Update, April 27, 2020: Be sure to check out Mike's ☕ Cantina Coffee Chat, the first in our series of informal online conversations, discussing our most relevant and compelling blog posts, hosted by the authors themselves. Grab a warm cuppa & watch: "Best Practices in Remote Working: Learn from Those Who Have Done it for Years."
Original post date: 03-18-2020
The seriousness of COVID-19 has required a lot of companies to rethink how employees can work. Social distancing measures ask that if people are able to work remotely from home and self-isolate, to please do so. Cantina is following these recommended measures. Fortunately, Cantina has embraced remote work since the company’s inception, and uses it as a common strategy in delivering services to our clients.
Cantina is an innovation agency with headquarters in Boston, MA. While the majority of our clients and employees are located in close proximity to Boston, we do have large nationwide clients and several full-time remote employees.
Remote work at Cantina is defined as ‘doing work when project teams are not centrally located in one physical space’. This could be when our consultants are located on separate floors or buildings at a client, or offsite from the client’s offices. Offsite can include the employee being in the Cantina office, or working from home, a library, a cafe, or other location. The majority of Cantina’s projects have some aspect of remote work given our collaboration with clients near and far.
We have an internal document, “Remote Work at Cantina” that helps detail how we approach working remotely. Below are excerpts and highlights from that document.
Remote work has many benefits for Cantina, specifically it:
- Allows for work to happen outside of Boston
- Increases communication and organization via async communication
- Opens the hiring pool for Cantina
- Keeps employee retention high at Cantina
- Allows us to continue work on projects when situations arise that are out of our control
- Allows us to convert the commuting hours into work hours and make for a more efficient day
Remote work helps Cantina serve clients beyond the geographical boundaries of Boston. It helps us be successful on projects for larger clients with multiple locations internationally, who already have remote practices integrated into their organization (some without even realizing it).
Remote work increases communication and organization via async communication, which will allow Cantina to swap consultants on projects easier and faster. This will decrease ramp-up time when adding new consultants to existing projects.
It opens up the hiring pool for new Cantinistas. With emerging technologies – like Augmented and Virtual Reality, Machine Learning and Internet of Things – Principal, Lead and Senior level consultants who are located in the Boston area may be sparse. Expanding hiring to be nationwide, or even globally, creates the ability to hire the best person for the job.
Remote work will also help with employee retention. As life moves on, and folks move outside of the local area for various reasons, companies can keep them employed. At Cantina, this saves us time and money, retaining quality current talent with knowledge of how Cantina works. This saves employees the stress of having to decide between making a positive move or finding new employment.
Being remote, and ready for situations that occur out of our control, allows us to continue to work on client projects without interruptions. Clients can be comfortable with knowing their project is still on track, we’re still available, and progress will continue.
Working remotely allows for a convenient and commute-free schedule that allows greater flexibility for getting work done while potentially reducing stress by avoiding commuting woes.
Remote consulting work does come with its own share of challenges.
For the client, challenges could include having no remote work experience, unsure of what to expect without seeing people in seats, and concerns of integration with their onsite team. There could be technical issues, such as computers and meeting rooms without video abilities, no VPN, security policies restricting offsite work, and no defined area for async communications.
Under ordinary circumstances, for the consultant, the challenges can include loneliness, lack of organization and communication, technical constraints, lack of water cooler talk, inability to ‘shut down’ for the day, or, for some people, they aren’t comfortable working remotely. In the current environment, it can be even harder to achieve a work/life balance when work is ever-present in your home living space, and when you might have child care or home care needs pulling at you when working from home.
Thankfully, there are solutions for some of these challenges. If a client lacks experience with remote work, we are able to share our knowledge, experience, and proven success with them. This explains the benefits of remote work, how we approach client work when remote, and success stories of projects that have utilized remote work.
Clients and Projects
In normal times, on projects where clients are not used to or ready for remote full-time, we can work onsite a few days a week (or at key milestones during the project) and offsite on other days. Several of our projects are structured this way. Typically, projects can also start with heavy onsite time, to build trust (especially with new clients), and move to a heavier remote status as time proceeds. We can bring on additional consultants who may have more remote days or start moving current consultants to additional offsite days.
While onsite time is helpful, its usefulness can often be narrowed down to a few key timeframes. The beginning/kick-off of a project, where introductions and relationships begin, is often the most important onsite time. Other events, such as showcases, process walkthroughs, discoveries, findings, can be helpful when done onsite. However, these can also be done successfully remotely if the client and/or stakeholders either have a boardroom that can handle a video call or machines with cameras. In these unusual times, this will more than likely have to become the norm.
If a client team is already using a video conferencing application, while they are all in the same building, they’ve set themselves up for beneficial remote practices. We can join those video conferences easily, without having to be onsite for that meeting. (Note: it is difficult to have meaningful conversations and feedback if you are the only one on the video call, and the rest of the team is in-person at a conference table. If everyone is on their own video call, this makes the call much more beneficial.)
Today, companies are looking for guidance on how to enable working remotely. If the company currently has technical constraints or security policies against working remotely, they may feel they are not a candidate for remote work. At least, in the beginning. This may be a client where (in the past) trust would need to be built in person, and/or their processes need guidance to become modernized to allow remote. It can help to understand why the current policies are in place. There may be sound reasons for current policy, but in some instances existing policies may have not been reviewed in some time, and this health crisis may be the inflection point.
Documentation and communication is important for any project, onsite or remote. In the beginning, establish where documentation should live. This could be using applications such Google Drive, Jira, Sharepoint or Dropbox. If the client already has a system set up, it’s preferred to use their existing tools.
For consultants, it’s important to over-communicate what you are working on. In the project Slack channel, post your daily status, in-progress work, and links as they become available. Ask questions, but don’t always expect an immediate response. Async communication is going to be one of the hardest things for new remote workers to become accustomed to. Assume that your client is not adept at this kind of rapid communication.
Async communication is going to be one of the hardest things for new remote workers to become accustomed to.
Take care of your health. You’ll notice that working outside of an office, your daily step count can fall quickly. Go to the gym, walk around your neighborhood, get outside, eat proper food, and try to get good rest at night. Use the time you would for a commute, to work on your health and nutrition. Continue proper daily hygiene routines, and get dressed in fresh clothes each day.
Start of day and end of day routines are very helpful. If you’re able to, try and do the same thing each morning to mentally “Start the day”. This could be a walk around the neighborhood, going to get a coffee/tea, putting on a pair of work shoes (shoes, crocs, or slippers are all acceptable). At the end of the workday, follow a similar routine and leave your work for the day. It is very easy, while working outside an office, to fall into a trap where you feel the need to work all the time. These routines will help mitigate that trap, and keep you fresh for the next day’s work. Remember this is a marathon, not a sprint.
If you have the ability, designate an area of your dwelling as your Office. This could be a dedicated room or specific area in a room of your dwelling (like a specific kitchen chair). If possible, try to use that space only during working hours and only for work.
Clients want to know their investment is being spent on quality work. A few may be used to the ‘need to see people in chairs’ type of consulting. It’s important for us to convey both the quality and progress of the work. We are not the consultants that do a kickoff, disappear for 20 weeks, and then show up with a final deliverable. We integrate within client teams and show progress at specific milestones and ad hoc as needed.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is during kickoff, or shortly thereafter. Work with the client to create a rough weekly or bi-weekly schedule. This schedule can indicate recurring meetings, showcases, sprint planning, design reviews, etc.
This helps communicate when clients will see work, when deliverables will be coming in, and when progress is happening. Try to keep a consistent-looking schedule to help organization and communication. Schedule testing, showcases, walkthroughs, reviews, etc. on the same day and time of each week – as often as possible.
If you’re going to be onsite one day per week, you can schedule some of recurring meetings for that day. Avoid the trap of saving all conversations for this day though. You can, and should, still schedule meetings or phone calls on days you’re remote. This helps keep progress moving, reinforces that you’re working when remote, and that you’re available throughout the week – not just days you’re onsite.
One of the hardest adjustments for people working remote is the change to async communication. You don’t have the ability to tap someone’s shoulder to ask a question. While difficult at first, you will learn to love and embrace async. It allows you to do stretches of focused work without intrusion, resulting in higher-quality work. Unless something is an emergency, try to avoid using @channel or @here for an entire slack channel. Post your question(s) to Slack, and someone on your team should be able to answer when they check it. Finally, Slack works best when you get to the point. Say hi, and ask your question - don’t wait for a response before continuing. If you need synchronous attention you need a different communication method.
Meetings can happen virtually via Zoom, Slack, WebEx, Skype or Google Hangouts. If a client already has a video app of choice, we should use that application. If they do not have a preference, we can recommend Zoom.
Every meeting reminder should include the following structure:
Purpose: Why was this meeting called?
Agenda: How are we using this time, specifically?
Goal: What should we accomplish from this meeting?
Roles: Identify a Lead and a note-taker.
Every meeting should have some prep for the participants that is sent 1-2 days before the meeting. This could be a short summary of the issues that need collaboration, a presentation deck, links to a prototype to review, etc. In general, people should not be ramping up on the focus and goal during the meeting.
After the meeting there should be a follow up email with the following:
- Meeting Summary
- Actions & Owners
As often as you can, share your video when you are on a video conference call. This small action helps build trust and increase communication on the team. In Seth Godin’s article “Zoom & Skype call tips (the secrets of video conferences)”, he writes about other simple ways to have successful video conferences that are “obvious, generous and effective,” not to mention really doable.
In addition, try to join meetings a few minutes before they start. We don’t want a client waiting for us to start a meeting.
A weekly project status email should be sent to the client. In addition to the budget items, relay what the team worked on last week, and what the team is working on this week. This helps reinforce the schedule, project status, and over-communication that is required while remote.
Internally, Slack is your best friend. In the project channel, post your daily status. Post in-progress work, and links as they become available. Ask questions. Ask people for review or help. Fire up an impromptu Zoom or Slack video if you want to walk through an idea. DO NOT be afraid to talk in Slack, even if no one else is. A greater amount of communication is needed when remote.
Update your status on Slack if you’re going to be away. If you’re out sick, PTO, running an errand, etc. This is helpful for other people to know, and is an easy way to see who is available.
You can use Slack’s ‘Set a Status’ , or you can update your name with more description. An example of this could be `Name, PTO Month,Day to Month,Day`
Please post articles and findings that you find interesting, funny, informative to your Slack.
At Cantina, at least, pun conversations are highly valued and encouraged.
There are concerns about remote design in consulting projects. Client participation in research and investigation, lack of onsite presence to help with ambiguity of projects, and magical whiteboard sessions,are the concerns often expressed.
Interviews and testing can happen remotely with video conferencing applications (Zoom, Slack, WebEx, etc) and services such as usertesting.com.
Design can be shared in two different workflows. The first is using Figma, which is cloud-based and has no files (helping keep everyone up-to-date). Figma has built in project file capabilities, prototyping features, and a ton of add-ons for making remote design workflow go smoothly.
The second workflow is using Sketch files, which can be versioned and easily accessed by the team via Abstract (a version history client for design assets) or stored manually in Google Drive or Dropbox. Screens can be imported and static prototypes built into InVision for prototypes. InVision now has a development tool that let’s Developers inspect to read colors, type sizes and other design assets.
If you want the whiteboard / collab feel, use Mural, Figma or InVision Freehand. Both applications will let several people work on the same artboard/screen/idea. Folks can do initial sketches on paper. Take photos of sketches and share them to the Slack channel, airdrop them to the computer, or share them within Mural, Figma or InVision Freehand.
Document your work in Google Drive. There should be a client- and project-specific folder, post your research, findings, interviews and other content there. Share that to the project Slack channel. Anytime you create something new, post it to the project Slack channel.
Engineering work dovetails with the remote lifestyle and is often met with less friction than other services we provide because of code and project-tracking tools. Work can be seen and validated via code commits, pull requests, and Sprint task updates.
Ensure you’re keeping your status up to date in Jira, Trello, or other task-tracking applications. This helps give the client, your teammates and project managers easier access to project status. Over-communicate in the ticket. Post screenshots, gifs or Quicktime videos of work. Link to the work branch related to the ticket (or set up a bot to do it for you automatically).
Push code that is ready to your feature branch often. This could be multiple times a day, daily or a few times a week (depending on the branch and client). The benefit of this is twofold. The client team can have access to your code if they need to review. It also allows a teammate to pull the code in case you are out sick.
Review pull requests on a frequent basis. This helps move code forward, alleviate blockers, build trust in you, and makes you a better team member.
When applicable, volunteer and lead sprint showcases. This could be for your client team, or the internal Cantina team. Leading showcases helps us demo our work, shows value, and instills trust in our leadership.
Project Management Team
Project Managers on remote teams require additional organization and communication on top of existing workflows.
Over-communicate to the team. Share knowledge in several mediums and be flexible about communication. It often takes hearing/reading something 3 times for it to stick with folks. Regular check-ins with your team are crucial. Slack messages and email threads work fantastic for async communications, but for check-ins or to solve complex problems and ensure team alignment, video conferencing is a better option. The video conference also helps decrease the isolation felt due to social distancing.
Over-communicate to the team. Share knowledge in several mediums and be flexible about communication.
Standup/status reports are important to any project. You can hold a daily standup over video for the team. In addition (or in substitution), you can set up a daily slackbot reminder to ask the group what folks have been working on. Team members write their standup as a reply to the bot, and this creates a written record that is easy for everyone on the team to see.
/remind #channel-name “Standup: What did you do yesterday? What are you doing Today? Callouts or blockers?” every weekday at 10am
Along with over-communication, reinforce over-sharing with the team. Ask folks to post when they’re leaving or unavailable in Slack. Simple updates like “out to lunch” or “brb” are helpful so if a client asks, you have an answer for where your team is and what they’re working on. (Having folks post photos of their lunch is an easy way to build team discussion, by the way.)
Confirm daily, standard working hours to make sure there’s overlap to promote collaboration (you don’t want someone working 7-3 and someone else working 11-7). Confirm productivity is staying at forecast rates via Jira or another task-managing app.1 Check our budget tracker to ensure no one is either burning too hot or not enough behind closed doors: you don’t want any surprises with your next budget update.
If the team isn’t sharing their progress frequently enough, ask for progress demos more often than you might when relying on in-person, impromptu check-ins. These can be done async, with teammates posting work to Slack as PNGs, gifs, URLs, Quicktime videos, etc. This will help maintain team focus, demo accomplishments, and make sure there are no overlapping efforts.
Being remote, technology disruptions happen. The Internet going down and connectivity issues occur to everyone. They usually happen at the worst time, during a scheduled meeting. Have a backup plan for all meetings. Be prepared to reschedule meetings when tech fails and key stakeholders can’t join. During meetings, take meticulous notes and have the team review. Post review, send the notes to all respective properties promptly.
Share phone numbers for internal and client teams. Sometimes things happen and we need to get in touch with someone ASAP. Be aware of people’s working hours, and try to avoid calling outside of scheduled hours.
As Consultants, We Over-communicate
- Create a weekly schedule for the team and client
- Share work-in-progress with the team more frequently
- May need/want to add some time post stand-up for conversations/callouts
- Send a weekly status report, with what the team did last week and will be working on this week
- Join meetings a few minutes before they start
General Remote Tips
- Work at an actual desk, and not the couch (your wrists will thank you)
- Having a dedicated space is the preferred setup. If not possible, try to set space aside that is only for work (this could be as simple as a specific kitchen chair)
- Get a morning routine to start the day; and an end of day routine, to end said day
- As nicer weather is coming; walk around outside during lunch (you take considerably less steps during the day when you're not in an office)
- Take care of your health. Exercise, eat nutrient dense food, drink water.
- Use Zoom and Slack to see and hear people
- Be prepared to start talking to yourself sometimes; it happens. It can help if you have a fur friend at home to talk with
- Replace water cooler talk by spending first 3-5 minutes of meetings catching up
- Be empathetic - not everyone has experience working from home or has the ideal setup
- When you cook dinner, cook extra! This makes for easy home lunches the next day
- Try to avoid eating lunch at your computer
We realize that as many of you transition to remote work due to COVID-19, that these next few weeks are going to be a different experience than standard remote work. Interruptions in services, schools, child care, and elderly care can compound for a stressful time. We are hoping that sharing how we approach working remotely, helps alleviate some of the normal remote work challenges for you.
Future blog post on Jira tickets as bridge between Development and Design teams coming soon. ↩
Thank you to Kimberlee Cloutier-Blazzard, Joe Wilson, Aaron Pollock, Sam Moore, Doug Reynolds, Jay Dolan, Erica Solari, David Putney, Daryl Gehly, Clark Van Der Beken, and Ian Cox for the feedback, reviews and contributions. ↩