Faces of HR

Asynchronous Communication Solves Global Workforce Woes

If you haven’t heard of asynchronous communication within a workforce, it’s the practice of not bringing everyone together into regular large meetings. It means not requiring an immediate answer when sending an e-mail or another communication. Basically, it means employees have control over when they communicate with their teammates, and it’s perfectly designed for truly remote organizations. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest is an expert on implementing this technique and thanks it for his organization’s success.

Meet Arthur Mamedov, the COO of TheSoul Publishing, a global media publisher.

What is your superpower?

As a company, I think the superpower we’ve developed is being able to grow at a very fast pace, increasing the number of products we’re bringing to market, while also retaining our very strong and distinctive corporate culture. That has been the most challenging aspect to navigate. Being able to communicate our corporate culture in a highly remote team, while we have a very substantial number of new people coming in every month, is a superpower built into the core of our business.

Just to give you a bit more context, 5 years ago, we had a team of around 200 people in the company, of whom 80% were remote. Fast-forward 5 years, and we’re now approaching the milestone of having 2,000 employees, and we’re hiring another 50 to 70 people every month. Still, 80% of that talent is remote, yet we’ve been able to maintain our corporate culture, which is very much similar to what we had from day 1. This is something I am truly proud of.

That’s impressive. What do you think the secret ingredient for that is?

We’re a very young and dynamic company. To be fair, none of our C-level managers or cofounders had dealt with HR before growing the business to the point where it became a necessity and where we saw a lot of value in it. We actually grew to a team of 200+ employees without having a dedicated HR function.

At some point, it became clear that the inability to manage various people-related processes across the firm was taking a lot of management capacity from everyone. And at the time, although we’d already been quite successful, we’d been navigating everything on the HR side. Our first priority, given how the business was evolving, was to develop some sort of a very efficient recruitment framework.

Over time, this intent has evolved into a fairly sophisticated HR function, which generates an enormous amount of value now in the business. Today, our HR covers processes like talent attraction, employee rewards, employer branding, people partnerships, people growth, and a few other fields that we invest heavily into.

Doing things fresh and adjusting as you go were the main ingredients to our success.

What do you see as the people part of your role?

I joined the company at a very early stage. We didn’t yet have most of the functions we have established today. Establishing those key functions and bringing in the best talent to help us shape the organization were huge challenges.

HR is one of those functions that, over time, has evolved into one of our greatest success stories. The people part is inevitable. I mean, the entire business we’re running is based on the corporate culture we’re creating. When I’m talking about corporate culture in our case, it is led by the CEOs, the cofounders, and the C-level executives, as well as some of the leadership team members. The entire leadership of the organization is involved in defining this culture and actually making it work for highly remote teams. HR is definitely a key stakeholder in the process, as well.

I could say that we work in partnership within the company to make this happen for everyone. We’re super sensitive to people matters in general and to cultural matters.

If you look at the team, over 1,500 people are working remotely in this whole establishment today. You have to imagine an environment that is very diverse and dynamic. It spreads over dozens of countries, over whole continents, and over a huge number of time zones. The way we attract talent, the way we work with people, and the way we manage onboarding in this remote environment are crucial. They’re even defining for our success because it’s about a combination of strong culture and well-defined and managed cultural touch points, which are designed by the entire leadership team. It’s also about embracing radical transparency and empowering people through those processes. It’s about bringing in talent with very high digital agility, which I think is pretty much the number one soft skill we’re looking at right now. Finally, it’s about having very strong and efficient processes within the business and principles that shape them. I can give you some examples that I think are fairly unique.

I’d love to hear them.

For example, we rely a lot on asynchronous communications. Just think of it. Our teams are spread across about 50 countries at this point. Right now, there are 9 hours between my communications team and I, yet we’re maintaining regular contact. We don’t have board meetings in the company; although there is a very diverse and strong leadership team that maintains very close contact.

When we’re looking at how communications are shaped, we would say that having face-to-face meetings or having synchronous Zoom calls is very costly when it comes to how you are utilizing your time because it demands you to synchronize schedules, which drops efficiency. The more people you have, the less that is for all participants. One of the principles that we have is to minimize the number of interpersonal interactions outside the processes we’ve established for working with each other. And this is, for example, one of the very distinctive traits now that allows us to actually manage this whole thing very efficiently.

That’s actually very interesting. I’ve been very interested in how you solve that problem. I know global organizations are hardly a new thing, but obviously, they’ve evolved and expanded rapidly as organizations require that flexibility. Yet there are these older concepts whereby everyone has got to be in a Monday morning meeting, my supervisor needs to be available when my employees are available, and vice versa. The reality of the situation makes that challenging at best, especially when you are talking about all the different time zones across the globe.

It’s something I’ve been very curious about understanding; how do organizations approach that, this concept of asynchronous communication? I can just imagine there’s a decent swath of our readers and their leader saying, “Well, that can’t possibly work for us.” They’re holding onto an idea because it has worked sort of in the past, but it doesn’t seem to be the future. Could you go into some detail of what that looks like in practice?

I will start from even before step one. I’ll start from the way the entire onboarding happens within the company because it defines the way your communications would flow afterward. This concept of asynchronous communication is one of the principles that are fundamental for our corporate culture. When we’re able to find the right person with the right level of digital agility who is eager to embrace such concepts, then we need to basically communicate what it is like to work with us, what toolkits he or she would have available, and how he or she would actually interact with different teams across the company.

When you’re in the office, when you’re in a face-to-face meeting, for example, it’s super easy because you have a lot at your disposal. There’s interpersonal communication, there are a lot of verbal and nonverbal signals that you can exchange, there are a lot of ad hoc meetings when you go to coffee breaks together, and it’s easy to dive into the environment, right? Now, when you’re looking at it from a standpoint of someone who’s sitting 9 hours from your time zone, and the person is alone in his or her apartment or in the coworking space or elsewhere, it’s really hard to get a sense of what the company is about.

So, the first step was crucial because we needed to define and design all the cultural touch points. When I say cultural touch point, I mean the point of interaction between a remote employee, a remote colleague, and the company itself—those who started from the first e-mail, let’s say, that they get from the recruiter, and they extend throughout onboarding and the way training is organized.

Every single communication is a touch point, every single document you send out is a touch point, and every single bit of information you exchange has to be consistent in terms of how you’re communicating your values and how you are communicating expectations. Once this is in place, it comes down to having an efficient management process in place. We rely on a very diverse product suite that allows us to manage projects across the organization.

Another key principle that we’re relying on beyond asynchronous communications would be radical transparency. In an environment that is highly remote, it’s essential to empower people to make autonomous decisions. For that, they need to have sufficient access to information. Running the model of radical transparency and providing everyone with a sufficient level of context around the flow of projects across the entire company is the way to do it for us.

Radical transparency is the second most important principle we rely on. Once you have those things in place, it becomes quite technical. You just have to identify the right tools for you and the right ways to use various project management systems to plug your teams into them and to make sure the flow of information between them becomes seamless.

At the end of the day, most projects are managed in writing. So there’s no need or very little need to run Zoom calls or any personal communications. Of course, again, we’re not taking this to the extreme—there’s some room for that at all times, but most interactions within the business at this point happen through tools that are pretty much available to anyone in the market.

It’s very interesting. It seems like you’re operating on principles that have been well-studied and perhaps not well-implemented. The same hesitancy that you see against people wanting to go toward an asynchronous communication model you’ll see around going fully transparent, or at least as transparent as they can get, because obviously, there are some things you can’t share. But that hesitation I think costs organizations so much money and so much time, especially around the transparency question.

Because the instinct is to hide things or to wait. I think a lot of it really has to do with waiting. People say, “This project is not fully developed, it has a lot of moving pieces, and we don’t want to let people know until we have all of our chips in place or all of our ducks in a row,” but that’s not always possible, especially with how quickly things move now. We really need to understand the value of saying, “Here’s what we know. Here’s what we don’t know. Here’s when we’ll know what we don’t know” and just get those windows open.

Yeah, it might slow things down sometimes. I think that one of the fears of transparency is that someone will come throw a wrench in your system before it’s done being built. But if you set things up right, you want that wrench because that person has a really good idea that’s important, and it might save you a lot of time and might be really valuable.

You’ve had the value of being able to create that transparency right from the beginning. But I guess a question I have is have you had any issues with that? What have the kinks and the bugs with this radical transparency been, and how have you fixed them?

I think it pretty much is aligned with what you just said. There’s a lot of hesitation that gets in the way of adopting it. It’s pretty much in human nature, intuitive for everyone to be protective of information and anything valuable. This is exactly where corporate culture comes into play. Being able to nurture that approach and to show by example, to lead by example, and to demonstrate the value it creates is the biggest challenge we’re undertaking across leadership of the business.

It really takes a lot of effort to explain to everyone the value that it creates. But one thing for sure is that once a person gets into this mode of actually sharing information, it’s so impressive how much more efficient his or her team becomes. One of the criteria we’re actually using for evaluating teams’ performance is how well they’re sharing information on their experiments and on their successes and how open and transparent they are in their communications.

Because again, if you look at traditional environments that are happening within a specific office space or within a building, it’s easier for you to say, “OK, let’s not talk about this again. Let’s hold until the initiative becomes more mature, and then let’s discuss it.” Now, if you have 100 or even 1,000 people working for you remotely, it’s so easy to leave people outside the relevant context if you don’t do your communications right. So, people management and the way communications are structured become essential for business success and become crucial.