The open source model for managing virtual offices

So you want a distributed or even work-from-home workforce? Learn the lessons of open source

Both Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal have fresh articles about Automattic, the company sponsoring and developing the open source content management system WordPress and a range of related products. Both articles echo an item in Fortune from over six years ago about the database company MySQL. The subject of all three articles is how to run a virtual office.

What these articles seem to overlook is that both companies have simply formalized the practices of successful open source communities all over the world. Who better to do that than two successful, open source-based businesses?

[ Another way businesses can benefit from open source: It's the stealth stimulus package. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

I realize that not every business lends itself to a distributed workforce. Some managers can't cope with unseen staff and assume anyone they can't look on isn't working. But when the virtual office works, it works very well: Instead of hiring only people who can physically come into your offices, you can hire the very best staff from anywhere with a broadband connection.

A similar notion underlies open source. Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy once observed that you can't hire all the smart people, but open source comes close to that ideal, because you get to work with smart people who work for other companies too.

How open source can inspire management

What does open source-style management look like? An examination of Automattic (and MySQL before it) provides some insight. The core of the company's approach is to treat the whole team -- including those located at the HQ who might otherwise regard themselves as "central" -- as part of the distributed team. Email is avoided; chat rooms and blogging, which are inherently open to anyone to see, are the norm, complemented with VoIP and videoconferencing for more spontaneous conversation. There are company-organized get-togethers for staff both regionally and (once each year) globally.

Isn't all that travel expensive? It would be if the company maintained offices and the remote staff were outliers, but by having everyone working remotely, the overhead (and perhaps the payroll) is significantly reduced. Even when offices are required -- most obviously for meetings -- they can be arranged flexibly.

Don't people slack and goof off? Actually, constant electronic communication means staff are likely to work more, not less. Chat rooms, blogs, and issue trackers can all be checked from mobile devices, so any place with a connection is a place people can work. That creates an expectation of responsiveness, and anyone dropping off the radar is more, not less likely to be noticed.

I believe it's no accident that companies working with open source are more likely to use this approach. An open source community is a distributed community of equals, in touch asynchronously through various online tools. For example, the Apache community has a basic rule: If it didn't happen on a mailing list, it didn't happen.

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