For this very first "People Talks" interview, we sat down with Andrew Gobran at Doist to talk about remote work.
Andrew and I already had a few conversations over the past months to get to know each other, and from my very first interaction it was clear that he is an extraordinary guy that genuinely cares about people and how their work experience can have a positive impact on life outside work.
We covered the full spectrum of remote working, how to identify if remote is a viable option for your business, the benefits and challenges of this approach, how Doist is trying to build a calmer workplace with both their culture and the technology they produce, and Andrew's personal experience as a remote employee.
Hope you will enjoy learning from Andrew's experience as much as I did, and I thank Andrew for being generous with his time and open to sharing his knowledge.
Andrew, great to have you here – let's start by talking a bit about your background and how you got involved with "People stuff".
Sure, I’m Andrew Gobran and I’m a People Operations Generalist at Doist. My role spans the entire employee lifecycle so it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to play such an active role in shaping the experience that candidates and employees have at Doist.
My academic background started in psychology, but throughout my studies, I became particularly interested in the psychology of the workplace and was stunned to realize how many organizations don’t steward their people well considering how much of their time is spent working. After completing my bachelors degree in psychology, I continued my graduate studies in human resource development because I could see that the human resource function should play a more strategic role in navigating and improving many problems that exist in organizations today rather than just being a “policing” function.
Could you tell us a bit about Doist and why is advocating for a fully remote work model? When did it all start?
At Doist, our mission is to create tools that promote a calmer, more balanced, more fulfilling way to work and live. We currently have two products, Todoist, our flagship productivity app and Twist, our team communication app which is focused around more mindful, asynchronous communication. Today, we are a fully distributed team of 60+ people living in 25 different countries and have been fully distributed from the start when Amir, our founder and CEO, started working on Todoist full-time and hiring people to join him in 2011. Building a remote company wasn’t something that Amir set out to do from the start, rather when he decided it was time to hire someone to help answer support tickets, he found David, from Poland, who is still a member of our support team today, on the global freelance platform Elance (now Upwork). From there, early hires were also remote, coming either from within Amir’s network or through referrals, and the rest is history!
As a company, how do you identify if building a remote workforce is a good fit for you?
There are many things to consider. However, at a fundamental level, a company needs to decide whether they are willing to challenge their assumptions and organizational culture in order to build a remote workforce. While it’s great that many organizations are starting to recognize the value of remote work, without properly adapting their organizational culture and processes to meet the needs of a remote workforce, remote employees become second-class citizens. This is typically due to the lack of trust and effective communication that remote employees can be met with when they aren’t physically at the office.
Depending on the nature of the work of the company, remote also may not be a feasible option. One way to think about this is to observe how people work and what they do. If their work is done exclusively on a computer in a cubicle then it’s likely that they could perform their role remotely.
As you mentioned that it all started with a hiring need, what are the hiring challenges that a remote company faces and how do you overcome them?
Hiring for a remote company is interesting because you gain access to the global talent pool which is both an advantage and a challenge because it’s so vast and diverse.
- Differentiating between genuinely motivated candidates and those who just want to “work from home”. It’s no secret that remote work tends to be over-glamorized as working on the beach in your swimsuit (which is totally fine if you have the battery life and focus to be productive in that kind of setting). Unfortunately, what this means for companies that are serious about leveraging the value of remote work is that you have to differentiate between the candidates who just want to “work from home” and those who identify with your mission and values and want to help further them. One way we assess this is by looking at the quality of the application the candidate has prepared. Before even looking at role-related skills and experience, we look to see that candidates have completed the entire application and have provided thoughtful answers to our application questions that show they’ve done their part in getting to know the company.
- Finding candidates with “remote skills”. Remote work places greater importance on skills like communication, personal responsibility, and self-motivation that are critical to thrive in a remote role. At times this also means passing on candidates that may possess a great role-related skillset, but simply don’t have a strong set of remote-related skills. These can be observed through the candidates application, their interactions with the hiring committee throughout the process, and by asking behavioral/situational questions during interviews to gain more insight into how they approach certain challenges or scenarios.
- Creating a strong candidate experience can also be more challenging in a remote setting. In a traditional organization, you can invite candidates to your office, give them a tour, introduce them to people on the team, and generally create a whole experience to get to know each other better. When you’re remote, you have to create that experience through transparency, effective communication, and video conferencing.
The most popular challenge that emerged from my conversations with people working remotely and companies with a remote setup, is that employees tend to get isolated and can eventually disengage and leave. How do you ensure remote employees have great visibility over company objectives and stay engaged at all times, and are enabled to contribute in the best possible way?
Yes, isolation is a real challenge in remote work, but one that can be mitigated in many ways. In remote work, there’s a higher level of expected personal responsibility, so navigating and minimizing isolation is both the responsibility of each individual as well as the company. On an individual level, you have to hold yourself accountable to seek community and connection in whatever format makes sense for you (whether it’s through family, friends, hobbies, sports, etc.).
As a company, this is an ongoing process. We’ve established some processes to help create clarity and accountability. At a high level, we create a plan for product goals, and then on a monthly basis, we document the cross-functional projects that different squads will be working on. On a more individual level, each week everyone shares their “snippets” which include what they worked on in the previous week, what they will be working on during the current week, and anything that’s blocking them. This helps us be more aware of what is going on around us. We also have monthly 1:1s between each team member and their team head in order to check in, exchange feedback, and help address any issues that might be preventing them from performing at their natural best.
I understand that culture is a key component to make this work. How do you create a company culture when employees are spread across the globe and the “in real life” interactions are limited or non-existent? What are the cultural practices that proved to be most effective at Doist?
Remote teams are tasked with a greater responsibility to be more intentional about their culture development because they don’t have a physical space, like traditional companies, to help contextualize culture. In our case, we use our core values to create that context to ensure that all our norms, practices, and processes are aligned with what we believe. Community is a key part of culture and culture development, so we do a lot to help foster community:
- Trust as a default is probably the most impactful things we’ve fostered at Doist. When we trust by default and assume that everyone has the best intentions; we’re able to avoid misunderstandings that can occur as a result of not interacting in-person. Although trust is the default, it is reinforced through consistent actions like treating each other with respect, acknowledging and owning our mistakes, holding ourselves accountable to our commitments, communicating consistently and transparently, and not micromanaging one another.
- Newcomers participate in a mentoring program where they are paired with an experienced Doister and then they have an opportunity to go on a trip to meet their mentor for one or two weeks to work alongside them and get to know them better.
- We have an annual company retreat where we fly the entire company out to one location in the world to spend a week together reinforcing those social and professional ties.
- We organize casual hangouts throughout the year as an opportunity for Doisters to connect with others in the company who they may not know well or have an opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.
- We have a “watercooler” chat in Twist (our team communication app) to encourage random conversations.
- Simple things like sharing exciting news in our lives or recognizing someone’s birthday or work anniversary also go a long way.
As an employee working remotely yourself, what do you enjoy most about this model?
Like any model, remote work isn’t exempt from its challenges and downsides, but there’s also a lot to enjoy. I enjoy that I’m able to create routines around my work that are best for me, including when and where I work, while having the flexibility to change things up when I need to. Above all, I appreciate the amount of ownership that working remotely gives me because it challenges me personally and professionally.
And, for those reading this and considering or interested in remote, what are the significant benefits that companies should not ignore?
Giving your employees the flexibility to work from where and when they please can do wonders for employee happiness. Happier employees are going to be more engaged and committed when it’s time to get to work.
Having access to a global talent pool is also a very valuable thing. For a traditional company, there may be some limits on the region they can hire from and costs attached to helping new hires relocate.
From a purely economic standpoint, remote work can significantly reduces overhead and the logistics of having a physical office.
To wrap things up, are there any resources that you would recommend to check out to dig deeper on the topic?
Call me biased, but the Doist blog is a phenomenal resource that I made use of long before I even applied to join Doist and still continue to draw from for knowledge and inspiration as a member of the team. In addition to providing a lot of transparency and insight into how we work and what challenges we face as a company, we publish a lot of original articles about a lot of remote work-related topics that anyone who is curious about remote work, or is currently working remotely, can benefit from.
Where can people connect with you and find out more?
I’m happy to connect on Twitter @andrewgobran!
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