Part 1 of 2 – I ran into Elia Albarran, Four Kitchens' Operations Manager ... ahem "Funmaster", in the inspiring atmosphere of BADCamp 2014. She mentioned she'd read my blog post 10 Tips for Success as a Remote Employee; we started exchanging tips and ideas until I basically yelled, "Stop! I need to get this on camera for the podcast!" She graciously agreed and brought along two Four Kitchens developers for the session, too: Taylor Smith and Matt Grill.
In this episode, I kick off with developers Matt and Taylor talking about Drupal itself, then we get into some tips and tricks they use to keep on track with work and maintaining healthy communication as members of remote teams. In part 2, I speak with Elia Albarran about the manager's perspective on running great teams, whether mixed in-house/remote or all remote. Check out that episode and post (and my original post and the comments there) for a lot more great, practical information on this topic that concerns so many of us in the tech industry today.
Personal productivity, survival, and sanity tips for remotes
- (Almost) over-communicate as a remote – jam & Matt: I mention that I will write an extra email or make an extra call to keep my team and boss up-to-date with what I am doing to keep things in balance. Matt adds, "Even if you think that a person won't find it valuable [now], send it anyway. They can potentially parse it at their own rate."
- Get out of your house, set a schedule – Taylor: "Sometimes I work from home, but I also made an arrangement with a local non-profit to share office space. Having to drive into downtown ... I made that my goal for the day: get dressed, get ready to go, and I go to work," adding a change of space to one where work should happen. "When I work from home, I miss having people around."
- Separate work and home-distractions - Matt: "I'll work in very defined chunks of time. That makes it easy to get things done. Not pick one task for all day, then you lose focus. Segment your time, that can be beneficial. I am at home, and there are tasks and responsibilities that might come up. I shut all that out and ignore it all till I can condense all those activities down into a break in between a large chunk of working."
- Discipline ... Get dressed (seriously) – jam & Matt: Imposing discipline on yourself help a lot of people, whether it simply means getting dressed at all, going to a different room, starting at a particular time, or what have you. Matt points out, "Four Kitchens has always had a pants rule. Wear pants in the office, please. I was working in a big office before I started working remote and I kept that same schedule: I wake up; I take a shower; I eat breakfast every morning ... and put on pants, obviously ... and I just start working. I don't like staying in my pajamas all day. That feels icky." :-)
- Work when you want to – Taylor: "I felt like [being remote] opened up more opportunities to work when I wanted to. If I felt like I could work from home, no one was tracking when I was and wasn't there. Some mornings, it's just hard to get going and I'd rather go outside and take a walk. Or some evenings, you're feeling really motivated and I know I can get a whole lot done and I'll sit at my desk and turn out a whole bunch of work for a project in the middle of the night. That kind of flexibility allowed me to work really productively."
Team tips, tricks, and technologies for teams with remote members
- Equal meetings – Taylor: "Make sure everybody communicates in the same way. If we have a meeting where one person is remote and a couple of people are in the office, everybody uses video conferencing. Those two people go to the opposite ends of the office; they don't speak directly to each other. If everybody is on the laptop screen, that keeps everybody on the same level." Nobody has an unfair advantage.
- Always-on, audio-only hangouts – Matt: "It's kind of like a water cooler where we can just chat about what we're working on and learn what everybody's doing that's not necessarily work-related, while we're working. It's very helpful to keep the communication going."
- Hire more remotes! – Taylor: "When I first went remote, I felt disconnected for a little while. We had just hired another remote employee, Matt. He'd talked to me about this lack of communication. Having a second remote employee at the time, it got everybody to remember that Matt and I are out there and you should rope us in to these discussions."
- Asynchronous text-based chat, (HipChat) – Matt: "Synchronizing the offline and online communications has been an ongoing challenge. Transitioning the conversations that happened in the actual, physical office to those of us that are not there. We use HipChat. That's a great tool to communicate; we've really embraced that. And so a lot of our conversations happen in the water cooler in HipChat. We do a lot of back-scroll reading. If you are very diligent about using a text-based chat system, you can use it as a running log of what you've said and you can search that."
- Video conferencing (Zoom Meetings) – Taylor: "We started using HipChat and Zoom Meetings. We started using hangouts more often and it became a very natural thing for employees to say 'Let's have a video chat about this.' The face-to-face communication, even if it's not in person, it fixed a lot of those boundaries." This makes sense, given my own experience that the highest bandwidth communication you can access at any given time is the best option, roughly: video chat, phone/voice, live chat, email.
- Keep it light – Taylor: Taylor adds that video conferencing helps keep things light and avoid the misunderstandings that can come with long email threads. "We also started using the most ridiculous Google Chrome plug-in I've ever seen: GitHub Selfies [blog post, Chrome Web Store, Firefox plug-in]. In pull requests, at the end of a comment, this plug-in adds a button to use your webcam to take an animated selfie. And we make goofy faces in the middle of code reviews because it keeps that process light. Otherwise, it would be just constant critique and this helps us share our enthusiasm with each other. It felt really stupid at first, but then I realized the whole mood had changed." Update: Check out this great post about GitHub selfies by Four Kitchens remote team member Jon Peck: Bringing smiles to pull requests with GitHub selfies.
Taylor Smith on the web:
- Designer and Frontend Engineer, Four Kitchens
- Twitter: @tsmith512
- GitHub: tsmith512
- Drupal.org: tsmith512
- LinkedIn profile
- Behance: TSmithCreative
- Portfolio site: http://tsmith512.com/
- Personal site: http://www.tsmithcreative.com/
- Facebook profile: Taylor Smith
Matt Grill on the web: