Summary: Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook

Sarah Archer

by Sarah Archer

7 min read
Summary: Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook
Playbooks Managing Teams

The global rise of reactive remote work in 2020 spawned a proliferation of playbooks published by many of the leading remote-first companies, which open-sourced the knowledge they’ve gained from years of successful fully remote operation to help other businesses follow their lead. There’s only one problem: These playbooks are loooooong. So wkrfrce has condensed them into abridged versions—CliffsNotes, if you will. Digital nomad Sarah Archer, a passionate advocate of remote and flexible work, has combed through thousands of pages of remote-first strategies to deliver the most unique, most useful, most actionable insights to help make working remotely work for you.

The thought of building a $200 million business without setting foot inside an office once was un-imaginable.

But that’s exactly what Toptal did.

The freelancing platform that connects businesses with software engineers, designers, and business consultants has grown from two partners to a staff of more than 4,000 across 100 countries. After more than 10 years in business, Toptal has made its mark on the remote workforce by showing what’s possible for a fully distributed company.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toptal detailed how employers and employees can approach the sudden shift to remote work through their people framework, chosen tools, and com-pany culture.

Recruit and Onboard Using an Efficient, Replicable System

Toptal believes three key elements guide human resources practices in a remote environment—culture, trust, and transparency.

The company created a system for every applicant and newcomer that helps it source and retain the best talent.

  • Solve job-board limitations
    To get around the job boards that don’t permit a “remote” location. Toptal publishes the same role across multiple geographic areas to tap a more expansive talent pool.
  • Visualize a candidate’s role
    In addition to the job description, Toptal defines expectations, growth opportunities, and the people the candidate will work with. The company even shares headshots and some background on a candidate’s prospective teammates.
  • Assign a test project
    To assess candidates’ presentation skills and fit, Toptal requires them to complete an assessment and present it on a video call during the interview process.
  • Identify cultural ambassadors
    Toptal identifies employees who exemplify cultural leadership to conduct interviews and assess candidates’ cultural fit.
  • Schedule start dates in intervals
    To build an immediate sense of camaraderie, Toptal starts multiple new hires on the same day. The company sets start dates at two-week intervals and introduces everyone over Zoom on the first day.
  • Use self-directed onboarding
    Toptal trains newcomers using a company-wide learning management system like Lessonly. This allows the company to customize newcom-ers’ learning path to guide them to success in their specific department.
  • Promote personal development
    To establish and support an “always learning” culture, Toptal employees can pursue a variety of courses through online learning platforms like Udemy. To build specialized skills, employees can access options like Writing Academy.

Think Strategically About the Tools You Use

Remote companies’ success and productivity revolve around the tools they use. Toptal’s years of experience working remotely has helped it fine tune the most effective tools for a distributed work environment.

This collection of tools has helped the Toptal team “match—and often surpass the effectiveness of an office-based organization.”

  • Communication
    Toptal uses Slack for everyday communication. They rarely use email because it lacks smart-search capabilities and real-time collaboration.
  • Grammar and punctuation
    Grammarly’s web-browser plug-in helps Toptal employees improve their grammar across all communication channels.
  • Video meetings
    Toptal conducts all meetings over Zoom due to its array of features, mobile and desktop capabilities, effective buffering, and seamless integration with Slack.
  • Muting background noise mutes the background noise in any communication app, mitigating distraction on video calls.
  • File sharing
    Google’s G Suite is Toptal’s go-to for file sharing, version control, and collaboration.
  • Brainstorming
    Miro facilitates teams’ collaborative brainstorming through structured workflows.
  • Screenshots
    To provide descriptive feedback, Toptal uses Collabshot, which offers tools for screen grabs, annotation, image sharing, and collaboration.
  • Video walk-throughs
    When subject matter is too complex for a written message, Toptal workers use Loom to record screen, video, and audio simultaneously; Slack can send this recording to any team member.
  • Project management
    Managing workflows remotely requires a tool that can dissect projects on a team level. Both Asana and Trello allow teams to work collaboratively within one platform.
  • Knowledge management
    Toptal uses Confluence to document all processes and keep records of company knowledge.
  • Training
    Toptal employees take self-directed courses through Lessonly; the company uses Common Ground for antiharassment training.
  • Surveying
    Toptal monitors team happiness by integrating survey tool Polly through Slack.
  • Recruiting
    Lever, a recruiting software, assists the entire hiring process by tracking and managing the applicant pipeline, facilitating interview paths, and housing feedback forms.
  • HR and payroll
    For companies with a global footprint, Toptal recommends using Ultimate Software to manage finances and payroll across different countries.
  • Requesting time off
    Toptal’s discretionary policy allows employees to take time off at a moment’s notice; PTO Ninja integrated through Slack allows employees to request PTO quickly and easily.
  • Development
    Developer tools are crucial for companies that run a web application. Toptal uses Jira, GitHub, Lucidchart, and RetroBoard for all of their developer needs.

Toptal finds Zapier, an online automation tool, to be an invaluable resource for pulling all of these tools together and automating tasks for increased productivity.

Keep Employees Engaged and Happy: Provide a Level Playing Field

Transparency is another top priority for Toptal, and it created a meaningful process to help all employees understand the potential they have in their role and the tools they need to succeed.

  • Schedule regular performance reviews
    Toptal sets official self-assessment, peer, and manager reviews on a yearly cycle with mid-year goal check-ins. Nothing in these reviews should come as a surprise to employees, due to weekly video one-on-ones with managers to connect about project progress and challenges.
  • Develop a mentorship program
    Any employee who has been at Toptal for more than three months can select a mentor to aid in personal and professional growth. Meetings occur every one to two months and the mentee prepares the agenda.
  • Offer a career roadmap
    Toptal supports career transparency by sharing a public roadmap for every role and promotion path.
  • Create a public organizational chart
    To help team members find the right person to connect with, Toptal created an organizational database that shares all employee profiles, including a map that identifies employee time zones.
  • Disclose objectives and key results
    Every employee’s objectives and key results are visible to the entire company, cementing the importance of accountability and transparency.

Company Culture Directly Affects Long-Term Success

On-site companies rely on physical interaction—chats next to the Keurig about sports or break room speculations on who brought what for lunch—to help shape their culture. Companies with distributed workforces, however, must dig deeper to create a sense of cohesion.

“If you don’t have the right culture, the whole thing is going to collapse.”
— Kleanthis Georgaris, VP of product at Toptal

Toptal built its company culture by identifying key values and sticking to them. Here are some ways that Toptal implements its unique culture.

  • Actively measure employee happiness
    Toptal pinpoints areas of improvement by running regular surveys that ask about employee morale and happiness.
  • Create a feedback cadence
    Toptal schedules employee feedback check-ins regularly, with higher frequency for new team members. Feedback intervals start at weekly, then phase into monthly, 100-day, 200-day, and annually.
  • Keep the digital “door” open
    Toptal managers create an atmosphere with room for a spontaneous video call or Slack chat for anyone on their team who requests it.
  • Use company-wide meetings to build morale
    Beyond presenting goals and initiatives in Toptal meetings, employees shout out accomplishments and recognize contributions from people in all departments.
  • Form a culture committee
    Culture improvements can get lost in the day-to-day shuffle of meeting project deadlines. Toptal facilitates a culture committee with cross-functional team members who brainstorm new ideas, programs, and events that embody the company’s core values.
  • Encourage generosity at the local level
    To empower employees to get involved in their communities, Toptal strongly advocates that employees volunteer in their neighborhoods.
  • Establish trust early on
    Managers coming from a nonremote background often think they should check constantly on team members. Toptal instead encourages managers to use public calendars and Slack statuses to understand employee whereabouts in real time.

Productivity Requires Goals, Alignment, and Accountability

Three additional elements lead to Toptal’s high productivity: goals, alignment, and accountability. Below are some suggestions for putting those concepts in action.

  • Advocate for healthy work-life balance
    Recommend taking regular breaks and snoozing Slack notifications hours before going to sleep.
  • Hold meetings that matter
    Make sure all meetings are purposeful, actionable, and punctual. Be aware of time zones, use video, have an agenda, cancel or end early when needed, have clear action items, and rate the meetings at the end—instant feedback on whether the meeting used time wisely.
  • Create rotating schedules
    Take the burden off team members who need to sign on late or sign off early. Rotate schedules so that everyone can enjoy optimal meeting times.
  • Track accountability with metrics
    Construct dashboards that track ongoing individual and team performance. Toptal notes that these systems provide oversight without requiring managers to be physically present.
  • Secure a dedicated workspace
    Establish recommendations for employees on how to be most productive in their workspaces, for example, having a separate work area, an ergonomic chair, strong WiFi, and up-to-date hardware.

Establish Strict Security Protocols

Because Toptal doesn’t have a physical office to house a centralized security system, it has established a security framework with which the entire organization complies.

  • Enforce two-factor authentication
    In addition to using a username and password, all Toptal employees must provide another form of authentication through Google Authenticator or a text message.
  • Use a password manager
    Toptal regularly reminds employees never to send confidential information (including passwords) over Slack or email. The company also uses a password manager, LastPass, to share passwords securely across the organization.
  • Make your file storage service mandatory
    All Toptal documents live on Google Drive to protect every asset in one place.
  • Perform security audits
    Toptal recommends reviewing access control and user management systems every six months to ensure security protocols are in place.
  • Offer IT support
    Toptal uses in-house IT teams to help employees remotely solve their own problems. For anything more complex, the company recommends setting up a ticket system that prioritizes and defines responsibility for resolving each issue.

Note that none of Toptal’s methods is set in stone—like any agile organization it constantly refines its methods so it can continue to manage and grow one of the world’s largest fully remote companies. You can learn more tips from other experienced remote companies through our remote playbook series.


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