Lessons learned from working remotely

Throughout the 18 months that I have been working at Pivotal Labs, I have worked on various projects. For 5 of them I worked remotely with a balanced team either throughout the time I was on the project or briefly for a few weeks. At Pivotal Labs, we emphasize the importance of physical co-location because it helps foster communication, iteration, and collaboration. However, there are times co-location is not an option because of time and resources. I happened to be on these projects quite often so I wanted to share the insights and lessons learned from my experiences.

Establish a good foundation

In the past, the best remote working experience I had was when I spent time with the team face to face in advance. By the time remote work happens, I already established a good rhythm and relationships with the team. Instead of trying to navigate through the unknown, I can focus on the work and methods of communication. If possible, fly there for a week or two and get to know the team, see their environment, and understand the rhythm the team has. It also builds up trust and empathy faster.

Communication is key

Communication is extremely important. You won’t be physically there, so a lot of nuance are often lost in translation. It’s important to establish a communication strategy with the team. The first step is to find out what the current communication methods are if you joined a team that’s been running for a while, so that you understand the team’s routine and preferred ways (and why). Some teams really like the immediate responses like Slack, some teams relied on asynchronous channel such as email. Understand the flavor your team prefers will help you better fit into their day-to-day tasks. And make sure you’re added to all of those channels to open up the communication. It also creates a sense of inclusion for both you and the team. Second step is to establish a new routine that helps build relationships between you and the team.

Recreate the co-located experience

The key to being co-located is presence. The implication is

  1. Immediate response when questions come up
  2. Having impromptu discussions when needed
  3. Over-hearing conversations and being able to participate and contribute

To recreate that experience, having you always on the screen and visible to the team is quite powerful. In the past I had the team set up a video chat and have a spare monitor that has the video open at all times. People can walk by and say hi to me as if I’m there. I can hear their conversations and participate as well. The video and audio presence is powerful. With video, it’s a lot more like co-location, and you get the immediate response instead of waiting for people to write back. The downside being if it’s a big space with many different teams, the audio becomes quite distracting for both sides.

Video conferencing when possible

Video is much more effective and beneficial. Messaging is the basic communication method (email, slack), it’s low effort, good for confirmation, and acts as a starting point for discussion. However, it’s really easy to misinterpret the message. Audio meetings are a much better channel because it’s easier to follow up and dig deeper to understand the reasoning behind a person’s thoughts. But when there are multiple people in the room, it’s hard to know who is talking and can create a barrier for the remote person. Video has lots of benefits: you can see the person’s facial expressions and their body language, and you know who is talking. As they say, “Human communication is 20% verbal and 80% nonverbal”. Without the visual cue, a lot of the communication is lost. The disadvantage is that it requires a little set up beforehand. In my previous project, my remote team didn’t have any computers set up in any of the conference rooms. To mitigate, we recommended buying a Chromebook. It’s low cost, easy to carry around, and doesn’t require too much set up.

Utilize real-time collaboration tools

There are so many tools nowadays to help facilitate meetings and workshops when participants are not co-located. Below are the tools that I find useful.

Postfacto 

 Postfacto board during retro

Postfacto board during retro

It’s a web app built by Pivotal Labs and it’s has build in video for retrospectives. With Postfacto.io you don’t need to share screens and everyone can see each other as well as the retro board. I personally find it really helpful to see the board as well as who is speaking. For some video conferencing tools, when the person shares their screen, the camera doesn’t work so you only either see the screen or their face.

Trello

Trello is pretty synchronous and good for different purposes. I have used it for retro by creating Happy, Meh, Sad, and Action Items columns. Trello can also be used for brainstorming and dot voting. Each card is draggable, which makes prioritization easy.

Google Slides

I recently used it for brainstorming and dot voting. It requires a little set up beforehand, but it works pretty well! It’s synchronous so you can see who is typing and what they are writing. Dragging elements around is also very easy to do, which makes grouping and prioritizing easy. I recently ran a Brand Keyword exercise where everyone put adjectives on the board that described the brand, and in the end, we dot voted. Here is the set up I did:

Google Slides set up for dot voting

Appear.in

Appear in requires minimal setup for video conferencing and screen sharing. All you need to do is grab a URL for everyone to join. I’ve used it for retro, brainstorm, short meetings, standups and it’s really easy for everyone to join without much effort. See how to run a design studio workshop remotely using Appear.in. The one downside of Appear.in is that it gets slow when too many people join the room.

 Appear In video chatting

Appear In video chatting

Have everyone join the meeting separately 

When you’re the only person that’s remote, and everyone else is in the same conference room, it’s very difficult to participate. There might be side conversations going on, and most of the time it’s just very difficult to hear. I had good experiences where everyone wears their own headset and joins separately from their computer/laptop, instead of everyone joining through one computer. It ensures that everyone has a chance to speak, and enforces one conversation at a time. Everyone has an equal voice, and the remote person doesn’t feel left out. Also, having a good headset with an attached microphone is crucial to make sure the sound transfers clearly to the other side.

 

 

These are the takeaways from my experiences while working remotely. I of course still prefer face-to-face interactions over working remotely. There is so much nuance and complexity between human interactions. As a designer, I love listening to stories and observing human behaviors. I crave for human interaction. Technology, on the other hand, really helps lower the screen barrier, and creates a way to collaborate through virtual space. As the software world evolves, I’m sure there will be more and more tools that could help make virtual communication more natural.