Part One: Managing a Remote Team
Part Two: Hierarchy of Information Work
?Part Three: Our Remote Collaboration Toolset
Now that we have a framework of how modern information work gets done, let’s see what tools we’ve put into place that enable our distributed remote team to collaborate effectively. One thing to notice is that all the tools we list below are cloud-based, as desktop file-based applications are, in my opinion, counterproductive to modern collaborative workflows. And while I am mostly focusing on what we use, I’ll also try to highlight other possible alternatives. We’ll start from the bottom of the hierarchy.
The foundation of our Hierarchy of Information Work pyramid is Knowledge Base. This is the institutional knowledge of the company, such as standard operating procedures and best practices.
For our knowledge base at Wong.Digital, we use Dropbox Paper. First of all, it is already included in our Dropbox Business plan. Second, and unlike Google Docs, we can reference our other Paper docs easily by just typing a “+” and then mentioning another document, thus building out a company wiki.
In our agency knowledge base, we have pages on file organization, design resources, default WordPress configurations, brief templates, and more. Additionally, each of our projects has its own mini-KBs.
The next layer in the hierarchy is Project Management. Project management should be more than deadlines and milestones. It should also encompass how work should be done, by using the company’s best practices and standard operating procedures.
Every project in our agency is managed via Asana. One of the best things about Asana is its project templates that allow us to create the standard set of tasks for every type of project we take on, from branding to websites to apps. Thus we’re putting into practice how we should be executing these projects.
We also try to keep all client feedback within Asana so that it can remain the single source of truth, keeping us organized.
We also appreciate Asana’s integrations with Harvest (our time tracking software) and Slack. So when there’s an update to a task, a message can be sent to the associated project’s Slack channel.
Other popular project management tools like Basecamp, ClickUp, Airtable, and Wrike could work as well. The PM software space is pretty crowded, so there is a lot to choose from. Whichever you choose, be sure it can help you implement your company’s best practices.
Communication is core to how businesses and teams operate. Think of the Communication layer as the bridge between how the work should be done, and what is getting done.
Arguably Slack is the essential tool in our stack. In our Slack workspace, we have channels for each active project, and each of those channels is integrated with Asana and Figma (more below) so that we can monitor updates. We don’t use email for any internal discussions.
I try to encourage everyone to use less direct messaging and to keep everything in the public channels so that anyone can follow along and interject or help if applicable.
When I worked at Apple, almost all ~50 of us in the Graphic Design Group occupied one large open room in a nondescript building a couple of blocks from 1 Infinite Loop. Tall eight-foot Gatorfoam boards stood along the perimeter of the room. Everyone tacked up their work—even digital work—on these boards. Every day around 4pm, the executive creative director walked around to each board and reviewed the work. Those of us who were free participated in these daily group critiques. Plus, by the mere fact that the work always surrounded us, it was easy for all of us to stay aligned on the look and feel and messaging of a campaign.
Of course, Slack is a text-based tool, so intonation is inevitably lost, which can lead to misunderstandings. Therefore our writing must be clear. However, sometimes it’s too time-consuming or cumbersome to type out our thoughts. That’s where ad hoc audio or video calls through Slack’s built-in functionality can quickly help clarify a problem or solution.
Like much of the world right now, we use Zoom as well. We use it for calls with clients or for when we conduct user interviews. The recording feature is especially great for user interviews because we can then upload the recording to a service like Rev and get a transcript back.
The topmost layer of the hierarchy is Work. Information workers perform all kinds of tasks and create many different types of deliverables. Ultimately their work must be informed by the preceding layers in our Hierarchy of Information Work. Since Wong.Digital is a digital design agency, I’ll share the tools specific for our industry. For your particular situation, just keep in mind apps that are cloud-based and enable effortless co-creation.
Digital product design is a team sport. And Figma is excellent at facilitating this deep collaboration between product managers, designers, and developers. With Figma, multiple designers can work on one file at the same time (which, in reality, doesn’t happen that often). But where it shines is in version control and developer handoff. Unlike Sketch, you can easily go backward in time and see earlier versions of each file. And because Figma is cloud-based, handing off designs to developers is as easy as sending them a link. Over the months, we have been refining how we format our Figma files to make it easier for others to step in and grok them quickly. The product teams at Cash app and Dropbox are using similar techniques, which Figma has documented in a best practices guide to developer handoff.
One more bonus of Figma is that we have it integrated with Slack so that new comments in Figma files get posted as messages in the associated project channel.
Yes, we’re big fans of Figma here at Wong.Digital, as it has many advantages over Sketch. The most significant advantage is that this one tool replaces the typical Sketch stack of Sketch (design), InVision (prototyping and review), Abstract (version control), and Zeplin (developer handoff).
Whenever possible, we prefer to use cloud-based document creation tools like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper, as opposed to file-based apps like Microsoft Word. They allow for easy commenting and collaborative editing, especially when we work with our clients who are hundreds of miles away.
For remotely collaborating on traditional files, like Keynote presentations or Adobe Illustrator documents, we use Dropbox. In our knowledge base, we have an established folder structure for projects so that files stay organized. My number one rule for designers is to always keep everything in Dropbox, just in case they’re unavailable, and someone else needs to find and work on their file.
We also use Dropbox for delivering files to clients. Presentations are often saved out as PDFs, and final files (that aren’t Figma) are packaged up and zipped. We put those in a “Delivery” folder and copy a share link to that file, which we then send in an email to the client. We try to avoid email attachments as much as possible, so we don’t clutter up our clients’ mailboxes.
The Future of Work
In this post, I’ve shared with you our toolset for collaborating remotely as a team. In truth, all of these tools were in place before COVID-19, when we were working in the same physical space. But we didn’t need to use Slack as frequently because we could tap each other on the shoulder and think through problems. Now that we need to work together remotely, Slack and the other tools like Dropbox Paper have become much more critical. As we continue to collaborate apart, I am sure we’ll continue to fine-tune our processes and possibly bring other tools into our stack (we’ve been eyeing Miro, but honestly, Figma can do the same). My goal is to push our agency towards Level Three or Four of what Matt Mullenweg, the founder and CEO of Automattic, calls “Distributed Work’s Five Levels of Autonomy.” I think we’re at Level 2.5 right now.
How Will Your Team Collaborate?
What tools does your team use to collaborate? When we are all allowed to be in offices again, will you stop using any of these tools? Or will you aim towards higher levels in the ladder of distributed work?