How to Make Remote Team Collaboration Work

Mar 2 2010 by Isaac Gube | 27 Comments

It’s often said that the world is getting smaller. Of course, it’s not physically getting smaller, but rather, that statement alludes to the fact that the distances that used to separate people are more manageable today because of the improvements in communication and travel.

This could not be truer on the Internet where communication is instantaneous. A letter that would have taken days to arrive could be read and replied to within minutes via email. Documents that would otherwise take days to arrive, now only take a few milliseconds.

How to Make Remote Team Collaboration Work

Of course, working on the Internet is not without its drawbacks. Working together on our newest venture, Design Instruct, was quite revelatory in that regard as my brother and I endeavored to work from different parts of the globe.

This article is part of Design Instruct Week, a weeklong celebration of our newly launched site, Design Instruct. This week on Six Revisions covers topics that deal with running websites and design, written by the founders/editors of Design Instruct and Six Revisions. Be sure to check out the Design Instruct Week Twitter Giveaway, which gives out different prizes every day of Design Instruct Week.

The Case: Design Instruct

If you’ve been keeping up with Six Revisions over the last month, you would have read about our new website called Design Instruct, which is a new web magazine offering tutorials focused on the visual arts such as design, illustration, photography, and art direction. It is a site born out of our passion for the creative arts and we wanted to share that passion with people.

Design Instruct is our first real venture together. It is the first time my brother and I sought to actually build something of our own (unless of course you count all the make-believe forts we built when we were kids).

It was also the first time we actually started working together. And as if getting used to working together wasn’t enough, we had to do it in disparate geographical locations.

There are many challenges associated with working with someone over a long distance. However, we found that there are solutions to those challenges, and so far, we’ve managed to make it work.

I share with you the areas of our workflow that posed some challenges, and the methods by which we overcame them.

Problem #1: Staying in sync

Working with people in the same town is hard enough. My brother and I are working from opposite sides of the globe.

As we started talking about establishing a new website, we realized we needed to acknowledge the difference in time zones if we were to get any semblance of synchronization in our work. Setting proper times for brainstorming sessions and meetings online proved to be quite a challenge in the beginning.

To illustrate what kind of problem a huge difference in time zones causes, let’s just say that by the time I’m done with my workday, my brother is just waking up to brew his first pot of coffee and is just getting ready for his day.

Needless to say, tending to urgent matters that needed both of our attention was a challenge in the beginning.

Solution: Schedule regular web meetings and stick to the schedule

Problem #1: Staying in sync

Obviously, we weren’t able to invent a time machine to fix this problem. If we did, I wouldn’t be here writing this article, and instead I’d be collecting a shiny Nobel Prize and counting my billions of dollars.

The solution was simple enough, however. We just needed to schedule meetings at regular intervals where we can just touch base and get in sync with each other.

Of course, it’s easy to not stick to the schedule when you’re working with a long distance between you and your collaborator because there’s no one to keep tabs on either of you.

However, the price of not sticking to the schedule was apparent right from the beginning as projects were not getting done, articles were falling behind and we weren’t sure what either of us was working on.

And that was a price we were not willing to pay if we really wanted to create something special with Design Instruct.

We used Skype to video conference with each other, which allows us to send files, share links, and view each other’s computer screens when we’re talking about certain aspects of the website.

We set a solid meeting agenda, and stuck to it to make sure that the time we spend in meetings is short and efficient. It’s hard to get Jacob sitting in on a meeting, he’d rather be doing stuff, rather than talking about them – and as such, a clear meeting agenda is present that we both add to throughout the week to make sure that we’re not meeting simply for the sake of meeting.

Problem #2: Task management

Running a website is not as glamorous as one would think. There are a million emails to answer, writers to tend to, and a publishing schedule to manage. It’s a lot of work that is frankly tedious and oftentimes quite boring, and finding the motivation to keep working sometimes proves to be quite challenging for the both of us.

It’s no secret between my brother and I that I get easily bored and distracted when faced with mundane details. I’m more of a big picture/idea man and the prospect of getting bogged down with tedium just makes my brain cringe. And without each other to keep us motivated, it’s easy to fall behind on our work.

Solution: Get organized and keep your eyes on the prize

Problem #2: Task management

There’s no way around doing the actual work. It comes with the territory, especially if you want to create something special. One way we’ve managed to keep on task is to make the work as easy as possible by getting organized.

Let me be the first to say that it’s much more bearable to look for documents and images on your computer when you know where to find everything.

It’s much easier to look for an email conversation when you have emptied your inbox and archived your emails. And it’s much easier to follow schedules when you actually take note of it in an organizer instead of a stray sticky note you found on the floor.

The thing is, getting organized need not be one huge undertaking. Try splitting up the ordeal of getting organized into smaller, more manageable tasks. For instance, instead of cleaning out and archiving all of your old emails from your inbox in one day, try just archiving the important emails and leave the rest until the next day. And then repeat the process until you zero out your inbox.

Pretty soon, you’ll see your inbox clearing up—and the best part is that you’ll know where to look for all your important emails.

Of course, the best way to keep on task is to have a clear goal that you’re working towards. Even if it’s just an image in your mind, that image can motivate you to power through all the dull moments and get you through to the next day. Always keep your eyes on the prize.

Problem #3: Idea generation and brainstorming

The Internet has come a long way. With broadband connections readily available in many countries now, communication over the Internet has become quite robust and very capable of facilitating the flow of ideas between people.

In the past, voice calls and video calls over the Internet were seen merely as a novelty because of the impossibly slow Internet connections available to most people.

Today, people can share their screens and show the other person what they’re working on, people can talk "face-to-face" through a video call, and even conducting a conference call over the Internet is as simple as clicking a mouse.

However, communication over the Internet isn’t perfect. There is still something to be said about being in the same room with people you work with.

Brainstorming sessions don’t always have to be scheduled in the real world; they can be spontaneous. Conveying ideas through body language, through hand movements are virtually impossible on the Internet. And pointing to reference materials is sometimes cumbersome when you’re online.

The fact is, ideas don’t form as organically over the Internet as when you’re in the same room as your collaborator.

Solution: Get creative

Problem #3: Idea generation and brainstorming

This is where you need to get creative. I am a big proponent of brainstorming sessions in a conference room. I think it’s one of the most valuable activities you can do for productivity as long as it’s focused. We were not able to do that in the same physical location with Design Instruct on account of the thousands of miles separating my brother and I.

The way around the problem of the virtual divide is to just forget all the negatives of working over the Internet, and instead, focus on what the Internet enables you to do.

For instance, as stated above, you can share your screens with each other so you can show what you’re working on. This is a great tool to use. You can scan your notes that you take by yourselves and send it to each other over the Internet, which you can archive and save in one place. You can have an email conversation that’s rich in different kinds of media like images, video, and audio.

Working on the Internet over a long distance is definitely different than working together in the same physical location.

But being different doesn’t mean that it’s a worse way to work.

Problem #4: Version control of files

We deal with—literally—thousands of files that either one of us is working on at a given moment. This can be a versioning nightmare, especially if you’re passing emails back and forth.

Solution: Use a file syncing tool

Problem #4: Version control of files

What we did was set up a simple file syncing tool called Dropbox. This allowed us to work on files and documents without having to deal with version control. We have one shared folder that contains all our files. At the time of writing this, our shared folder contains 2,516 files and 1.6GB of data.

There are other file syncing tools out there, but Dropbox has proven to be the best one for us. If we were both to pick one tool that we couldn’t live without and that has increased our productivity immensely, it would this file syncing tool.

Problem #5: Task delegation

At any given day, running a website like Design Instruct can fill up one’s to-do list really quickly. There are many things to do, and not enough time to do them.

At first, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to learn how to write code and manage our servers, even though my background is graphic design and visual arts. Likewise, my brother wanted to manage and oversee all aspects of the site. This caused us to work harder than we needed to and spread ourselves too thin. We were trying to be redundant of each other’s skills and persona.

What we needed to do was delineate who was doing what, but task delegation gets tougher when you’re not in the same room and working in different time zones.

Solution: Recognize each one’s strengths and work autonomously

Solution: Schedule regular web meetings and stick to the schedule

Even though we’re siblings, our personalities and skills are on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

While I’m goal-oriented, he’s task-oriented. He likes to write code (so much so that he even wrote a book about it), and I like to illustrate, design t-shirts, and snap photos. While I’m more organic and fluid in the way I approach problems, he looks at the technical and tangible aspects of a given issue. I’m a Mac user, while my brother’s a (proud) Windows user who builds his own PCs.

Some might think that such opposites are recipe for disaster, but if you think about it, we both bring something different to the table, and thus, we can work on the tasks that are best suited for our personalities and work style.

So for Design Instruct, being as he’s a web developer, he took on all of the technology related stuff. I, on the other hand, took over content management, graphics, editorial, and content creation.

When we prepare content for publication, I work with the authors for any stylistic changes that need to be made, while he focuses on the technical aspects (such as the accuracy of their writing and fact-checking).

We both have vastly different writing styles that give the content a much fuller level of review that a single editor would not be able to provide on their own.

In this way, we’re able to do the things we love doing and leverage our personal strengths, while still being able to get stuff done and produce a much better product than if we were to work alone, simply by acknowledging each other’s strengths.

Perhaps the most important benefit of this: It gives us the ability to work autonomously and ensures that we’re not doing something that the other is already doing.

Some parting words

Design Instruct is indeed quite an experience for us. Design Instruct is slowly getting into its own rhythm and it’s all been done over the Internet, which is a feat all on its own.

Of course, it’s a different way to work, but it’s also a very effective way to work once you acknowledge the challenges and are willing to adapt.

Just think, a few years ago, working from such great distances would have been quite an ordeal, and today it is done with such great ease and effectiveness.

Of course, the key to successfully working over long distances is to acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. The Internet isn’t meant to simulate real life, and—in many ways—that’s one of the strengths of working online since it forces you to think and work differently.

Share your stories of working over long distances with us in the comments.

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About the Author

Isaac Gube is a photographer, philosopher, illustrator, adventurer, designer, and whatever else he chooses to be on any given day. You can connect with him on Twitter @IAMTHEGUBE or visit his Flickr page to see some of his photos.

27 Comments

iPhone Dev

March 2nd, 2010

Hi Isaac
Not to overlook the useful content of the post (!) I love the pencil sketches… they add a warm personal touch.

Can Aydoğan

March 2nd, 2010

Great article. Thanks!

Roy Tomeij

March 2nd, 2010

Why not use a real version control system, like git? I find it to be invaluable when working on the same document with multiple people.

David Shoemaker

March 2nd, 2010

Hey Isaac,

Sounds like you’ve encountered many of the same problems we have, and come up with many of the same solutions! We’ve tried to encapsulate a lot of those in ShopTalk (http://shoptalkapp.com). It’s very chat-centric, because we’ve found that an always-on, persistent team chat room is better than scheduled skype meetings for staying in sync. Check it out and let us know how you like it!

David

dezineidea

March 2nd, 2010

great content, design instruct is a nice website,

Tawheed Kader

March 2nd, 2010

Great article. Online brainstorming and ideation is definitely broken, but we’ve been working hard to fix it at http://AskMyBrainTrust.com — I encourage you to check it out.

Amberly

March 2nd, 2010

Amazingly well written article.
The way used hand drawn artwork is really good.

Problem #3: Idea generation and brainstorming

Jacob Gube

March 2nd, 2010

@Roy Tomeij: We wanted to keep things simple, we didn’t need a version control system like Git, it’s too much for us, and we didn’t want to set up a file server. Plus something like Dropbox does other things for us, like filesharing big files that’s too big for email.

Ben Noland

March 2nd, 2010

Good article. In #3 you mentioned screen sharing programs. For instances when you need to share text documents, you might be able to appreciate my latest project: http://collabedit.com , let me know what you think.

Kiki

March 2nd, 2010

Excellent article.

Having moved to Australia, our team are a network of designers and developers in Oz and UK. These are totally the issues we face. We have started using BaseCampHQ which has been good. Final versions all go up into our assets file.

In our experience, work on a small job with your team members so you can get into ‘the groove’ and make sure that you understand the nuances of your emailing style, work processes & work times (some our guys are real night owls – I am not an early morning person). I also encourage our team to really debate points with me and question decisions as sometimes, remotely, they don’t want to email objections as it seems very ‘formal’. After practice, they realise that this is the basis of what we would otherwise be doing if we were in the same room.

Great article – glad we are not alone in overcoming these roadbumps!

Patrick Jeff

March 3rd, 2010

Great tips here!

Skype is great but I think a perfect fit for this web meetings would be pligus, have you heard of it? I always use it when working remotely… It’s pligus.com

Edward Sanchez

March 3rd, 2010

That’s pretty much the problem that http://www.kohive.com is trying to solve. Making team collaboration more manageable. Once it has Dropbox integration and opens up its API for developers to create more collaborative apps it’ll get much better!

isaac Gube

March 3rd, 2010

@Kiki

I totally understand that feeling of being too ‘formal.’ Seeing as I work with my brother, exchanging emails in the beginning felt a little unnatural for me since we never used to exchange emails especially regarding work. However, you soon realize the price you pay when you get too insecure about stuff like being ‘too formal.’ We realized that we couldn’t afford to not communicate our ideas and our concerns with each other especially if we are going to achieve the great things we set out to.

good luck to you, friend.

Dana

March 3rd, 2010

This is a great post. You really explained why you needed a good task management and collaboration solution and how you were able to produce a quality product. Fantastic explanation of how we can all communicate and collaborate to increase our success. Fantastic.

We are a virtual workforce at my company, and we use these collaboration and project management tools to stay connected. It really feels like we are in the next office, rather than miles and miles away.

Steve

March 3rd, 2010

This is a good article – we started using Glassubes (http://www.glasscubes.com) to bring a lot of this together.

Personally version control and being able to share large files is so important. However what’s also important is maintaining clarity between teams so that everybody knows what’s going on. A lot of our team works remotely from each other so Glasscubes and Skype (http://www.skype.com) help a hell of a lot!!

OnyxGroup

March 3rd, 2010

This is a great case study of how to overcome the challenges of working on creative projects with a remote team. We’ve had similar issues and have used many of the same solutions! We use skype for weekly creative meetings, and have a skype chats throughout the day. We’ve also found that screen sharing is a helpful and essential tool for remote collaboration.

John Rellis

March 4th, 2010

Hey,

Thanks for sharing, I work with an 8 hour difference from the rest of my colleagues so I can certainly empathise with this! Some of the comments mention some tools that can be used to share screens, I am interested to know what yours is?? Looks like you use Skype. If you mentioned otherwise, sorry if I missed it! We have used yugma which works well,https://www.yugma.com/.

Ironically I started using drop box myself yesterday and am really impressed by it, I now have all my programming resources wherever I may roam :)

Good read!

Thanks,
John

Sasha Baksht

March 6th, 2010

Nice article. At Techbridge we use Zoho Projects to manage remote team members. Works well.

Jeremy Campbell

March 8th, 2010

Excellent post Isaac, lots of great information and resources. Thanks for sharing.

Gary

March 9th, 2010

I worked on a project where 4 people were working in 3 cities. When the two people who were located within 100 feet of each other started working together using the same tools as those of us working 1000 miles apart, we knew collaboration was working. This suggests one test of success is how people working in close proximity are working compared to those who are geographically distributed.

OnSIP

March 10th, 2010

Great article! Our team is spread out across the country. We use Basecamp and our product, OnSIP, to communicate and collaborate. It helps to be able to extension dial across the country and know when our coworkers are busy.

Fernanda

March 10th, 2010

Great article!

Remote collaboration can be very demanding and we definetly need to use all the tools available out there to make our work flow easily!

Nick

March 11th, 2010

Nice post.

I agree that the tools you use matter. Video conferencing can be very useful when you don’t know the people you are working with very well. Much communication is non-verbal and experience has taught me that non-verbal signs can be essential when discussing sensitive subjects like deadlines.

This is especially true in examples like offshore development, where there may be cultural barriers – as there are between Scandinavia, where I work, and India. Scandinavians are very direct. Indians are less confrontational. Adding pictures helps both sides understand each other better, in part by taking some of “edge” off the Scandinavian side of the conversation. Both sides can catch the visual clues that make reaching agreements faster and understanding easier.

No matter what tool you choose, understand that working with a distributed team requires a significant investment in communication. More communication doesn’t have to mean more long meetings, but generally the more your team talks together, the better.

Phil Montero

June 24th, 2010

Isaac,

I love this post! I work with my brother as well and so much of the tools, approach, and philosophy you share here echo what we talk about and suggest on our blog TheAnywhereOffice.com. In fact I just wrote a blog post about choosing the right tools and strategy for remote collaboration and linked/referenced your post here quite a few time (it will be live tomorrow).

It’s so great to see someone taking the time to really think through the strategy behind the tools and having a planned approach. I love the site and wish you and your bro much success. Following you on Twitter now and I look forward to connecting!

All the best,
Phil

Lee Donahoe

July 26th, 2010

Isaac,

I just read your post and wanted to share a new webapp that my company has just soft launched that makes remote team collaboration a bit easier. It is http://www.utsup.com and it allows the users/managers to view a near real-time stream of the activity that happens in the git repository.

Pretty simple way overall to keep up-to-date with a project!

Heckner

October 26th, 2010

Hi,

I just read this really interesting article and wanted to add another app. What you do in meetings is you agree and then do something. That’s why we call it agreedo.com :-) Check it out.

Best regards
Hannes

David

April 8th, 2011

Check out RHUB (http://www.rhubcom.com/). It is an app for remote team collaboration where you can enjoy both web conferencing and collaboration services.

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