Liam Martin ADT podcast cover
Episode: 54

Liam Martin - Collaboration in the era of digitalization & remote work

Posted on: 21 Apr 2022
Liam Martin ADT podcast cover

Liam Martin is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of the SaaS platform Time Doctor, and the author of the book Running Remote published by HarperCollins. 

In this episode, we discuss collaboration in the current remote-first, highly digitalized business landscape, with a special focus on automation and asynchronous communication as two trends to keep top of mind.  We also take a look at the impact these changes are having on workers' work-life balance and make some predictions for future developments in this area.

 

Links & mentions:

Transcript

“First questions I get from people that are transitioning to remote work are, well, should I be using Slack or Microsoft teams, or should I be using Zoom or Google Meet? And the answer that I have for them is quite frustrating, which is – if those are the questions that you're asking, then you don't actually know the answer that you need to find.” 

Intro:
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, Content and Community Manager at Agiledrop. 

Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. I'm joined today by Liam Martin, author of the book Running Remote, published by HarperCollins, and also the c-ofounder and CMO of the SaaS platform Time Doctor. In this episode, we'll be talking about collaboration in our remote first and highly digitalized world. And specifically, we'll be taking a look at automation and asynchronous communication as two of the kind of dominant trends here. And welcome, Liam. It's a real pleasure having you on the show today, discussing this with you. Do you want to add anything to my intro before we move to our questions? 

Liam Martin: No, that was great. It's always nice to hear your life tied up into about two to three sentences. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I always try to keep the intro brief because I think that the listeners are more interested in what you have to tell them than in all of your credentials, no matter how awesome they might be. 

Liam Martin: I couldn't agree with you more. I think the vast majority of the time that stuff is BS anyways.

Tim Butara: Okay, so how would you say or how have you noticed collaboration being impacted by the rise of this remote work and digitalization that we've seen over the past two years? 

Liam Martin: I think there are two interesting trends that are happening at the same time. So when in January of 2020, 4% of the US workforce was working remotely, by March it was 45%. That's the biggest transition of labor since the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution took 80 years. We did it in March. 

There was this massive shift, and what I really defined as “pandemic panickers” moved from an in-office environment where they knew how to manage those employees properly – there's been 100 and 5200 years of MBA books written about that particular subject – to a point in which you're transitioning your entire workforce within days to a completely new way of working. 

The problem, however, was that instead of recognizing that this was a new way to work, the vast majority of those companies simply just recreated the office. And inside of that, there are major impacts primarily, as it applies to collaboration, which I think have been not really paid attention to all that often. I think if you go into your average and I know that you deal a lot with Fortune 500 companies, so you might have more experience on this than I do. 

But the vast majority of the time people are in Zoom calls 6 or 7 hours a day. Right. So if you're an engineer, as an example, and you're spending 7 hours on a Zoom call, how much work can you actually get done during that work day? Remote-first companies have recognized and again, I've been doing it for 20 years, and I have a lot of friends in the remote workspace that were remote before the pandemic. They realized that there's a different methodology that you can implement to be able to make collaboration a lot easier. 

And we call it asynchronous management, which is the ability to be able to manage a company without necessarily interacting with people synchronously, meaning no Zoom calls, no in-person meetings – even though we do do them, we do them with an à la carte methodology as opposed to a buffet methodology. And that's the big barrier to entry that I've been trying to teach to as many non-remote companies, basically these pandemic panickers, as quickly as possible, which is what you're currently doing now is work from home. 

You're not doing remote work. You simply exchange the work from the office for the work from home. Work is still a place. Remote work is a completely different way of working. And again, this is just the big piece that no one's really gotten, and it's been blowing me away that no one's really thought about, should we rewrite the books on how we collaborate. Should we rewrite the books on how we interact with our workforce, how we build our company culture? None of these things have really been looked at. They just assume that they're going to be the same when you completely change the way that work is done. 

Tim Butara: Yeah. It's like you've adopted the tool you've adopted. I don't know the technology for making remote work work, but you haven't made the mindset shift necessary to actually make yourself grow to the point where you can actually use this new tool in a way that not only kind of keeps you afloat, but actually helps you propel your business forward. 

Liam Martin: Yeah, I've spoken a lot about how– the first questions that I'll get and you've probably gotten this quite a bit as well. First questions I get from people that are transitioning to remote work are, should I be using Slack or Microsoft teams, or should I be using Zoom or Google Meet? And the answer that I have for them is quite frustrating, which is – if those are the questions that you're asking, then you don't actually know the answer that you need to find, which is very frustrating for the vast majority of those people. 

It's not about what tools you use. If you have really great remote work tools with horrible management methodology behind those work tools, you'll end up actually burning down the company even faster than if you didn't have them in the first place. What you need to do first is recognize – how do remote teams work and what do they need to do in order to be able to do their best work? And a lot of that is quite counterintuitive. That's what I actually get into very deeply in the book. 

Tim Butara: And what kind of role does automation play in all this? Because I think that most of the tools that we’ve mentioned so far have mostly been video conferencing tools, stuff like that. So I'm assuming that automation is kind of on that other side. 

Liam Martin: Yeah. The first thing that I talk about inside of the asynchronous management philosophy, which we call the Async mindset, is democratized processes. So the ability for everyone inside of the organization to have everything at their disposal to be able to solve hard problems. That's the definition of deep work from Cal Newport's book called Deep Work for anyone that's really interested in how to optimize your individual productivity. To me, that's the Bible that I use and the vast majority of the remote-first community uses. 

And inside of democratized processes, it allows for you to be able to make sure that everything that you can account for can be accomplished by someone else that isn't you. So the removal of sacred knowledge from the organization is absolutely critical, and it moves you from someone who owns that position, like, I am the CTO, to someone that says, I am operating the role of CTO. And at any point, I cannot be the CTO. 

And unless you have that built into what you're currently doing, you unfortunately don't have a business. We were talking just before the call here about some of my team members that are in Ukraine, and we've been doing a whole lot to be able to keep them online, and they're going to be fine. But the reality is that the first one to two weeks of the invasion, I was at a point where I thought to myself, okay, we have to actually recognize how to run this business without those engineers. 

And one of the first things that we did is we went back to a core document that we have every single person write about six months into their tenure with the company, which is “how to do my job”. And so that's the first real core process document that everyone writes, and it allows you to be able to account for all of the things that you do inside of the company and then where those decisions need to be delegated to in order to be able to operate that particular position. 

And the thing that we find which is really interesting, I am getting to your question, is that the vast majority of the time we realize that a whole bunch of the things that they're doing inside of the business can be automated. That's not something that people should necessarily be fearful of. This is something that a lot of people fear that because they say, well, I'm the only one that can do payroll, and therefore, I am absolutely critical to the operation of the business. It's a really negative way to think. That's a very protective way to think. 

Instead, you could say, well, I've actually completely automated payroll. It's down to two clicks now as opposed to me spending 6 hours. This is a real story that happened to me about four or five years ago. I was talking to our payroll people and we completely automated payroll. And now those payroll professionals can actually work a lot more on the EQ side of HR, really figuring out what problems other team members are facing and how they can open up those blockers for them. 

So again, going back to the deep work methodology, do you have everything in front of yourself to be able to accomplish hard problems? If you can do that faster than any of your competitors, and it doesn't matter what you do, whether you're selling software, whether you're pouring concrete, you will end up becoming the most successful company in your space. 

And automation is an absolutely critical component of this. But it requires a lot of openness from the individual team member or employee to be able to allow people to be freed from the drudgery of cutting and pasting a thousand times versus just saying, hey, you know what, let's actually just run an automation here and have this work perfectly from day one. 

Tim Butara: I guess a lot of it rests on the company culture as well. Right. If you're able to show– like in your example, obviously, and you told me you showcased how caring and empathetical you were towards the employees that were in Ukraine. Right. And I assume that if you're able to showcase that, if you're able to instill that into your company culture and make it kind of one of the core values, then people will know, that your employees will be well aware that even if a lot of their tasks get automated, it doesn't mean that they'll get left behind or that they'll no longer be needed. 

So I think that that's a very key driver here. Right. Knowing that even if some parts of your daily routine or your daily tasks can be replaced, that doesn't mean that you've now become disposable basically.

Liam Martin: Yeah. And it also connects to the type of people that you hire. So I talk a lot about A players versus B players. A players are, I have five other job offers, why should I work here? B players are, can you please give me this job or can you keep me hired? The A players really have the higher mindset of saying, what excites me is solving difficult problems inside of the business, and the more of those difficult problems that I can get, obviously, my work is more challenging, but it's also, by extension, more rewarding. 

I don't know about you, but for me, the more difficult problems that I can solve, the more rewarded I get, the more sense of reward that I get inside of the organization. So if you could just free yourself from all of those basically boring drudgery of tasks, then you can really focus on the things that drive you, that make you really excited about getting up in the morning and working on things that no one else would be, particularly in the engineering space, that no one else will be able to solve except for you. 

That's a very inspiring way to work. And if you can optimize everyone towards being really excited about their job, again, that's going to significantly accelerate the success of your organization. 

Tim Butara: It's great to be in a field or an industry where you don't have to worry about your AI overlords taking over your job at some point. 

Liam Martin: Well, or more specifically, work with your AI overlords. There is an AI. There are AIs that are going to be doing more and more work, but then it allows you to be more focused on the creative side of work. And to me, that's incredibly inspiring. Right. We could talk for hours about AI and machine learning and where we think it’s going, but I don't foresee in the next decade an AI that can do, like, general levels of intelligence. Right. Just general problem solving is not necessarily something that I would see coming down the pipe relatively soon. 

So I think that actually you need to get really good at solving those general problems. It's not about how good you are at the React framework as an example. It's more specifically about how can I think intelligently about how to solve this particular problem from an engineering perspective as an example? That's the value that you bring to the table and as many people as you can get optimized towards that is going to accelerate the organization. 

One other point that we talk about inside of asynchronous orgs, one of the biggest insights that I gained was their managerial layer is about 50% thinner than an in-office environment. And the reason being is, again, there's less reporting that happens manually because all of the reporting is automated. Right. How am I doing? Oh, well, let me look at JIRA and see how many tickets you're submitting. 

I don't necessarily need a manager to be able to tell me that. I could jump into JIRA right now and figure out what all of my engineers are doing and how efficient they are at their job, and then what are blockers for them. That's the piece that I think is, again, really problematic inside of on-premise synchronous teams, because they don't recognize that you can actually provide automation on all of your reporting, which unfortunately, is the vast majority of current managers’ job. 

Tim Butara: Well, yeah, agile has kind of become the de facto or kind of the main mode of managing digital projects and products, as opposed to waterfall before. And I think that you just can't have a proper agile process without at least some kind of reliance on automation. And definitely, most definitely on async communication. I think that that's just a no brainer here. 

Liam Martin: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, particularly for a distributed team, we're in 43 different countries all over the world. It's very difficult. It's effectively impossible to be able to get everyone on the same Zoom call. So when you've had those restrictions placed upon you, then you say to yourself, well, instead of getting everyone into a meeting, what I could do is make a really good ten minute presentation as an example, to be able to talk about company culture and talk about the action points that people should be taking. And then they can consume that information when they choose, when it's most opportunistic for them, when it's the lowest productivity blockage. Right. 

When they have the most free time, they can go in and look at that type of information. And more importantly, actually, one of the things that we do, just touching on these AMAs that we do, is we really look at consumption as a core metric for us. Meaning, if you're not forced to consume this information, if it's voluntary, then we measure the amount of voluntary consumption of that information. And if we're not doing a very good job, if that's not going up and to the right, then the information isn't exciting, it's not informative. People don't like it. People don't like us. You need to really kind of take a look at those things. 

And none of that is deployed inside of a synchronous management philosophy. It's basically just, listen, I'm the boss. I'm going to tell you how to do your job, and I'm going to order everyone into this meeting. If you anonymously survey those people, did you find this meeting valuable? They all hate it. And it is so frustrating to be able to see people that are just sitting there, like, world class engineers that are sitting and rolling their eyes at a 45 minutes meeting, talking about whether we should have a blue paper clip or a red paper clip on a report or something like that. This is not a valuable expenditure of their time, and you need to have them spend more time actually solving difficult problems. 

Tim Butara: Yeah. And I just wanted to make a point about that, actually. It's not just about the consumption of information. Right. There are certain types of people who may be super skilled or who may be super creative or really adept at solving problems, but they might feel less comfortable doing so in a rushed, synchronous team environment. Maybe they're much better at coming up solutions in more of an isolated flow of work, maybe asynchronously, their brain works optimally at midnight. And obviously the meeting didn't take place at midnight. 

So I've often seen this happen that– I'm the type of person that's like, if you try to teach me something or if you try to try to make me lean into something while that thing is going on, you'll probably meet some resistance, but once I'm able to try it out on my own, in my own time, at my own pace, that's the most important thing I think, at my own pace, then I might come up with some really unique approaches, unique perspectives on the problem that none of the people involved would have come up with in a different setting. So yeah, I think that's also important here. 

Liam Martin: Yeah. One of the other points that we talk about in the book is the rise of the introverted leader. And whenever you go into an office environment and you go into a board room, usually the person who– I could not see what ideas everyone has. So I don't know the ideas that everyone has before the meeting starts, but I just look at the people. I can usually figure out whose idea is going to be adopted. It's usually the white male that's over 6ft tall, that looks like Captain America, that's incredibly charismatic and able to interact with everyone because they have the skill set of being able to sell everyone on their idea. 

The ability to be able to communicate synchronously is incredibly valuable and I wouldn't suggest that anyone not pursue that, but the reality is that they bias everyone towards bad ideas. So the best idea might actually be the quiet engineer wallflower that maybe thinks this meeting is stupid, but more importantly, doesn't necessarily have the skills that the six foot two Captain America guy has saying, well, actually I think that this guy's idea is completely stupid and my idea is much better. 

Inside of asynchronous meetings, those ideas are able to proliferate and get adoption significantly easier. You have to have a different skill set. You actually have to be better at the written word. So we talk about how in asynchronous organizations you have to get better at writing, but fundamentally it's a lot easier to get better at writing than to get better at charisma, which is not necessarily teachable in the same way. And unfortunately this is just a huge barrier towards great ideas being adopted inside of the organization. So your hit rate for good ideas versus bad ideas is much higher inside of an asynchronous org. 

Tim Butara: Those are some very good points. I'm really glad we took the discussion in this direction because it seems to me like the perspective around asynchronous communication and collaboration has definitely changed. It has definitely been heavily impacted. And if it hasn't changed yet, then probably it's inevitable that more companies or that most companies basically will need to change their views and adopt more, at least more, if not completely async communication and collaboration. 

Liam Martin: Yes, in my opinion, I think that probably within the next ten years, and you can hold me to this on this podcast, half of the S&P 500, the 500 most powerful companies in the United States, will be remote. And I think the majority of those will be asynchronous, simply because it's not because it's a choice that the employees have made or even the employer has made. It's just a better way to be able to do business. 

As Darren Murph, who I really call the Wikipedia of remote work, he's the head of remote at GitLab, stated, this is a horse and buggy versus a model T moment, where we have a much better way of running a business which is more efficient, and it's just very alien to previous ways of running a business. But no matter how much you love your horse, one of those days you've got to get rid of that horse and get into a car. 

Tim Butara: Well, you can still have the horse, but not really for transportation purposes. 

Liam Martin: Right. You can have it for fun. Synchronous communication is more fun, obviously, than asynchronous communication, and there are some negative feedbacks to asynchronous communication as well. People are more disconnected. We talk about the things that you can do to be able to help that inside of the book, but at the end of the day, you want to be able to enjoy your work, and synchronous communication is a component of that. But the reality is that it's going to have to shift and it's going to have to change in pretty significant ways because the vast majority of your competitors very soon will be implementing a way to work that's just way more efficient. 

We talked about this with regards to remote work. We're probably going to see 30% of the US workforce working remotely this year, post pandemic. Knock on wood, we're moving to a postdemic stage, and that's a complete shift from 4%. That's almost exponential growth in the last two and a half years. So I think that you're only going to see this double down and you're going to see that Pandora's box has been opened. So if you're not willing to actually at least adopt components of asynchronous management into what you're doing, you're unfortunately going to be left behind. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I think it's the default that will be shifting, right. So now the default, up until now, the default has been synchronous communications, and then with specific occasions where it was inevitable, you had some asynchronous communication, but now I think it will go towards kind of async communication and collaboration becoming the default. And then if it happens that you have the opportunity for some synchronous communication and you're able to collaborate in that way, so be it. Great. But that doesn't mean that we'll change our default of async communication because this is the way of the world now.

Liam Martin: Right. Yeah, absolutely.

Tim Butara: Well, one final question. I think that this one is also important, and I think that we can spend at least a few minutes talking about this one. What kind of impact are all of these changes to work, the move to automation, the move to asynchronous communication, what kind of impact are these changes having on the employees’ work life balance? 

Liam Martin: Well, so, good and bad, and it depends on how that methodology or management philosophy is deployed. So a lot of the times people talk about human connection and saying, well, what about creating those moments where people can interact and build deeper relationships with each other? 

And my answer is that asynchronous management, which again, can actually be done inside of an office, it's actually one of the big things that I would like to be able to profess as well, because there are a lot of people that are going back to the office, and you don't necessarily need to have everyone go into a boardroom every single time you want to be able to do a meeting, you can actually just do it all from your own offices and save a whole bunch of time and energy for everyone involved. But there's going to be a lot of disconnection, and I think there's going to be a lot of people that are used to the old way of working feel somewhat alienated when they implement asynchronous work. 

But the reality is that they've been working on a false assumption. And that false assumption, I believe, is– I don't know about arranged marriages. Well, in an office environment, you have arranged friendships. You didn't choose those friends. They were simply put in front of you. Right. And now you build those friendships with those particular individuals. 

The beauty of asynchronous management, and I think this is actually going to push all of society in a really new, interesting direction, is you should choose your own friends. You should go out and interact with people that you have the same interests in, that you want to be able to interact with in deeper ways. And I think that this is something that the vast majority of people, particularly people that are out of University, have really kind of just gotten lazy and said to themselves, well, my work group is my social group, and that's the group that I'm going to interact with. 

I think that that's a false assumption. I think that we live in the 21st century where, if you want to hang out with furries all day long, you can do that. If you want to hang out with guys that play StarCraft 10 hours a day, you can do that. If you want to hang out with guys that are doing weight lifting all day long, you can do that. You can choose your own direction in life, and you can choose the people that you want to be able to interact with. You can choose your own tribe. 

Almost no one does that. And it's quite confusing to me because I've never pursued that type of direction in life. I choose my friends. I do obviously have people that I work with that I'm friendly with, and I would consider them some of my friends, but not necessarily because I had to, but because I chose to. And that's the big piece that I think almost everyone hasn't really gotten yet. It's going to take a really long time for people to be able to get over that. 

But what I would challenge everyone to do today, if they're working remotely, or more specifically asynchronously, and they're feeling a little alienated, consider that this is not the only group that you should be interacting with. You should strive and try to find other groups that maybe you're better connected to, that you'll get much more rewarding relationships from. 

Tim Butara: It's these new ways of working that make this much more possible. Right. Because you're able to spend less time commuting, because you're able to have a more flexible approach to everything. Because I assume that you have a better work-life balance if you know how to kind of arrange everything. So that if you're able to resist the urge of spending the whole day in front of your computer working on job-related stuff. I assume that if you're able to manage all of that in a kind of adequate manner, in a healthy manner, that leaves you that much more time and capabilities to work on your social circle or work on the stuff that we just talked about, basically not having work consume or become your entire life. 

Liam Martin: Absolutely. I think that at least for me, if you remove everything else from normal work, you don't do asynchronous, you do synchronous. Just removing the hour and a half commute and replacing that with sleep is going to significantly improve every single team member's overall productivity. If they can get an hour and a half more sleep, as opposed to spending that on commuting, they're going to be much happier people. There are other things that you can do, obviously. I'm currently sitting in my office. This is where I do work. All of my work gets left behind in this space. 

So I don't have Slack or email on any of my personal devices like my cell phone or my iPad. Those are for socialization, and then my work computer is for work. So creating a very clear work-life division, I think, is important, particularly when people are working remotely. But even if you don't do that, getting an hour and a half back every single day is going to significantly improve your overall productivity and your state of being, which I think everyone has kind of discovered at this point, which is why a lot of these employers that are asking people to come back to the office, a lot of those people are saying, hell no, I'm not going back under any circumstances whatsoever. 

Tim Butara: I think these are some great points, Liam, and a great way to finish the episode. Just before we wrap up our discussion, if listeners wanted to reach out to you or learn more about you or learn more about your book or your event, where can they do all that? 

Liam Martin: Just go to runningremote.com and you'll be able to get access to the conference that we run every single year. We're going back to a physical conference May 17 and 18th, which is going to be very exciting, and then the book as well, which is going to launch in August. 

If you check out the website, you'll be able to get all the details on the book as well. And then if anyone wants to talk with me in a deeper way, the best place to go is youtube.com/runningremote where we put all of our talks up for free after the fact and then we also talk a lot about how to build and scale remote teams on that YouTube channel. If you comment there, I'm going to be able to get back to you very quickly. It's actually the only form of social media that I really do pay attention to. 

Tim Butara: Awesome. But don't get back to them too quickly because then it will barely be asynchronous communication, right? 

Liam Martin: Yeah, it's the only form of social media that I'm actually addicted to, to be completely honest with you. So it's probably going to be a couple of hours at least. But if I'm into something that's really important, obviously I do not get back to people immediately. 

Tim Butara: Well, thanks so much, Liam. This has been a super interesting discussion. I think that we covered a lot of really unique and really interesting points that you don't really get to hear discussed so often. So I think that this will definitely be an invaluable episode for our listeners. Thank you for that. 

Liam Martin: Thanks for having me, Tim. 

Tim Butara: Well, to our listeners. That's all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe. 

Outro:
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