Even with all the positivity and commitment in the world, becoming a fully #DistributedTeam wouldn’t be possible without using the right tools, having the right set of protocols in place, and figuring out how to process anything anywhere when there’s no physical office for processing in. Over the last three years as Four Kitchens has transitioned to a fully distributed team, we’ve gained some valuable insight about what tools, protocols, and processes fit best with our own style of distributed working. These are the practices that work best for us, but don’t take our word for it—try them out with your own team and encourage feedback to decide what works best for you.
Before anything else, you have to be able to talk with your teammates, reproducing the flow of communication you’d get in a side-by-side in a physical office as closely as possible. For one-on-one or even few-on-few discussions, any chat program will do. For conversations about specific topics, we prefer video conferencing over text-based chat rooms— there’s a lot of non-verbal communication that comes from seeing someone’s face when you’re talking with them.
Zoom (Four Kitchens’ pick for best tool)
- Pros: Everything — Handles 50+ person video calls with good audio and video quality, screen sharing, ability to record meetings, Slack and Google Calendar integration (we could go on)
- Cons: It’s a stand-alone program, so new clients will have to download the Zoom software before you can start talking with them. If you’ve used Gotomeeting, the workflow is very similar.
- Pros: Since Hangouts dropped the requirement of installing a browser extension, you can click an invite link and be chatting in the meeting within seconds.; good for small party-line conferences of five or six people (great for teams); Google Hangouts is both the video application and text application (aka GChat), so it’s easy to send text and links to fellow participants; automatic recording and archiving of the call via YouTube; and it uses a wide-bandwidth audio, so the sound is impeccably clear
- Cons: Video and sound quality can be spotty at best. Beyond six or seven people is difficult in Hangouts; doesn’t play well as with other programs as Zoom.
Slack: The new watercooler
But recreating the camaraderie of a physical office has to go beyond a good virtual meeting space. You also have to create those accidental run-ins and “watercooler moments”—the shared history that creates company culture. While a lot of that still has to happen offline (in a post that our Distributed Focus series will cover this summer!), you can get a long way with online interaction as well. So, how do you recreate this always-on backchannel? We’ll sometimes set up Zoom meetings that people can join, where there’s no agenda and you can just talk to others casually (like an open office environment). But the real pulse of company communication and culture is in Slack. Slack has some really great features that make it the best synchronous and asynchronous communication tool out there:
- Pro: Direct messaging options between teammates for one-on-one conversations AND the ability to create group chat rooms (channels) for anything from shared hobbies to client- and project-specific rooms
- Pro: Channels are open to everyone at the company by default. But if you need to have more sensitive discussions, or restrict contractors and clients to certain rooms, the options are very flexible.
And of course, there’s always email. Here at Four Kitchens, while we don’t have a specific policy regarding when to use email vs when to use Slack, there are a few rules of thumb that become a part of the company conversational aesthetics overall, such as:
- Slack is collaborative, timely, ephemeral, specific (talking about frontend development takes place in the #frontend channel, talking about our Aquifer product takes place in the #aquifer channel)
- Email is editorial, long-term, strategic, and encompassing (in one email, I can cover everything from company announcements to pointing a client to project resources/links)
It is far more common that a document needs to be collaboratively produced than individually authored, so a good document sharing program (or suite of programs) is essential for distributed work. Here’s what we use and how we’re using it (or rather, how we should be using it—we’re still stumbling a bit!)
- Google Docs: Used for impermanent documents, like upcoming blog post drafts, client meeting notes, public scratch paper for internal brainstorming meetings, and anything we need people outside Four Kitchens to be able to access
- GitHub: Basically the same as Google Docs, but for code
- Dropbox: File sharing, especially files for projects that develop in stages, like iterations on a logo design or wireframe, or for files we need frequent and easy access to, like slide decks for building a sales pitch or the company logo images
- Confluence (the company wiki): Unlike Google Docs, our wiki site is used to house all our permanent, solidified, grounded company documents. For example, after the retreat this year, we edited our Company Values doc as a team in Google Docs, then moved it over to the wiki when drafting was “finished”. This is also where company policy and onboarding docs—benefits resources, travel expense policies, etc.— live online.
Managing equipment for a distributed team
When you start having to manage more than ten laptops for your team, keeping track of the health of everyone’s computer starts to become a challenge. Especially because at this size you don’t have a dedicated IT person. We’re now 30+ people, and we don’t have an IT person, and as a distributed company, having one doesn’t even make sense. So how to do you ensure everyone gets the home office equipment they need without losing your mind? Enter the “tech stipend”.
The tech stipend is a program we learned about from fellow distributed companies at the Yonder conference. The program gives each teammate a prepaid debit card that’s refilled with a specific dollar amount every month. Need a new mouse? Use your tech stipend. Need help paying your home internet bill this month? Use your tech stipend. Money you don’t use in a given month accrues (like the rollover data on your mobile phone plan). That way if you anticipate upgrading to that new monitor you’ve had your eye on, saving 2-3 months of your tech stipend will help you purchase it.
We believe this program will give each team member the freedom to purchase the equipment they need without the red tape of making a request through the operations team. Also, it frees the operations team up because they don’t have to keep track of an inventory of laptops, monitors, and keyboards that’s spread out across the United States.
Finally, you have to have a good relationship with your calendar. Calendars and schedules have been a crucial aspect of business since before business existed—a way to capture and record the passing of our days is literally as old as humanity itself. But using a calendar (we use Google Calendar, mostly) takes on new meaning for a fully distributed office. Instead of recording and scheduling only the “negative time”—Elia Out of Office, Todd On Vacation, Doug Meeting With Aaron— you also need to record the “positive time”—Lucy Working On DrupalCon, Aaron Editing Blog Post, Suzy Available For Chat—actions that don’t directly impact anyone else. These are the calendar equivalent of an open or closed door in a physical office—a way to let people know what you’re up to, not necessarily to keep yourself on track (though it is good for that), but just to let your fellow teammates know when they can and can’t drop in on Slack or Zoom to say hi.
Unfortunately Google Calendar can’t do everything (yet), so we also use Calendly and Doodle, especially when we’re working with people outside of the Four Kitchens Google domain, to find times to schedule those meetings and “negative time” blocks. Both of these work by allowing people to access or vote on possible meeting times without considering the full range of personal calendars. Google recently announced a new feature called “find a time” which will allow teams who use Google Apps to quickly find a time that everyone on the invite is available to meet.
Keep it all together
To sum up… a #DistributedTeam will never be a replica of an office-based team, and there’s no reason to try to force it into that mold. There are, however, some aspects of teammate and coworker culture that we like to tap into, no matter how or where your team may be. These are the tools that we find indispensible:
- Slack, for a running conversation and for archive of specific projects’ conversations
- Zoom, for weekly verbal check-ins and any other meetings that are best worked out in person, from one-on-one to all-hands
- Google Docs/GitHub, for collaborative writing
- Confluence Wiki, for keeping company policies online and organized
- Dropbox, for file sharing
- Google Calendar, for letting people know if our “office door” is open, half open, or closed
- Calendly or Doodle, for scheduling meetings when you can’t—or don’t want to—look at everyone’s calendar and figure it out yourself
This article was written in collaboration with Elia Albarran, Director of Operations at Four Kitchens