Interview: Liam Martin on Fostering Accountability and Trust in a Remote-First Setting
Liam Martin is a pioneer in the remote work sphere and has more than two decades of experience under his belt. He is the co-founder of popular time-tracking tool Time Doctor and also co-organizes the world's largest remote working conference, Running Remote. Liam is currently working on his book Running Remote which is due to be published by HarperCollins in August 2022.
As part of our new interview series, we talked to Liam about what he's working on, how the remote work landscape has changed since the pandemic, and how managers new to remote work can promote accountability and trust in their teams.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming book Running Remote? What can we expect ?
I’ve read so many books about remote work. I’ve got some of them right here.
Liam holds up a pile of books.
And almost all of these books miss one critical premise. The vast majority of them tell you how to work remotely.
But they don't actually talk about the methodology behind remote work.
I was studying all of those remote pioneers and seeing all of the massive businesses they’ve built. Some of them have built nine and ten figure businesses. And I said to myself, well why are they different? Why are they so successful in comparison to everyone else? And also, more importantly, why are their teams so much more successful and less stressed than everyone else?
It’s not just about remote work. It's the actual methodology that they use to be able to manage remote workers. And we're calling that the asynchronous mindset, which effectively connects to asynchronous management and understanding how to manage people without actually communicating to them face to face.
Sounds great! And can you tell us more about the inspiration for the Running Remote conference?
So about six years ago now, we had a team retreat in the Philippines. We had people from 25 countries at the time. And we flew everyone to this one little tiny island.
We were trying to work out how to scale our remote company. We wanted to figure out how to get to 250 people, 500 people, 1000 people…
But there was almost nothing there. It was all about hiring a virtual assistant or hiring one or two remote workers.
There was nothing about building serious businesses remotely because before the pandemic, remote companies were seen as kind of a joke. Not many people saw remote work as a serious business. And a lot of people would call remote businesses ‘lifestyle businesses’, as if they just exist to service our lifestyle.
And that was the missing part of that. It was about trying to figure out how to build really big companies like Coinbase, like Git lab, like WordPress, like Basecamp, these billion dollar companies, and how to basically extract the methodologies from that.
So we said, okay, we have a couple of friends in the remote workspace that will come speak at an event. It was a ready, fire, aim methodology. I booked a venue which forced us into organizing an event. We ended up with around 300 people for that first event, then 700 at the next event. The following one was supposed to be in Austin, Texas but got cancelled due to COVID. And now we’re finally able to come back to physical events which I’m very excited about.
What did you think about remote work being adopted so quickly as a result of the pandemic?
There's been more changes to remote work in the last two and a half years than in the last 20. I was pretty excited about it. Our mission statement as a company is we're trying to empower the world's transition towards remote work.
And around six months into the pandemic, we thought we maybe should change our mission statement, because we're done. Pre-pandemic, 4.5% of the workforce in the US was working remotely. And in March of 2020, it was at 45% of the US workforce working remotely.
But then we realized that a lot of the people that are currently working remotely, are not really working the way that we intend them to work remotely.
They're working from home.
And I love that the media has chosen that terminology, because it's not really remote work.
Remote work is:
“I can go to a coffee shop or a co working space, or I can travel while I'm working remotely, I have a lot more freedom, there isn't this scary virus outside that may or may not kill me.”
And so we thought to ourselves, okay, well, let's just move that mission on a little bit, let's get people working remotely in as optimized a way as humanly possible, to be able to make sure that everyone is maximizing their own personal autonomy.
Some managers are worried about their staff's productivity if they can't see them in person. What's your advice to them?
You know, I recognize that there's a lot of fear out there, and it's not actually misplaced. I just got this in the mail.
Liam holds up an auto mouse mover.
So this is designed to keep your Slack bubble or your Microsoft Teams bubble active. It’s so your manager knows that you're working. And they're selling hundreds of thousands of these things. So there is some mistrust.
And I think actually, when you talk about trust in the workplace, it has to happen both ways. So the employee has to trust the employer and the employer has to trust the employee. But when you're selling hundreds of thousands of these things, I mean, there are some reasons why employers are pretty frustrated with working from home.
To me, this is something that you should be able to identify for yourself. For instance, working from home makes me more productive. And if it makes me more productive, if I'm producing more output than I was when I was in the office, then obviously I should be optimized towards working from home. Regardless of the amount of hours that I'm theoretically working.
As an employer, I'd love to be able to figure out why you're more productive, so I can teach others. And if you're not more productive, it’d be my job to figure out how to make you more productive.
What does accountability look like in a remote-first culture in your experience?
I have a very different perspective on this than other people because I've never worked in a corporate environment before or in an office.
But when I was looking at all of these office environments and these corporate environments, I was blown away at the lack of quantifiable metrics that are inside of these organizations.
So when I think about accountability, I think how everyone inside of our company has quantifiable longitudinal goals. For example, how many blog posts did I make? What traffic did I generate from those blog posts? How many leads did I generate from that traffic? These are all very easy to document, a lot of the time they can be documented in an automated way.
And we can immediately see the value of everything that you do inside of this organization. And if we can't measure the value of what you do inside of the organization, then that's a real problem for everyone, actually, inside of the company, for the employer and for the employee.
So when I think about accountability, I think about how I can be really metrics based, how can I make sure that everything that I've documented is consumable by everyone in the organization, in an equal way.
I think the purpose of managers is, to a degree, to play telephone with other people. And to be sort of like the ‘in-between stage’ for accountability. So when you look at asynchronous remote organizations, management isn't really required in the same way, because all of that accountability is automated. So we have all that documentation in a solid place. And it's communicable everywhere inside of the organization so that everyone can know what everyone else is doing.
And, there are no sacred cows.
If you're not doing well at your job, the company's job is to make you better at that and to try to help you to get to a point in which you're doing really well.
The point isn’t to cover that up or to talk in a demeaning way, which is what I find in a lot of corporate environments personally.
What would be your advice to managers that default to micromanagement?
Yeah, so autonomy is a critical part of the way that people work. The more autonomy you give people, the happier they are generally in the work environment. So the way we do it is, we say let's set your goal for the quarter. What do we think that the result of this activity will be?
Whatever those metrics are, you identify those metrics, and both the manager and the employee agree on those metrics. And then you execute. And how you execute how you choose to do it is fundamentally up to you.
Fundamentally, if it's something that you've never done before, then it should be up to you to actually achieve that particular goal. And the manager shouldn't necessarily be the one that's managing the journey, they should only identify where you're starting, and then where you end up.
And then in between, that's up to you.
So that's my perspective with regards to micromanagement, because, at the end of the day, when we've studied a lot of these asynchronous organizations that take that type of mindset, they're generally a lot more successful and it's actually a counterintuitive way that they're more successful.
The reason why they're more successful is because you don't need anywhere near as many managers to micromanage people. So if the job is to produce a blog post, all you need to know is how much traffic you need to generate by the end of the quarter. Which is what we’re really talking about here. Then you touch base in a month and see if you’re on target.
Inside of our organization, we have a system, we call it green light, red light, yellow light.
So green light, you're on target, you're going to hit your target, everything's fine, don't need to talk about it, yellow light, you're not currently hitting your target, but you may hit your target. And maybe we need to make a couple little course adjustments.
Or red light, you're not going to hit your target. And then we need to identify, did we really set the target properly? Is this something that you think that you could have achieved?
And if you're not hitting your goal, right, if it's a misaligned goal, then we need to realign that. Is it you didn't have the informational advantage that you needed?
Is your manager not good at their job and wasn't actually telling you what to do effectively, or are you not good at your job?
It's only one of those things. So we just identify which ones. And if we can fix them, we fix them.
And if we can't fix them... well, actually, we can fix them all.
One of the solutions might be you shouldn't work in that job anymore, you should be moved somewhere else, which is a fix in itself.
How do you steer away from a blame culture?
So it's about the metrics. It's not about the person. That's how you move away from that blame culture. Let's talk about the numbers. Let's not talk about the person.
Did we hit the targets that we were supposed to hit? No. Did our employee do everything that she thought she could and we agreed upon beforehand? Yes. Okay, so it's not a performance problem. Excellent. So where are we at now?
Did we make an assumption with regards to the project? Maybe we thought that this project was going to be a lot more successful. Maybe we need to actually have this experiment work itself out for a little bit longer. Maybe we need to tweak the process.
That’s how we sit down to work out what has gone wrong.
As opposed to just blaming the employee and saying why are you not doing what you’re supposed to be doing?
In the vast majority of cases when we identify that it’s the person that’s the problem it’s not because they lack the technical skills to complete the work.
It almost always relates back to some type of personal issue. Maybe there was a death in the family, maybe there were some other stressors going on.
Those are the things you should be looking at as a manager. It’s about emotional intelligence.
You can just have that manager say to your employee something like:
“How are you doing today? How's that task going? It seems like we're not really hitting these targets? What's the issue? Do we need to move you somewhere else? Do we need to do something else to support you?”
And then you hopefully have an environment of trust, and you trust that person enough to be able to say, actually, I'm having some real problems with my husband, as an example. And it's really impacting my work.
That's the kind of management that I would love to be able to see. It's not the management I see in corporate, unfortunately.
Very true. Thanks for your time, Liam.
You can still sign up for this year's Running Remote conference here. It will take place in Montreal, Canada, May 17-18.