The media have been awash for years about the trend towards remote working – executives hosting conference calls in their slippers from a makeshift office in the garden shed. And at The Digiterati, we are no strangers to the advantages of the virtual office environment: our team is based in Bristol, Hertfordshire and London yet our service is really no different (except in our overheads and stress levels) to that we would provide if we ran from an expensive city centre office.
So I thought we were doing pretty well until I met the team from We Make Awesome Sh (WMAS). Two of them live in a ski resort in Austria, another in New York and others dotted around the UK. Yet they are a respected specialist agency, have worked with some of the biggest brands in the world (UEFA, London Fashion Week, Ministry of Sound, Calvin Harris, The Rolling Stones). Facebook even opened up its firehose for them.
So given how on top of tech WMAS are, I asked them how they manage with day-to-day communications, in multiple time zones. And most importantly, how they handle the Christmas party.
It’s great having the option to sit in your pyjamas tapping away at your laptop to earn your daily bread. However, it’s not the reason we at We Make Awesome Sh work remotely and neither is it all quite so peachy but we have found a few tools to help us along the way and for us, most of the time, it works.
We work remotely for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it allows us to work from wherever we want in the world. Currently we have someone in New York, two people in Austria, one in Oxford and one in Romsey. So long as we have internet connection, we can work anywhere and we work just as efficiently whether we’re sitting in an office or at the top of a mountain. Secondly, it means that we can keep costs down; since we’re not paying to run an office, we can charge clients less as we don’t have the same overheads as other companies so you still get awesome service and products for less money. Everyone’s a winner!
Aside from the aforementioned pyjama attire, one of the main advantages and, conversely, disadvantages of remote working is managing your own time. We have no rules in terms of when you must be at your desk or the number of hours you have to work in a day. If you want to have a lie-in, go for it. Need to pop to the shop? Feel free. Your friend gets last minute tickets to see your favourite band; who cares if the venue is three hours away which means leaving right this minute – you can go – so long as you’ve got your work done.
Work shouldn’t get in the way of life; if somebody offers you an incredible opportunity you should be able to grab it with both hands and go for it without having to say “oh I’ve got no holiday allowance left” or “I don’t finish work until 7”.
This is where the disadvantage kicks in. If you’re not self-motivated or proactive then you can’t go to that gig because you’ve got a tonne of work to do before tomorrow, when the project you should have been working on for the last month goes live. The problem is, you haven’t been working on it, so you now have to pull an all-nighter to finish it on time.
Luckily, at We Make Awesome Sh we generally don’t have this problem. Our team of five is hugely motivated and the all-nighters come in because we are so engrossed in what we’re doing that we don’t notice the time or because we want to keep working on that project, or because we really care about producing work which we can be proud of and producing it on time. For us, the problem is gaining that work life-balance because when you self-manage your time, the question is when do you stop working?
We’ve tried to address this problem by ‘enforcing’ holiday time. Unlike many companies who have recently declared they are ‘scrapping holiday allowance’ in favour of ‘unlimited holiday’, we have gone in the opposite direction. Syd explains our thoughts on the matter here. Ultimately, if you are able to take holiday all the time, you end up never taking any, leading to people burning out or never having that ‘guilt free’ time off. So thanks to our Google calendar we all get a lovely reminder to ‘book your f****** holiday’ every quarter and we have to book in our five days of ‘out of office’. We can still take more holiday if we want but these are compulsory.
Another way to combat the potential problem of maybe not showering for days, living in your pyjamas and not getting round to starting work until 5pm is by having a daily routine. Paul has a checklist which he uses every day to ensure he gets sh** done. Not just a post-it-note ‘to do list’ (which is my preferred method) but an online list of things he has to achieve before he even starts work. I’ve heard of people who work from home walking out of their door and around the block to come back and sit at their desk ready to start work. Others make sure they put their shoes on to ‘go to work’ even though work is your home office and you could just put your slippers on. Whatever it is that works for you often it’s just helpful to have something to separate work-life and home-life.
Another obstacle we have to combat when working remotely is communication. IRC became our water cooler, our meeting room, our office. We all hung out in IRC via IRCCloud. I say this in the past tense as we have recently converted from IRC to Slack, a decision not taken lightly and one that caused one member of the team to throw his toys out of the pram and have a tantrum. So accustomed was he to the chat room, it was like turfing him out of his comfy chair, uprooting him to another city and telling him we were all going to have standing desks. He has since settled at his new desk and realised that you can create your own emojis in Slack, have great integration (we get daily digests of our Adsense stats and our Google analytics accounts thanks to our custom bots) and it’s costing the company less money. Whatever tool you use, a chat room for the team is a must when you work remotely.
Yes it means you can ask somebody at anytime a question about the project you’re working on, you can easily share a Dropbox image of your latest sketch of the new site or dump in a bit of code that’s not working and ask for help. We all have the Slack app on our phones which means that we can literally take the office anywhere. We can also have a chat. Say good morning when you’re ready to start your day, send a picture of your perfectly poached egg, moan about your builders and discuss politics. Without it, you really are just a single person sitting in your pants staring at a computer. It keeps us in touch with the ‘real’ world and stops us from going insane. OK, it’s not quite the same as real human contact; there is less spontaneous discussion, less learning by osmosis and the virtual high five and hug are not quite the same as the real thing.
If real human contact is something you crave, you don’t have to dismiss remote working all together. We’ll often go and find a cafe to work in for a day, or borrow a desk at a friend’s office for a change of scenery, a high five and some spontaneous chat.
Another super useful tool for bringing us all together is Skype or Google Hangouts. We have a weekly hangout every Monday at 5pm. This is routine and ensures we have a proper catch up at least once a week. An agenda is written and we’ll work through the main business stuff of the week as well as have a chat about what we all got up to at the weekend. It’s a way to make sure that things don’t go unsaid or lose meaning from brain to keyboard (emotions are very difficult to read through text). Similarly, we’ll often say “let’s jump on Skype” if something’s being misunderstood in Slack or if it’s something that needs more of a discussion. We’ll easily Skype each other on a one on one basis a couple of times a day. We’ve recently started ‘breakfast club’ which is a quick call first thing in the morning to have a chat about our work plans for the day. Ahhh the beauty of the internet where it matters not if you’re in Austria, America or England.
Other Useful Software
The final few tools we use are e-mail, Google docs and Trello. E-mail is relatively self explanatory, as is Google docs but the great thing about Google docs is being able to edit a doc all at the same time. We were asked to respond to some questions for an interview, so we all logged into the doc and started typing – you can see who’s saying what and can go and add to something someone else has said or just drop in a comment for them. It was a great way to work collaboratively on something that was no particular individual’s responsibility.
Trello is our collection of post-it-notes, our white board, our to-do-list. Every project has a Trello board with jobs to be done, questions, ideas etc. we have boards for the hangout agenda, keeping track of projects – pretty much anything that might be useful. It’s a great tool for keeping on top of everything especially when you’re not all in the same room.
After work drinks and the Christmas Party
Not so easy to grab a beer and unwind with your colleagues after work when you’re all in different places? It’s true, it’s not so easy but there are ways around it. Our 2014 Christmas Party was one of the most bizarre and fun Christmas parties I have ever experienced. The time was set: WMAS Christmas Party Sunday 21st December at 7PM UK, 8PM Austria, 3PM NYC. The rules were set: Bring a Christmas themed non-virtual hat, booze and snacks. So we all logged on and joined a google hangout at the allotted time. We played an online game of Cards Against Humanity and we partied until the small hours.
So remote working has its ups and downs. It’s definitely not for everyone but, for the moment, it is working for us with a little help from a few interweb tools.