Less talking for better communication at Basecamp

Written by Margaux Borel, on 25 May 2019

In 2014, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson founded Basecamp, a company where the majority of employees work remotely. Mirroring their product, a project management and asynchronous communication tool, the founders aim to improve communication to make the most of their time.

In the corporate world, there is often a belief that if people are talking, bustling, attending meetings, and coming and going frantically, then they are working effectively. Activity is seen as a positive sign, right?

However, the reality is a bit more complicated. Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, the company that gave rise to Basecamp, made this observation several years ago. In his books (Don't Rework, Remote, It doesn't have to be crazy at work), he denounces an epidemic of "over-collaboration" and "over-communication" at work, which significantly reduces the efficiency of employees.

Why "work doesn't happen at work"

Real work, productive work, especially creative work, is often a solitary activity. It requires quiet and uninterrupted time to focus without being disturbed. Some refer to this as achieving a "Flow" state, where concentration and productivity are maximized. This state takes time to reach, and if interrupted, just like sleep, you need to start over to regain it. So, in the end, when interrupted every 15, 20, or even 30 minutes at work, you don't really work a full 8 hours a day. When aiming for true productivity, some people prefer to start work early in the morning when there's no one around or stay later at the office. Some love working on planes, and it's not without reason!


Partly for this reason, Basecamp's teams are distributed. This way, employees save time on commuting and aren't interrupted. They have the flexibility to manage their time for optimal work. This is also why Four Kitchens got rid of its offices (discussed here).

Asking the right questions before reaching out to a colleague

Perhaps we don't need an immediate answer to our question. So why not try communicating asynchronously and let the other person choose the most suitable time to respond? This way, the person can maintain efficiency on the current task and then concentrate on answering our question appropriately.

Here are some questions to ask before reaching out to a colleague:

  • Can the answer to my question be found elsewhere? (Not involving another colleague, of course)
  • Do I need an immediate answer to my question?
  • Has the person I want to ask already answered this question before? (in an email exchange or on the Basecamp tool, for example)

Four hours of quiet time at the office is going to be incredibly valuable. - Jason Fried, fondateur de Basecamp

Basecamp's tool features reflect its founders' intention to enable different communication by providing alternatives to direct communication. For example, if a colleague wants to know more about a team's progress on current tasks, instead of asking, they can check the team's "To Do" section and see which tasks have been or will be completed. The "Automatic Check-In" section allows them to know what each team member has done during the day. To delve into certain topics, they can also check the "Reference Materials" section, which centralizes all the organization's reference documents. Finally, if they still have no answer to their question, they can check the schedule to see if the person in question has scheduled "availability."

Indeed, at Basecamp, each person displays specific time slots in the Basecamp schedule during which they are available to answer questions. Outside of these slots, questions will have to wait until the person chooses to become available.

Only after checking all these elements can the person in question send a message, taking the time to formulate their question/request and wait for a response when they deem it appropriate (not immediately).

Keeping in mind the rules of a library

Therefore, Basecamp's headquarters in Chicago (although many teams are distributed globally, around fifteen people benefit from the Chicago offices daily) is a bit like a library. When entering a library, you know how to behave—being discreet, not disturbing people around you. If you want to talk, you use a designated room to avoid disturbing others. This is exactly what happens in Basecamp's offices. After all, what could be more natural than adopting practices designed for others at home?

And what about informal communication?

Having control over one's time doesn't prevent sharing friendly moments. Everyone is free to take time to chat with colleagues; it just requires agreeing on a dedicated time with them. As for remote teams, don't think they only work for a straight 8 hours. We all need moments of relaxation, but it's rarely the same time for everyone. Therefore, a section is reserved on Basecamp for entirely informal exchanges, sharing cat videos, or photos of the weekend at the beach. Everyone is free to check it and react when they choose to take a moment for themselves.

A bit of silence is always a gain

If it works well for his company, Jason Fried is aware that this may not be applicable to all types of organizations. However, he suggests that everyone try to implement this kind of practice, even if just for a day per month or week, with "No-talk Tuesdays," for example. It's a good way to test this approach and offer everyone quiet time to truly focus on their tasks.

And what if something urgent happens? Good question! Perhaps start by asking yourself: Is it really that urgent? Can it wait until this afternoon or tomorrow morning? You'll see that some "urgent" things aren't really that urgent. If they are genuinely urgent, nothing prevents you from calling or sending a direct message to the concerned colleagues; they will understand that they are disturbed for a good reason, especially if you've made a habit of respecting their time daily.

Are you tempted by "No-talk Tuesday"? Share your experience with us!