A conversation with Liam Martin, Co-Organizer of Running Remote and Co-Founder at Time Doctor.
“The spontaneity and the collaboration effect are definitely more prevalent inside of the asynchronous on-premise environment. However, do I want to give up all of that deep work for that type of spontaneity? Because a lot of the time spontaneity is a distraction in another… You call it spontaneity. I call it a distraction. I call it, okay, this is the seventh time someone’s walked into my office today, and I actually just really need to get this email sequence written as an example. And I can’t actually get it done because I’ve had these spontaneous conversations throughout my workday. So a lot of these times they can end up looking like distractions when a lot of people call them collaboration and spontaneity. So I’m not quite clear actually on where that’s going to go. But I have seen this happen a lot inside of the corporate world where people just get into meetings because that’s the flow of what they should be doing. But the reality is that you could actually, as you said, turn a lot of those meetings into an email.” –Liam Martin
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Liam Martin about his experience building conferences and software for Remote Work advocates. He shares why he builds products and services that are defined by the concept of giving workers the flexibility to work wherever they want, whenever they want. Later, Liam offers tips on how to manage Remote Work with asynchronous communication. We then discuss connection vs. free work, ideas vs. execution, and management vs leadership. Listen in for Remote Work trends and predictions.
[1:45] How Liam Got His Start As a Remote Work SME
[13:45] How to Make Asynchronous Management Work
[23:40] The Benefits Of Asynchronous Work
[36:10] Remote Work Predictions And Trends
Links | Resources
Running Remote on Youtube
Liam Marin on Linkedin
Time Doctor on Linkedin
Manage Your Time On Twitter
Running Remote On Twitter
Time Doctor Software On Facebook
Running Remote On Facebook
About the Guest
Liam is a serial entrepreneur who runs Time Doctor and Staff.com — one of the most popular time tracking and productivity software platforms in use by top brands today. He is also a co-organizer of the world’s largest remote work conference — Running Remote. Liam is an avid proponent of remote work and has been published in Forbes, Inc, Mashable, TechCrunch, Fast Company, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, The Next Web, The Huffington Post, Venturebeat, and many other publications specifically targeting the expansion of remote work. Liam’s products and services are defined by the concept of giving workers the flexibility to work wherever they want, whenever they want. He holds an undergraduate and graduate degree in Sociology from McGill University. He lives in Canada but travels 3-6 months out of the year due to his ability to work wherever and whenever he likes. While he travels around the world a few times a year, he usually spends time in Austin, Las Vegas, and Ubud. He encourages others to work remotely while he’s on his travels. Liam has also co-authored a book – Running Remote – focused on remote work methodology. In this revolutionary guide, Liam and his co-founder, Rob Rawson, have unearthed the secrets and lessons discovered by remote work pioneering entrepreneurs and founders who’ve harnessed the async mindset to operate their businesses remotely in the most seamless, hassle-free, and cost-effective manner possible.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing the structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators, sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.
If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide. Today I’m with Liam Martin, the Co-founder, and CMO at Time Doctor and co-organizer of Running Remote Conference. He’s also the author of Running Remote, a book about remote working methodologies. Welcome to the show, Liam.
Liam: Thanks for having me Douglas.
Douglas: Yeah. Well, I’m looking forward to getting started. So let’s kick it off with a little bit about how you got your start. How did you find your way into this focus around remote work?
Liam: Sure. I’m actually in Austin, Texas right now. It’s I think a week after South by Southwest, I don’t know when this episode is coming out, but I’m here at one of our team retreats. We’re doing our quarterly team retreat here, and this is ironically also where I met my co-founder and business partner, Rob Rosson who’s the CEO of most of the companies that we work on. So it’s an interesting beginning to end cycle. I was at South by, and I was speaking at a conference. I spoke to my buddy this new friend of mine, Rob, and he was like, dude, I think we should really work on how to measure productivity inside of remote teams. And I was like, oh, that’s really interesting because at that time I had a company which was an online tutoring business. I had dozens of tutors throughout North America and Europe and I was working virtually.
So it was a remote business and this was like 2009, 2010, where I would have this problem. I would bill out a student for 10 hours and then the student would say, I didn’t work with the tutor for 10 hours, I worked with him for five. I’d have to go to them and say, “Hey, did you work with a student for five or 10 hours?” And he’d say, “10, I billed you for 10.” I ended up having to pay the tutor for the full 10 hours and refund the student for five hours. And this was creating a real problem inside my business because I’d end up losing money in the deal. So I needed some way to be able to authenticate that. That was the original concept for Time Doctor and Staff.com. And then that evolved into like a Fitbit for work.
So we tell people what specific actions they can take to be able to improve their work efficiency throughout the day. So that might be not working on weekends as an example. That might be you’re really bad at working before 10:00 AM. You’re distracted. You’re actually interacting with a lot of different applications and you’re not focused on a singular task and embracing deep work. So we make all of those suggestions using a lot of machine learning to be able to generally improve people’s productivity.
Douglas: Super cool. So kind of a classic South by Ronde view story of meeting there. How many years did you go to South by in the past? Is that kind of a tradition for you?
Liam: Yeah, so I’ve been trying to think about this because I also ended up working at that same South by Southwest. I was working on a YouTube channel. So I was basically selling advertising for a large YouTube channel. And I told you which channel it was, you probably know what it was. They were doing about 100 million views at their peak per month. And I was negotiating basically cost-per-action deals, CPA deals. So you would go to a Netflix as an example and you would get a Netflix code and it was a fantastic business. I ended up negotiating a really good deal here at South by Southwest and just made a lot of money off of those deals because this was 11 years ago when YouTube was really new and no one really did that. And I was in a very good position. And I said to myself, man, I owe South by Southwest something.
Liam: So I went every year almost for spite to just say like this conference has made me millions of dollars and I want to be able to make sure that I go back every single year, but to be completely honest with you, the magic of the conference has really fallen apart. 2020, they canceled it, but 2019, I’m assuming you’ve been there a couple times, it is just a mess. It’s like hundreds of thousands of people, everyone trying to claw at attention for effectively the same 500 people that have always been there that are the core influencers and can really move your business forward. But 11 years ago, the conference was like 5,000 people and those same 500 people were there.
So it’s a lot more difficult to be able to make South by work for the vast majority of people. And you really have to get invited into those dinners. I told you people that anyone that’s going to a large conference, even though I run a conference, don’t go to the talks, go to the dinners, go to the lunches, create those deep relationships. That’s what’s really important to be able to make sure you’re successful. The speakers are literally just conversation starters to be able to build out deeper relationships with the people that attend those conferences.
Douglas: So speaking of your conference, tell us a little bit more about the conference, how it works when you have it, et cetera.
Liam: Sure. So we’re going back to in-person which I’m personally really excited about, it’s called Running Remote. It’s a conference about remote work and everyone is probably thinking in their own head, dude, it’s a conference about remote work and it’s in person, what the heck is going on there? Well, even remote teams need to actually meet in person from time to time. So we’ve done it almost five years now with two and a half years being virtual. And, for me, pre-COVID remote work was a very small cottage industry. There were very few, what I call remote-first organizations throughout the world, but there was no information on how to actually take those businesses seriously to take them to the levels of like GitLab as an example, $14 billion valuations. Shopify is completely remote. There is a $100 billion valuation at this point, WordPress, right?
These large-scale organizations, how do you actually build those companies out? Well, there was no information out there back in like 2017, or 2018. So I took a ready-fire-aim philosophy of my perspective is if you actually just take direct action that hurts your bank account, you’ll usually solve that problem pretty quickly. So I just booked a venue. I had no speakers, nothing, we just booked a place. And we said, okay, now I need to figure out how to get speakers there. And then I need to figure out how to get attendees there. And we ended up actually breaking you even on that first conference which was great. And I said, even if we don’t break even and we lose a ton of money, at least we’ll get the tactical information that we need to go to 200 people, 500 people, 1,000 people, which is what we wanted to do.
Douglas: And so you’re going to do it in person this year. Where’s it going to be held?
Liam: It’s going to be in Montreal, Canada, which is my hometown. And if you’ve never been to Montreal before, it’s like Paris without the Parisians which a lot of people like. It’s going to be a lot of fun, I think. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent the last two and a half years in my house and I’m ready to get back out of the real world and interact with people.
Douglas: Yeah. I’ve been doing a few things. We had our conference in person this year, back in February, which is a little risky. It was a little early on the curve. And so we had to have a lot of precautions in place. And then of course I went to South by and much like you were suggesting, I didn’t really go to any talks, but it’s still nice to attend events, bumping all the people that are in town that I haven’t seen in a while. And it was pretty invigorating, I would say, exhausting, but also great to be around people.
Liam: Yeah. I’m not a big vacation person. The way that you reenergize me is I go to a conference, even though it’s exhausting, you get that energy back because you’re around a tribe of people that are really looking at how they think the world should be as opposed to how the world is. A lot of the people that you meet at conferences like that, they say, oh, this is how I’m going to change the world because we’re going to change it. And the vast majority of the population, like I’m talking 99% of people, they’re navigating the world. They’re not crafting it. And I love the people that are saying, I’m going to put a dent in the universe. I’m going to create something that’s going to change the world. And they’re incredibly inspiring people to me.
Douglas: Absolutely. So when is the conference? It sounds like it’s coming up pretty soon.
Liam: Yeah. It’s May 17th to 18th in Montreal, Canada.
Douglas: Okay. Cool. Yeah. I think this episode might be out before then, but if not, it just sounds like you’re doing it every year so we’ll share it out on our socials regardless even before the episode airs because I think what you’re doing and the subject matter is really aligned with the stuff we often talk about in the podcast and the work that we do. Because there’s a certain element of facilitation that is required in these remote interactions, right? And so I’m curious to see how often that comes up in the conversations and sessions that you guys are hosting.
Liam: It’s always a top three question. So whenever I talk to and I lovingly call these guys pandemic panickers, we had the largest transition in the history of work in March 2020. We went from 4% of the US workforce working remotely to 45% of the US workforce working remotely. And we’re probably going to float down to about 30% of the US workforce working remotely. And you can extrapolate that globally as well. It’s probably going to work out to about the same ratios. It’s the biggest change in work since the industrial revolution, but the industrial revolution took 80 years and we did it in March. So a lot of these guys, they… And I got crazy phone calls in March, April, and May like a G20 country calls me, “Hey, we have to transition 500,000 employees to remote work today.” Okay. I’m not the guy to help you because my team’s like 150 people. Well, you are the first guy that we could get on the phone.
So it was like there was such a small community of people that knew how to work remotely effectively and transitioning that information and getting that information out to so many people, was completely impossible. So all these pandemic panickers, they move, in my opinion, not to remote work, but to working from home which is simply just when you work in an office, that’s a place. When you work from home, that’s another place. Remote work is the ability to take your work with you. It’s the ability to be able to work in a co-working space if you want or a coffee shop or you can travel the world and work remotely, or you can work from home or you can work from your office. It allows you the freedom and flexibility to be able to work wherever you want whenever you want.
And that’s the real magic of remote work. And when I see so many people that are saying they’re working remotely, I’m so excited over the next year because they’re really going to start to experience true remote work which is giving them that freedom to, as I said, take their work with them. But to your point, the biggest question that people ask is, should I use Slack or should I use Microsoft Teams? Should I use Zoom or should I use Google Meet? And the vast majority of the time when they ask those questions, I basically tell them, if you’re asking those questions, you don’t know what answer you’re looking for.
So you’re asking the wrong question actually, which is that simply recreating the office remotely is not going to get you that far. There’s a different methodology for managing remote teams. And that’s actually the essence of what I looked at when I wrote this book over the last year and a half, which was saying to myself, no one really knows how to manage these remote teams. They simply just thought that it was just slapping Zoom and Slack and Microsoft Teams on top of what everyone does. And everyone goes home and works from their laptops. It’s completely different.
I’ve been studying all of these remote-first founders and entrepreneurs. We looked at 13 of them that are all $1 billion-plus valuations. And everyone has this core tenant in common which is what we call asynchronous management. The capability to be able to manage a team without necessarily interacting with them face-to-face. And connected to meetings, I talk not about doing meetings inside of our company and just in general, but we do them completely differently from how the theoretical like the standard office environment would do a meeting. And the core part is asynchronous interactions and being able to make sure that you keep that top of mind while you’re working with other people. I can unpack it too if you want, but fundamentally that’s the biggest thing. Asynchronous management is the core tenant of everything that feeds through remote work. And it’s the concept that almost no one has talked about in the last two and a half years.
Douglas: So let’s do unpack that a little bit. How do you delineate that are simply attempting asynchronous management versus those that are really excelling at it?
Liam: I’ll talk about it from the founder down or from the executive down because I think that’s a really important way to look at it. You can definitely look at it from the employee up, but it’s better to look at it from the founder’s perspective. Whenever you require immediacy of response from an individual inside of your organization, you believe that you’re speeding things up, but in reality, you’re simply speeding yourself up, but you’re slowing down the organization because you’re creating a culture in which people have to disconnect from their deep work. There’s a fantastic book that we reference a lot called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which most of the other remote-first founders have also referenced as well which is the ability for every single individual inside of an organization to have everything at their disposal to be able to solve difficult problems.
That is actually what a corporation does like, particularly tech companies. If you can solve hard problems faster than any of your competitors, you win every single time. Doesn’t matter what you’re making. If you’re a concrete foundation company, I’m looking out at some guy pouring concrete out my window, if you can do that better and in a more innovative way than any of your competitors, you end up winning the market. So being able to recognize that if you can optimize as much of your workforce as humanly possible into deep work, and then you can meet asynchronously, the vast majority of the time, it’s actually going to be much more productive for every single team member inside the organization. And then by extension, you’re going to be able to solve those problems at a much faster rate.
Douglas: So for those that are trying to do more asynchronous work, and oftentimes I see this come up from this meeting could have been an email or we look at how asynchronous moments can be woven into an arc or a narrative that we’re creating or a journey that we might be on together, but do you have any tips for those that are just not sure or even where to start?
Liam: Sure. I think the first thing, and we do this inside of our organization, when someone has been working in a position for about six months, we have them create a document which is, how I do my job. That’s step one. If right now today, you want to figure this stuff out, five pages max, anything more is actually too complicated. You can link to a lot of different sources, obviously make it a Google Doc. There’s a tool called Trainual. This is really good at process documentation that you can check out as well, but you build this one single document which is how to do my job.
And then you take that document and you send it to some of your team members. Ideally, the team members that are actually going to do your job in the next couple of years because for me, we don’t inhabit positions, we operate them. And that’s a bit of a shift in mindset, but if I say, I am the CMO of the company, okay? You’re the CMO of the company. That means that you have sacred knowledge and you’re absolutely critical to the operations of the business. And if you got hit by a bus, there would be a huge impact on the profitability of that business over the next couple of years. But instead, if I say I currently operate the position of CMO, it means at any moment, I should be able to walk away from that position and someone else can come in and actually take that position.
Now, maybe there are some personal aspects to a particular position that makes that more difficult than others, but every single team member should work towards the concept of making sure that they can execute that position. Basically, they can delegate that position to anyone inside of the organization. So you create this document and send it to your team. You don’t ask them, “Hey, do you like this?” You say, “What are three things I can do to improve this document?” And you simply just go through a cyclical process of continuously asking for feedback until everyone’s tired of giving you feedback and you say, “Okay, this document is pretty great. I know exactly how to do it.” And then you might even actually send it to your friend Douglas and you’d say, “Hey, Douglas. I know that you don’t work inside of my organization, but could you read these five pages? And does this make sense to you?” Like what does this position do? This comes from another thing that I’ve stolen which is Napoleon had a saying which is, “Orders shouldn’t be easy to understand, but impossible to misunderstand.”
And so once you make that shift as well, it’s not about writing down a document to be, as I said, easy to understand, once it’s impossible to misunderstand, once it’s incredibly clear like I’m linking to everything. If I don’t understand a word, even here’s the hyperlink to the Wikipedia of that word, make it idiot proof simple for anyone to understand so that someone that comes from outside of the organization could actually learn how to do it, then you’re at a point where you can solve a whole bunch of really difficult problems that may even not be the problems that are inside of that particular position. And it’s okay for you to even walk away from that position and write a book over the last two years because you can walk away from those positions and have other people jump into your spot.
We had someone in the book from GitLab, Darren Murph who we consider the Wikipedia of remote work. And his daughter ended up getting born as a premium, I think at around the seven-month mark. And he had to just go and spend time with his wife and his daughter for about two and a half months. And he was blown away that he came and nothing exploded, nothing changed, they didn’t even know that he was gone. And if you can do that inside of your organization, then you have an organization that number one is incredibly… It can go through a lot of different problems and it can survive, but more importantly, you can scale that organization way faster than an asynchronous organization that requires a lot of undocumented information in order to function.
Douglas: That reminds me of another thing I’d learned about GitLab which was this notion of their preference for referential information. So almost like this witch hunt for any questions that emerge that do not have a source to answer that question, right? A question that requires another human to answer it. They’re like constantly trying to eradicate that. And I’m curious if that’s something that you saw across other companies that you interviewed.
Liam: Absolutely. GitLab’s an extreme case of that. I ended up doing a lot of work with GitLab and research for this book. And it was quite funny because I would ask for Zoom calls to be able to interview them. And they eventually just said, listen, Liam, I know that you want to do more of the calls to get more depth out of what’s going on, but to be completely honest with you, we can provide you much more in-depth information if you just simply ask us questions through email because every single question that I asked, they didn’t give me the answer on Zoom. They said, oh, well, here’s the doc for that. Here’s the URL for that. Here’s the URL for this. And it’s really interesting to be able to see organizations that operate that way. We don’t operate to that level, but there are lots of different organizations that operate that way inside of asynchronous primarily remote teams because the concept of asynchronous management was born out of remote teams because they have a distributed workforce that exists all over planet earth.
They don’t have this sunk cost of saying, everyone’s going to take 90 minutes out of their workday and drive to one place every single day. So once you drive to that one place every single day, then we’re going to collaborate as much as humanly possible, right? Like as much collaboration, more collaboration equals good. Remote-first teams recognized because they were distributed that they had to pay that sunk cost every single time they jumped onto a Zoom call. So every single time you actually all come together, you’re all getting distracted equally. You’re all putting in that same amount of sunk cost. So it’s more of an a la carte method for meetings which is, what’s the minimum viable dose that we need to be able to… What’s the information that we need to distribute amongst ourselves in order to be able to solve issues inside of this organization to move the business forward.
And they discovered that they actually had to meet way less synchronously than they did before. We do something called, and a bunch of other companies that I studied did this as well, silent meetings. So we use Asana as our project management system and we break down issues that we need to talk about every single week. And we discuss them asynchronously in the comments. And if we’ve come to a conclusion, we take that conclusion and we add it to the top of the ticket and then we complete that particular task inside of Asana. And if we have less than three issues per week, we don’t have the meeting. And we probably have an asynchronous meeting once a month because we’re able to solve the vast majority of those issues asynchronously.
Douglas: Interesting. So this is like an internal project that you’re adding tasks or issues to that then you can comment on and discuss prior to the meeting. I’d say the benefit of that too is when you do meet in-person, everyone’s already primed. They know what’s going on and they’re ready to really get it into it versus just showing up and everyone having to boot up together.
Liam: Yeah. We talk about how, if you’re going to show up for an asynchronous meeting, you need to have your bootloader set, right? It’s like, you need to know what are the metrics that we’re looking at? What are the issues? Have you gone through those issues? Have you read them yet? You can read them in your own time, but instead of everyone sitting down and reading them synchronously, let’s all divide up, and consume that information asynchronously when we can when it’s most opportunistic for us. And then we’re all really ready to jump into that synchronous meeting and work that out. And again, I have synchronous meetings. I’m having one actually this week. We’re doing our team retreat here in Austin. So when we do meet, we really make sure that we make that time as profitable as humanly possible for the company because we recognize the opportunity costs that we’re spending by all meeting together.
Douglas: I wanted to talk about that a little bit, this notion of spontaneity and connection when we’re dealing with distributed or remote teams. What is your thought or recommendation on that?
Liam: I think it’s a really interesting problem. I would say at this point to me currently, it’s not fully baked and I’ll be completely honest with you. There is no book on asynchronous work or asynchronous management. I looked. We’re coming out with this one. It’s the first one on that subject. And it’s a relatively new concept that was really born out of the remote pioneers. When I think about collaboration, it is absolutely correct that there’s less of that spontaneity inside of remote teams. However, there is a much higher ratio, if you do it properly, of deep work inside of those teams. I honestly think, if you can optimize every single individual to solve really difficult problems on their own and not require immediacy from any other team member inside of that organization, you can actually get a lot of really great work done very, very quickly.
The spontaneity, and the collaboration effect is definitely more prevalent inside of the asynchronous on-premise environment. However, do I want to give up all of that deep work for that type of spontaneity? Because a lot of the time spontaneity is a distraction in another… You call it spontaneity. I call it a distraction. I call it, okay, this is the seventh time someone’s walked into my office today, and I actually just really need to get this email sequence written as an example. And I can’t actually get it done because I’ve had these spontaneous conversations throughout my workday. So a lot of these times they can end up looking like distractions when a lot of people call them collaboration and spontaneity. So I’m not quite clear actually on where that’s going to go. But I have seen this happen a lot inside of the corporate world where people just get into meetings because that’s the flow of what they should be doing. But the reality is that you could actually, as you said, turn a lot of those meetings into an email.
Douglas: Yeah. The thing I come back to, because I agree with you, is people just dropping into your desk or your office and asking questions and talking about the weekend and stuff can derail from the deep work. And ideally, that time should be protected, but also I see this potential around spontaneity and you look at, for instance, the 3M Innovation Center, right? They put whiteboards outside the bathrooms for a reason because that’s where people that were working on different projects ran into each other and they are like, wait, how does that polymer work? And they start whiteboarding the chemical structures and they’re like, oh, I need to go back to the lab. I’ll see you later, you know?
Douglas: Those seeds are a true innovation. These sparks, you never know where they come from. And to me in a remote setting, it’s a bit paradoxical because you had to plan it. You had to plan the spontaneity. Like how do we think about these intersections? You’re having a retreat right now, right?
Liam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas: And there’ll be some spontaneity there, there’ll be some emergent things that you hadn’t planned because you’re bringing people together. So anyway, I’m curious if you have any more thoughts on that or if you’ve seen it born out.
Liam: Yeah. When we do these in-person retreats, we really focus on spontaneity. And you’re right, it is a little bit engineered, but we just apply lots of activities and alcohol generally to these types of events. And we start to get other ideas that start coming out, but I’m not entirely sure where this goes. So if you had 1,000 companies, let’s say it’s just software companies, right? Actually, let’s get even more specific. Let’s call it SaaS businesses. Really great metric to look at, right? Software as a Service company. You have 1,000 Software as Service companies that are focused on internal collaboration. And then you have 1,000 SaaS businesses that are focused on asynchronous work and asynchronous management, which ones end up winning more often? It would be a really interesting experiment to run because I think initially, the ideation of on-premise synchronous organizations that are having that form of spontaneity, they might see an initial increase in those companies, but the asynchronous organizations, maybe their ideas don’t evolve as quickly, but the ability to be able to scale those ideas significantly increase in comparison.
They can execute in that way, better than the companies that focus on spontaneity because there are very bad documentation processes and a lot of distractions inside of those organizations. So if I had the ability to be able to run that experiment, I wish I could because it would be interesting to see it. But the other aspect of this that I personally adopt is remote-first organizations for the founders of those companies and for the employees as well, providing for a lifestyle that an in-person environment can’t really match. So when it’s not COVID, I travel six months out of the year with my wife and daughter, so does my co-founder. A lot of my employees that work inside of the organization, they travel three to four months out of the year in different locations.
They really have a fantastic lifestyle, a lifestyle that I think very few people that live in an office environment or operate in an office environment can compare to. So there’s that other aspect as well, which I actually think long term, this is going to be not just something that… We’ve talked about the great resignation. I think the great resignation is going to turn into the great migration where you’re seeing all of these people that are saying, well, why would I live in San Francisco when my job is no longer located in San Francisco, maybe I should move to Boulder because actually Boulder has the same people.
It’s just a 100,000 people instead of a couple million people, but it’s the same amount of cool interesting people per capita and it’s way cheaper and I can ski every day and I can have a much better lifestyle living out there. And I’d rather do asynchronous work that focuses on deep work maybe I have less of those aha moments, but it’s still going to be a net win for the organization and actually a forcing function to be completely honest with you. I think a lot of these employees are going to say like, I’m not going to stay in San Francisco for $12,000 a month for a two bedroom apartment. I’d much rather go to Boulder and you could buy a block at Boulder for $12,000 a month.
Douglas: It’s interesting to me, I think we’ll probably see a hybrid approach where people are blending some of these things, right? Because I do think there’s a time where we need to… Like you’re bringing the team together right now, right?
Liam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Douglas: There’s a time for togetherness and connectedness. There’s a time for idea generation and there’s a time for deep work. A great example is we wouldn’t want to be doing a bunch of deep work on a model that’s not working. We wouldn’t want to just grind it out on something that’s like, hey, we need to go back to the drawing board here. So how do we figure that out? And that might be a giant signal that, hey, we might need to bring everyone together for the asynchronous workshop where we start to test and figure things out. But whatever the signals are, it’ll be really interesting to see where things evolve because I agree with you, the landscape is shifting.
Liam: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the internet meme, the formula for success, idea times execution equals growth, but it basically is like an awful idea makes you -$1, a brilliant idea makes you $20 dollars, but then no execution is worth $1 and brilliant execution is worth $10 million. So if you multiply a brilliant idea for $20 times brilliant execution for $10 million, you have a $2 billion company. But if you have a brilliant idea for $20 and weak execution for a $1,000 then you end up with a $20,000 idea that could have been a $20 billion idea. And I think about that a lot which is, what’s more important? Idea or execution? And when you think about large companies, it’s almost inevitably execution. If you look at 1,000 plus seat organizations, they are execution companies with a little bit of like idea sprinkled on top.
But if you think about a tech startup that’s under 10 people, it’s the idea that’s absolutely critical. And you’re effectively testing that idea to figure out whether or not it works, but once you test it, it’s really… There’s a great book, Zero to One by Peter Thiel that breaks into this. And for anyone that’s interested in breaking that down, that’s the place to start. But you effectively have to move from being an entrepreneur to being an executive. And those are actually two very different types of people. Someone that goes from zero to one is trying to test assumptions and figure out how can I be better at this? But then once you actually do get a good idea and you start to get some traction, then you need to shift your mindset and say, well, I’m no longer going to start to get good at figuring out how to make ideas successful, I have to take the idea that is successful and scale it.
Douglas: Awesome. I want to make sure that we have an opportunity to peer into the future a little bit. So when you think about just the potential, if more and more companies were to start to operate in this way, and you mentioned the experiment, you’d love to run, putting 1,000 companies against 1,000 companies and just seeing the differences, but blasting forward even further, let’s say like everyone adopted these mindsets, how does the landscape shift it overall?
Liam: Well, I think number one, there’s a lot more freedom. The implications of remote work at scale is going to be pretty fantastic. We haven’t even talked about… It’s a relatively small community, but digital nomadism was 5 million people before the pandemic, it’s now 50 million people. I’d probably say within the next five years there’s going to be a quarter of a billion digital nomads that are going to be running around. And digital nomads are people that work from their laptops, they don’t have a set address. So they travel. I think there’s going to be a lot more of those. I think if we wanted to make a $100 bet, I would say within the next 10 years, half of the S&P 500 will probably be remote hybrid. In my opinion, I think it’s just simply a more efficient model to be able to scale an organization.
The second-largest cost outside of people is your office. So if you can operate a business successfully without actually having that 20% to 30% of your P&L going into that single asset and you’re as productive regardless of whether or not your people are happy or anything like that, it’s going to make you a more efficient organization. And you’re going to outpace organizations that are dragged down by that cost on their P&L fundamentally. But I think there’s probably also going to be a lot of growing pains in that process. A lot of people feel disconnected in remote teams. I think it is because I talked about arranged marriage in that when you go into an office, it’s arranged friends, right?
So your social life is sometimes your work life. So your work friends are your social friends. And for remote teams, to be successful long term, you actually have to build relationships out of your work because you have to socialize with people that are down the street from you. Being adults, it’s very difficult to be able to build those types of social relationships, but that’s the core fundamental aspect of what I see as some of the biggest barriers towards removing a lot of those feelings of disconnection. It’s just that they’re looking for work to be the source of that connection when in reality, you can actually get it from other sources.
Outside of that, if I was going to just go forward 10 years from now, I would say 50% of the S&P 500 is remote or hybrid. I think it’s probably going to be more remote than hybrid because I think actually hybrid is another example of a lot of these companies not necessarily being sure as to whether or not they want to go remote or go completely back to the office. And I think we’re probably going to have a lot more deep work, but to your point, collaboration is going to happen in very different ways. And a lot of that collaboration is going to happen not necessarily in the classic MBA method, it’s going to be… The other factor that I talk about in the book which is really interesting when I studied all these companies, I looked at their managerial layer, like what’s the ratio of managers to workers. And remote-first companies have about a 50% thinner managerial layer than office environments because you require less managers inside of an asynchronous organization because you don’t have to play games with telephone, right?
I don’t tell you what my numbers are. And then you tell your boss what your numbers are. And then that boss tells the big boss, what my numbers are. It just automatically happens because it’s documented and it’s very clear. So I think also too, you’re probably going to see a lot less managers or they’re going to evolve in very different ways. I talk about how it’s going to be less about management and more about leadership. Because when I jump onto calls with my direct reports, I don’t talk about the numbers because they’re already up, we don’t need to discuss them, right? They’re already there and they know whether or not they’re succeeding or not succeeding.
What I talk about is how’s the team in Ukraine doing, how’s your wife doing? I know that she was going through cancer treatments. What’s the update this month, those types of things. Those are the things that I think really allow for employees to feel valued and creates an environment that makes the team members say, yeah, I’m not just a number, Liam is actually paying attention to me.
Douglas: Yeah. That comes back to that connection. You mentioned people having friends outside of work, but I think there’s also an important aspect of how we consider connections within work and how we look at the entire person and not just, hey, they’re here to do this job. How can we take care of them?
Liam: Yeah. I would say to me… Before we jumped on, I talked about some of my team members that were in Ukraine. None of them are working right now. They’re still “working”, but they’re not really working because they’re distracted by this conflict that’s currently going on right now. And should you be talking to them about the numbers? Should you be talking to them about like, okay, what kind of email campaigns did you put together last week? No, you shouldn’t be talking about that. The only thing that you should be talking about is how are you feeling today? What can I do to be able to make your day a little bit more enjoyable, less stressed out? How can I distract you with what’s currently happening right now? And let’s forget about all the other work stuff. Let’s really focus on your own personal safety.
Liam: And if you do that, I think that those team members… This is also a huge cheat code for retention, right? Like our ENPS is in the mid 70s which is really, really good for Employee Net Promoter Score. And the vast majority of the reasons why people say that we have a high ENPS that are coming inside of our organization, they give two major reasons. Number one, when you come inside of our company, we give you the same informational advantage as the CEO. So you get access to the P&Ls, you get access to who our customers are, how much money they make. There is no closed door to any single person inside of the company. If you want to look at anything, you can look at anything. That’s the first one.
And then the second one is that we really focus on the EQ side of management as opposed to saying, “Hey, Douglas, your numbers are not where they were last month.” Well, Douglas knows, right? We don’t have to call that out. We’re very clear that those are not necessarily working out. And we can have deep discussions about the issues around that. Maybe it’s because Douglas is in Ukraine right now and there’s a war going on and that’s why those numbers are not going well. Or maybe it’s something else, but the vast majority of the time when we actually see numbers drop off from people that were very productive to people that are not as productive, the vast majority of the time, it’s not a technical issue, it’s a psychological issue. It’s like I’m having a conflict with my wife or I’m having problems with my kids. Or my mother is in end-stage cancer as an example and then it’s like, well, there’s nothing wrong with the person, you actually need to help them get through that. And hopefully, they’re going to go back to a rate of high productivity.
Douglas: Absolutely. And if that’s not the case, the best way to find that out is to probe the EQ pieces. Because if we started on the other side, they would get defensive, the wall would go up immediately and we never find out that, oh, they have these other things going on. And like you say, so often it’s there’s something else going on. And that even, I think, plays out a lot in meetings and sessions is when we’re facilitating, if there’s a reaction that happens or someone goes off the rails or there’s some dysfunctional, quite often that’s rooted in something else that’s going on. And one of my favorite prompts is what I heard is, mirror what just happened, is that the case or is something else going on? Open that door to allow people to speak up, right?
Liam: Yeah. I tell people inside of our team, can you talk to me like you have FU money. Forget about getting hired in this job, can you be as clear and honest with me as humanly possible, I like Philip Rosedale who is the inventor of Second Life, has a really great philosophy towards how he manages all of his organizations. There’s an anonymous survey every single month which is, is Philip doing a good job as CEO? And it’s a yes or a no answer. And he has stated that if the yeses go over 50%… Oh, sorry, if the nos go over 50%, he will quit. And it’s just like, do you actually want an honest answer? Maybe you’re not really good at your job. I know for me, every single week I am managing a company that is bigger than any company I’ve ever managed before, right?
Liam: So it’s like, of course, I don’t know what I’m doing, right? And just admitting that and just being open and honest with people, creates an environment of trust which is definitely a bedrock of, you can’t really discuss about your mother in end-stage cancer if you don’t have that environment of trust to be able to say, “Hey, Liam, I really screwed up.” And I actually had a conversation like that just last week with somebody because I said like, listen, you know the numbers are not doing well. What can I do to be able to help you through this? Maybe we should jump on a call. And again, calls about emotional issues should always be synchronous.
I’m not suggesting that you should be debating those things asynchronously, that’s when you should spend that time. And he said, listen, I’m… He’s not in Ukraine, but he has a lot of family that’s in Ukraine. And he said, “I’m taking half my salary and I’m giving it to my aunt and my uncle in Ukraine right now. And I’m completely burnt out and I’m watching a 24-hour news cycle and it’s scaring me and I don’t know what I can do to be able to solve that problem. But you’re absolutely right, I’m dropping the ball in a ton of stuff.”
And my answer was, great, we’re going to get someone else to pick up those ball for you for right now because you’re absolutely not in the headspace to be able to do this. I know that you’re a good person at your job. You should have asked for help earlier. You should have reached out to me, but he never would’ve admitted that to me in the first place, had we not had that environment of trust where he knows he’s not going to get fired because he was just telling me the truth. And that’s the vast majority of these problems is like, if you just tell someone the truth right from the get go, you’re actually going to solve a lot of those problems or get fired. And if your leader, if your manager is a bit of an a-hole, then you’re probably going to get fired, but if your manager’s good at his or her job, then you’re probably going to get a real solution.
Douglas: Wow. Yeah, it’s a lot. And we’ve got a lot of clients as well as friend that are directly impacted by that. And luckily none of our employees are, so definitely in our thoughts and kudos to you for supporting the team through that. I know you were telling me earlier that you guys had done a bunch of workaround just getting people Starlinks and didn’t sound like it was trivial to make that happen. So awesome work there, but we are coming to an end of our time. So I want to make sure to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Liam: I have two thoughts. First one, Elon Musk is a total boss for getting Starlinks into Ukraine instantaneously. We were dealing with trying to get a Starlink and it was like a six-month wait. And then we said, listen, this is for Ukraine. And it showed up in a day and a half, which was nuts. Like just listen, we’re going to rearrange customers and we’re going to make it happen which was awesome. But my other thought is I think if you’re simply recreating the office and you’re working remotely and you are one of those pandemic panickers, really look at… You don’t even have to read our book. You don’t have to go to our conference, just sit down and say to yourself, what should I do to be able to make remote management easier? So how can I make sure that these team members that have been completely disconnected from the rest of their teams for the past two and a half years, how can I engage with them in new and unique ways that are not taking into the assumption of the on-premise environment, right?
I don’t know if you’ve had this happen, but I call it culture at gunpoint like Friday evenings, everyone has to get on Zoom and we’re going to all… Like there’s a beer that was ordered for you that’s going to be delivered and we’re going to play cards against humanity, but the HR friendly one that isn’t fun. And we’re all going to sit around on Zoom for two hours. That’s not how you build culture. Really make sure that you approach them and ask them what they want as remote team members and I think they’re going to tell you some really interesting stuff.
Douglas: Awesome. Liam, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you today. All great advice. Wish you the best of luck on the conference. Hopefully, it’s sold out and lots of fun and everyone learns a lot and hopefully, we get to see each other again soon. Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. And if you want more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.