34 million Americans work from home. This number is expected to reach a staggering 63 million by 2016. Forrester Research’s US Telecommuting Forecast
We were all anxiously sitting in the Village, a common area in our Charlotte office, chowing down on lunch that Friday. Our CEO had just announced that we were opening up another shop in Denver, Colorado. With all of the excitement came millions of questions, but by far the most difficult to answer was how we would work remotely. Our experience up to this point consisted of a couple developers that lived a few hours away.
We had a good handle on cloud services and video conferencing, but project teams working on different time schedules? That would be a new challenge. We immediately began searching for the cure-all tools. What we found out, however, is that remote working doesn’t really require any shiny new toys. It just takes what your grandpa has told you all along - hard work and determination.
Through this mindset, we have developed a successful framework for our remote project teams. It’s built on the following five, foundational elements.
1. Get comfortable sharing unfinished work
People love to ask for feedback when in reality, nobody wants it. It always seems to feel personal and can be uncomfortable to give and receive. This uneasiness is only compounded when you’re not in the same room with those giving the feedback.
We like to use online tools such as Sketch and Invision to quickly mockup ideas and concepts. We encourage project teams and clients to talk openly about what works and what doesn’t. Bringing our clients into the design process breaks down formalities and gets everybody working towards a common goal. When possible, we use Google Hangouts to present our work so that we can read body language. Thinking about non-verbals allows the team to catch reactions quickly and hone in on areas where a client may be confused or distracted. These areas then become the focal points of future iterations.
2. Communicate early and often
Effective teamwork is impossible without a solid communication plan, and distance only adds complication. There’s no secret sauce here, it’s about reducing barriers and determining the best ways of communicating early on. It’s important to create an approachable environment with multiple touch points throughout the project.
As an internal team, we like to conduct three, 15 minute standups throughout the week in order to keep tabs on progress. We use Slack for quick conversations and questions, and Hangouts for longer working sessions. We also use Hangouts for weekly status meetings with our clients. Making face-to-face time a priority goes a long way towards building the relationship. Basecamp is our project management tool of choice. It’s great for keeping track of email correspondence and organizing deliverables in one central place.
3. Collaborate to make work, work
Collaboration to solve problems can take many forms, be it whiteboarding, building out paper prototypes, or quickly manufacturing physical products. All of these methods are ways to communicate ideas. When thinking about this approach in a remote environment, the perfect mix of what works best will change from team to team and client to client.
We’ve found that keeping meetings focused and giving everyone time to prepare in advance leads to more productive dialogue and less wasted time. Experimenting with multiple communication methods is an important strategy to help align the team. Usually, this means exploring problems verbally, visually, and physically to really understand the nuances within.
4. Get in the trenches if you want success
Successful project teams are made up of passionate individuals that rely on one another, push each other, and lift each other up. This dynamic does not happen overnight. Camaraderie takes work. We invite all of our new hires to start their first week at our Charlotte office. This gives everybody the opportunity to work together in person for a short while. Even a minimal amount of time together makes communication down the road a little bit easier.
We do something similar with clients, inviting them into the office for demos and meetings. This gets them out of their day-to-day and engaged in the process. As a result, it’s easier to work through challenges and have the tough conversations that may be needed to drive a project forward.
5. Timezones and scheduling are a state of mind
Lastly, scheduling can be one of the trickiest areas to tackle. It’s important to be understanding and take the time to know your team and how they function. Be ready to adjust scheduling based on team dynamic or client needs. Thoughtful scheduling can go a long way to preserve team unity and client relationships, and it doesn’t have to be hard.
With clients and project teams, make sure to schedule meetings at reasonable times for all participants. We often schedule our meetings at 1 PM EST. This is normally a reasonable time for any client, in any time zone, within the U.S. No one’s getting up too early and no one’s missing lunch.
Working remotely takes effort. If you’re a company that’s about to take the jump or has been working at it, strive to focus on the key areas above. With advances in technology, it’ll only be moments before most companies blur the lines between working in person and remotely.