personal preferences, not the lowest common denominator of everyone an employer has decided to squish together for 8 hours a day.

The microinteractions of the hundreds of variables of your work environment can charge you and give you creative energy, or make you dependent, infantilized, and a character in someone else’s story. Which do you want to spend half of your waking workday hours in?

About the author

Matt Mullenweg is co-founder of WordPress, which now powers over 40% of all sites on the web. He is the founder and CEO of Automattic, the company behind, WooCommerce, Tumblr, WPVIP, Day One, and Pocket Casts. Additionally, Matt runs Audrey Capital, an investment and research company. He has been recognized for his leadership by Forbes, Bloomberg Businessweek, Inc. Magazine, TechCrunch, Fortune, Fast Company, Wired, University Philosophical Society, and Vanity Fair.

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