Trust. It can be hard, but it’s worth it.

We’ve all been burned before. And it can make us reluctant to trust the next time. But get over it. Trust is so giving.

As a consultant working for a distributed company (so you don’t have to look it up, it’s a company whose employees work remotely… and actually, the company is Automattic (WordPress!)), I’ve been spending a lot of time in cafes over the past couple of months. Working from home is great, but among other things, I have a hard time convincing myself not to eat all my husband’s dark chocolate and caramel covered salty pretzels in the fridge… so off to town I go to drink way too many cups of tea and lattes, the small price I pay to quietly loiter (ahem, work) for hours in the free-wifi-enabled coffee shop of my choice.

I rarely know a soul at any of these places (I stay far, far away from the Starbucks across from my kids’ school for obvious reasons); it’s just nice to have other people around doing their thing while I do mine. (The WeWork people and all of their competitors clearly get that, but instead of charging $5 for a cappucino, they charge $500+ a month for a retro chair at a communal table, and throw in the coffee for free. Brilliant. Bastards!) While being out eliminates many home-specific distractions, it does create a few of its own. Namely, my wandering mind that constantly tries to figure out what the hell all of these are people doing here! There are so many of them! Having worked full time for traditional companies for 20 years up until August, I never knew this cafe culture existed. It’s fascinating. Are they just passing the time? Working for a distributed company, like me? Out of work and on LinkedIn? Creating the next big idea that will suddenly change the way we eat breakfast?

Orrrrrrr is one of them just waiting for the rest of us to go to the bathroom to swipe the latest MacBook Air and take off… Seriously, I highly recommend a coffee shop in Brooklyn in the middle of the day if you’re a thief. Really, any one of them should do.

Yesterday was the third time in as many weeks and in as many coffee shops that the person sitting next to me asked me to watch her stuff while she went to the bathroom. I said no problem, of course. But then she was gone for close to 15 minutes! And towards the end I couldn’t concentrate, because I kept looking around for the cameras filming me as part of her social experiment: we’re in a city, I’ve never seen this woman before and she’s never seen me, everyone around us was completely engrossed in their computer and I had 15 minutes to grab her purse, bag and computer, and walk out. But, you guessed it, I didn’t, and she finally came back from the bathroom, thanked me, and that was that. Her assumptions about my character turned out to be right (she’s lucky she didn’t ask my teenage self as I was a bit of a clepto…weird phase I thankfully shed before ever getting caught) and the whole experience made me feel really good. No, not because I was proud of myself for not stealing! Because having a stranger trust you like that is a pretty cool feeling. She could have chosen the other people around her to watch her stuff, but she chose ME! (And I swear if anyone tried to take her stuff, man, I would have kicked some serious ass!)

I had to key in and out of my office at the company I worked for prior to this consultant gig. We had a lot of confidential information in the office so this made sense to me – we couldn’t have unauthorized people roaming the halls. But I learned a few months before I left that the key card data was being reviewed to determine what time employees were getting to work and leaving. To learn you’re being watched like that is pretty disconcerting. But to then realize the lack of trust that has to exist for key card data to be analyzed (in 2016, no less, when people bring their phones to bed so they can respond to an email when they wake up to pee at 3am), is totally demoralizing. My kid was trusted to walk the attendance list to the principal’s office when she was 5, but Big Brother wants to know if I keyed in at 8:47 or 9:02? Trust breeds responsibility and productivity. Lack of trust? Kinda kills it.

When Automattic’s CEO started the company 10+ years ago, he had many naysayers who insisted he wouldn’t be able to keep up the distributed organization beyond ten or so people. And then they said 50 was the max. And then 100. And then… well now it’s grown to over 500 people and it’s still working. His rationale for building the company that way is that not all great talent lives or wants to live in Silicon Valley. So why not let them live where they want to, and let technology be the enabler? But how to trust they’re doing their work, you gasp?! Output is output. You know if someone is or isn’t doing their job pretty quickly. Oh, and if you hire adults and pay them well, chances are they’ll deliver. And if you’ve trusted them to the point of letting them work from home, the beach, the coffee shop, the mountains or wherever it is they really want to be – not holed up in some depressing cube in midtown – they’ll deliver even more strongly. Automattic has grown into a Unicorn, with trust at its very core.

Have people in cafes made the mistake of asking the wrong stranger to watch their stuff and been ripped off? Sure. Were there woefully unproductive people at my former company only working a handful of hours a day? Sure. Are there employees at Automattic who take irresponsibile advantage of the freedom the distributed organization affords? Sure. But I’d argue none of those people will last very long anyway – bad behavior has a way of catching up to you one way or another (except for mine as a 16-year-old clepto.)

I don’t believe in the “earn my trust” kind of philosophy. Those kind of people scare me, and I venture to guess they’re more sad and lonely than your average guy. I’m more of a “trust until proven wrong” kind of gal. Trusting people makes me a better manager, worker, client, mom, wife, sister, you name it. Trust is a beautiful thing, because very few humans like to disappoint.


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