How to Make Remote Team Collaboration Work
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
This was published on Mar 2, 2010