- February 18, 2016
Distributed yet synchronized
I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Brooklyn with four of my coworkers. An all-day client workshop was the reason for the visit but we also squeezed in my first employee review (over tagliatelle, no less) and a team dinner. I spend most of my days away from the Philly office, working in my studio in Baltimore. So it’s refreshing (and fun) to see my colleagues in person.
Happy Cog comprises a small, distributed team working in locations along the East coast. Most of us work out of the Philadelphia office. Others work out of homes or studios in Brooklyn and Baltimore. Team members local to the office sometimes work from their own homes in Philadelphia and New Jersey as well.
Distributed teams have become more common in client services, but it isn’t new for the product world. Companies like Basecamp and Automattic built remote work culture into their organizations from day one. There’s a lot to glean from their best practices and lessons learned. But every company that chooses to make telecommuting an option for its employees has to iron out their own unique kinks. To be honest, it isn’t easy. After 8 months of working remotely, I’d like to share some of the ways we make this work.
As you might imagine, communication is of the utmost importance. I think it’s imperative to practice proactive communication with all team members. I try to share updates even when not requested. I try to keep the team informed of my progress throughout the day. I also tell everyone when I am stepping away for lunch or an appointment.
If there is even the slightest strain on communication between team members, the way to work it out is with more communication, preferably face to face (Skype, Hangouts). Trust me, I’ve been there. I thought my radio silence showed I was heads down working. But a coworker interpreted it as stubbornness and an unwillingness to seek out feedback from my team. By checking in more, I’m able to ease any uncertainty.
Set office hours
All Happy Cog employees work in the same time zone. In the past we’ve worked with employees spread across time zones and, currently, we work with freelancers whose clocks are not set to ET.
We’ve agreed to specified work hours when it’s expected everyone’s at their desk. Of course, there is some flexibility with this. People sign off for lunch or appointments, for example. Even if it’s flexible, it’s important to establish a time frame when employees are expected to be available. This ensures the team’s synchronized even though we’re distributed.
Trust your team
To do your best work, you need mutual support and trust on your team. Support means providing feedback, offering to help, responding to questions, and participating in discussions. Demonstrating support for my team, and my team showing support for me, has enabled us to build the trust between us.
Beyond that, it may seem challenging to build trust amongst team members when there’s little face-to-face time. It’s actually quite simple. Even if my coworkers can’t see me during the workday, through our “over-communication”, they know that I am doing my work, and that I respect the process, the clients, and my team.
This is not specific to distributed work. All teams just have to ask: Does this person consistently meet deadlines? Do they communicate with coworkers and clients in a respectful manner? Do we create stellar work together? Do we support each other? Over time, those yeses become trust amongst your team.
Since I spend most days in a separate location from my colleagues, I consider it super important to find time for occasional face-to-face meetings. When I train up to the Philadelphia office, I’ll take advantage of that in-office time by eating lunch with my coworkers. I also encourage Happy Cog to prioritize meetups with all employees. This could be for an in-person client workshop, a company baseball game outing, or even just an all-team meeting at the company HQ. It sounds obvious, but seeing coworkers in person helps everyone get to know each other better. This only builds the rapport of the team.
Find the right tools
Our distributed team would not function without the following tools:
Basecamp: client-facing and important internal communication
For the sake of complete transparency, we ask our clients and team members to send Basecamp notifications to all members of our team. Basecamp is also the place where we post meeting summaries and status updates. This way, even if a team member can’t be present, they still know what’s going on. This also ensures there is a record of all client communication.
Trello: project-specific task management for internal use
Trello makes it easy to break an extensive website project into manageable page- or module-level tasks. I use Trello to communicate with front-end developers once we’re at the appropriate stage in the project. I assign cards, create checklists, and answer any questions. The developer completes the checklists and moves cards to the Review column. Together, we facilitate the progression of all project cards from the To-Do column through to the Done column.
Slack: work communication and where we hangout
In many ways, Slack makes our distributed team work. Being signed into Slack tells the team that I am online and “at work.” We have channels for client projects (internal and external), channels for Seinfeld gifs (obviously), and direct messages. This is where most of our day-to-day conversation happens, for better or worse. As much as Slack eases communication, it can also feel like an incessant distraction when I’m trying to focus. The “always-available” mentality that switches on when I sign into Slack isn’t always-healthy. So when I really need to focus, I sign off of Slack. But I first alert the team in #general.
Screenhero is my favorite tool for collaboration amongst our distributed team. I use it to quickly answer QA questions with our developers. I frequently share my screen with my Design Director or with other designers on the team to get immediate feedback on a comp, without having to export (saving us all some time). We can even work out a design together in Photoshop, in real time. I also meet with the Design Director daily over Slack or Screenhero to talk about my progress and plans for the day.
Video calls (Google Hangout and Skype)
Video calls ensure that we’re still creating a sense of the team coming together for meetings. We use Hangouts for our weekly status meetings and also meet virtually to check in with project managers or hold internal reviews before a client presentation. But technology can fail us sometimes. Audio goes out. Video freezes on the most awkward of expressions. Fast wifi, good microphones and speakers (or headphones), and a little bit of patience help.
We use a combination of Join.me plus a conference call line to present to clients remotely. Conference calls are more dependable than a Google Hangout or Skype call, and the Join.me enables screen sharing to share designs. What this usually looks like is this: A project manager in the Philadelphia office running the conference call, me in Baltimore running the Join.me, and both of us on Slack in case we need to alert the others of a talking point.
We use 1password to share passwords that everyone on the team needs to access.
Google calendar allows us to see everyone’s scheduled meetings and events. We put all personal PTO, appointments, and meetings on the company calendar so that everyone’s in-the-know. I also integrate Basecamp deadlines and milestone dates with my personal Google Calendar.
We use Google Drive, Docs and Sheets to collaborate on documents, keep track of browser QA, and to edit this very blog post. We also use Google docs for first drafts of many client-facing deliverables, such as communication briefs or style guides.
We use cloud storage for easy file sharing.
We are still figuring out what being a distributed team looks like for us. Instilling a remote-first mindset in all employees will take some getting used to, but I think this new way of working (for Happy Cog) makes us a stronger company and an attractive place to work. Besides, it’s the wave of the future.