Aug 12, 2021

Human-centered working: How to build and lead remote teams with Doist’s Head of Design, Ana Ferreira

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design at Doist, talks to Maze about building and leading a remote design team and growing company culture across borders.

Before 2020, working from home was not a concept many companies supported for their workforce. But for some, remote work hasn’t just been a hasty solution to a global pandemic. Recognizing the power it could bring early on, Doist embraced remote working long before the rest of the world caught up.

Founded in 2007, the SaaS productivity company now has over 90 employees residing in 77 cities across the globe. In its design team alone, eight languages are collectively spoken as they work together across seven countries. As well as their primary product Todoist—a productivity app that helps millions organize their work—Doist also developed an asynchronous communication tool of their own called Twist.

But with such a broad network of people and products, how can you build a remote team from scratch? And how can you be expected to lead both individuals and teams, considering you don’t physically work together and live in different time zones?

We spoke with Ana Ferreira, Head of Design at Doist, to find out more about what it takes to build and successfully lead a fully remote design team and how to ensure company culture is able to grow—no matter where in the world you’re based.

Support employees from day one

Before you can lead a remote team, you need to hire a remote team. And while some may have prior experience, for most, joining a fully remote company is still a daunting prospect: “We encourage everyone to disconnect early on their first day,” says Ana.

Starting a new job is always stressful, and it can actually be more stressful in a remote setting because you're not seeing anyone.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

Many companies may have successfully transitioned out of the physical office environment, but remotely onboarding new colleagues is still a challenge for People teams. After all, making newbies feel comfortable in their surroundings is vital to shaping a meaningful company culture. So, what can you do to support new employees joining a remote workspace?

It’s all about making the experience as easy as possible for the person joining, advises Ana. “For a new person in a team of 90, it's very hard to know who to talk to and to feel comfortable doing it if you've never met that person.” To help ease some pressure, Doist assigns dedicated mentors to new joiners. For the first three months, mentors act as virtual shadows to new team members, answering any questions or concerns they may have. Even if they don’t know the answer to a specific question, they can point their new colleague in the right direction, says Ana.

And what about hiring? What should team leaders be looking for when recruiting for a remote-first company? “A sense of independence is an important quality we look for at Doist,” Ana shares. “We can’t always rely on having someone else there to check we’re doing the work. I think as a remote company, employees need to be independent and find work for themselves.” Independence is one of the five core values embedded into Doist’s work culture, along with Mastery, Impact, Ambition & Balance, and arguably one of the most important ones for working remotely—Communication.

Embrace asynchronous communication

When you’re a designer, a big chunk of the job involves working with and implementing feedback. When you’re a remote designer, you need to be sure that feedback is precise and reaches you through the right channels. “Communication is essential in any kind of work relationship,” Ana notes. “Most of ours is carried out asynchronously because that's the only way we make sure people in all time zones are able to participate in discussions.”

Aside from gaping timezones, Doist found other key benefits of connecting asynchronously. Avoiding a ping-pong match of email and Slack notifications has helped boost productivity in Ana’s team enormously. Asynchronous communication gives her colleagues the freedom to manage their own schedules and connect in a time that fits around their lives.

We should be evaluating the work, not the amount of hours spent replying to messages or spent in the office.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

An average worker can spend 28% of their working day just checking and responding to emails and messages. But if nearly a third of each day is to be spent catching up with messages, how can design teams ensure they have enough time to actually do design work?

“It takes a long time for people to get back to the task at hand if they are interrupted,” says Ana. “At Doist, we really believe in deep focus work. And this is true for all areas of work—not just for developers and designers.” So what does Ana recommend to keep team communication flowing without major distraction from tasks?

1. Switch to asynchronous communication
Lead by example when it comes to guiding your team into asynchronous communication. Establish clear guidelines of how you’ll communicate as a team early on, and make sure everyone has full access to documentation. “Document, document, document,” Ana affirms. “It helps us evaluate why key decisions are made so we know how to continue in the future.”

Check out How to Move Your Team Toward Async-First Communication by Doist for more tips on how to kick off asynchronous communication.

2. Block out small—but specific—chunks of time to respond to messages
Rather than keeping your eyes glued to your notifications panel, Ana recommends scheduling dedicated time to respond to messages. A 30-minute slot in your calendar where you’re unlikely to make a dent in bigger projects is ideal.

3. Avoid Zoom burnout
There are definitely times when real-time, face-to-face communication will outweigh asynchronous notifications. But Ana advises to reduce meetings as much as possible to save more energy for deep focus work.

The value of deep work

Earlier this year, Mayank Verma shared a post about the rise of the Swiss Cheese Calendar—something undoubtedly familiar to those with schedules packed with meetings. And while it may sound delicious, a calendar chock-full of meetings, with only small pockets of time to focus on individual work, is not appetizing nor sustainable long-term.

“A recent thing I’ve noticed is people complaining they can’t finish their work because they’re spending eight hours a day in meetings,” Ana observes. “So [at Doist], we tried to reduce meetings to a minimum to ensure everyone can find time for focused work.”

"Swiss Cheese" Calendar

But with any gaps in your calendar, albeit short ones, isn’t it possible to make a start on projects and just task-switch before the next meeting? Ana doesn’t think so. In fact, Doist has written about how context switching is a major sabotage to productivity. “Even if you think you're multitasking, what you’re really doing is just shifting focus from one task to the next very fast,” Ana remarks. “And this doesn’t work—you can’t focus on multiple tasks at the same time.”

To avoid getting pulled in different directions, what does the design team at Doist recommend as a solution for deep work? Aside from asynchronous communication to encourage fewer distractions, Ana suggests getting a handle on your workload in a way that makes sense for you. “Different methods work for different people. It depends a lot on the person you are,” she says.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to deep working, Ana’s personal favorite is the Pomodoro technique: a time management method designed to increase productivity by setting time restraints for your tasks. A standard version of the method is blocking off 25 minutes for a specific task, followed by five minutes of mental rest for completion. This ‘reward’ session after each completed task helps to stave off mental fatigue.

And while that’s the standard, Ana is quick to point out it’s easy to adapt to longer projects and tweak the timings to suit your own schedule: “For me, it works well because it gives me a deadline for the tasks I need to finish. It's a way to make sure I focus only on that task instead of allowing it to take forever.”

Design a strong process for your team

As well as the risk of burnout, Ana points out how too many Zoom calls can be challenging for a geographically diverse design team: “If we create a team meeting for everyone at 12pm, that means it’s 10pm for somebody in Taiwan. And 7am for somebody in Denver.”

While it can be uplifting for team morale to see faces every once in a while, making important design decisions purely on video calls can be risky. Instead, her team focuses on sustainability and connectivity when it comes to working, aided by two core principles: open communication and open documentation.

While communication is mostly all asynchronous at Doist, Ana does mention situations when in-person discussion can be beneficial to the design team’s work and morale. “You don’t want to discuss one-to-ones in written communication,” she explains.

What we miss with written feedback is body language and facial expressions. So feedback can sometimes come across as too harsh, or different from what’s intended.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

When it comes to emotionally charged discussions and complex topics, carving out time to meet is a good idea. But for things like status updates, announcements, and brainstorming sessions, the team are strong advocates for async communication. If you’re interested in shifting more team communications online, check out Doist’s article: The 7 Types of Meetings That Should Always Be Async (and 4 That Shouldn’t)

With more people joining remote work cultures favoring asynchronous communication, Ana brings up the importance of having the right documentation available—and open—to everyone.

“When I first joined [Doist], we were only two designers. I was working mostly in Product, and the other designer was working in Brand. It was pretty easy for me to keep track of all the decisions that were being made across different platforms, because I was either making them or at least having a say in them.” Fast forward to today, scaling a remote design team brings a new challenge of staying on top of changes and decisions happening company-wide:

As the team grows, it’s impossible for us to remember everything. It’s impossible for everyone to be in all the discussions.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

To combat this growing concern, Doist took action early on by creating a solid backlog of information accessible to the whole company. So how can you make sure you have a strong process for documentation in your own team? Here are some quick pointers to guide you on the right path:

1. Start with the right tools
Doist design team’s choice of tools include Dropbox, where ideas can be easily accessed, and Figma for duplicating and editing design documents.

2. Make sure everyone has access
This sounds obvious, but companies can lose out on great ideas simply because not everyone is invited to the right spaces. Transparency is key at Doist, and everyone is encouraged to share thoughts, ideas, and suggestions in shared documents and communication threads. Even if specific projects don’t require everyone’s input, allowing employees to check in can help foster collaboration and creativity in other areas of their work later on.

3. Assign somebody the role of final decision maker
To avoid too many conversations with no real results, the Doist team always assigns a final decision maker to help move projects forward. “They can ask for feedback from everyone else in their teams during the four-week project cycle,” says Ana. It’s also the responsibility of this person to create the original document, but all team members are expected and encouraged to shape the content.

4. Don’t let company knowledge walk out the door
An issue most companies have encountered at some stage is what happens when employees leave the company and take their expertise with them. “Everything needs to be documented so we can make our job—and new co-workers' jobs—easier,” insists Ana. “If you choose to leave [Doist], everything will be documented. This is important for new employees joining to have a good onboarding flow as well.”

Some parting wisdom

When it comes to advice for new managers and employees leading fully remote teams, Ana has a final nugget of wisdom to share:

Don’t be afraid of failing. We are constantly learning and we all make mistakes.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

You’re not going to get it right every time. And even when you do, people and situations can change very quickly so you need to be adaptive. Take lockdown for example—becoming increasingly aware of the impact the pandemic could have on her team, Ana took a previously successful workflow and adapted it: “We usually work in four-week project cycles but last year when the pandemic hit, we increased the cycle from four to six weeks because people weren't the same,” she says.

“We’re used to remote work, but a lockdown is completely different from normal remote work.” Ana recognized her colleagues could be dealing with potential burnout trying to adjust to a new reality, so she took control and prioritized the human above the work. After all:

Human beings are the most important thing a company has—we need to value humans more than the work.

Ana Ferreira, Head of Design @ Doist

Like everything in life, there’s a learning curve to leading any fully remote team. But looking ahead to future challenges, adapting to find what works for you, and communicating as openly as possible with your team will help move things in the right direction.