Alex Muench is a Product Designer at Doist, a remote-first company that builds productivity software to ‘help people do more and stress less’. Their main products are Todoist and Twist apps, used by millions of people.
The Doist team of 62 people is working from more than 26 countries! The company is well-known for being an advocate of remote work — independent of borders and time zones– as the future of work.
Alex works both on Todoist and Twist apps, and his design team is spread across 5 countries and 4 time zones. In our interview, Alex shares what it means to work on a product team spread out across so many countries and the benefit of asynchronous approach to team communication.
Aleksandra: Hi Alex, thanks for agreeing to answer our questions. How many years have you been working remotely, and for Doist in particular? Where are you based now?
Alex: I’ve been working remotely for around 4 years and for Doist a little more than 3 years. I’m currently based in Nuremberg, Germany but I’m traveling a few times a year to different places like Hamburg, Berlin, Istanbul or New York to experience remote work life there.
Aleksandra: How does your product design team look like? How many people are working in your team and what is their expertise?
Alex: Our design team is 7 people spread across 5 countries and 4 time zones from Taiwan to Portugal. 4 of us are focused on product design for both products Todoist and Twist, 1 person is mainly responsible for Marketing designs and landing pages, 2 people are illustrators, who bring a human element to both our product and marketing designs.
We decided to have product designers work on both Twist and Todoist instead of having designers dedicated to one product. That means we have more flexibility to shift resources and make sure that both products feel like part of a single family. In addition, working on both products gives us the opportunity to bring newly gained insights and improvements to the other product.
Aleksandra: What was/is the biggest challenge of working in a remote product team? How did you solve it? Do you have specific internal tools or practices that help to deal with these issues?
Alex: Getting everyone on the same page: Discussing and communicating clearly about our goals, current process, and what we’re working on next. I think we’re getting pretty good at it.
We work in squads where people from different teams work together on one goal/feature during a 6-week cycle. We update each other once per week with weekly snippets and constantly discuss in threads. We’re mainly using Twist to communicate.
We designed and built the app ourselves to be optimized for distributed teams. When you work across as many time zones as we do, the real-time chat tools that currently dominate the market don’t work. As a remote team, we need a more structured, asynchronous tool. Now, each squad has its own Twist channel with threads dedicated to a single subject. This gives everyone a great overview of the topics that are currently being discussed, and it’s possible to start new discussions without burying others.
When you work across as many time zones, the real-time chat tools that currently dominate the market don’t work. As a remote team, we need a more structured, asynchronous tool.
Another tool we use a lot is Dropbox Paper to document design specs. That’s the single-source of truth for UX, design, and copy. We discuss and iterate on specific elements in Paper comments.
Aleksandra: The Doist team is working across multiple time zones. How do you schedule the meetings and do you have dedicated working hours?
Alex: As a rule, we don’t have many meetings. Monday is our meeting day where each team meets for around half an hour to talk about our past and upcoming work week. These meetings are scheduled once and repeating. Other than that we have monthly 1–1 meetings with our team leads to discuss anything we want to improve or what’s been on our minds both work and non-work related.
If we see a need for specific projects, we schedule ad hoc 1–1s or other meetings. This is the exception, not the rule though. We’re all quite flexible and we don’t have many meetings that could block us. In Twist, you can see each team member’s time zone, so it’s easier to find a time that works for all of us. We always document the outcomes in Twist so anyone who couldn’t attend knows what happens. Sometimes, we’ll even post recordings of the meetings so people can watch on their own schedule.
Aleksandra: Many companies name asynchronous communication as the biggest disadvantage of a distributed team. How do you solve this problem at Doist?
Alex: I actually think asynchronous communication is an advantage. Co-located companies would benefit from a more asynchronous approach to communication. You just need to find the right people to work with. You need reliable and passionate people that you can trust and who deliver. That’s the hard part, finding those people.
Co-located companies would benefit from a more asynchronous approach to communication. You just need to find the right people to work with.
Many companies still think they need real-time communication to move fast. But if you constantly chat, how do you find actual focused time to work? Whether you’re asleep or just offline working on other things, your teammates are working and discussing decisions. If the conversation is moving in different directions when you reconnect you need to dig through everything and find what is important for you. In the meantime, the decision is already made. You have no chance to voice your opinion… There’s a disincentive to disconnect to get things done or to enjoy life outside of work.
Another problem is, that current chat apps are specialized in chatting in one-liners. What happens is that people need to constantly pay attention to the ongoing discussion otherwise they might miss important discussions. You don’t get the chance to articulate your thoughts meaningfully because you have to respond right away before the conversation moves on. The result is, people get stressed out trying to keep up and aren’t able to think through their responses fully.
Our approach is different. We want to establish calmer and more thoughtful communication. Our time and attention are the company’s most valuable resources so we don’t require people to respond immediately to every ping. We want to make sure people are included in a meaningful way without having to follow every conversation in real time.
We want to establish calmer and more thoughtful communication. Our time and attention are the company’s most valuable resources.
Aleksandra: How often are you looking for new people to join your team? Are there any specific requirements for a remote candidate?
Alex: We’re always looking for awesome people to join us, but we hire deliberately. Headcount is a vanity metric. Before hiring, we always try to find an internal solution first. All Doisters are people with a wide range of various skills. If we come across a challenge, our main goal is to find people internally that are passionate about solving this problem and have certain expertise and/or want to grow their skills even if it’s outside of your job description. For example, after a lot of disappointment working with outside companies, we produced our last three product videos entirely in-house (even the voiceover). This also promotes self-improvement and challenging ourselves more to learn outside of our fields and jobs we’re hired for.
Aleksandra: Are there any particular benefits of working remotely from a designer’s perspective?
Alex: Whenever you’re articulating an idea and your designs, you need to document everything in written form. From problem description to visuals to prototypes. The advantage is that you automatically think more deeply about the work you deliver, you shape your communication skills on presenting ideas. By doing so, you’re already creating a document that can be shared with multiple people on the team and can be understood not only by designers but also the whole team. Sometimes I think what I’m writing is clear enough, but when I share the document, my teammates’ questions and opinions almost always uncover uncertainties that need more detailed specifications. In the end, having everything in writing helps us ship more thoroughly thought out features to our users.
Aleksandra: What would you suggest to other designers who are considering to join a remote team?
Alex: Whether or not you’re ready for remote work depends on the person. You need to be able to work by yourself, show a lot of self–initiative, and manage your own days effectively. You are your own boss, similar to freelancing. You need to develop strategies for dealing with loneliness and isolation — going to a co-working space, for example, or scheduling lunch with friends during the week.
Remote work also requires a lot of self–discipline. You need patience and ability to trust and be comfortable moving on to different topics while you wait for feedback. Patience was one of the hardest things to learn for me personally.
Written communication is very important. In my opinion, the longer you work in a remote setting where you’re forced to present your ideas clearly in writing, the better designer you become. If you present something, don’t be afraid to attach images and over-communicate every little detail. This is actually needed to succeed and keeps the design standard high. What helped me is gaining experience working as a freelancer and on side-projects.
If you’re applying for a remote job, it’s important that you’re comfortable with the team’s culture. I would recommend taking a look at their blog posts to get a feel for it. Don’t talk too much about yourself. Show interest in the company and their mission and where and how you think you could help them. Once you’ve joined a remote team, it’s important that you get used to each person’s workflow. Everybody works slightly differently and it takes time to get to know your team’s individual communication and working style. Trust me, your teammates will thank you.
Originally published at youteam.io on June 4, 2018.