I recently spoke with Chase Warrington, Head of Remote at Doist, a company that creates tools that promote more fulfilling ways to work and live. I love these tools and recommend them to my clients. They include Twist, a team communication platform, and Todoist, a task management app. These products are designed for asynchronous, remote-first communication.
For the full conversation, watch the video above. Or read some of my favorite highlights here:
Maura Thomas: Chase Warrington, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Chase Warrington: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited today.
Maura: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role and the company?
What is Doist?
Chase: Sure. So my name is Chase Warrington. I’m the new Head of Remote at Doist, which I’ll explain a little bit more in a second.
But our company, Doist, has been fully remote—remote first, as we say—for over a decade. And by remote, first of all, we mean we don’t hire on location. Also, everybody works from where they want to work, when they want to work. We don’t hire based on time zone or location.
We don’t even track when people are working, or how many hours they’re investing in the day. All we really look at is the deliverables and the work that gets done at the end of the day, end of the week, and the month.
We’ve got about 100 people in 35 different countries spanning all time zones, and that’s worked really well for us.
We were the founders of two products. In particular, Todoist and Twist, which Maura, already mentioned and is a great champion of.
Collectively, we serve about 25 million customers in 18 different languages, so when people tell me that remote work can’t work or that asynchronous remote work can’t work, I’m always kind of… I can’t help but chuckle a little bit, because we’ve been quite successful at it for over 10 years now.
My role as Head of Remote is really to ensure that we’re always leveling up and staying ahead of the curve in terms of remote work. It’s my job to make sure that we’re doing remote at a world class level.
Is Work-Life Balance Possible While Working Remotely?
Maura: How do you foster connections with people, and how do you really form the culture when you’re fully remote? Do you think that you have an advantage from being always remote?
Chase: I’m very fortunate that I have a leadership team that not only talks the talk, but really walks the walk when it comes to protecting yourself and your personal space, and separating that from work and in life.
Those lines get super blurry in the world, so it’s very important for us to take a very hard stance on it.
…Our leadership does an excellent job of that. People have actually been let go for over-working in a way, I would say, or for working when they should have been off.
And so, when you talk about flipping that culture, it is leading by example from the top down. I’ve heard my CEO say, “Hey guys, I’m having a rough day. I’m just saying I need to take the rest of the day off.”
I’ve heard him come down on people for emailing on the weekends. I’ve seen it happen, where somebody got in trouble for emailing while they were on their maternity leave, things like this.
We take it really seriously and people follow that lead, and they really appreciate it. It’s also super, super important to have some kind of a system in place if you’re a remote worker.
How Do You Measure Knowledge Work?
Maura: When your job outputs are intangible brain functions like creativity and ideas and relationships, how do you quantify that?
Chase: We don’t track hours. We use the analogy that, if I were going to hire somebody to cut a tree down, I would rather have the person that can cut it down in two hours than eight hours.
So we kind of apply that same approach to all our work. We’re just not really concerned with the hours that go in….
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows that remote workers are more likely to burn out than they are to underperform. They are more likely to overperform. That has to do with a variety of things.
They want to keep their jobs, they’re excited to have this freedom, they don’t want to miss out on keeping it. They want to prove to their peers and superiors that they’re actually working, so they’re uber eager to do so.
…We don’t use a lot of KPIs. We have three north star metrics that drive all our decision-making. Just three across two products and tens of millions of customers.
So it’s where that has worked well for us. Not to say that it’s for everybody, but we kind of pride ourselves on being data-informed, not data-driven. And that kind of helps keep our culture tight as it is.
Maura: Interesting. And are those secret KPIs or can you share them?
Chase: I can share a bit about them. Basically, we have one metric for each individual product, one being the company, one being Todoist, and one being Twist.
We’re focused on the revenue per employee, the number for Doist as a company, so we want to grow our revenue much faster than we are growing the number of employees that we’re adding.
We’ve never been really big on the vanity metric of hiring lots of bodies, so we don’t really care that we’re up to 100 employees right now. That’s a relatively small team in the scheme of the world. And we don’t really mind that. We’d rather stay kind of lean and mean, if possible.
We’re focused on the Twist user acquisition, so the number of daily Twist users, and the number of daily Todoist users, drives everything. All of our activities, all of our projects, tie back into those.
Why Are Clear Roles for Employees So Important?
Maura: Part of my work is to help people sort of focus on their overarching products and projects and use that as kind of their north star….Can you speak a little bit about that?
Chase: Sure. So what we developed and created is the system we call the Doist system. And the Doist system stands for Doist objectives.
…It’s basically a form of an agile approach to doing projects. So we have four-week cycles that we work in, the first Monday to the last Friday of every month.
And during those cycles, we are cross-functionally across the company working on different projects together. So each employee is going to be assigned to a squad.
A squad is going to attack a project that has a very specific spec, a squad leader, somebody who’s leading the project, very clear deliverables. And we’re usually planning this about two to three months out in advance.
It will often tie to a greater roadmap, but it may be a one-off project from time to time, like “Hey, we need to tackle this next month.”
What that’s done for us is it’s given us a very clear method for mapping out our roadmap, one, but also tackling projects in a finite amount of time.
We can basically gauge how many people we’ll need for a given project if it’s spec-ed out well, which by now it is, fortunately, and what those people need to do, what they’ll be accountable for.
We can measure what their workload will look like. So this gives us some clear deliverables for individuals. Everyone knows what they’re working on every month and what their top priority is.
And being on a “do,” being on a project like this, may not take up 100% of your time during a month. It may take up 25% or 50% of your time, but it becomes your top priority…
And so we’re able to move the needle on things collectively as a unit, but also down to the individual level, because everybody is very clear on what their deliverables are for the week, the month, the quarter, et cetera. And it all ties back into the Doist system.
So I think the short version of that is, having a system that promotes transparency and that allows autonomy, allows people, (down) to each individual, to pretty much know exactly what their workload looks like for the whole month.
And anybody else could probably push forward all their work without depending on other people.
And that’s very important; that autonomy is super important in a remote environment, especially across time zones. So having that system in place and that transparency is super important.
And What About All That Email?
Maura: You’re touching on a really important thing that I think is missing in a lot of organizations, which is really being thoughtful and deliberate and working really hard to determine how work gets done in the organization, and how work flows through the organization.
So many people are just guided by, “I just show up for work and do whatever happens to me. I get called to a meeting and I have this conversation and I…” And this email happens and that changes everything.
And so anybody in some way is sort of accountable to anyone in the world who sends them an email about anything.
Chase: Yeah. Well, that reminds me, Maura—one piece of your original question that I didn’t really get to is that since we preach this asynchronous approach to work, and that’s how we want our teammates to work, they shouldn’t be beholden to their email or chat tool.
In fact, we barely use email. One percent of our communication might be email. It’s all pretty much done internally in Twist and we really promote people—this is like the antithesis of what so many companies do—but we promote them getting out of that tool.
We don’t want people sitting in Twist all day every day, because chatting isn’t working. The work is done outside of Twist. It’s just a little bit of communication and collaboration that happens in Twist.
But really it’s not the center hub of where things happen. The work happens externally. So we don’t want people to be distracted. We want them to feel, hey, if you need to disconnect for a whole day and just hone in on some deep work on your project, perfectly fine.
We have that baked into our expectations for communication. I don’t expect a response within 24 hours. So those notifications, I’m sure you know the number, whatever every notification takes you out of your deep work zone for 20 or 40 minutes or something. If you eliminate those and just let people focus on their actual work, then it becomes super easy to accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time.
What Are Todoist and Twist?
Maura: Todoist is like many other task management tools on the market and Twist is an alternative to things like Slack and Teams.
And what I love about Twist is it is asynchronous first. It is about making communication less urgent. And I will say, personally, since I moved to Twist with my team, the number of emails that I get has dropped by 75% easily.
It’s just so fantastic. I’ve had a chance to really evaluate that, because I decided when I was traveling, when I travel, of course, when I’m on vacation, I don’t check any of my messages, nothing.
And so when I come back I can see, well, I was away for five days. How many email messages did I get? And it was very easy to see a vast decrease in the amount of communication because of Twist.
What Is the Metric for Customer Service?
Maura: So you, for you who are primarily a software company, do you feel like you have any huge clients that you are really kind of beholden to? Because that’s what a lot of my leaders say: “Oh my gosh, if I’m not available for my clients then that’s going to upset them.” And so maybe your industry kind of insulates you from that a little bit. What do you think?
Chase: …We believe in our culture, and if we want to have this particular culture at our company, then we have to protect that in some way or another.
Maura: A lot of customers, I think, a lot of my clients—and I think this isn’t a conscious decision, it’s just something that happens—they think that speed becomes the metric for customer service, whether it’s internal or external. If I want to be providing good customer service, then I need to be fast. And if I want to be the best at fast, then that means immediate. And so to me, that’s just a race to the bottom.
Chase: I agree. And one clarification I should make is, a lot of what I’m talking about is how we communicate internally as a company.
We do have this very asynchronous method and we have a 24-hour rule, which means I don’t vector response within 24 hours, even if I often do get a response, much within minutes, even.
The expectation when I put something out there is that it may take 24 hours to get back to me. But we don’t necessarily treat customers like that. We want to serve our customers as fast as possible.
We have a support team that covers all time zones, 24/7, so that we can provide service to those customers as quickly as possible. So we’re not neglecting customers and saying, “Hey you’ve got to wait as long as we do.”
We’re saying, this is how we work internally, and we want to service them as quickly as possible, too.
But there is something to be said for, “quickness is not quality.” And we believe a lot, at least internally, that the quality is much more important than the speed.
Maura: What I talk about with my clients is that there should be a difference between information and communication. And information should be self-served. I shouldn’t need to call you to say, “Tell me the status of this,” or, “Tell me what happened in that meeting.” There should be somewhere where I can find it at any time.
What About the Introverts?
Maura: Do you have any safeguards in place for those team members who might be more introverted, and maybe might feel kind of isolated by being on a remote team? How do you handle that?
Chase: This is challenging. And I think it’s at the top. Literally, I place it number one on the responsibility list of leaders in a remote team. For managers who have direct reports, I think it’s your number one priority to ensure that the people on your team are functioning properly in a remote setting, both in terms of burnout, but also in terms of isolation.
I try to be very vocal about how I’m building social bonds, both inside the office and outside. I encourage people to participate in the social activities that we create, even if that means letting some work take a backseat for a moment. I try to keep my finger on the pulse for that and encourage other leaders on the team to do that, as well.
I think it’s super important because, if you have people that are working at a high level, if they’re performing well, if they’re feeling well mentally, the data shows the remote worker will thrive in terms of productivity.
It’s kind of like keeping your car maintained. You just need to make sure that it’s able to run so that it will run properly. And that’s the approach we try to take. We want people to be running at full speed when they can, but not all the time.
And we want them to have social outlets when they want them, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. It’s optional.
Interestingly, I think introverts really thrive in this environment because they don’t have all the social pressures of the office. A lot of the social norms go away, and they can actually just focus on their work—which they’re really good at—and then escape when they don’t want to be a part of the social aspect. So it’s a very interesting question. It’s a great question.
How to Fight Zoom Meeting Fatigue?
Maura: So another question I got from an audience member is about how you avoid Zoom meeting fatigue. And I think your answer is going to be, “We don’t communicate synchronously very often.” Can I have your statement?
Chase: That’s right. Next? No, just kidding. No, we do use Zoom and we have meetings, but it’s not the default.
I can elaborate on that a little bit if you’d like, but that’s the short answer. We really just think of, how can we solve this asynchronously first, and then, when we really can’t get there, we lean back on synchronous communication.
Most leaders have one one-on-one per month scheduled on the calendar for a live sync up with their direct reports. Sometimes, we do quarterly or monthly individual team meetings, but we don’t meet just to meet. We don’t meet to plan.
We don’t meet unless we have a core, a very, very solid plan of what’s going to go into that meeting. If there’s a meeting, it’s got to be done very, very well, and it’s as a last resort.
Where Can We Learn More About the Doist Philosophy?
Maura: Well, I think this information is going to be so helpful to so many people. I know Doist has an amazing remote work guide that I point my clients to all the time. Can you tell us a little bit about where to learn more, read your blog, the resources that you have available?
Chase: Absolutely. The best place to go, the simple place is blog.doist.com, and there’s a remote work section there that has tons of use cases, user success stories, information about how we operate internally, our best practices, and links to other interviews with companies that share how they’re working.
It will also link you from there to what’s called our Twist remote work guides, which are in-depth case studies we did alongside a bunch of other companies that are remote first, all sharing in-depth, how they do certain aspects of work, from project management, to hiring, to collaboration, and just about every aspect of work.
Maura: Can you say just a little bit—I don’t want to turn this into a commercial—but I do think that the premise that Twist was built on makes it not really just an alternative, but really a different option than something like Slack or Teams, which are so popular now. So can you talk a little bit about the difference?
Chase: The ethos behind Twist was built in that we think asynchronous communication should be at the core of these tools if they’re going to work for remote teams.
So the backstory is, we were using Slack as a remote team, but we were going crazy chasing notifications and waking up and seeing long-form conversations that had taken place while we were sleeping. It wasn’t conducive to asynchronous communication.
So we built a tool that’s focused solely on asynchronous communication for us. And then, it so happens that remote teams out there also like it, and we say, “Great, that works out well for us.”
But the core of the product is, asynchronous and remote first. And it’s actually what’s not there that’s almost as important as what is there. You don’t have things like presence indicators, read receipts.
You don’t have the notification overload that’s going to drag you back into the tool.
It’s all about giving you a transparent place to do your work, and then a place you can leave behind you and get over to doing the real work, the core of your day, somewhere else.
That’s what it’s all based on, and it works well for us and tens of thousands of other teams, fortunately.
Maura: Including mine.
Chase: Thank you for being a user and a champion for us.