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'They're looking for tools to help them': Trello co-founder Michael Pryor says new signups 'almost doubled' year-on-year as offices moved to the home

·4-min read
  • Work management tool Trello saw a significant increase in signups in March, as professionals began to work from home.

  • In April, the company released Advanced Checklists – a new feature intended to improve "accountability" in teams, which may not be working in the same place.

  • Co-founder Michael Pryor talked to Business Insider Australia about how the company approaches remote work.

  • Visit Business Insider Australia's homepage for more stories.

If there's one sector which is thriving in the brave new world of coronavirus restrictions and remote work, it's enterprise software. As the world's white collar workers turn towards doing their jobs from home, the burden of team communication and organisation has largely fallen on a hodgepodge of apps and platforms – and businesses that weren't already comfortably digital have had to adapt quickly.

Trello, the work management tool acquired by Atlassian in 2017 for $425 million, was always designed to facilitate remote work – even before the current extraordinary circumstances pushed millions of people into it. Michael Pryor, co-founder and head of Trello, told Business Insider Australia that signups in March were "almost double" what they had been the year before.

"It's the same as what you've seen with Microsoft Teams and Slack and Zoom, right?" he said. "People are coming in and they're looking for tools to help them. How do they collaborate? How do they do their meetings? How do they do their one-on-ones?"

It also creates basic problems for how people like to work. "In the current remote work environment, teams are battling the same fragmented communication and confusion over responsibilities that they faced in the office – now with even less opportunity for recourse since chance conversations in the break room and informal questions over coffee are no longer a convenient option for gaining clarity," he said.

It's an opportunity Trello is well-suited to seize. The platform, which became something of a cult hit with software developers before its acquisition, essentially functions as a flexible digital substitute for the old-school 'kanban' post-it note system of project and team management. Rather than railroading users into a particular way of doing things, as some productivity apps do, Trello provides a simple set of tools and lets users create 'boards' which suit their own particular workflows.

"We saw people using sticky notes on their whiteboards in their offices, and this was happening not just with software engineers but also with salespeople and lawyers," Pryor said. "So that was the original idea with Trello: take a metaphor that people understand and they're already doing in their offices, and build the software around that."

The inherent flexibility of the system, Pryor said, led to an issue where some new users were coming to what was essentially "a blank spreadsheet or a blank piece of paper" and had no idea where to start. So the company launched a library of templates to give them a point to kick off from. "I think that was a big boost to people that were coming into the tool," he said.

Given it was already designed for teams to organise tasks and workflows when they're not necessarily in the same place, remote working is a natural fit for Trello. The company itself largely worked remotely even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Prior to this, 80% of the Trello team was remote," Pryor said. "But a lot of the things that we're discovering that are good practices for the way people were working in a remote world apply regardless – even if working in a physical office."

Releasing new features

At the end of April, Trello released a new feature: Advanced Checklists. While it had been in the pipeline for some time, Pryor said the new working environment of the coronavirus pandemic made it "all the more important". Advanced Checklists presents an extra layer of organisation, letting managers create complex to-do lists, assign individual tasks to team members and set deadlines for each.

"Basically, you can think of it as adding a whole extra layer to the depth of what Trello is doing," Pryor said, "and allowing people to get more granular."

What makes it so timely for the current state of the professional world, Pryor said, is that it provides "accountability" at a time when remote working makes it difficult for both managers and team members.

The future of work

Aside from the basic changes to how people think about tools like Trello and how they fit into their daily workflows, Pryor said the turn to remote working during the coronavirus will have other long-term effects, like a total change in the way people think about things as basic as how to measure productivity, and how to hire staff.

"It's not like a one time thing where everyone is working remotely, then they go back to the office and say, 'Great – Now we don't need Zoom,'" he said. "People are going to be like, you know what, there are a lot of advantages to this way of working.

"There's going to be a lot of opportunities for people to say, 'Hey, maybe I can hire people who don't live in my city'. That kind of evolution will happen way sooner than it would have if we if this never happened."

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