With the advent of COVID-19, companies are sending their employees home in droves in order to work remotely. Many employers had no contingency plan for remote work, resorting to what they know: managing a remote team as if they were still within the four walls of the office. The “overseer approach” involves tracking devices, instant communication, and daily video meetings so that managers can “make sure” work is being accomplished by team members.
Amir Salihefendic disagrees with this approach. He’s the Founder and CEO of Doist—the creators of Todoist, a task management app with 25 million users, and Twist, a team communication app that combines email and chat into one platform. Doist is fully remote, with 75 full-time employees across 30 countries and 61 cities. Salihefendic states that instant communication can actually create barriers to accomplishing deep, meaningful work in remote companies. Instead, he suggests embracing aspects of Doist’s asynchronous approach to remote team communication. While this approach isn’t a panacea for companies trying to figure out how to make remote work viable for the first time, it is a strong example of the kind of mindset shift required, as well as a philosophical prod into what the future of work should or could look like.
What organizations need is a paradigm shift in when, where, and how often remote communication needs to occur.
– Amir Salihefendic
COVID-19 Accelerates Work from Home, Not Necessarily Remote Work
Out of necessity rather than by design, COVID-19 is accelerating the adoption of remote work. In a recent article, Time Magazine stated that the pandemic has created “the world’s largest work-from-home experiment.”
Just how large is it? The workplace community platform Fishbowl conducted a survey in March, before many states put their shelter-at-home orders in place, that showed that 52.21% of employers were already restricting travel or asking employees to work from home. These numbers, no doubt, have increased as more workplaces reduce the numbers of employees in the office to comply with state executive orders.
Salihefendic thinks the idea that we’re now remote workers is a misnomer. In an interview with Staffing.com, he said, “It's not that we are trying to work remotely. We're trying to get work done at home during a crisis, which is a very different situation.”
As CEO of Doist—a completely remote company—Salihefendic developed a radically different approach to management and communication. Because he believes company culture is a direct reflection of the CEO, he put more time and thought into his approach than most. His purpose in doing so is twofold. Firstly, he wants to create something that has a huge impact on the world, believing that the traditional model of communication stymies the ability of remote workers to accomplish greatness. Secondly, he wants to transform the workplace so that his children have the opportunity to work in an environment that truly combines passion and freedom. This is especially critical to Salihefendic—both Todoist and Twist were built out of frustrations with the current products on the market, and he declined VC funding so as to stay personally invested in his products.
Although Salihefendic agrees that companies need to hire the right people, create the right culture, and demonstrate core values, his focus is on communication, namely, asynchronous culture and communication. Doist limits in-person conversation, including phone calls, video chats, and real-time communication. Instead, employees communicate with asynchronous tools such as emails or their communication app, Twist.
Doist developed Twist as an alternative to popular workplace communication apps like Slack. As stated on the Twist site: “While fun at first, Slack can quickly become overwhelming. Twist is a tool for teams that prioritize focused work, structured communication and company-wide transparency.”
“Twist is a product of our frustration,” says Salihefendic. “[Newly remote] Organizations are doing communication wrong. They adopt Zoom and Slack as if these are the holy grails, but these apps just create a ping pong effect that wastes both energy and time.” In an asynchronous remote team culture, interruptive back and forth is eliminated, forgoing communication via instant soundbites. Instead, employees respond thoughtfully at their leisure so their process and deep, problem-solving work is not interrupted.
Twist differs from Slack in key ways:
- Twist’s channels are organized by topic threads, rather than acting as a dartboard for all topics pertaining to that channel. For example, a channel named #design would be organized into several sub-threads like “Learning to Use After Effects” and “Design Team Retreat 2020.” This feature is intended to encourage “long-form discussion.”
- Interpersonal, shorter communication is separated from threads into messages so that essential information is not buried by disruptive, short messages. This keeps threads on-topic and thoughtful.
- By preserving the full context of each thread and making information discoverable and searchable by default, Twist aims to promote a culture of transparency and self-sufficiency with fewer meetings.
Of course, Salihefendic understands that a dash of synchronous communication is necessary. As an experiment, he once tried running Doist with entirely asynchronous communication, but it was not successful. “You need to get together, hang out with people, and get to know them on a personal level. That’s why we do whole organization retreats and team retreats. It is worth every penny.” Still, he advises strongly against using synchronous communication as a default communication style. The reason? Check your smartphone.
Keeping “Smartphone Syndrome” Out of the Workforce
Sending messages on Slack is more fun than spending time crafting a message. That’s why people get addicted to social media. It’s a slot machine effect, when you get a little dopamine hit every time you check to see if you get a message.
– Amir Salihefendic
Companies that create synchronous communication apps are aware of their addictive nature, says Salihefendic. Because such companies are not necessarily concerned with the wellbeing of users, he says staying competitive is a struggle for Twist—they aren’t willing to use (metaphorical) nicotine “ . . . to make Twist more addictive.”
“These other companies aren’t worried about making societies better,” says Salihefendic. “They aren’t asking if their product makes users happy, or gives them more time and less stress. I see this on the personal front and on the work front. I think this is why society is deteriorating.”
The First Ingredient Is Trust
Salihefendic states that an asynchronous culture cannot exist without trust. The COVID-19 remote work experiment is proof. There’s been a massive uptick in companies using tracking software that times how much an employee is active on their computer. “This is scary to me,” he says.
Doist’s approach is undeniably working. Despite software development having the highest turnover rate of any sector at 13.2%, Doist boasts a retention rate of more than 90%. Competition for Doist’s open positions is fierce—one year, they received 13,730 remote job applications but hired just 18 people (0.13%).
In Salihefendic’s opinion, remote work should provide employees with optimal flexibility over their time, over their work, and over their life. When an organization has the right people, he says, they want to do great work because doing so is satisfying. In such a case, there is no need to check everything they do.
In many cases, managers don’t know how to evaluate work. “They don’t have any clue what great work is,” says Salihefendic, “and that’s why they use insane metrics. Being on the computer for 12 hours per day does not really mean that you produce good work.”
Doist has amazing people, but more importantly, their team leaders know how to communicate trust. Employees don’t have work hours, nor are they expected to be online, with the exception of critical meetings. Team leaders do not count hours worked. Results are their singular measurement of effectiveness. If employees are productive and getting things done, then the leadership is happy, whether that employee works an eight-hour day or four. “No employee has to respond to real-time chat,” Salihefendic emphasizes. “They determine when they work—even if it is into the night. Our only rule is to respond to communications within 24 hours.”
Create an Impact
It all comes back to impact, both in terms of products and employees. Asynchronous communication gives Salihefendic’s employees the time and space needed to be passionate about Doist products and potential. They are encouraged to continually learn and master new skills. Because they are not worried about answering a Slack communication, they can accomplish deep, focused work—creating products that impact others in a meaningful way.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life to work on things that I’m passionate about and have the freedom to choose my own direction,” Salihefendic quips. “I give that to my employees and I want that for my kids. I want them to find something they are passionate about.”
For Salihefendic, the best plan for creating such an impact starts with a shift to asynchronous communication and deep work, embracing a new paradigm that he feels will impact future generations positively. “I want the same thing for my kids,” he says.