Ana Ferreira - Todoist

Staying organized is perhaps more important for distributed teams than others. When colleagues are collaborating on work across multiple time zones, often asynchronously, it's vitally important for everyone to know where things stand and what needs to be done. It's not always a simple matter of just walking over to a coworker's desk or even picking up the phone when teammates are spread out around the world.

That's a truth that Doist, the makers of ultra-popular and cross-platform task management app Todoist, takes to heart. The team is spread out across the world, yet remains extremely productive by staying organized and communicating using a variety of online tools (including, of course, their own).

We talked to lead designer Ana Ferreira, who manages a (very) distributed design team from her home base in Portugal, about working for a distributed company and fostering a productive, remote work environment.

What does Todoist do and what do you do there?

Todoist is a simple yet powerful task manager that helps people organize both their professional and personal lives.

I’m the lead designer of the team, so I’m in charge of making sure everything is done in time, that our brand is used correctly, helping the marketing team, etc. But the most important part of the job is to make sure our apps are simple and easy to use.

What initially drew you to remote work?

When I started working on Todoist, the project itself and the challenge of improving an app with thousands of users were the things that drew me in. The flexibility of working remotely was just one more nice characteristic of the job.

Right now I’m really a fan of remote work, not being bound to one location or work day. At Doist (the company behind Todoist) we don’t have a fixed schedule, so I don’t feel bad going for a coffee when I’m just not being productive. That freedom is incredible!

Also working remotely is great to increase personal responsibility over tasks and the product itself.

How many people are at the company now and how spread out are you? How about on your team specifically?

The company has about 30 employees across 4 continents.

The design team consists of 5 people, in 5 different countries: me (Portugal), Alex (Germany), Jano (Spain), Jordi (Peru) and Wallace (Taiwan).

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

Communication is the most important part to keep everyone feeling connected. Across the company we always try to share our goals and progress.

At the beginning of every week, we share what we accomplished last week and what we want to get done this week. Of course, we don’t always get everything on our lists done, but it helps to intentionally plan out the week, stay accountable to the team, and stay up to date on what everyone else is working on. Then during the week, we try to be online as much possible and available to help when someone needs it.

We also recently started organizing video group meetings where participants are chosen randomly, and the only purpose is to get to know the others in the group. It’s been a great opportunity to get to know team members we don’t have a lot of contact with on a daily basis, but I also always learn new things about the lives of the people I work with every day.

Communication is the most important part to keep everyone feeling connected.

Next September we’re having a company-wide get-together. For the first time ever we’ll have the whole company in the same location and we’ll get to meet everyone in person!

What are some of the things you do to make sure your team stays on the same page and can successfully collaborate?

As I mentioned before we are always online, ready to jump in and help. We also have weekly video meetings where we discuss the previous week and plan the week ahead, and we try to be as honest as possible giving feedback.

Talk about some of the benefits and challenges you face working in a distributed team.

I think the biggest challenge is clear communication. We use Google Hangouts for video, and Slack for text, but in both we miss the natural body language of being in the same room, so we need to be careful not to misread or misunderstand anything.

The biggest benefit is that you’re not limited by geographic proximity to build a company/team, and you can choose the people you really want to work with, even if they are on the other side of the planet.

Are there any times when you wish, “Man, this would be so much easier if we were in the same room?” How do you shorten the distance between your team members, virtually speaking?

Yes, I think that’s inevitable. Sometimes you just want to discuss ideas and share a quick sketch, and of course that would be easier if everyone was on the same room.

In those occasions we usually do a video chat, and the distance feels a whole lot smaller.

What are some of the benchmarks you use to make sure the team is in a good place, both mentally and operationally?

The company encourages people to have hobbies by paying for sports, books, music and courses. It helps people to focus on more than just work.

And we try to create an open environment, where everyone has a voice – so everyone can suggest improvements, or tell us if something isn’t going that well.

What sort of culture does Todoist have? Is it harder to build cohesive culture across geography?

At Doist everyone is responsible for their own work, and we try to make the structure as flat as possible. So when we need something we don’t have to reach out for team leaders, we can just go to the right person. To make this work, we try to make everyone’s responsibilities clear, and we encourage people to be proactive.

The company encourages people to have hobbies by paying for sports, books, music and courses. It helps people to focus on more than just work.

I think building that culture is not hard, we just need to hire the right people to make it work.

What do you look for in an ideal remote employee? Are there any qualities that make someone more successful at working remotely?

I think a remote employee needs to be really responsible, a strong communicator and extremely organized. Those are all qualities you would look for in an employee anyway, but they become especially important when you’re in charge of setting your own schedule and can’t just walk over to a colleague when you need to clarify something.

Describe your personal work environment.

My desk starts clean everyday, with a laptop, external monitor, keyboard and mouse. During the workday it starts to get a bit cluttered with devices (phones, tablets, other computers, watches...), headphones, cables, paper and pencils and everything else I need to accomplish my tasks. At the end of the day, I clean it again, so I can start fresh in the morning.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

I try to make a fix schedule for myself: I work in the morning, have lunch, work again in the afternoon, then usually make a break for coffee or yoga, and finish a couple more things before closing the day.

And I always try to take the weekends completely off, and spend that time with friends and family, or reading a nice book.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

To keep distractions away I try not to squeeze any house related tasks in the work hours, that helps keeping both parts of life separated.

I start every day organizing my work in Todoist, and an efficient day is when I did almost everything I had planned. (I’m usually too optimistic so I rarely do everything!)

What are some of the tools you couldn’t live without as a remote company?

We’re also currently building a new collaboration tool that the team is relying on more and more every day to help us stay on the same page with all of our projects.

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

  1. Make goals and objectives extremely clear, to make sure everyone is on the same page.
  2. Choose the best tools for you, but make sure they encourage sharing and communication.
  3. Encourage everyone to be responsible and proactive.
Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.