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Tools and practices for working virtually

Messy Desk, Dec 2010

I’m always fascinated by how people work – the every day practices, tools, and behaviors they end up employing. So this Quora question about tools and practices to use for a “virtual office” (no one works in the same office, let alone time zone) attracted me. I wrote a quick answer covering some of what RedMonk does (with some additional polishing here):

RedMonk has no real central office (and, even more funny and “virtual,” while our mailing address in Seattle, no one actually lives there – we use Earth Class Mail) and are spread out over 4 different cities in the US and Europe. I’ve been at RedMonk almost five years, and we’ve gone through a lot of options when it comes to “work middleware.”

Here’s a quick grab-bag of tools and practices that we consciously use and that have emerged over time:

  • Google Apps – we use Google Apps and the combo of email, calender, and Docs is great. None of them (except GMail, in my opinion) is at the top of the heap (in fact, GCal and Docs are pretty piss-poor, actually), but the SaaS nature and simplicity go a long way towards making collaboration easy. We actually use Google Docs for “production documents” and while the look and feel is limited, once you settle on a template (as we have kind of done), working within those rude constraints is nice: I don’t spend much time at all futzing with styling docs…and it shows…meaning I spend time writing.
  • Communication – there’s instant messaging, of course, but with us email is still king. Every few months, we try to do something other than email and it just fails flat. As another answer to the Quora question put it: “Email will always be the central hub of information, history and communication in nearly every organisation. That’s the only tool that needs to be used from day 1.”
  • Twitter – while RedMonk uses Twitter as part of external facing communications, to collaborate with people, and for some of the types of “research” we do (getting a sense of what developers are interested in, or hate), we also use it in novel ways for “internal” collaboration. We rely on Twitter a lot as well to simply keep up with each other. James Governor is particularly active at this, for example, broadcasting that he’d peer-reviewed a write I did this morning in Twitter instead of emailing me (the savvy among you will notice how he at the same time advertised a topic we were looking into, valuable for the analyst world). While we can’t go out to lunch with each other to catch up socially, we more or less know what’s going on in our personal lives enough (but by no means in-depth) to benefit when we’re doing work, mostly because of Twitter.
  • Shared calendars – I can’t speak for the rest of the RedMonk, but I find the shared (and fully readable when it comes to details) calenders we all have valuable for collaboration. They’re nice for scheduling meetings, sure (we use Tungle more or less for this which gets mixed reviews), but what’s more valuable is for me to be able to see who my colleagues are talking with, what kinds of topics they’re discussing, and so on. With as little emphasis on meetings as we have, it’s a nice “information radiator.” While we’re not internal-meeting oriented at RedMonk – due to the nature of our job – there’s probably analogs (like change logs, or more advanced versions of them in programming) in other lines of work.
  • IT hardware and services – a good practice is to let employees buy their own IT and manage it (reimbursing them, of course). Even when we do make IT decisions (Google Apps), they tend to be open enough that you could still use whatever else you wanted (Google Docs would fall flat here). The important thing here is to install a responsible sense of budget (see below) – so long as you can trust your employees not to go wild, they should really buy whatever IT they need to help the organization make money. I’ve spent a lot of money on video and audio equipment, but it pays for itself quickly. And being an Apple person, my computer budget is a bit higher. But, if you’re going to benefit from employees managing their own IT (not having to pay an IT person, having your employees use the tools that make them most productive), you have to let them pick their tools. Other than web applications (like Google Apps, etc.), I’d try to limit any IT requirements.
  • Phone – I like Google Voice a tremendous amount. As with many “for work” Google offerings, it’s notable for it’s cheapness (here, free) and the efficiency that it’s simplicity brings (versus a full voice exchange system or whatever). The ability to screen calls and read transcripts of voice mail is valuable. Using it as a last ditch way to record a podcast has come in handy several times as well. Also, having the complete record of my call history is nice: if you search over your email all the time to get to people, imagine being able to do that with your voice (and txting!) history. I’m a bit miffed that Google Voice doesn’t integrate with our Google Apps instance very well – a typical, annoying example from Google. A land-line is really valuable, despite all the promise of VoIP, Skype, or whatever. If you’re a virtual shop and on the phone a lot (as I am) you’ll notice that Skype fails a lot. Whether that’s the fault of Skype or the network, I don’t care: it doesn’t work well enough if you expect to use the phone a lot. Until it’s rock-solid, get people land-lines if possible.
  • Internet – be sure to provide high speed Internet, (probably) paying for it. If you can get mobile Internet for everyone, that’s better. I use Clear for mobile Internet and for the connection at my office (see next).
  • An actual office – you might consider budget for offices for remote employees. I worked at home for many years, and loved it, but once I got a baby, that didn’t work out. I work in a building full of startups and tech people, which is great for me professionally given the focus on practitioners that RedMonk has. Also, if you’re in an external facing role like I am (partly, at least), it’s good to be able to meet someone at an actual office instead of yet another Starbucks. Personally, I like having “my own space” versus sitting on the couch at my home, cluttering the house with my work crap. All that said, my dream would be to have a shed-office in my backyard, esp. now that I have a son that I’d like to go visit during lunch and breaks.
  • Meetings – I’d really like the idea of having a weekly RedMonk status meeting with to work out, but we never keep up with the practice, despite how much we usually get done when we’ve had them. If you’re virtual, meetings are good: more important is making sure people actually do the work that comes out of meetings, or any group collaboration.
  • Make everyone responsible enough to make decisions – the operational thing you want to do is instill principals and best practices in your people so they can think and act on their own. If you’re co-located, it’s easy to ask how to do simple, every day things (“what template do we use for XYZ,” “what should I try to sell to this prospective customer?”). Even with IM and such, it gets annoying to do all that “virtual.” Instead, establish practices and frames: principals. At RedMonk, we have a lot less internal policies, engagement process, and overall “how we do things” than you’d expect. Instead, we try to very specifically say what we don’t do and make sure that we avoid that. If something new comes along that we’re not sure about, we just discuss it with each other – or sometimes an individual just decided to do it, to be frank ;> For example, we don’t do paid, branded white papers, but we occasionally will write a section for a paper a vendor is doing if it’s a neutral enough setting for us: Stephen’s collaboration in a 2009 Ubuntu survey is a good example. Much of this boils down to something Stephen O’Grady says a lot when it comes to things that you’d think need management approval: “be reasonable.” Instilling principals in your people so that they can do that on their own is key. In addition to budgeting, spending, and customer interactions: if your employees will be booking their own travel, you really need to instill that sense of what’s reasonable.
  • Business Forms – if you have any contracts, forms, or other “artifacts” you deal with clients with, centralize those and make sure everyone knows about them. Centralizing where you store executed contracts, statements of work, and forms is critical as well (and something we still struggle with sometimes). Google Docs, if you put up with it’s “just a dumb document store” is pretty good at this.
  • An admin – a little while ago, we hired Marcia, who’s our “does everything we don’t (want to) do” person. I like to think of her as our operations manager. Having someone you can email to take care of most anything not related to your core work is awesome and very helpful. Among other things, she’s part of – is – the most important part of our business (versus our “work”): invoicing clients for work we do.
  • Expensify.com – it’s too early to tell as we just now started using expensify.com for filing expenses, but I really like it so far. We used to use spreadsheets and email resulting in (at least with me) long cycles between expenses. Expensify.com is so quick and easy that it’s almost fun to file expenses now. Some sort of expense filing solution will be key. Distributed employees end up buying stuff a lot more than you’d expect. Along with that, we got company credit cards a little while ago, and those are fantastic.

In addition to the above brain-dump, there were a few items from other answers I really liked and that we use:

  • Time Zones -

    From Ben Hanna:

    Time Zones: Prioritize tasks based on time zones. If something needs to happen first in an early time zone, get it to the person responsible there. Good timing can make a project literally zip around the globe with work being completed 24 hours a day.

    With all of us at RedMonk living in different time zones (US central, US eastern, London, Central European Time), being aware of who’s working when is key for meetings and collaborating. If I want do something with James, who’s in London, I need to make sure to do it my morning, for example.

  • Asynchronous conversationsAnton Johansson rubs up against what I call “asynchronous conversation” in his advice: instead of having real-time conversations, you have what would otherwise be a 20 minute talk (for example) spread out over hours. This is terrible in some circumstances, but if you’re working with remote people, it’s a good tool to have at your disposal. There’s also a certain cult of “not getting interrupted” that’s good to cultivate in white-collar work (“knowledge work,” I think they call it) that asynchronous conversations enable. Instant messaging fits well here, and email of course. As he puts it: “That’s the problem with phone despite the effectiveness of the talk – the receiver can’t decide when to answer.”

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7 Responses

  1. Good article. Did you ever use Google Wave in its lifetime? I feel that would have solved your asynchronous problem (to an extent).

    Madhusudan RaoJanuary 10, 2011 @ 11:24 amReply
  2. As a team who have 12 people spread over 9 locations it is interesting to see that we have more or less ended up with the same working practices.

    We have a development team too, so we use a lot more tools of course for that, but for the other "knowledge work" we are pretty much aligned.

    I wrote a piece about this on my blog last summer, the main thing which has changed since then is that we moved all of our Google Wave work to Google Docs, it was the instant-typing-feedback which was the killer feature for us.

    http://bjelkeman.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/working

  3. fabulous post on topic I was going to cover and now I can just send my people here ;~D

    Thank you for detailing benefits and challenges of Google Docs, which could see improvement.

    Checking out your other posts now to see what else you recommend!

  4. Madhusudan: we tried using Google Wave a bit, like all things non-email, it didn't catch on. I think it'd have made an excellent front-end if it was backed by something like Evernote. It's be a nice place to take notes.

    Thomas, Bonnie: thanks, I'm glad you liked the post!

  5. Great post! Its always interesting to see how other companies who have employees all over the place work and the tools they use. We are a big proponent of virtual offices and also wrote a post about the tools we use to work with our remote employees. Some of the top tools we use are Skype, Campfire, and DropBox!

    Here's the post if your looking for other tool recommendations: http://bit.ly/dUt6lH

  6. BasecampHQ seems to be working well for project management for me.

    Huddle always good too..

    Oh… and shouting down the telephone still works occasionally.



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by cote, steve o'grady. steve o'grady said: [how we @ RedMonk work. awesome piece by @cote] RT @cote: Curious how @RedMonk operates as a virtual company?: http://monk.ly/hD10AV [...]