Ismael Peinado is the chief technology officer at Toptal, the world’s largest fully distributed company. Paul Estes, editor-in-chief of Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, recently sat down with Peinado to discuss how remote work differs from traditional office work. This article is part of a larger exploration of how organizations are adjusting to remote work, based on Toptal’s Suddenly Remote Playbook. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The global pandemic has dramatically changed the way work gets done. How do the companies and freelancers you work with feel about remote work?
A: It’s very interesting that in the middle of a health crisis, global companies have been forced into a model that increases efficiency and makes people happier. There may be a positive outcome from a terrible situation.
For the engineers I work with, the fully distributed model is a huge selling point. They are experts in their field, and when they have the flexibility to work asynchronously, they feel their time is valued. They are able to work in a way that’s most efficient for them and they’re not sitting at their desk just for the sake of it. That’s very powerful.
Q: How has your view of remote work evolved over your career?
A: I’ve had a massive change in my view of remote work. In the past, I was a strong advocate for on-location work. I felt that with large teams, you had a sense of control where you could make sure your people were working and not on Facebook. I also felt it was easier to foster a culture when you were physically together.
As an engineer, I see the world in a binary way, and it looked like on-location was the better way to work. After a transition to a co-location structure that bridged the gap between on-location and Toptal’s fully distributed model, I could see that remote work was just an entirely different way of being. Companies make a mistake when they move to a remote model but keep the same culture, the same principles, and the same process.
Toptal understands that the remote environment is entirely different, and they created two pillars based on that. They have a strong culture for remote work with accountability and ownership, and they have a framework where working from home is not a 9-to-5 job.
Q: How do you make sure a fully distributed team is productive?
A: The on-location model, where somebody has to work eight straight hours, is terribly inefficient. Working asynchronously is better. When you block your schedule, you know when you are going to do certain tasks. You fully focus on them and then you move on. What’s important is that you have pockets of time for various tasks and you organize your day as you see fit. That’s more efficient for you and for your team.
Q: What are the tools that make asynchronous work successful with a fully distributed team?
A: The most important tools that differ from an on-location job are the ones that support communication and autonomy. The specific tools, like Slack or Zoom, are available to any company. What makes for successful work is establishing a culture that uses those tools.
At Toptal, we put a framework around communication. Since we are working in an asynchronous way, it’s important that we communicate clearly and frequently so what we say is not open for interpretation and our team knows when we are available. We have our culture embedded in our engineering framework. It guides how we behave, how we communicate, and how often we interact with others. Providing autonomy requires a framework that makes it possible to catch potential mistakes and issues quickly and to correct course.
Sometimes, the over-communication that our culture demands is a challenge for people who have come from an on-location job. Within a few weeks of onboarding, though, they see how our culture works, how our tools foster it, and the value of how we operate.
Q: The world of remote work is changing so rapidly that it is no longer the future of work, but the present. If you look out 18 months, how will the world change?
A: It seems that companies are coming to the realization that remote work is not just a perk but it is actually more efficient. It’s what people want and it benefits the company.
From the talent side, particularly in the world of engineers, it will be a demand. Remote work will be an important driver that companies will have to adapt to. That adaptation means businesses will have to change their culture for it to be successful. Things are moving in the right direction as companies realize what is happening, but adjusting their culture to support a distributed team needs to be a priority for the next year or two.
As remote work becomes the new normal, Toptal has created a dedicated space to offer insights and tips. On our Rise of Remote pages, you’ll find The Suddenly Remote Playbook, articles, podcasts, and live streaming videos with experts in the world of remote work. Visit and subscribe to stay connected.