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Authentic F&F

Successful Tools in Remote Work

Sep 2014

As I sit here after a much needed evening session at the gym, and with a bit of welcoming Ahmad Jamal playing on Rdio, I look to our company’s communication and social feeds for anything new. I’m putting in a few extra hours this evening to reflect on how our agency’s communication approach has changed over the years, and interestingly enough, I’m not the only one with a little extra skin in the game.

When I bring myself back from Away on our Slack Channels, I see I’m not alone. Despite 1500 miles of distance between, there are two of us staring at the glowing screen, sharing details of our evening so far, and briefly connecting before getting back to work.

It’s nothing new—chat, that is—but it’s important. Critically important, in fact, when we’re discussing the tools we use to stay informed. To stay connected and accountable with our dispersed team.

Types of Communication Tools

Of the tools we use here at Authentic F&F, I imagine them breaking down into a few different high level categories.

First, written or verbal communication tools for our internal team that allow us to stay intimately connected at a moment’s notice. This wouldn’t necessarily be email or the telephone, as those are typical methods of communication any can use in this era, but tools that allow us to manage the back and forth continuously throughout each day.

Next up, my mind wanders to tools that help us have meaningful and fluent conversations with our clients. These tools afford us the opportunity to communication, present, review, and otherwise make sure our clients are on the same page with us at every moment.

Finally, the last bucket that comes to mind are the tools that communicate with the masses—the rest of the world that may or may not know who we are. This toolset is specifically aimed at creating content or showcasing our thoughts, writings, and work.

Internal Tools

At our company’s core, we heavily rely on a couple different “internal” communication tools every day of the week to make remote working as simple as possible.

Slack Chat

Years ago, we all relied on AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, and it did the trick just fine. But for teams larger than just a couple, it simply doesn’t do the trick. We tried Campfire for quite some time, and while we love a few of its features (can I get a “Heyyy Girlll” anyone?) it simply didn’t stand up to Slack once we made the switch.

Slack claims to be a replacement for email, and while I don’t think that will be the case any time soon, it’s absolutely a better way to communicate via chat. It supports various integrations for major 3rd party products including Twitter, Cloud App, and Rdio just to name a few. In other words, when we’re sharing links, songs, mockups, or most anything else, Slack serves us a nice little preview for the content. Slack is always available to our team whenever we need it to be. The #lobby is the water cooler for our remote crew.

Additionally, the interface itself feels more well-loved than something like Campfire. With the ability to setup multiple channels (chat rooms), it’s easy to parse out lines of communication to appropriate locations. Once more, Slack also supports multi-company integration rather nicely, so if you need to be a member of another company’s channel or channels, it’s a dropdown menu item away.

Google Hangouts

We’ve started using a team hangout more and more over the last few months. One reason is because it’s nice to see everyone’s face at least a few times a week, and Slack Chat supports hangout integration. Using Slack’s shortcuts, a link is quickly served to the entire group. Click-click and we’re in.

A hangout allows the entire team much needed face to face time to rattle off ideas and discuss projects that may otherwise simply be standard Skype group calls. Which brings me to…

Skype

I knock this old gem a little bit, but the honest truth is that Skype is still a goto internal tool for quickly connecting when we don’t need extra face to face time and we simply need to jam out a few ideas and keep the train moving.

Skype’s also a great tool for conference calls, where we can all be on a call at once and the call leader can also dial in a client. While we rarely use Skype for its screen sharing capabilities (or lack thereof), it still stands out as a tool we’ll lean on a couple times a week.

“Skype?,” we’ll say. And then we’re logged in and off to the races.

Screenhero

This app is relatively new to the scene, but it has absolutely been a huge winner for sharing screens. Unlike anything else we’ve used, SH has taken clarity and quickness in screen sharing to another level.

Free for quite some time, this tool just recently became a paid service as they officially launched Version 1, and with good reason. From HD views of another’s screen, to multiple cursors, to easy voice communication on the call, we haven’t found anything better.

Harvest

The final significant tool we’ve been using internally involves our time tracking and client invoicing. In the beginning we felt wrangled into using Quickbooks desktop (gasp) to generate invoices out of that software. Needless to say, we wanted to jump off a bridge. Actually, I did, because I put myself in charge of that monthly task!

Enter Harvest, a dead simple and beautiful interface for tracking time and billing clients. While we always used the time tracking component, we’d never used the invoicing until a little bit later in our Harvest tenure. Once we made the switch, we haven’t looked back. From standard billable client invoicing, to expenses, to auto-generated monthly (or quarterly, or yearly) invoices, we can’t say enough about it.

With a recent company switch over to Xero as well, the everything-online strategy has so far worked wonders on eliminating a very painful aspect of any small business owner’s month: backend finances and reconciliation.

Client Tools

A huge pillar for our company is staying in communication with our clients. Over-communicating rather than under-communicating. We hear it a lot in the digital space: a client leaves an agency because the back and forth was flat out terrible. The lines of communication were jammed. We try to avoid that at all costs.

Basecamp

Ah Basecamp, the old stand by project management system. For all of us that have used BC over the years, I’m sure we can bring a variety of opinions to the table. It’s too little. It’s too much. It’s too simple. It’s too complicated.

But at the end of the day, BC has served to be the best umbrella tool for communicating with our clients, no question. We set up every new client with a project and immediately jump into how we use the system. From messages, to todos, to decent tools like reminders, we haven’t found something that does it as well, as easily, with as much support.

After the crew at BC added the ability to hide content from a client, as well, it became a way for us to clean up our internal process even more. No longer need a client-facing and an internal-facing project for each client.

As a tangent, I actually brought up Basecamp in conversation the other day with a friend of mine looking for a management system for a growing massage therapy company. Multiple locations, employees, and a need to wrangle some basic content; but she hadn’t heard of BC. I suppose in our digital silos sometimes we assume everyone’s heard of it. For what it is, I still believe BC handles a lot of things well, so I gave the recommendation.

For the Trello fans out there, we hear you. We’ve tried Trello on a few occasions but just can’t get it to stick yet. We see the benefit, but we also see it as yet another thing to keep tabs on during the project life cycle. While BC isn’t ideal on every level, it still does the job, well enough, at this time. We’re sure this will change in time.

InVision

The need to present visual content in a way that a client fully understands the context in conversation has probably been the most difficult item to overcome in our workflow.

Traditionally we’ve done the flat PSD or Sketch mockups, shipped them off to the client, had them take a look, and then we’d jump on the line to discuss. It may come as no surprise, but there were constant grievances. Off the top of my head:

Why can’t I click on anything? (it’s a flat image mockup)
The image looks too small on my screen. (click image to expand full size)
What am I looking at here? I don’t get it. (it’s a static image, not a website)
What is template-v2-about? (no need to focus on naming conventions)

The issue never resided with the client, but with us in the lack of fluidity when it came to presenting comps for eventual digital work. We could try to explain what they would be seeing until we were blue in the face, but we’d still, like clockwork, hear the same things.

It wasn’t until we used InVision within a few partnerships that we really saw the power in presenting with a tool that everyone could be online with. Everyone looking at the same thing, one person in control, guiding the client through the process of explaining the decisions on screen.

We’re well aware that this may not be the only tool available for improving the pitches for visual design approval, but so far it fits the bill for the type of projects we work on today. When it comes time to review more hi-fidelity wireframes, or walking a client through a lightly mocked up and responsive website or web app example, I’m sure we’ll flex as needed.

FreeConference

Granted, while it might look like it was built in 1999, this free conference line service allows us to centralize conference calling with clients like never before.

As a growing agency we often relied on personal cell phones or the aforementioned Skype group call, but it would be different every time, making it confusing for both the client and our internal team. At this point, knowing that we’re going to dial into the conference line, and realizing that location never changes, has become much easier on us, but also a simple copy/paste over to client emails.

The one downside to this service is that we’ve noticed entering an incorrect conference code can, from time to time, render confusion when there is no prompt for said invalid code. It will simply put a user on hold, politely listening to lobby music, wondering where everyone is.

This may be a function of our conference code being very similar to another, or, a flaw in the software’s logic. Either way, it’s worth noting for those taking the leap. For us, it was a leap well worth it.

Promotional Tools

The last bucket of tools that make remote working a successful campaign include those that enable us to reach out to fellow colleagues, clients, and the new folks that stumble upon our work from time to time.

Google Hangouts on Air

Very recently we started something called Authentic Studies, a way for us to give this communication tool a try and to, also, open a forum for other creatives to partake in a realistic design review of a product. Taking a step towards better back and forth within our team, but also as a way to give others the ability to watch and make suggestions along the way.

This “live” tool enables full-on live video chats that then later are saved to a YouTube account for a record of the conversation. This not only provides an on demand possibility, but also archives the chats for future viewing—either via a blog post or other organic search.

We’re still playing with this technology, but we see it’s benefit as a way to reach those outside of our regional circles.

Authentic F&F Journal

There’s something to be said for sharing information. Success, failures, ideas, insight into various digital platforms, and similar. Our journal is a way for us to keep one another accountable for sharing our thoughts but also provides a succinct way to, again, provide an outlet for content creation to others seeking the same things.

Twitter, Dribbble, Designer News

Finally, the usual suspects in the digital space come down to sharing articles and thoughts, posting up works in progress, and just generally communicating and understanding trends in the industry. These sites—whether used as a personal repo for thoughts and ideas, or as a way to research and learn—all have their place in our daily workflows.

Communication as a Rule

We harp on communication all day, every day at our company. We’ve seen time and time again a lack of communication breaking down the connection between colleagues, clients, and even personal relationships.

Communication is king. It has to be, otherwise it all falls apart.

As you hunt for the best tools for your own team, consider these as a starting place. Certainly they’ll evolve over time, but for now our core set is in place. What else works? We’re always interested to hear about others’ experiences, too. Let’s all communicate a little better.

Chris Arnold Partner / Design Lead

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