Remote Working or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slack

On February 22nd, 2016, posted in: different perspective, hints and tips, learning by 2 Comments

We work remotely

As many of you may know, FGW is a team of four who live and work in four different places. I’m in Sheffield, Alyson is in South London, Martha Is in South East London and Laura is in Oakland, California.  We all love where we live, are part of communities and families that we don’t want to disrupt and anyway, it’s the digital age, everyone can work remotely… Right?

Well, about a year ago, I was talking to the owner of a digital agency about our set up. He looked at me as though I was insane. I quote; “How the hell does that work? That must be so hard” I acknowledged that yes, it could be hard, mentioned the many positives of being scattered far and wide and then spent about 2 weeks sulking about how hard it actually was.

You see, in the early days of the company, we had acknowledged there were issues. Alyson and I had both worked remotely in a big company and taken baby steps to address some of the issues we’d come across – mostly around good communication. But as we grew, the challenges grew too and we were kind of ignoring them. We missed the chit-chat of an office, knowing who was working on what, bouncing around ideas, tiny problems bloomed into bigger ones.

It was at this low moment, that my optimistic self kicked in. I realised it wasn’t going to change, there was lots to love and frankly, other people make it work so we could too. So, over the past year – we’ve set about trying to keep the good stuff and ameliorate some of the bad.

You probably work remotely too

Why am I telling you this? Well, as we’ve been thinking about this challenge, we’ve realised how many of our clients and associates are in the same situation. Some organisations are, by nature, spread far and wide.  While for others, cuts, centralising resource and projects have led them down this path. Like me, some of the people are finding this hard. 

This is my attempt to say – it isn’t likely to change but it doesn’t need to be so hard and maybe there are a few small changes that you can make. I know this because a year on, we have a more balanced view of the pros and cons and a bunch of new digital tools and ways of working to help us along.  We are very much a work in progress but, for now, here are some of our hard earned tips and wisdom.

Acknowledge and address it

As I had my Shakabuku moment – you should too. If you have a central office and a few satellite offices, you’re working remotely. If you have 6 different sites as part of a group, you work remotely. If you’re working with external agencies or supplier on a big project, you’re working kind of working remotely. Communication, motivation, scheduling and workflow is going to be a different challenge than if you are working in the same office.

Make sure you talk about it with managers, colleagues, partners and suppliers and think about how you will address the issues.

Now that’s done, below are some of our insights but you might also want to take a look at REMOTE by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I found it a useful primer for working remotely – some obvious but good reminders, some not so obvious.

Remote working addresses many issues but cost isn’t one of them

If you’re hoping remote working will reduce cost, it won’t. There are just different costs. Our travel costs have increased, we hire meeting rooms and work spaces to ensure we can work together and rely on more digital subscription services and communication tools. Budget for these things, not having the money to deal with them will cost you more in the long run.

Find the right tools

We think remote working is possible because of new communications technologies yet many organisations don’t have the IT structures to make this a reality. Services have to be as easy to use as not use. It has to be as easy to speak to your colleague and share a document at a distance as it is to walk to their desk and drop a document on their desk. If it isn’t, you won’t do it.

You may need to build a business case to improve the systems – the reading list may help. It really is important for you and your organisation.

Connectivity is important

We scraped by on crappy connectivity for years until we realised it was a total false economy. The number of remote sites I’ve been to where they are spending money on digital services for visitors yet there is no reliable on-site connectivity for the team is ridiculous. We’ve all seen the updated Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Slack, just Slack

I’m not going to mention anything here other than Slack because it changed our company overnight (in fact, Alyson and I argued about the need for Slack OVER SLACK!!) and now think every organisation should be using it. It replaces emails, instant messaging and text. It’s totally searchable. Conversations are managed via channels – so you can have channels for specific projects, internal initiatives and communities of practice. Keeping content about an individual project in a searchable stream that everyone can see has been incredibly powerful.

It also allows people to catch up, shoot the breeze about a particular project or idea or nothing in particular. Which let’s be honest, can be just as productive as that 3 hour department meeting.

If you’re not using it you should be and here’s a post from Seb Chan on other cultural orgs that are.

Catching up or shooting the breeze

Catching up or shooting the breeze over your snap tin

Voice or video? Both

You need to actively encourage phone and video communication. Nuance, humour, debate, meaning, are often lost over email. Rely on written communication at your peril.

Voice is great but don’t discount video. Running a brief where suppliers might be working remotely? FaceTime with them along the visitor route. Have a remote site that is struggling with a particular installation let them show you a video of what is going on. Pictures, 1000 words and all that.

Collaborative tools

To me these are tools that let you work together, in the moment, rather than one person looking at a word document and then saving and re-saving. This could be google docs or even something visual like combined with a Skype call. It makes things as concrete as possible, builds trust that everyone is working on the same lines and saves bags of time.

Choose wisely, but choose something

For a while, I was digital service crazy. If there was something new I would sign us up, share passwords and then leave everyone to flounder. (Alyson here – this was the point when I got grumpy.  I’m sure you have a grumpy Alyson somewhere in your office but keep reading. Lindsey has some tips below to keep us on-side)

I stick by the need to keep finding things to solve problems, it’s just a matter of identifying the most important issues and finding something that addresses those first. Accept these may be wrong and you may need to change it  (tell everyone this is the case) but choose something and pilot it. Oh, and remember to cancel the subscription if 3 months down the line you aren’t using it.

Encourage transparency

When your colleague is not in the same office as you, it’s difficult to tell where their focus is or know when they have time to talk. It can be hard to report that you’re struggling with a particular task. We have short (15-30 mins) online check-in meetings (using Slack) once a week where we are all online. We share what we have achieved, what we are working on and if there are any barriers in our way.

We’ve been doing these for a few months now. The biggest impact is having a better understanding of availability, where all the projects are and who needs help because it’s ok to say this is taking longer and/or I need support.

Identify when you definately need to meet in person and then do it… Regularly

I know, travel costs, time, booking meeting rooms… but, just do it. It’s worth it. For us, any analysis needs to be done in person with a couple of people in the room. We realised that and it saved us a LOT of time and heartache.

Be like bamboo

Offer structure and flexibility. All of these services are only as good as you are at using them. If you think how many people struggle to use email appropriately, adding a tonne of services with new ways of working can be horrific. Try and figure out a few ground rules up front – when to use the tools, when not… People will find natural patterns.

We’re interested in your experiences of working remotely? Any top tips we’ve missed? Any big challenges? How does your organisation address working remotely?

2 Responses to “Remote Working or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slack”

  • Annie says:

    Hi Lindsay,
    A very interesting read! I think it’s inevitable that I will be working remotely as I leave my Ph.D. and enter the workplace full-time. Having returned from L.A. where I spent a couple of months with a social media company (research & insights) SLACK was our communication tool for the workplace and I agree, it’s fantastic! Happy 2016 to F,G & W.

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