Up until the middle of last year, our agency was operating as a distributed remote team. The three of us were in the same metropolitan area, and we would meet at co-working spaces once every three to four weeks. We actually “toured” spaces to get a few free hours together. Meeting in person helped build our camaraderie and trust in each other, which was a must for the fast-paced project we were working on.
Six months into the project, we committed to a real office, and it was great. Our tiny office fit four, and we were able to hire an intern. Communication was a lot easier. Brainstorming on the whiteboard was very productive. And we’d go to lunch together.
Fast-forward to last month, when we were about to move into an even larger space to accommodate our growing team, COVID-19 hit.
Our last day in our office was March 13, six weeks ago. We’d grown accustomed to being together in our little office. But now we would have to relearn how to collaborate apart.
Remote or distributed work is not new to me. While at the agency Rosetta (now Razorfish), my team of 40 creatives was scattered across four offices in San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I was at my startup Transported, three of the core team members were in an office in LA, while the CTO and I worked out of our homes further south.
Managing Remote Teams
I want to share my top five tips for effectively running a distributed remote team. Keep in mind that we’re not trying to replicate the office experience, but instead, we’re trying to take advantage of a different paradigm.
1. Communicate Often
Silence breeds uncertainty. I try to check in with everyone on my team once per day. We also have daily standups where we post in a Slack channel what we accomplished the day before and what we intend to do today, noting potential blockers. This is due by 10am every day. The written standup allows me to understand what everyone’s working on and where they need help. It also alleviates me having to ask each person, “Where are we with this project?”
2. Encourage Public Discussions
In an office—especially a small one—no discussion is private. That’s nice because we can all learn from each other this way because two people discussing an issue in an open, public venue could be helped by a third or fourth person who may be following the conversation. Additionally, critiques are a group activity and should happen in public. How do you recreate this type of collaboration with a remote team? Designers will often post screenshots in a project channel and ask for feedback or help. This transparency keeps everyone in the loop.
3. Meet Only as Often as Necessary and With the Right People
Last summer our intern, Brooke, gave me this coffee mug for my birthday:
Meetings are the bane of any designer’s or developer’s existence, and I really hate them. Meetings interrupt my flow and ability to get work done. When it’s necessary, meetings can be held to hold discussions and make decisions, but they should be focused, and with only the required attendees. No one extraneous. There’s an anecdote from Ken Segall’s book Insanely Simple about a time when Steve Jobs was meeting with Apple’s ad agency and spotted someone who wouldn’t be able to contribute anything to the meeting. He politely but directly asked her to leave.
4. Use Ad Hoc Video or Audio Calls
Sometimes communicating through Slack isn’t clear enough, or it’s just too hard to articulate an idea in textual form. So we have quick ad hoc audio or video calls via Slack to quickly get on the same page. These are often just quick five- or ten-minute calls.
As a corollary, recorded screencasts can be helpful too when text is too hard. Sometimes designers will capture their screens along with a voiceover to communicate something to get feedback.
5. Learn to Communicate Asynchronously
This is the hardest skill to master, but if learned, can dramatically increase the whole organization’s productivity and shared knowledge. Communicating asynchronously means putting out comments and documentation that others can respond to when it’s convenient for them (within reason, say a day). We all have different schedules and things going on in our lives. Assuming you trust your team to get their parts done, then when they do their work shouldn’t matter. Documenting processes and having a shared knowledge base and history are also important. A business, at its core, is a system of repeatable processes. Therefore having a shared understanding of how to do things in the company is critical.
Bonus: 6. Play Together
Even though you all may communicate with each other daily, you do need to make some time to have fun. After the first week working from home, our team got together virtually on Zoom to play Drawful for a half hour. Hilarity ensued.
We also recently had a virtual lunch and learn. Aaron from our team gave a talk and demo on Atomic Design principles.
Pro tip: Treat your team every once in a while. On the morning of our virtual lunch and learn, I emailed Uber Eats gift cards to everyone, effectively buying them lunch.
The New Normal
As the world continues to shelter in place during this global pandemic, and we’re all working from home, take this opportunity to fine-tune your processes to make the most of this new normal. Embrace asynchronous communication and transparency. And see your team members’ faces and hear their voices every once in a while.
When the world begins to spin again, and we can occupy the same physical spaces again, we should all consider whether we’ll return to our offices, stay working from home, or even have it both ways.
In an upcoming post, I will detail out the tools that we use to collaborate remotely.