Asana has hired over 500 employees in the last year. Its head of people reflects on the steps she took to guide the company through 2020.

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Anna Binder, Head of PeopleAsanaAnna Binder.
  • Anna Binder has been the head of people at Asana since May 2016.
  • Last year she guided the company through the transition as “chief corona officer.”
  • Her tips for navigating a challenge include establishing guiding principles and relying on a core team.
  • This article is part of a series called “Secrets of Success,” which examines specific leadership tips from prominent business leaders.

Anna Binder’s job as head of people at Asana, a web and mobile app designed to help teams organize, track, and manage their work, is to connect all of Asana’s programs to its mission and business objectives, while making sure they’re in line with the company’s values.

When she started in 2016, the company had about 150 employees, and she was focused on scaling it up as the sole member of the HR team, outside of recruiting.

After four years of focusing on talent acquisition, employee engagement, talent management, and diversity and inclusion, she attended a company event in February 2020 to kick off the year and planned to celebrate her work anniversary by going to a Lady Gaga concert.

But the unique challenges of 2020 changed everything.

Binder had to pivot, and she said she began to spend 60% to 100% of her time making sure her team was supported through the transition. “It’s been mission critical that we’re truly intentional about creating space for employees to explore, connect, and learn, including events and activities that allow employees to connect in psychologically safe spaces as we all continue navigating the challenges of the world around us,” she said.

Here’s how she did it.

Set your guiding principles

In mid-February, Binder said she put on her “chief corona officer” hat and helped establish three principles to keep front of mind: prioritize the wellbeing and trust of Asana’s employees, communicate readily and calmly, and mitigate the impact on the business’ productivity in a reasonably safe way.

“We recognized early on that this situation was changing so much that the decisions we were making would need to be addressed sometimes multiple times in a day,” Binder told Insider. The company’s guiding principles served as a backdrop for these decisions.

“We had a 30-day period in the middle of all this where I sent some form of communication every single day. Sometimes those comms were very meaty and very informative and some of them were like, you know what? I don’t have anything today, but I’m here. I’m still here with you,” Binder said.

Put together a core team and meet regularly

Binder organized a small team that covered all the functional areas, including employee communications, the CEO, facilities, and legal. These key players had daily standup meetings – which are now biweekly – that allowed them to digest new information and have multiple people collect information from employees.

This way, decisions could be made in real time.

The team’s rhythm included a recap of the day at 5 p.m. At the end of each meeting, somebody was assigned to create a two-minute video about the decisions that were made so that the people who couldn’t be at the meeting could “get the flavor and the specifics,” she said. Afterwards, Binder would send a communication to the whole company at around 7 p.m.

Lean on others in the industry

Binder said something else she did that was extremely helpful was set up a group of HR leaders from seven different companies that are very similar to Asana in terms of stage, size, and thinking.

“We sort of self-organized and we had phone calls three times a week in the morning to share what decisions we were making to share our communications, to share our information validation. And that allowed us to not be alone,” Binder said.

Maintain the integrity of your hiring process

Since going remote in March 2020, Asana has hired and onboarded over 500 new employees. Binder said Asana “really cares about the candidate experience,” so it kept this as a priority, even when hiring over video.

“We prep them on the products and on the culture, and they get a lot of information about who’s going to be interviewing them. We’re transparent about what the criteria are,” Binder said. “Nothing should be a surprise. The whole concept of an interview shouldn’t be ‘Gotcha.’ Right? It should be a get-to-know-you exercise. And we really leaned into that in this COVID-19 world.”

Applicants were able to have a video call with a recruiting coordinator before their interview to ask any questions and set them up for success.

“Especially at the beginning, it was nerve wracking. People hadn’t interviewed remotely before, and so we just wanted to make sure people felt comfortable,” Binder said.

Asana continued to look for candidates who aligned with its values, were a cultural fit, could work quickly, and had a track record of high achievement.

Phase back in slowly and allow employee flexibility

Before last year, very few Asana employees were working remotely. Binder said the phasing back into the office will be like a dimmer, not a light switch.

Two of the biggest offices are in New York and Dublin, but Asana has an engineering team in Reykjavík that returned to the office recently. Binder hopes to learn from their experience as the other offices plan their reopening.

“I spoke to the head of that office and I said, ‘What are you hearing? What are you seeing? What are people’s confidence levels? Are you feeling good about going back?’ And we talked to the things that they were seeing, we talked through some of the concerns and how to mitigate them,” Binder said.

Safety is an important part of returning to the office, but so is each employee’s personal circumstances. Binder plans to ask each employee what they want to do, what makes the most sense for their lifestyle, and how Asana can accommodate their needs.

“Somebody who might be a caretaker to two small children has a different experience than somebody who has a partner who’s immunocompromised. Our guiding principles lead us to frameworks that allow for personal flexibility,” Binder said.

Focus on what you’ve gained, not lost

Even with the negativity of the past year, Binder likes to remember the positives. Her employees have learned flexibility, and these skills will carry back into the office.

“Especially for those who are earlier in their careers, you’re gonna learn agility and resilience in a way that I can’t manufacture,” Binder said. “This is going to make them such stronger individuals personally and professionally. And that’s it. This is huge.”

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