A closer look at the use of Asana in the business world

As email and meetings continue to waste our time, businesses and teams within businesses are desperate to find new ways of working that rely less on those two demons. "Asana or bust," says Mark Arnoldy, CEO of Possible (previously known as Nyaya Health), a progressive non-profit organisation that embraces efficiency in its company culture in the name of bringing healthcare to the people of rural Nepal.

Possible uses a workflow and project management tool called Asana in just about every aspect of its business. They use it to track fund-raising campaigns, plan how to get patients from rural Nepal to hospitals in Kathmandu, and even use it to test the computer literacy of job applicants.

"Email is the number one tool people stop using inside their company when they start using Asana," says Kenny Van Zant, who handles business and operations at Asana. Arnoldy's experience confirms this: His internal email now only makes up about 20 per cent of his messages, and many of those messages are just for fun. The real work and communication happens in Asana.

Though I've used Asana myself for some time, I wanted to more fully explore how it can be used in businesses to streamline communication and make teams more efficient. I visited Arnoldy and executive assistant Monica Landy at Possible's New York headquarters to get a better sense of how the tool actually works in a real business environment.

What is Asana?

To describe Asana takes some doing for those who have never used it. It's partly a to-do list, and partly a complex collaboration tool. You can use it for project management, or for tracking an employee applicant through the hiring process. It's open and flexible much in the same way Evernote is, which sometimes means that first-time users end up staring at a blank slate, unsure how to start. But, once you're in it, Asana, like Evernote, can become whatever you need.

Asana lives in the cloud, and the primary interface is online (at asana.com). There are some mobile apps, but the web interface is far better and more capable. Asana is free for up to 15 people to collaborate, with paid accounts starting at $50 (£30) per month and going up from there based on the number of team members. I recommend using a free account for at least two or three months with a small group of people to test its waters and learn the ropes, as using Asana effectively relies a lot on matching it to your workflow and needs.

As you can see in the video above, at its core, Asana lets you write down tasks, assign them to someone (including yourself), add a due date, make notes about the assignment, and add followers who can keep an eye on your progress or contribute to the conversation around it.

Tasks can have sub-tasks. All tasks can be dragged and dropped to an appropriate location – and you can add section headers within your task lists to indicate, well, whatever you want. Section headers are lines of demarcation, and they come in handy for helping you break down the component parts of a very large or complicated process. You can learn a lot more about how Asana works in general by watching some of the tutorial videos Asana provides.

Some of the general uses of Asana in business include:

  • Recruitment, hiring, and applicant tracking
  • New employee training and checklist for getting started at the company
  • Project management
  • Workflow management
  • List management

When I met with the Possible team, they showed me how some of these uses actually look and operate in their Asana accounts.

Asana in business in action

Possible has five people in New York, four in Boston, one in Kathmandu, and about 165 staff members and volunteers on the ground in Nepal, where Internet connectivity isn't always available. The core office team members in the US are the primary users of Asana, although a few managers in Nepal use the system to coordinate as well.

CEO Mark Arnoldy started using Asana for his personal to-dos in 2012, and a few months later, he brought the tool in house. Since then he's created a company culture around Asana, telling his employees that it will only work if he has full buy-in from everyone. Hence: "Asana or bust."

Here are some of the ways they use Asana that I found rather inventive:

List: Areas of responsibility. One of the ways Arnoldy's team uses Asana is to keep a list of responsibilities within the organisation and to whom they fall. They have a project called Areas of Responsibility, in which each item or task in the list is a responsibility, such as NYC Intern Program, Crowdfunding Care Coordination, and 501c3 Audit. The person responsible is listed as the assignee of the appropriate task. Everyone at Possible has access to this project. When someone needs to determine who is the right person within the organisation for the matter at hand, they can just consult the list. Arnoldy says a secondary benefit of this list is that people feel more ownership for their areas of responsibility when their name appears next to them, clear as day, for everyone to see.

Tracking: Job applicants. When a position is open at Possible, the hiring team turns to a project they have for job applicant tracking. The section headers in this project show the different stages of candidate review. The "task" is the job applicant's name. All the notes relating to the applicant and his or her interviews stay with the task as comments. As the candidate passes each stage, the hiring team drags the person/task down the chain to appear beneath the next appropriate section header. For example, if a candidate named Sandeep passes the email follow-up and phone interview, the "Sandeep" task is moved to the next stage, "in-person interview," and so on until a job offer is made (if he gets that far). When Possible finds great potential employees who can't take a position at the moment, they move them to another project (again, using drag-and-drop capabilities). The result is a talent pool for future hiring opportunities. All the notes about the candidate's interview are still stored with the task for safekeeping, so it's easy to reference a file even if it refers to an interview that took place a year ago.

Test: New hire skills. Another inventive use of Asana in Possible's hiring process is to invite candidates into an Asana workspace and assign them some tasks. How do they answer the tasks? How well do they answer questions that are asked in the comments to the tasks? Can they figure out how to use Asana based on what they see in the interface? According to Arnoldy and Landy, this test not only lets them see how candidates think through tough problems, but also tests their computer literacy. They aren't looking for expertise in Asana, but they do want confirmation that the people they hire are efficient at learning and using new technologies.

Replicating software. Arnoldy admitted that sometimes his company investigates other productivity software that his non-profit might want to use, but the firm can usually replicate their core functionality in Asana, without spending any extra money. Possible staff will build templates in Asana for a certain function, then duplicate the template and rename it when they have an actual project to carry out. Naming conventions – in other words an explanation of how to name the project – are in the template title. For example, a template for a new development project is called: "SUBMISSION TEMPLATE ; ENTITY: PROJECT TITLE: DUE DATE (PROJECT MANAGER)." You can't get much clearer than that.

Because Asana is flexible, they can change the working project, as well as the template for the project, at any time as they learn what works and what doesn't. Note, however, that it can take a lot of experience with Asana before a user reaches this point. In my first few weeks with the tool, I spent my time asking questions such as:

  • What is my workflow?
  • What are all the steps this project consists of, and in what order must they occur? That is to say, do the workspaces, projects, and tasks I'm creating reflect my actual work processes?
  • Which tasks belong in the main list, and which ones should be sub-tasks?
  • Will this project name and set of tasks be clear to someone who has never done this project before?

In my experience with project management software, editorial tracking software, and content management systems, setting up from scratch is always the hardest part and takes the most time.

Right tool for the job

Asana is a very capable tool, and it can certainly help cut down on needless emails and meetings, but it's not always the right tool for the job. As I've already mentioned, the mobile app isn't as good as it could be, so it may not be an ideal workflow or project management tool for people who are always mobile. The web-based application doesn't have offline capabilities, either, which is a major reason why Possible doesn't use it in the villages of Nepal as much as they might. Rather, it's mostly used by office-based employees who have reliable Internet and electricity. Furthermore, I personally wouldn't recommend it for a very visual project, such as web design. Asana can handle attachments and links, but it doesn't visually represent them once attached with as much grace as, say, Basecamp.

Small business owners and other team leaders who want to streamline their workflows, minimise in-house email, and adopt a new way of working should definitely tinker with Asana for a few weeks to see if it fits what they need.

At Possible, Asana enables the team to focus on completing their mission to make healthcare possible in places where it's seemingly impossible – rather than spend their time managing calendars and coordinating schedules. Now that many of us are aware of the difference between real work and "work about work," it's high time we knuckle down and try something better.