86. How asynchronous work makes you more productive | Liam Martin, Running Remote 


Liam Martin | Running Remote



Welcome to Episode 86 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

Liam Martin is co-author of the book Running Remote, a book about working asynchronously and how it makes you more productive. Liam has been pioneering and studying how remote companies work effectively for many years and we spend time exploring this topic with him. 

In this first episode, we discuss his book and see how the practices he lays out allow you to perform ‘deep work’. The key to enhanced productivity. A podcast you can’t afford to miss.



Liam Martin BIO

Liam Martin is Chief Marketing Officer at Time Doctor. As the mouthpiece for Time Doctor, Liam has become a remote work ambassador of sorts, featured in Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, Business Insider, and Fortune. He speaks at conferences around the world, including SXSW, SaaS Stock, Nomad City, HR of Tomorrow, and the Digital Workplace, and he’s consulted with more remote first-founders and operators than probably anyone on the planet. The result is his book Running Remote.




[00:00:00] - Liam Martin
Inside of asynchronous organizations. The managerial layer in those organizations is on average 50% thinner than their on-premise synchronous counterparts. So that means there are 50% less managers in asynchronous organizations than there are in synchronous organizations. This also, by extension, means that there are more people doing work in those organizations then there are people managing people doing work in those organizations.

[00:00:32] - Doug Foulkes
Hello and welcome to episode 86 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR and Pattyrn and I'm Doug Foulkes. Along with me in the recording booth this week is the CEO of WNDYR, Claire Haidar. Claire, what you been up to?

[00:00:53] - Claire Haidar
Hey, Doug. It's so good to be back on the show with you. I am currently preparing for birth. I know that by the time this is released that my new little human that Mark and I have built is very much going to be out in the world. But, yes, it's time. That's what I'm very focused on right now.

[00:01:14] - Doug Foulkes
Well, I'm not going to stop you focusing on that other than to ask you about our guest this week, who is Liam Martin. He's the author of a book called Running Remote. Tell me a little bit about Liam and why he's on the podcast, please, Claire.

[00:01:27] - Claire Haidar
Doug, Liam actually reached out to me. Interestingly enough, he wasn't one of the guests that I went and found. So Liam is author of Running Remote, but he also founded the company, Running Remote, which is a conference that is run on a yearly basis and brings companies that have been working virtually remotely way before the pandemic started. So these are what you would definitely term if you look at that inner circle that Liam has bolted, would be the founders and the true pioneers in this space.

[00:01:59] - Claire Haidar
One of the interesting things, and Liam actually opens in this very first segment to tell us this is that he absolutely doesn't want the title of the book to be Running Remote. He feels very, very strongly that it's not about remote work. It's about a very specific form of work. And when I say, form, I literally mean the way work happens. That's called asynchronous work. And so the whole conversation is essentially about how asynchronous work differs from in-person synchronous work and why asynchronous work is essentially the recipe or the key ingredient in making remote companies and virtual companies successful.

[00:02:40] - Claire Haidar
So, starting off in segment one, we actually asked Liam to just lay out for us the history behind his book, why he chose to write it. It's linked to the pandemic and then what the main concepts are that we then explore. And the conversation then goes into some interesting directions from there.

[00:03:02] - Doug Foulkes
Excellent. I am looking forward to hearing what Liam has to say.

[00:03:06] - Claire Haidar
Liam, hello. It's so good to have you on the show with us today. I really enjoyed our planning session that we had prior to this and just getting to know you a little bit there. I definitely came up with that call, having learnt a lot. So welcome. It's good to have you here with us today.

[00:03:22] - Liam Martin
Thank you so much for having me, Claire. I'm really excited to get into the nitty gritty details of asynchronous work.

[00:03:27] - Claire Haidar
Liam, to get us started. I really want to actually kick off with your book, and I'd love for you to just throw it wide open for us. Tell us why you wrote it, what prompted it, and we can go down a few different rabbit holes on that one.

[00:03:42] - Liam Martin
Sure. So I think the biggest moment for me was March of 2020, which was absolutely insane for people that don't really recognize what happened at that point. February of 2020 4% of the US workforce was working remotely, and by March that was 45% of the US workforce. That's the biggest shift in work since the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution took 80 years to do, and we did that in March.

[00:04:12] - Liam Martin
So it was a complete shift of everything that you could possibly think of as it applies to work, social interactions, the basis of our society significantly and I believe permanently shifted at that point. And so I was getting phone calls from people that I usually wouldn't get phone calls from.

[00:04:31] - Liam Martin
For those of you that don't know me, I have team members in about 43 different countries all over the world. And we operate that company not only remotely, but also asynchronously, meaning we don't actually interact simultaneously with the vast majority of our team members. We interact with them when they know it's the most opportunistic time to interact with us. And we can get into that a little bit later.

[00:04:55] - Liam Martin
But basically at that point, I was getting phone calls from people that I would have never gotten phone calls from. I remember a G20 country called me and said, "Hey, we've taken our 500+, thousand employees remote yesterday and we have no idea what we're doing and we want to talk to you about it." And I would say, "Well, listen, I have 200 people in this company. I have no idea what you should be doing." And they said, "You're the first person that was willing to pick up the phone."

[00:05:25] - Liam Martin
So I realized at that point there was a really passionate community of remote workers that had done all of this stuff for over a decade. We've personally been working remotely for over 15 years, and we had all figured it out. But me individually talking to every single person is probably not the most effective way to be able to do that.

[00:05:46] - Claire Haidar
So I'm laughing and I have to interject here, because you taking all of those phone calls is almost like going back in the ways of working, you know what I mean? You're like can you see me? Just get asynchronous ASAP.

[00:05:59] - Liam Martin
Yes, exactly.

[00:06:01] - Claire Haidar
Okay, but Liam, just very quickly before you keep going here, can I actually pull you back a little bit, give our audience some history here? Why were people, including G20 companies, calling you? Because it's important that we know that and understand that.

[00:06:18] - Liam Martin
Yes. So I run a couple of companies, ,Time Doctor, Staff.com. And the most important one applicable to all of this is Running Remote, which is the largest conference on remote work. I've been doing that for six years, almost. I talk about how I was doing it before. It was cool. It was a very small, committed community of people that were excited about building and scaling remote teams, not just as lifestyle businesses, but actually building unicorns and decade unicorns and doing it remotely.

[00:06:47] - Liam Martin
So that was really the basis as to why everyone was calling me, is because I had a very unique situation where I'm able to interact with all of these fantastic remote work leaders and recognize what they're doing that everyone else isn't doing in their general work. But more importantly, what everyone didn't actually learn when everyone went remote during the pandemic, which was effectively, asynchronous work.

[00:07:16] - Claire Haidar
Got it. Okay, so that is really important context there. Keep going. So you have G20 countries calling out to you. You have all of these other companies calling you and saying, how do we do this? Your first reaction is, I'm only 200 people. I'm not a 500,000 employee outfit. So you decide to capture everything in the book, which is what we're talking about here. So give us a little bit of nuance and detail. Title of the book and how you chose to approach it and structure it.

[00:07:51] - Liam Martin
Sure. So the book is actually called Running Remote. I wanted to call it Async, but Harper Collins wouldn't let me do it, which is probably another podcast for another day. It's funny when you get a publishing deal with a legitimate author, and Harper Collins is arguably the biggest one in the world. They are very particular about how you do things, and the vast majority of the time they just say, trust us, we know what we're doing. So I've trusted them through that process. But some of those things, they may not actually get super correct, in my opinion. Hopefully they aren't listening to this podcast.

[00:08:28] - Liam Martin
But the reality is that the book is called Running Remote because we already had a brand connected to that. I wanted to call it Async because in the first chapter of the book and Harper said, "Listen, we're writing a book about remote work. You got to have remote in the title. Running remote. Remote book, right?" And in the very first page, I say, "Hey, if you think that this book is about remote work, you're wrong." It's actually about Asynchronous work, which is the methodology that all of these remote pioneers ended up figuring out way before the pandemic to be able to run their companies efficiently and effectively.

[00:09:06] - Liam Martin
And for anyone that hasn't experienced it before, it's a very alien concept. Basically, we don't communicate simultaneously, or we minimize the amount of simultaneous communication as much as humanly possible to be able to optimize for what my friend Cal Newport calls deep work, or the ability for people to be able to execute on very difficult problems, having everything at their disposal to be able to accomplish that particular goal. So this is something that we learned many, many years beforehand.

[00:09:35] - Claire Haidar
So pause there again for me. And Doug, I'm always guessing this is a question in your mind as well. Again, for the benefit of our audience, let's really pause there and define asynchronous work as well as deep work.

[00:09:51] - Liam Martin
Sure. Okay. So I think a really good example that I use quite a bit is, I don't know how old you are, Claire, but I remember Friday nights at 8:30 p.m., I would be able to watch Friends, the sitcom. And every night if I was not at the particular channel at the right time. At 8:30, I would miss the first five minutes. If I showed up at 8:35, I'd miss the first five minutes of Friends. And on Monday, I'd have to actually go to school, and that would be what everyone else talked about.

[00:10:27] - Liam Martin
So if I missed those first five minutes, I really couldn't be in on the joke with everybody else. And that's really the definition of, in my opinion, synchronous communication or synchronous management, meaning you actually have to show up and you have to be present, and you have to have your full attention in order to be able to consume that information and interact with it.

[00:10:49] - Liam Martin
Asynchronous communication and management is much more like Netflix. So with Netflix, I can watch all of the Friends that I want when I choose to consume that information, and I can also interact back with those types of platforms when I choose.

[00:11:06] - Liam Martin
So, as an example, we have something called silent meetings, where we use a project management system called Asana. We write down our issues, we debate those issues in the comments. If we come to a conclusion, we take that conclusion, we put it to the top of the ticket, and we clear the ticket. And if we have less than three issues before we actually start a meeting, we automatically just kill that meeting. And it's not synchronous. We literally have done an entirely asynchronous meeting, and we probably meet about once a month on average, and it's a weekly scheduled meeting.

[00:11:38] - Liam Martin
So that's really the core of what asynchronous management is. There's a lot of other kinds of pieces that are required in order to be able to get there. But fundamentally, what this creates is an environment where distractions are no longer important. Immediacy is no longer important because you have systems, processes, and really proper operations in place to be able to make sure that none of those little explosions that usually happen throughout your day end up actually happening to you or to your company.

[00:12:12] - Doug Foulkes
Hi, Liam. Nice to meet you.

[00:12:13] - Liam Martin

[00:12:14] - Doug Foulkes
How long before march 2020 had you really developed and fine tuned the asynchronous model? Was it something that was a light bulb moment, or was it something that really needed refining over years?

[00:12:30] - Liam Martin
Well, this is the beauty of it, is I didn't invent anything. And this book is actually me just interviewing all of the remote pioneers that had already figured out all of this stuff way before the pandemic. So there's already a huge community. And by huge, I mean maybe a couple hundred companies that were operating asynchronously before the pandemic, but they just happened to also be the most successful remote companies. Because they recognize, and this is the real key piece that was such a huge kind of mind expander for me.

[00:13:04] - Liam Martin
Inside of asynchronous organizations, the managerial layer in those organizations is on average 50% thinner than their on-premise synchronous counterparts. So that means there are 50% less managers in asynchronous organizations than there are in synchronous organizations. This also, by extension, means that there are more people doing work in those organizations than there are people managing people doing work in those organizations.

[00:13:29] - Liam Martin
And if you apply what we had talked about before. Cal Newport's concept of deep work. Which is having everything at your disposal to be able to solve a really hard difficult problem and not being interrupted by other people in order to be able to get into the work zone, the flow state, to be able to accomplish those particular tasks. That makes you much more competitive than most of your competitors in the space and you end up being able to get a lot more work done in a shorter amount of time.

[00:13:56] - Doug Foulkes
So why are there fewer managers managing when you're working asynchronously?

[00:14:02] - Liam Martin
So the majority of management, and again, this was difficult for me to get my head around because I've always worked remotely and worked generally in an asynchronous model. The majority of work done by managers in the 20th century model is communication of information, more specifically, the communication of metrics. So it's the communication of the boss wants me to do A, boss talks to their board, the board talks to their VPs, the VPs talk to their senior managers, junior managers, and as and it disseminates that information throughout the organization.

[00:14:37] - Liam Martin
In an organization in which everything is documented. Because asynchronous organizations, we don't communicate synchronously, so we communicate through text, through video, and through formats that can be very easily digitized. That message can instantaneously be communicated to everyone inside of the organization very quickly and easily. Therefore, the biggest job that a manager did, which was, "Hey, I need to find out what your metrics are, and I need to tell my boss about it." And then they tell their boss about it, and so on and so forth, effectively disappears. So you don't have as much need for managers, number one.

[00:15:15] - Liam Martin
But more importantly, managers can actually focus on the EQ issues connected to their direct reports of, "How are you, Doug, what's going on in your life? How's South Africa doing? How's COVID in your area?" These are the questions that I usually see posed in direct, one on ones in asynchronous organizations, not necessarily how many blog posts did we write? How many podcasts did we do? Why is the production time down? Those types of things.

[00:15:45] - Claire Haidar
Yeah. So I want to actually share something that's happened very recently to us. So, Liam, coming back to your question of how old am I and do I relate to the Friends thing? Absolutely. You and I are of the same generation. And we've actually seen, like you... While I was in college, I went and I got myself various jobs, and I couldn't believe that a company was so hung up on synchronous communication.

[00:16:16] - Claire Haidar
At the time, while I was in college, 18, 19, 20 years of age, I definitely wasn't calling it synchronous and asynchronous work, but it just dumbfounded me that I was getting into a car every single morning, driving up to 90 minutes, depending on traffic, to get to an office, to sit in meetings with people. I was like, this is what we have phones for. This is what we have laptops for. Like, why are we doing this? It literally blew my mind. I didn't understand it.

[00:16:46] - Claire Haidar
And I made a promise to myself literally one morning, and this is pretty much like the origin of my career and this podcast and so many other things is, I made a promise to myself that I would not refuse to build a company that was an in-person company. I was like, every company that I build is going to be a remote company for that reason. People should be able to work anywhere at any point in time according to their own schedule, not a boss's schedule.

[00:17:17] - Claire Haidar
What we've just seen and what we're actually currently navigating this in our company right now, and I specifically want to call it out because I think a lot of companies are feeling this pain, post pandemic is the reality of these companies that are so dependent on synchronous work actually having to navigate this change?

[00:17:38] - Claire Haidar
Because what's happened is, because of the pandemic, our entire customer base has shifted upstream, really into large enterprise. Whereas before we were serving a more small, medium type of customer who was more used to asynchronous work and who had adopted more asynchronous practices. Whereas here, we've completely moved up into this enterprise layer of customers, and we're actually really living through that pain right now, where we're fully asynchronous as a company, as a service provider, and as a product creator, but our customers are not.

[00:18:13] - Claire Haidar
And so our team is literally going through this almost like identity crisis where the client is forcing us to be synchronous and we are almost having to change the customer in real time in order to get work done. And it's a very, very fascinating problem that we're navigating.

[00:18:32] - Liam Martin
Yeah, we have to a degree the same issue. And most asynchronous organizations... There's a section in the book that I talk about where we say, well, how much do you have to work with someone before you switch them from the synchronous model, which generally everyone on planet Earth follows to an asynchronous model. For me, we usually do it with contractors that have worked with us for more than three months or agencies that are going to work with us for more than three months.

[00:19:00] - Liam Martin
We've realized the opportunity cost, and I know it doesn't necessarily work for customers, but again, with customers, it's a little bit more difficult to be able to teach them asynchronous work because they're paying you money. So they are always right, fundamentally. But for us, agencies and contractors that we work with for more than three months, we've recognized to onboard them to basic asynchronous methodology and management philosophy is a value add if we're working with them more than three months.

[00:19:32] - Liam Martin
Because we have to invest our time and we literally pay the contractors and the agencies for their time. Saying, "Hey, we've actually built an entire training program here that's internal that you can use to be able to figure out how to do this. This is a project management system. This is how you submit information inside of our organization. This is how we interact with it." Particularly, the agencies are absolutely terrified that they're not actually interacting with us face-to-face on a weekly or by daily basis. We say, "No, we don't need to do that. You need to actually tell us what the core numbers are and that's it."

[00:20:06] - Liam Martin
Now that also, by extension with agencies, strips away the salesmanship inside of that process, which actually is a huge advantage for me and it's an advantage for those agencies because I can very clearly look at the numbers connected to that particular output and I can say, "Hey, things aren't going well. Here's what I would like to have changed." And there's no kind of steak dinner wooing that goes on. It's literally just, "Hey, we need you to do this particular deliverable, execute on this deliverable, and other than that, there's no other details that we need."

[00:20:46] - Claire Haidar
Okay. Liam, I know that we can go down a hundred different rabbit holes, but before we move on to section two, there's one last question that I want to ask you here is, can you give us a quick flavor of the companies that you interviewed and who is actually included in your book?

[00:21:01] - Liam Martin
Sure. That's a lot of companies. We have Hotjar as an example, which is an organization of almost a thousand employees right now. And I think they were actually one of the fastest growing remote first companies in the world. Back in 2019, we have GitLab, which is a real thought leader when it comes into asynchronous communication and work. They've built the largest remote-first process document in the world. I think there's about 8,000 entries and it's open source, so anyone can consume it. We talked about that in the book.

[00:21:31] - Liam Martin
Remote.com, which is one of the largest EORs in the industry, which is an employer of record company, basically allowing you to hire people all over the planet Earth. And we've actually got a couple of other people that you probably don't know that well, but are really, really interesting people. We open up the book actually with this guy who runs a team of 900 people from a tepee in Costa Rica.

[00:21:59] - Claire Haidar
Love it.

[00:21:59] - Liam Martin
And the first time that I met him was a really interesting experience. And when we did all of our interviews, he did it at the top of his mountain, naked, because he just realized that was his most comfortable state because he hadn't really interacted with people that often.

[00:22:16] - Liam Martin
Because really what remote work gives you, the promise that it gives you is, you can work wherever you want, whenever you want, and you can set your own rules. So this guy lives in his tepee. He actually paid $200,000 to drag a fiber optic cable through the jungle to be able to get to this tepee, which I think is hilarious. And he basically built a tepee for $5,000. But he lives out there and he loves it and this is what he wants to do with his life. So the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want is significantly easier when you are working remotely and more specifically, asynchronously, which is the key that I don't think many people have recognized.

[00:22:57] - Doug Foulkes
And that brings us to the end of the first part of our conversation with asynchronous work expert, Liam Martin. To follow this conversation and see how it will play out in the future, make sure to catch the next two parts to this conversation on Spotify, Google, or Apple podcasts, or on WNDYR's website, WNDYR.com. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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