When my husband and I decided to move to Seattle from Chicago, we were looking for a change. We thought we’d move somewhere with better weather, where we already had friends and family. And we thought we’d move somewhere with an active tech community, because we figured we’d need to get new jobs.
It didn’t work out that way.
Four years later, I’m still working remotely for Table XI. When I went to Josh and Matt and Mark to tell them I was moving, I expected that to be my resignation. I was surprised when they asked me to try working remotely and, to be honest, a little trepidatious. Table XI now has four full-time remote workers, but at the time, I was going to be one of the first ones, and the first project manager.
It started out a bit bumpy. Gchat would crash, my cellphone bill was huge and I had to train my teams to get comfortable hopping on a video call, the same way they’d take five minutes if someone walked up and tapped them on the shoulder. As a project manager, my work requires a lot of time with people and a lot of coordination. Not being in the office, it’s harder to pull people together for quick conversations.
Now, we get 85 to 90 percent of the way there. The tools are much better than they were four years ago, and when something’s not working and I can’t facilitate, somebody’s always willing to step up and make it happen. All of the regular tasks that a project manager would do, I participate in and manage remotely. Here are the ways we make that work:
Slack is huge. We have 96 channels at Table XI — chatrooms where you can talk about a topic or a project — plus endless combinations of direct messages. Most people just belong to the Slack chatrooms for their projects and the stuff they're interested in. I belong to almost all of them. It’s really chatty, but it helps me know what's what.
Because Slack highlights channels with new messages, when I have five minutes between meetings, I can quickly go through everything and see who’s asking me things and what people are talking about. I miss the in-person hallway conversations, so keeping an eye on what everyone’s discussing in Slack gives me context.
A lot of project management is regular communication (*cough* nagging *cough*). In Slack, everyone’s posting and pinging each other already, so the nagging is less bothersome. People can tune it out if they want, but they will get back to you eventually.
There’s now a general cultural expectation that you’ll be on Slack and checking it. I can track people down a lot easier. That’s what makes Slack so invaluable to me. With instant messaging, often I'd have to find somebody who I knew was in the office and be like, “Hey, Dan Rench, I’m trying to find Josh. Can you go poke him in the back and tell him to get online and talk to me?” Now I know eventually Josh will check Slack and get back to me, so I don’t have to involve other people in roundabout stalking.
Project Management Tools: Pivotal Tracker vs. Redmine
We track our work in Pivotal Tracker and Redmine. Pivotal Tracker is newer, and it was built specifically for agile project management. We tend to prefer it, and use it on most new projects. Redmine is older, and a little clunkier. We’ve been using it almost since the beginning, and still use it with some of our original clients who are used to it. We also use it for maintenance on released and ongoing projects, because it has a really nice feature where clients can send an email to a specific address when they have a problem, and that creates a ticket in the system for us to then review.
Both tools are hooked up to Slack, so if someone creates a ticket or adds a comment in Pivotal Tracker or Redmine, we’ll get a notification about it in the project Slack chatroom and everybody can be assured to see it. Sometimes communication will happen through the cards in our project management tools, where you'll say, “Oh, I see you tested this and got this issue, but did you look over here?” Integrating these tools allows us to create a wider communication net that gives everyone more context and clarity.
We love Post-It Notes at Table XI. We use them in a lot of our meetings. For example, in our retrospectives, everybody gets together to determine which elements of a project or iteration went well and which could have gone better. Then we discuss what we should do next given how things went. When we’re in person, we’ll write it out on sticky notes and attach them to the wall. For remote people like me, we use Stickies.io. It mimics the in-person experience as closely as possible by letting us create virtual notes that everyone can see and sort into different buckets.
GoToMeeting is something Table XI has used for a long time. It’s an old standard. It’s not always intuitive or user friendly for new people, but it is relatively reliable. The audio tends to be pretty good, the video chat usually doesn't crash, and while it can be buggy at times, I trust it more than any of the other tools to make sure that I can be heard.
I do recommend people use the web-based app instead of the desktop version. There are still times when it's 11:30 a.m. on the dot and you're trying to join a meeting and right then GoToMeeting forces you to download a new software that requires a restart. It’s not perfect, but overall it’s more stable than the other things out there.
HighFive Video Conferencing
HighFive is one of the newer video conferencing tools we’ve been working with. The audio is sometimes really choppy, and when it lags, it will catch back up by speeding up the audio like a caffeinated chipmunk. If someone else is talking, it also dampens the volume. It’s a good idea in theory, but you can miss that someone was trying to say something. It’s an evolving tool, though. We get emails that say, “Now we’re much better than we were!” (which is usually true).
The big advantage of HighFive is that it creates a link you can click that automatically opens the app. It's easy to plug into a meeting invite, or send to someone through chat, because it doesn’t require people to to jump through hoops to access the invite (as GoToMeeting does). The barrier to entry is lower, but so is the reliability.
Email / Phone Calls
After that first huge cell phone bill, I ended up getting a softphone that goes over VoIP, so my office phone rings through my computer. When you need a high fidelity version of communication, a normal phone call is still the best. If you're chatting and it's clear you're not on the same page, or you’re on an email thread that’s getting lengthy, you can say, “Let’s just jump on a call, it’ll take five minutes for us to clear this up.”
Emails are great for asynchronous communication, when you want to send off an idea or request and don’t need a reply right away. For more thought-out, long-form communication, like a proposal or set of estimates, email is far superior to a tool like Slack. Slack is a conversation, while email is a way to share your collected thoughts on a topic and wait to hear back.
I choose my tools based on the level of urgency and discourse the conversation requires. Generally, email is a lower fidelity version of communication than Slack, which is not as good as a phone call, which is not as good as a video call, which is not as good as being face-to-face. When you need a greater depth on a topic though, email is great, and it’s easier to reference old emails than old chats.
When I’d been remote for a while, we were scheduling an upcoming inception, and the team said “Oh gosh, Alicia, we wish you were here.” And I had to remind them, “Well, I can come. There are airplanes.”
When I first started working remote, I didn’t visit the office as much as I do now. I’ve learned that actually showing my face periodically helps with communication when I’m remote. We started out at a few times a year, and then tried out once a quarter and then decided more than that would be better. I fly out to the office every six weeks or so now.
That’s one of the reasons that working remote has been successful. I've been flexible to come in when I need to and to come in relatively often. I tend to fly in for a week every other time, and three days on the times in-between. Usually it’s for an all-hands meeting, or work with a client, or an event. Sometimes, though, I just come in because it's been six weeks or more and I haven't seen people. I miss my co-workers, (and our delicious lunches), so I fly in to say ‘Hey’ and work together in person.