Last June the folks at Running Remote invited Doist’s Founder and CEO, Amir Salihefendic, to present at their annual remote work conference in Bali. The event brings together remote work pioneers from all over the world to teach other team leaders how they can embrace the future of work.
Even among remote companies, Doist’s way of working is unique – we don’t require people to work European or US hours and we don’t track how much time people spend “at work”. In fact, all our communication is asynchronous by default – when we send a message, we never expect an immediate response.
In his presentation from last year’s Running Remote conference, Amir takes you behind-the-scenes at Doist. Learn how we keep over 60 employees across the world connected and moving in the same direction without real-time messaging. If the thought of not being able to instantly reach your teammates gives you palpitations, this video is a must-watch! (If you prefer to read, you can also find the full transcript below.)
If you’re interested in learning more from last year’s Running Remote line-up, check out this Q&A between Amir and Joel Gascoigne, co-founder and CEO of the remote-first company Buffer:
Read the full transcript of Amir’s talk on async communication and the future of remote teamwork:
So, it’s awesome to be here. I’m just blown away by Bali and being connected to all of the people who actually want to make remote work possible. I think the whole movement is very early on, and I think in the next five to ten years is where we’ll take off. So all of us are early adopters of this insane way of working together. I have all my life worked only as a remote worker, and I feel like this is the best way to work.
I want to tell you a bit about our company. It’s called Doist. We have been at it for almost seven years. I have been doing this for almost 10 years. So it’s a lot of years of remote work and just trying different stuff out. And especially with Doist, we challenge the status quo, and we try to think from the first principles. So, we don’t try to copy others or follow other paths.
We are 60 fulltime people around the world—25 different countries, 10 time zones—and we also have 20 part-time people. We are best known for creating one of the most popular to-do apps, called Todoist. Todoist has over 15 million people, and people will have soon completed over 1 billion tasks.
We like to challenge the way that we are communicating today because we think it is not only bad for human productivity, but also for the well-being of you and your people. And I think we need to fix not only work communication but also personal communication. But we only want to speak about work, so that will be the focus area.
First of all, we have experience with many different communication models over the last seven years, and we had a whole year or more with Slack and chat tools. This talk won’t be an attack on Slack the product, because I think actually it’s amazing. It’s probably one of the best, well-made products there is. The problem with Slack isn’t really the product, it’s the communication model. I believe it’s horribly broken, especially for remote work, but also for regular work.
I will list some issues that we have experienced as a team of maybe 40 people using Slack in a remote setting, where we have people spread around many different time zones and countries.
First of all, time zones inside a real-time communication system are very problematic. Basically, if you see some of the most successful remote teams right now, most of them are based around a few time zones. And the reason I think is that they require real-time communication.
For us, we want to hire the best people from around the world. So being tied to just the U.S. or Europe isn’t really a good idea. And that’s basically what we saw.
For me personally [when we were using Slack] it would be very, very hard to disconnect because Asia people would wake up, and I would need to speak with them, and I couldn’t really do that in an asynchronous way. So the thing I found is, I was connected all the time. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t relax. This was a huge, huge issue for us.
Another problem is that chat is very addictive, and it’s like being inside a slot machine where you just have dopamine hits all day long. Some studies have shown that people in modern companies spend more than 10 hours per day being connected, and this includes vacations, this includes weekends.
If you want to have addicts as your workers, then it’s a very good strategy. But I think you want to have happy people that can disconnect, that can be with their family, with their friends, and have a life outside of work.
Another problem is one-line thinking, and this is an issue because in chat you just have past lines coming in in a conversation, but maybe this type of thinking isn’t the best thinking.
The book Deep Work, it resonated with me so much, because I think what we need is more deep thinking and less shallow thinking where you’re just reacting, and you don’t have time to think about stuff and come back and provide something that’s very insightful. Right now we just promote in both work and personal life these kinds of shallow connections.
Another thing is that team communication is about what kind of culture you want to build inside a company. And chat promotes a fast culture, a sprint culture. Everything needs to happen as soon as possible, everything is just sprinting away. And yeah, this is great for some things, but I have been at this for 10 years, and sprinting all of the time, you will collapse at some point, and so will your people.
So what I actually want inside my company is to have a sustainable culture, where we can work at this for 20 more years, and I’m happy and I can spend time with my son, my wife, and my friends. I can have a life outside of work. And I think a remote setting is perfect for this.
Another issue is fear of missing out. FOMO is real. When we used the chat model I would sleep so badly because I would wake up, and the first thing I would open is the chat channel, to see what has been done. So it’s just a very, very problematic way of living, and it affects everything.
And lastly, chat alone wasn’t really enough for us. You usually mix it with another tool, and what this means is that information is scattered around different tools, and it’s basically disorganization, and you can’t really easily—especially if you use something like email—you can’t easily go back and link to something and see how was a decision made. And this is especially problematic when you onboard people because new people need to see the context, to understand how are decisions made inside your company. So this is kind of the culture of remote work right now.
And these are the ads, real ads, of some of the companies, including Microsoft. Basically, they advocate that you work while you’re in the WC, while you’re vacationing, while you’re watching your child play. That isn’t the kind of culture we actually want to promote.
I’m really shocked when I see some of these ads. I think what we need to do is rethink and rebrand remote work so it isn’t about working from the WC but is about deep work, about connections. I think we have a lot more to offer than this.
So like I said, we don’t really like the status quo. So we thought about, ‘how would a perfect communication tool look for remote-first companies?’ It would be built by a remote team to remote teams. Most of the current tools, for instance, Slack or the Microsoft tools, they are built by office workers. And maybe, I don’t think they can relate to how it is to work in a fully remote environment. So for us, we really wanted to think about how would this actually work and think from first principles instead of just copying what everybody else is doing.
Another thing is asynchronous and mindfulness would be a core focus of this. So this means you can actually connect to work, do your work, disconnect, go and play with your child, or do something else, and then you can reconnect again later. But you wouldn’t feel like you’re missing out.
And another thing is we wanted to make stuff so it’s mindful. So this means we won’t use dark patterns to make the tools as addictive as possible, to increase the retention or stickiness of the product, which most of the other tools do.
In general, I think it’s just sick how we optimize currently. For most of our software, human happiness isn’t really taken into consideration. It’s just like, how much time are you spending inside Netflix. And I think Netflix actually had a quote, a CEO there [who said] he’s competing against sleep.
We also wanted something that included real threads. This means that you have conversations that span for a long period of time, with all of the discussion, answers, questions, files, located in one location, instead of having this system right now where you have something in chat, something in email, something in Google Docs, and just a huge mess to figure it out.
And then lastly, I think this is really important. We wanted to promote time off and the general well-being of people. I think this is quite broken right now, and I’m actually fearful. I will take vacation after this, and when I will return back, and I will have hundreds of unreads that I need to go through. I think this is one of the reasons why people don’t take that much vacation now because you get more stressed when you return back then the recharge that you should have while you have been off. So I think software machine learning can help this out.
We tried to look inside the market, and everybody’s just copying Slack and the communication model of real-time. And for us it was like, why isn’t anybody innovating here or challenging the status quo? And that’s a good question.
And then also, email wasn’t a solution for us. So we used email in the past, and I think everybody knows, there’s a reason why Slack is so popular right now. Basically, the biggest problem with email for us is you don’t have a global database for your communication. You can’t link to stuff, and it’s just outdated. Of course, there are some solutions. They tried to build stuff on top of email.
So how would our ideal, remote communications stack work for us? Basically, it would be asynchronous by default. So this means no online indicators, no pressure of responding right away. And it would also include the mindfulness aspect. We won’t use dark patterns to make people addicted to our software.
Another thing is we tried this asynchronous approach, and we went too far. I would definitely recommend, don’t go overboard with it. It should be the default way. But still, for people it’s very important to actually feel a human connection. So online meetings and real-time messages are needed. You need to sprinkle them in sometimes. And especially in meetings, using Google Hangouts or Zoom are very important to actually build a connection with the people you work with. So that’s something I can really recommend because we went too far in the asynchronous space, and that does not work either. So you need to sprinkle in.
And lastly, you also need to have retreats and face-to-face meetings with people, because we are still humans, and we need the human connection, the human bond. So, for Doist, we do yearly retreats as many of the other remote companies do. And the reason why we do it is because we build better bonds.
Actually, if you look at some of the remote companies that have over 50 employees, and also us, the retention of employees is over 90 percent. And for Doist itself, our employee retention the last seven years is over 95 percent. So basically, nobody really leaves. Retreats help a lot, especially if you make them about the experience and not only about work so that people can hang out and explore something.
So for the last four years, we have worked on Twist, which is basically an asynchronous tool that’s optimized for remote work. As you see, we have Android Apps, iOS, and it’s a fully threaded model.
We released it a year ago. Creating this tool was kind of insane because we already had Todoist which takes a lot of time and is a very big space as well. Task management and making people more productive is very hard. So venturing into this like that’s something we really—it was a very hard decision to do. But for us, we felt that no other solution could solve our problems, and we really needed to do this.
I welcome you to join us on this journey and try to create a next-generation communication tool, specially made for remote teams such as ours.
Here are some of our current stats from the last year: we have over 1,000 active teams from all around the world. I think over 50 percent of them are remote. We have 10,000 active users. The stat I’m most proud of is that we ourselves have added more than 1 million objects, comments, and files to the system. So this is something that we use a lot.
But I think for us, it’s not really important that you use Twist, but really that we challenge the way that we communicate and that we all try to come up with new ways. Because I think communication is really a core part of the whole culture you have inside your company.
So please if you venture into remote work, try to think hard about what kind of culture do you want, how you communicate, and what kind of communication you prefer.