We Went Remote Right Before the Novel Coronavirus. Here's What We Learned.
Back in December 2019, our team moved to being fully remote. Initially, this decision was made as a temporary measure–our lease was up, and we hadn't found a space that we liked enough to commit to for our new office. Since we already have a flexible work from home policy, we discussed the situation as a team and ultimately decided we could all work remotely until we found a new office. It's now about 3 months later, and it's not looking like we're moving into a new office any time soon. Coronavirus has completely turned the business world upside down, with many companies that typically require their full workforce to head into an office every day–even when the majority of their work is done over email, Slack, and SaaS–to pack everything up and spontaneously become remote-only teams. It’s an uncertain time, and companies are having to adapt to new methods of collaboration, new ways of communicating with customers, and sometimes even pivoting to new business models. There are tons of articles out there with tips for how to go remote, so we won't go into that here. Instead, here's what Suits & Sandals has experienced (the good and the bad) in our transition to fully remote.
Technology doesn't replace a good team, but it does make their jobs easier
For years, we've been working on consistently tweaking and improving our workflow and the documentation strategies. We've been finding ways to automate time consuming tasks, utilizing APIs to integrate our business tools–such as connecting our project collaboration software, Teamwork, with Google Sheets to develop a custom operations management dashboard–and other creative tech solutions to help free up time to work on other important tasks. This strategy of evaluating our process, and finding ways to improve it through technology has been something that has revolutionized our internal efficiency. It's also been something we're able to help our clients implement for their own teams. And now that we're dealing with COVID-19, our team is in the fortunate position to have a tried and tested workflow to help us get work done as efficiently as possible. Even small tricks like using keyboard shortcuts can add up to serious time savings. These strategies are ones that can and should be implemented by just about any team, regardless of whether or not you're in an office.
Remote collaboration needs creative tech solutions
Collaboration is a key part of our work. Things like UX design and branding used to mean our team would huddle around a computer screen and/or white board, pointing to design elements or drawing things to visually explain an idea. When you're not in the same room, this can lead to miscommunication or difficulty in explaining a point. To combat this, we've gotten creative about how we use technology to keep the human elements of gesturing and visualization as close to the process as possible.
Our design tool of choice, Figma, allows for realtime collaboration–meaning we can pull up a design and critique it by moving things around, pointing with cursors to specific elements, and leaving notes for later with their commenting feature. We pull up Google Docs and Sheets for keeping notes, tracking changes, and collaborating on strategy. We've also started using iPads to allow for easier whiteboarding sessions than would be possible by trying to draw with your mouse.
When we were in our office, most of our team members used two or three monitors to allow for having lots of space to keep multiple windows and browser tabs open. At any given time we'll have multiple websites, our Teamwork Chat, email, Google Drive, and probably 10 other tools open. Keeping all of those windows organized can be a challenge, so many of us use an app called Spectacle that allows you to resize and reposition Chrome browser windows automatically.
Now that our team works from home, not all of us have room for multiple screens. Spectacle has become even more useful in keeping screen real estate organized. And in general, when you have to deal with the whole world turning upside down beneath your feet, having great organization–which is something that's always important–becomes essential. Productivity hacks are your best friend...but they certainly aren't a crutch.
Enabling digital collaboration
Here's how we utilize technology to support a remote workflow
G Suite - We use Team Drive to store all client deliverables, Google Docs for research and strategy development, Google Sheets for planning and workflow & revision tracking, plus tons of internal documentation like proposals, budgets, etc. We also use Google Meet for most internal and client meetings.
Teamwork - This is essentially the hub of our business. Teamwork Chat, Teamwork Projects, Teamwork Spaces, Teamwork Desk, and Teamwork CRM allow us to keep all tasks, time tracking, files, notes, and everything else related to project management and collaboration in one place.
Milanote - Our design team gathers all references, visual research, and relevant links for each design project here. They also use it for developing creative briefs for each project–whether it's for a visual branding engagement or ad campaign creative.
Flowmapp - All of our UX design work–from user flow diagrams, to customer journey maps, to user personas, are created in Flowmapp. We also use Flowmapp as our single source of truth for documenting sitemaps, information architecture, and what stage of design or development each section of a website or web app is currently in.
Figma - Not only is Figma great for collaborative design, but its features for setting up interactive design presentations that update in realtime and ability for clients to leave comments makes sharing work with clients a breeze.
Sometimes (read: all the time) tech isn't the only answer
Harnessing technology in creative ways can boost efficiency, but only if that technology is high quality. Investing in the right tech is incredibly important when working remotely. But just like with any business situation, technology itself cannot solve every problem.
Video conferencing has been clutch in allowing our team to communicate efficiently. It's much easier to talk through voice over email or instant message. And while the ability to screenshare makes it possible for everyone in a meeting to have a visual reference for what we're discussing, the reality is that video resolution in most videoconferencing software isn't great. Sure, it's fine when you're looking at your team's faces, but when you're pulling up a design comp, or planning out a Gantt chart for project management, things like text end up blurry and difficult to understand visually.
This is something our team hasn't been able to get around, so we've had to adapt our communication style to address the shortcomings of the technology. Instead of pointing to certain areas on the screen and making general statements like, "this area over here," we need to be super specific and try our best to make the discussion as clear as possible. This is actually pretty difficult, and is definitely a work in progress.
Being a good human is more important than ever
Staying mindful of the fact that you're not in the same room, and that you need to communicate differently as a result can be a challenge–but we've found that as long as we're committed to making it work, and patient as we all adapt, we are able to get positive results over time. That patience is really the ultimate key. Yes, we need to adapt quickly to change–but forgiving mistakes and rolling with the bumps in the road is a part of this adaptation.
In some ways, being remote puts a magnifying glass on your work habits. Stepping away from the computer for a few minutes, or not answering chats because you're hyper-focused on your work, can be seen as being lazy from the outside. It's easy to get frustrated at various factors of the situation–whether its the shortcomings of technology, difficulties in communication, not being able to get quick answers from a team member because they're in the middle of something and not checking their chats, or whatever else. Mindfulness and compassion for your fellow team member, communicating recognition and thankfulness for effort and good work, and allowing for an injection of humor into the day are things we made sure to develop when we had an office. Now that we're fully remote, those things have become even more important.
The interesting thing about working remote is that, for most office jobs, you're basically doing the same thing with the same tools–just a different environment. What the shift to remote work really does is amplify the importance for those tools, tactics, and strategies. But what it also does is show the business world that working remote isn't something to shy away from–even in times when it isn't mandated by the government. There's a stigma that remote work leads to a lack of productivity–but it could be argued that, in many cases, remote work can actually lead to more productivity.
Most importantly, the tips and tricks out there for being productive while remote are really just tips and tricks for how to be productive in general. Good communication, good technology, and a well organized and well documented workflow can make any team more efficient, and better able to have–and capitalize–on great ideas.
As a final word, we'd like to express sincere best wishes to any business struggling in the midst of the recession that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. Hopefully this post is helpful.