Lessons Learned From Working Remotely
How a year of remote work transformed our operation.
From day one, my business has been a laboratory for experimentation. My time spent working in the music industry piqued my interest in entrepreneurship and small business ventures, but I initially knew very little about running a design studio. With no previous experience as a design employee, my company was a blank canvas for how a design studio could be run. Of course, this has resulted in plenty of mistakes and hard lessons but over time, I’ve continually welcomed the opportunity to experiment with all aspects of the business.
In the same manner that we use design thinking to deliver successful solutions for our clients, we believe that design thinking can be applied to the process that leads us to those results. Experimentation and iteration provides continual improvement in the way we operate. One such experiment meant moving my company nearly 500 miles from Nashville to Chicago. The relocation provided us with an opportunity to move out of our comfort zone in order to improve as designers and developers. It also made me grow as a business owner. Leaving a small market where my business was established and operating successfully to a much larger market where we would be virtually unknown offered its fair share of opportunities and risk.
To ease the transition, Michael remained in Nashville for a year and we began working remotely. Operating out of separate locations meant that we had to adjust our workflows to ensure that the quality of our work would not slip but rather improve as we began to enter a larger market. As with any new experiment, our foray into remote work had its bumps and bruises. Before long, we had adapted and found ourselves relishing in our newfound workflows.
Twelve months ago, this year-long experiment came to an end as Michael made the move to Chicago so that we could once again work within the same office. Now, with a full year of working beside one another, we have realized that the lessons learned from working remotely have made us better designers, developers and communicators.
We became better writers.
Remote work eliminated the opportunity for casual conversation. Phone calls and video chats consume too much time so we chose to limit those to important occasions. Writing became our main source of communication. This required articulation with our thoughts in order to get our points across clearly and efficiently. Whether using email, project management software or our internal chat software, working remotely demanded deliberate thought when sharing our ideas and critiques.
In turn, this helped with client correspondence as well. We devised systems for reviewing and editing proposals or any long-form communications with clients. This required that initial contributor took the time to encompass all of the finer details of the project so that the reviewer would be able to provide edits that helped to clarify the material. Often, we would review documents several times to assure that our correspondence represented the same thoughtfulness that we give to our work.
We had to be more organized.
When working remotely, little things that slip through the cracks can’t happen. Thus, we had to develop a bulletproof set of systems that we still use today. Completed tasks needed to be recorded so that both partners were keenly aware of what needed to be accomplished. Additionally, keeping files and resources organized was crucial for streamlined workflow at both offices.
We relied on our project management software to meet these needs. The tool that we were already using, Basecamp, was our initial solution. Utilizing email as its notification channel, Basecamp allowed us to also bring clients into the project management software. This way, our clients could observe and communicate as their project was progressing. We have since progressed to using Trello for all internal projects and have begun testing it on some client projects. Trello provides us with a more visual view of the project status. Additionally, tasks can proceed through a series of stages rather than simply complete or incomplete.
While working in remote offices, we still needed to have a channel for regular conversation — enter chat service. We initially used Campfire, followed by Hipchat and then happily landed on Slack. To this day, the majority of our conversations still take place in Slack. The service provides separate channels to keep our thoughts organized and the ability to search through these communications at a later time. Seamlessly working with third-party applications, Slack will notify us of Trello updates or Git commits. It will also parse the information from shared links which allow us to quickly share screenshots of ideas using CloudApp.
We learned to be more decisive.
One of the fallbacks of being a designer or developer is overthinking our solutions. We are all guilty of this from time to time. Self-doubt will sometimes creep in and minor iterations end up consuming hours of work only to return to where you first started. When working in the same office, it is quite convenient to distract a co-worker for feedback on every little step. In this circumstance, self-doubt begins to paralyze your workflow. Working remotely required proactive and confident decisions.
All in all, this experiment in working remotely has had a lasting, positive effect on our non-remote workflows. After working in the same office for a year now, we’ve found that these changes have improved the productivity and quality of our work.