How We Work: Fewer Meetings, More Check-Ins
Today, we’re diving into a question that has piqued the curiosity of many of our listeners and clients: How exactly does 37signals keep track of all the moving pieces in a fully remote company with team members spread throughout the world?
The answer lies in our use of Automatic Check-ins, a tool embedded in Basecamp 3.0 that has revolutionized how we stay connected with what everyone is working on.
But how do these Automatic Check-ins work, and why are they so essential to the pulse of our remote work culture?
In this episode of Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson join host Kimberly Rhodes to unveil the game-changing secrets behind 37signals’ efficient work tracking system.
Listen in as Jason and David explore the harmony between Automatic Check-ins and remote work, contrasting it with the cumbersome nature of traditional status meetings. Plus, discover the tool’s impact on transparency, productivity, and the unique ways it fosters organic interactions within the team.
Check out the full video episode on YouTube
- Uncover how Automatic Check-ins help liberate 37signals from the confines of traditional status meetings, providing a flexible and efficient way to share work updates.
- Explore the seamless compatibility between automatic check-ins and remote work, allowing individuals to respond on their terms.
- Delve into the unexpected motivation behind summarizing work, encouraging individuals to reflect meaningfully on their accomplishments.
- Learn how the Automatic Check-ins tool’s ability to link to other projects enhances collaboration, offering a quick overview of individual contributions.
- Understand the practical leadership value of employing automatic check-ins, setting expectations for the team, and emphasizing the importance of regular communication.
Rework is a production of 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website. Full video episodes are available on YouTube and X.
If you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, leave us a voicemail at 708-628-7850 or email, and we might answer it on a future episode.
Links and Resources:
Basecamp Automatic Check-ins
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HEY World | HEY
The REWORK podcast
The Rework Podcast on YouTube
The 37signals Dev Blog
37signals on YouTube
@37signals on X
37signals on LinkedIn
Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host Kimberly Rhodes, and I’m joined by the co-founders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. We get a lot of questions about how we work at 37signals being a fully remote company, with employees all over the world, how we keep track of what everyone is working on. The short answer is automatic check-ins. I thought we’d spend some time this week talking about what they are and how we use them to make sure we know what’s going on across the company. But first, Jason, let me ask you this automatic check-ins were something that was built into Basecamp 3. What were you guys doing before then? How did you know what people were working on at the company?
Jason (00:40): You could say they were not automatic check-ins, so it was more like, Hey, what’s going on? Hey, what’s going on? People would write up these sort of heartbeats occasionally and kickoffs occasionally, but we didn’t have this regular cadence of daily updates or semi-weekly updates about what people were planning on doing, what people were working on. So it was kind of a scale thing too. We sort of didn’t really need to and we were much, much smaller. Everyone was a little bit more involved in everything and you kind of had things rubbing off on you, so you just sort of knew. Once you get to a certain size, you don’t know all that’s happening, nor should you have to go seek out all that’s happening. So that’s a lot of work or a lot of meetings or a lot of status meetings or status reports. So we introduced this idea of the fundamental idea behind this was that if you want answers, you have to ask questions.
(01:27): The idea that people are just simply going to volunteer what they’re working on all the time in an automatic way, it’s just probably not going to happen unless it sort of becomes policy. But even policy doesn’t quite do it because things can always get in the way and you don’t get it done. So by having a system automatically prompt everybody in the company and everyone has to play by the same rules, essentially it’s just a simple question is two, once a week or once, one once a week and once every day. The one once a week is what do you plan on working on this week? And just a broad summary of kind of what you think you’re going to be doing and then what you do today at the end of every day that’s asked, and people typically answer that a couple times a week, but that’s enough and it’s so much better than having to fish around for what’s happening or to try to absorb through osmosis what’s happening. It’s a lot more explicit and it’s a much better system.
Kimberly (02:14): Let me just say it again, what those two check-ins are, Jason that you mentioned. What are you going to be working on this week and that gets sent out every Monday morning across the country, across the company,.
Jason (02:24): Across the world!
Kimberly (02:26): Across the world. And what did you work on today are the two that get frequently sent out.
Jason (02:31): Yes, and we have a few others. There’s some social ones that people like, what’d you do this weekend? Which is totally optional. It’s way for people to share like, Hey, we’re on this trip, or I saw my grandmother, or I took the kids biking, or whatever it might’ve been, which is a nice way for people who don’t see each other very often because we’re remote to get to know each other on a different level. So we use 'em for that as well. So they’re social and they’re for more specific updates on work itself.
David (02:58): I think one of the great things about automatic check-ins is that it is so compatible with remote work. Automatic check-ins answer or ask the individual on their time zone at the end of the day, for example, of what you work on today or at the beginning of their day on Mondays of what are you going to work on this week in a way that does not require the grinding of gears as we like to say. It does not require scheduled to line up for a status meeting that involves 5, 7, 10 different people. When Jason says we didn’t use to use something else, lots of other companies do do something else, and what they mainly do is they do different forms of status meetings. Maybe a boring company calls it a status meeting and a hip company calls it the daily standup, but it’s the same thing. It’s still a status meeting where you sign up in synchronous time to be in the same either physical room or zoom room at the same time and go around the table one by one, what are you working on today?
(03:51): What are you working on? What are you working on? That requires a grinding of gears. It requires scheduled to line up, which is just not that compatible with remote working. It’s also just an incredibly time consuming way to digest information. There is basically nothing worse than wasting your time in a meeting, just waiting for someone to finish talking about something that is perhaps tangentially interesting to you or relevant to you when you could have scanned that block of information, what’s in that nugget, in about two seconds. And I think that’s what’s so powerful about automatic check-ins, especially for someone who’s trying to keep a tabs on multiple individuals in the organization, multiple teams in the organization. I can scan 40 check-ins in less than five minutes. If I had to sit in on the status meetings of 40 people, that’d be the entire day. Nothing else would be done except for that.
(04:48): So there’s both this sense that automatic check-ins allows greater flexibility in your schedule and it’s also just a vastly, perhaps the most meaningful jump in productivity of relaying information. These status updates, they’re common oftentimes they’re not even that exciting. It’s not like some great revelation is going to be put into these answers. It’s just like, okay, I feel like I’m in the loop. I feel like I know what’s going on. That works really well for someone’s manager, but it also works really well for someone’s peers and peers on other teams. The problem with something like a daily standup is that it generally works for the five to eight people block. That’s a team. They’ll know what they’re all working on. The other team, they’re not going to know. They’re not going to have a sense of what’s going on. And we have so many serendipitously interactions that come from these posts.
(05:41): Someone will relate what they’re going to work on and what they had worked and they say, ah, I’m working on this problem. Someone from an entirely different team will just squint, see that, jump into the common thread, these automatic check-ins have their own page and you start a conversation. It’s funny because to me that is basically the ideal of the water cooler. So many companies who don’t like remote, they talk about the serendipity of the water cooler or just bumping into each other in the office. And you know what? It’s a romantic notion most of the time that doesn’t actually happen in reality. This totally happens all the time in reality that people do bump into each other what they’re working on, and automatic check-ins makes that possible.
Jason (06:22): And what’s cool, by the way, I can imagine someone going, well, god, that sounds annoying. This team is talking about this thing and these people are jumping in. It’s like it’s not annoying. First of all, it doesn’t happen that much and when it happens, it’s usually a short conversation or an interesting one, and you don’t have to participate if you don’t want. It’s one of these things that it’s a subtle way to keep tabs on a lot of things, dive deep when you need to without getting too wet, and jumping right out of the water really quick. It’s just really, I can’t imagine another way to do it rather than, like David said, sitting in on everything. And then when are you going to do anything?
David (06:57): And what often happens at other companies is you have then this chain of aggregation because you cannot sit in on a status meeting of 50 people. That’s not relevant or realistic. So what you have is you have these pods, you have these teams. They may do a daily standup, they may do a weekly summary, then you have some layer of middle management, and then you have another layer of management depending on how large you are, and the information sort of gets aggregated up. And every step, every hop that information has to travel,iIt’s a game of telephone. Half the value of the update is actually lost. Sometimes it’s misstated, sometimes it’s something totally different. This is one of the reasons why the larger organizations typically get the less accurate information the people at the top have, because it has to travel through all these hops.
(07:41): When I’m reading a check-in from a programmer who’s on the SIP team or on the web team, I’m getting the original source. I’m not getting it two layers removed, four weeks apart, filtered through some manager’s filter. And I think there’s just such a clarity of information in that and most of the time it’s not like you’re luxuriating in this. You’re just like, oh, lemme just take it all. You’re just skimming it, you’re skimming it, and you can skimm so much information and narrow in on what’s actually relevant and where you need to dive in or perhaps have an opinion on something and you can just choose to focus on there while only spending five minutes a day on catching up on everyone. What other piece of technology would allow this to happen? That to me is just, it’s such a marvel, and I’d actually go as too far as to say, these two questions are probably the most important part of what makes 37signals with around 70 people work as a remote organization without drowning in all these synchronous meetings all the time.
Kimberly (08:47): I’ll also say, I think one of the things that’s great about automatic check-ins in Basecamp is that you can link to other things. So a lot of times you’ll see people who will write what they’ve been working on and they’re linking it back to another project or to an on-call card or some other place of documentation where if you had that meeting in person, you can just be like, oh, I’ll send it to you later, or I’ll follow up after this meeting and send you the information, where it’s all in one place, to your point of just being able to scan quickly,
Jason (09:14): It’s interesting about that too is, I would like this part of product development where one feature leads to another. So people would do what you say, Kimberly, they link up things, but then people wouldn’t have access to these other things. They wouldn’t be on these other projects and it was frustrating. See, oh, I want to see what that’s about. So then because of that, primarily because of that, we added this new feature called All Access projects where you can turn a project into an all access project without having to invite everybody. They’re automatically invited if they basically click a link and they get to have access to the project. So that feeling, this is how we think about building new features. This is a bit of a tangent, but we had this pain point, we had this point of friction and it was annoying to have to ask someone for access to something that everyone should be able to see anyway, so that led to something else, which is one of the wonderful things about using your own product is that you find these spots and you make these things work for yourself, and then it happens to work for thousands or tens of thousands of other customers.
David (10:08): I think that specific feature of linking to more information is also what really is so powerful about this. Anyone’s individual check-in is usually one paragraph, two paragraphs. There’s not actually that much depth in it, but in those links there’s usually an incredible amount of depth. So I do this all the time. I will scan 20 people’s stuff and there’s one person who’s like, oh, they’re working on this. Let me dive in more. It may be a link to another Basecamp project, usually all access as Jason says, or it may be a link to a GitHub repo and I can dive all the way down to the actual work itself. And I think that’s what’s so crucial about this way of working remotely where you don’t have heavy handed managerial processes that are run manually with all these status meetings and so forth. You do need something else.
(10:54): You do need a way to get the confidence that the things are moving in the right direction and we’re working on the right things. It’s at the right pace and all these other things, but being able to dive into that information just when you need it and don’t waste your time on it when you don’t, it’s just such a 10 Xer. It’s such a 10 Xer. When it comes to the managerial focus of Jason or I, this is one of the reasons that I actually say as far as all the tools that we have in our managerial toolbox, this is the key one that allows us to spend far, far less time on management and more of the time on product decisions, engaging directly with the product, working with a team, rather than doing all this process work. Because the process work is automatable. That to me is, whenever you talk about a process, to me the high point of that is that means it’s automatable.
(11:45): If we do repeatable steps to get expected outcomes and it just have to run, that’s a process. And if we can take that process and we could put it into a computer system, that’s what computers are really good at. And they’re not nearly as annoying. This is the other thing, if you don’t have something like this, you might have a manager who pops into your link, “So where are we with X, Y, or Z?” I always find that to be such an awkward conversation because when someone is asking you, where are we with X? What they’re really saying is, I don’t fucking know where we are. Dude, I don’t have any visibility into this. What is actually going on? I would just know that that question wouldn’t even come up the vast majority of the time when we lean on these questions and the answers in them.
Kimberly (12:25): Okay, so let me ask you this, because Jason, you brought up scale, that if 37signals was much smaller, five people, 10 people, we might not need something like this. Now 70 or so people, it’s helpful, but I think before I came it was one giant check-in, everyone was asked at the same time. We’ve now broken that up by department. Kind of talk me through that and those decisions.
Jason (12:47): And by the way, I do think this can be useful if you’re smaller. This feature actually came out of another product we built years ago called Know Your Company, which had this idea of a weekly, I think we did it once a week. It was an email that was sent out to everybody. What are you basically working on? Or what have you been working on? So we were much smaller than. It was helpful and it still is helpful to small scale. It just feels a little bit less necessary, but I still think it’s actually a good thing to consider. The other thing is that when you get your habits right early, you just keep building on those and that’s why it’s important to do the right thing early and not wait until you get to the point where you’re really in pain and then you got to scramble to figure something out.
(13:22): We used to do, so when we were smaller, we had just, everyone was asked the same question and all the answers were coming back into a single log. And that log got very long as we got more people. Basically, this is safe to what you would consider to be a journal. If you’re unfamiliar with Basecamp, it’s sort of like a journal, a log, the answers come back, it’s one long scrollable page, and that was fine for a while. And then eventually we still ask everyone the same question, but we created more questions. So one’s like design team, what are you working on? Programmers, what are you working on? Executive, what are you working on? And this way you can go into a specific department, essentially, or group of people and just see the responses for that group. So if you just want to see what designers are working on, you can go into the designer question, which is the same question as the other departments, but it’s grouped and filtered in a sense.
(14:11): And you can also click on somebody’s name specifically and see all their answers throughout history. So if I want to see what Kimberly’s been working on for the past six months, I just find your name anywhere, click your name, and then it filters that down just to you, which is also another way to get really specific if you need to, which is great for if you’re going to do a one-on-one, check-in with somebody or a performance review or sort of a year summary. It’s an incredible automatic way to be able to look back at someone’s body of work over a long period of time without having to do any work to find it and then have it all summarized by them in their own words, their own way, which is the other thing I think that’s important here. Some people listening might be thinking, this sounds like a lot of work.
(14:55): Why doesn’t the system just summarize? Can’t AI do this? Now, summarize everything for you. The point is, is that summarization is fine, but it misses a lot of the nuance. And I want to hear people describe their work in their own way. You can see what’s important to them, what they’re excited about, what they think is important to pull out and share. That’s a personal thing to me. This is a personal story. It’s not a summarization from a system and that’s explicitly why we built it this way. This is not summarizing to-dos that were checked off because all work is not tracked on to-dos. It’s not summarizing card table movements of cards. Not all work is tracked that way. Some work is conversational, some work happens off Basecamp, a podcast interview, some other thing that you ran into or discussion you had with somebody. Write it up in your own words. Does it take time? It can take some time. Some people spend a lot of time like I’d say a lot, maybe 10, 15 minutes. You could see some people spend three minutes or two minutes or a minute or 30 seconds. Whatever they want to do is fine. It’s all about communicating the way you want to communicate.
David (15:54): I will say though that this is one of those processes at our company that is a little bit like eat your vegetables or brush your teeth three times.
Jason (16:04): Three times a day?
David (16:05): Three times a day. Well, maybe not three times a day, but a kind of thing where you’re looking at the long-term benefits. This is why you’re doing it. But not everyone loves summarizing their work in this way. So I think it is fair to say that there needs to be a certain expectation, that this is what we do. The system can of course ask everyone and it does. That doesn’t mean people will automatically choose to answer it. So one of the ways we’ve dealt with that is we’ve made it part of the official expectations. It’s in the employee handbook. Hey, we expect someone to answer the what are you going to work on this week, every week, and what have you worked on today twice a week. And I think some level of that is required because again, not everyone loves to do this summarization.
(16:52): It can feel like a hassle even if it’s not actually that much time. And in that, it’s also some of the magic in my opinion, that this is an automated way of encouraging people to think about how they spent their time. Because do you know what? Yeah, sometimes it does feel a little shit to write a, what did you work on today if nothing really happened, right? Like eight hours was spent at work and now you go to summarize the important impactful points and you go like, huh, actually what would I write today, right? Now you do that once, you do that twice, who cares if on a weekly basis you’re having a difficult time summarizing your work in this way? That is a flag of some kind both to yourself but also to your manager or your peers. Are people actually making progress on these things?
(17:40): And I think that social pressure is part of the magic of having a system like this that a lot of folks looking at remote work fear that they won’t have. They fear that if someone is not in the office, do you know what? We’re going to lose control. Are they even really going to be working? If you have something like this, it just deals with a lot of it because do you know what anyone can bullshit an update or two or five. You can’t bullshit three months worth of updates. And this comes back to Jason’s highlight of that feature. I could click on a single name, I could click on Jason, I can click on anyone in the company who’s answering these questions and I can quite quickly scroll through three months worth of work. And you can get a sense, a high level sense.
(18:24): Is there some blockage here? Are people operating at the level that they’re at this company at or whatever. And I think that pressure sometimes is just slightly uncomfortable to some people in some situations at some times. And that discomfort is good. It’s part of the feature, it’s part of the function. And the fact that it is a system doing it, asking you every day, actually makes it easier to apply that pressure evenly and consistently rather than a manager sort of cherry picking out, oh, I wonder what John has worked on and right, really drilling into that. So I think there’s just, it’s worth recognizing not everyone’s going to love it right off the gate. Not everyone’s going to love it five years in, but part of that friction is the feature.
Kimberly (19:09): And last point I want to make about this before we wrap up, David, you mentioned that it’s part of our employee manual and I think it’s also interesting that the two of you also do it, and Elaine also does it. I think very few people can say, I know exactly what the CEO has worked on this week. Yes, at a high level you know there’s plans and things are moving forward, but I could tell you what did you guys work on last week? Or what are you planning on working on? Which I think is a little out of the ordinary for most companies.
David (19:37): I really like that as a public diary actually. Oftentimes I use my check-ins to make a broader point. Maybe in the olden days, 1982, you’d send out a memo or something. I use these things like here’s a paragraph of something I think is important. I’ve been working on it or I’ve been observing it, so it goes part of my transcript and I know a fair number of folks in the company will catch that. And that’s a way to sort of spread actually culture. This is a question we often get with remote work. How do you create culture? Well, this is one of the ways, you narrate how you see the company. You narrate the processes and the projects and the failures or of the downs. And through that narration as owners of the companies, as executives, you get to set a certain tone. What are the expectations, whatever.
(20:27): And it’s all just like they’re strays, like they’re an anecdote here, a narrative here. It’s not like all inclusive, all comprehensive. It doesn’t need to be because you’re telling a story over a long period of time. I also think, at least to myself, this sense that if you’re going to ask someone to do something you kind of don’t really want to do, I’ll give you an example. So it’s not always, my kids love to eat their vegetables. Some vegetables they really like, other vegetables they don’t like so much. If I’m not eating them, how the hell am I going to tell them? Do you know what? You should eat your vegetables. And they’re like, but dad, your plate doesn’t have any on it. I’m like, you, geez. Yeah, you’re right. I’m a hypocrite. So there’s some sense that if you want employees at your company to do something that they are not always going to love all the time and you may not love all the time. You got to be there. You got to be there or it’s going to ring really hollow.
Kimberly (21:18): Okay, well with that we’re going to wrap it up. Rework is a production 37signals. You can find show notes and transcripts on our website at 37signals.com/podcast. Full video episodes are also on YouTube and Twitter. And if you have a question for Jason or David about a better way to work and run your business, automatic check-ins, or any of the other ways that we work at 37 Signals, send us a voicemail at 708-628-7850. You can also text that number or send us an email to email@example.com and we just might answer it on an upcoming show.