Perspectives on Remote Work: Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal
Jan 17, 2022 · 9 MIN READ
In March of 2020, when companies of all shapes and sizes scrambled to make the transition to a remote working environment work for them, certain companies weren’t fazed by this shakeup at all.
One of these companies was Toptal, an elite network of the world’s top talent in business design and technology, enabling companies to scale their teams on demand. They’ve been remote since the beginning, so CEO Taso Du Val didn’t have to make any significant changes. It was business as usual for everyone at Toptal.
Du Val is here to share his perspectives on remote work and tips for organizations struggling with finding success in a remote world.
How Toptal decided on a remote workplace
Like we said, while some organizations were scrambling to create policies and strategies that fit the remote-first landscape, this wasn’t the case for Toptal. Choosing the remote life came naturally, as Du Val shares, “We’ve been remote since day one all the way back in 2010. It was an easy decision, since I was in Palo Alto, CA, and a lot of the people working with me were in different countries”.
Challenges to working remote
Most of the challenges we had from 10 years ago, which were mainly around organization and communication, have been alleviated, and the processes have become more fluid.
For instance, we used to use Skype and tools like that, which are a bit old fashioned. Now we use Slack. We’ve built our own tools on top of Slack that have integrated with Zoom in a compelling way. Now everything is more fluid, more organized, and we’re able to flourish,” explains Du Val.
How the right tools can provide a new way of thinking
At Toptal, finding the right tools allowed them to be more productive and discover a workflow that made everyday tasks simple. Learning new tools can make the transition to remote work more accessible for many organizations, but it’s all about choosing wisely.
“When it comes to decisions around tools, a lot rides on the organization. Many companies already have deals with Microsoft or Google, so it depends. The choice of tools will be based on the business as it currently stands. Often, the decision-making is more political than it is practical. And the decisions on which tools you use have sweeping ramifications affecting remote work. If you’re between two tools, and one has fewer features or is inferior to the other, don’t go with the lesser choice. Otherwise, you’re going to have an inferior work experience, and therefore an inferior company.”
How working remote puts the spotlight on corporate culture
For many organizations, shifting to remote work was a stress test on their corporate culture because it wasn’t a choice, they had to do it. They had to move fast to get their infrastructure in place, then their organizational structure, and accommodate the changing landscape.
Fast forward to 2022, and it’s a stress test for different reasons. Du Val explains, “Now, organizations are faced with asking questions like ‘Are we going to lose our best people? Should we continue with remote work?’ To put it simply, everyone knows people want a remote workplace.”
So, why is it stressful for companies to decide now to keep a remote workplace in place? According to Du Val, the answer is simple.
Allow your employees to work remotely because it’s effective, it works, and everyone recognizes that around the world.
Companies who say differently should remember that they’re on the world stage, and everyone’s a jury. It’s simply an absurd statement at this point. To me, remote working is more effective and more desirable than working in an office.
I’ve also found, sometimes it’s more political than anything. Let’s say you have a CEO in their 60s and 70s who doesn’t believe this is true of remote work. And then, suddenly, they find their employees want to leave the company. It’s putting more political pressure on them than business pressure. But it is starting to meld because your internal strength, of course, is representative of your business strength and the ability for any company to compete in their market.
Nowadays, it’s tough for a manager to say, ‘Hey, you need to be in the office five days a week now,’ because after over a year and a half of successful remote working, you can see that productivity has increased. This shows that the remote work experiment was successful, and it doesn’t come at a productivity loss, actually the reverse.
How remote work puts its own spin on corporate culture
Just because your organization is remote doesn’t mean you have to throw the notion of corporate culture out the window. A remote workforce puts its own positive spin on what kind of culture an organization can have.
Sometimes, part of company culture is physical, like an office space. Additionally, some people believe that people are more likely to trust other employees when they’re all in-person instead of remote. However, there can be favoritism in remote organizations, so your culture should combat that.
“I’ve seen strong favoritism in a remote environment for many reasons. Maybe one person is more productive, from the same background, or even from the same place. So just because everyone is remote doesn’t mean favoritism doesn’t happen,” explained Du Val.
Being remote also emphasizes recruiting and retaining talent, as more and more people expect flexibility, and remote work is flexible. If you’re not thinking of the health and wellness of your employees, which includes flexibility, you’re going to be passed up as talent goes somewhere else.
Onboarding when remote
A consistent challenge that organizations faced in 2020 when they had to shift gears to remote-first quickly was how to onboard new employees. At Toptal, a significant element of their corporate culture is their onboarding and how they introduce new employees to the company, even when they’re not physically present.
“At Toptal, we have exceptional onboarding, and I know that because we have senior folks from Microsoft, Google, and Facebook who’ve all said it’s the best onboarding experience they’ve ever had. We do this by capturing how the organization operates and communicating through video, almost like a learning and development process.
We make it very intentionally relative to the role at hand. Everything is tailored to the exact role with personalized onboarding programs per role,” shares Du Val. Companies need to remember that onboarding when completely remote is not one size fits all.
The challenges of a hybrid work environment
One trend we’re starting to see is many organizations are trying to please their employees by offering the compromise of a hybrid working environment. While some CEOs or c-suite executives may think this is a good halfway point, hybrid offices can hurt more than they can help.
Du Val explains, “Hybrid work is a challenge unto itself because you have the disconnect problem. You miss the conversation when you have someone in a conference room, and you’re at home. Or, if someone is talking to others in the room, the person online can’t hear properly. In the room, there may be comradery, but holistically there’s not.
This disconnect only exists in hybrid work, and unfortunately, there’s not a lot of great solutions to deal with this sort of problem. However, in the remote work environment, it’s much more straightforward. I think the remote work environment works exceptionally well.”
How to keep remote workers accountable
Some organizations may argue that it’s harder to keep remote workers accountable and aligned with a company’s vision, mission, and goals. But for those at Toptal, that simply isn’t the case.
“The techniques we use for this are not so proprietary to us that we have, like many companies, created our own version of what works. We use specific OKRs, org charts, and different elements that pertain to how we operate at an organizational level. While these are well defined, we also have yearly and quarterly planning to review what has been done for the quarter of the year and then plan what we’re going to do for a given year quarter.
So, we probably use what most companies use, in terms of the basic tools, though we’ve perfected it by developing software that allows each person to know who’s responsible for what within the organization, and then we tie these initiatives to goals.
Anyone joining Toptal can very clearly see how our goals are formulated, who owns what goal, how the initiatives relate to a given set of goals, who owns those, and what teams they’re running as a byproduct of owning these specific initiatives or projects, or sub-projects at hand. It all comes down to technology, and companies are investing way more in technology than they were before because COVID put the pressure on them to do so.
Advice for other organizations
For companies still on the fence about what sort of organization to lead in the future, Du Val puts it exceptionally plainly.
Do it. That’s it. Sell your office, start working from home. And if you have any challenges, at least you can go to bed knowing that you’re saving a lot of money on real estate expenses.
Remote work is the future. There’s no doubt about that. That is the truth, and the talent themselves will speak for that. They will leave their companies if a company makes them go into an office. It is as simple as that.
Over the next ten years, companies that don’t will disappear because new companies will be formed that are the same companies as those companies, but with everyone working remotely. And so, they’ll do the same thing, but compete by having the most competent people all work from home, and the other companies won’t attract them anymore.”