Virtual Panel: Working Remotely
I’m a UX Designer at Revelry and organizer of the monthly tech meetup Front End Party. During the first remote event, I decided to host a virtual remote work panel with colleagues to discuss tools and strategies for taking work 100% online. Revelry has had a remote, distributed team for over 7 years. We continuously optimize our tools and processes to enhance our remote work culture, so our team members are experts at remote work.
In this 45-minute video, I ask Aline, Hauwa, Thomas, John, Avery, and Bryan about their best remote work tips. Topics covered include productivity, tools, wellness, collaboration, routines, and more. Plus, if how they work and socialize has shifted in the era of COVID-19.
Let’s get to the remote work panel. Hope you enjoy!
Remote Work Tools:
- Google Business Suite
- Remote Office Setup / Chairs
- Stretch it app
- Move it app
Remote Workforce Team Tools
I want you to tell me about the tools that you use, okay? And, by the way, so I’ve got some categories here. I think first we’re going to talk about tools, then we’re going to talk about people and culture, and then we’re going to talk about the process. But before we get into the “why” of remote working, how do you do it? What are the top five tools that you use every day to work remotely.
That is a great question and a great place to start because if your workspace is not set up and organized for success you’re not going to be able to move at a pace that you want to. I will give a little shout out to Thomas Knoll, who’s on the call right now, and trained me from day one at Revelry, and taught me everything he knows because he’s a remote work pro. Starting Revelry over three years ago was my segue into working remotely.
So the tools I can’t live without Slack, for sure. I prefer the Slack app to the web app. There are so many things you can do with notifications that keeping your notifications to a minimum will help your productivity so much. You’re channels, you don’t look at. So Slack is key. Zoom: Zoom is key. Don’t be afraid to explore your options within Zoom. There are so many notifications that you can do, but at its core, there are things like this. You can just get on and talk to people. I do have a Slack command because I’m one of the lucky ones that have a premium Zoom account at Revelry so I can do Slash, Zoom, and Slack and just fire one up and talk to anybody I need to. That’s a big one.
So, Revelry, obviously, we should code so we work in GitHub and we have a Camden tool that we use to do Camden style, the card that GitHub issues, representative cards. And I used to be a PM, basically, product manager with all the designers and authors working on creating products. I moved over into a marketing role so I’m not necessarily using Camden the way most of our teams do. So now I’m getting to see how the rest of Revelry lives. And we still use Camden, we still use GitHub to track our work. It’s so helpful to have that thread of comments, a written record because when you’re remote you need … Written communication just becomes so key.
So I found myself editing things I type. I try not to use the word “thing” or “it” or “they” or “he”, just ambiguous words like that. Just being as specific and crystal clear as you can. Take that extra time to write out what you need. So GitHub communication. And then those are the main ones I’m using right now.
I do a lot of word press stuff too now that I run marketing. But I’ll stop and let the next person respond.
Rumor: Revelry Doesn’t Use Email
Well, I have one follow up question before the next person responds, which is I heard a rumor that Revelry does not use email.
Oh. So when you start Revelry, yes, you get an email account. I have email@example.com is attached to a Gmail account. We use this Google Business Suite. It’s pretty great. I’m sure a lot of you all have got too. And, yes, we use Google Drive. We use our calendar, we use Calendly as well if you need to book someone externally. I have a little ZAP set up to send my GitHub notifications straight to a Slack DM. It’s really awesome. You can literally google it and go find it. Make sure that your security team is cool with you using the one that’s Zapier or Zapier, however you say it, has set up for you. Yes, it’s awesome and it makes my life a lot easier.
I do use email a little more now that I’m in marketing but I try to time block that to one-ish, twice-ish a day. So if you’re an engineer and you need to just zone out and code, you don’t want to be bothered with email, so if you can skip that and just stay in your Slack and GitHub and Zoom world you’re going to be just so much less distracted.
So, yeah, we have email. That’s a myth that we don’t use email, but if you can avoid it or time box it, that’s just going to save you so much hassle. Email gets overwhelming.
Remote Tools for Team Collaboration – UX Designer Perspective
Excellent. Thank you. That was awesome. So my next question is to Hauwa Aguillard. So, Hauwa, I now Hauwa, because she’s a designer. She’s amazing. We work together. I’m curious, as a designer, what tools you use to collaborate with your team.? I know you work with engineers and designers and project managers, so could you just walk us through your typical day and some of the tools that you use to communicate your designs to the team?
Yeah, sure. So for anyone who’s unaware, I’m a UX designer at Revelry and I’ve been working remotely for almost a year now. And in terms of tools I’ve used specifically to design, depending on what kind of design I’m doing because there’s the UI and then the UX portion of it, I find myself using Sketch and InVision a lot. Aline said, to communicate just within Revelry. I also use Sigma. I’ve used Sigma in the past but not currently right now. And one we go to it’s more of the UX portion of it. I’ve used Hotjar and currently experimenting with SmartBook. Those are specific user observation tools that you could install on your application, your web app or your mobile app and just observe users as they use your platform.
Within Revelry one of our biggest libraries that we use is Harmonium. It’s an open-source that anyone can contribute to and it has so many reusable components and styles that just makes design work a lot easier, and it’s similar to Bootstrap if you’re familiar with that. But I’ve used that as well.
So in terms of communication, I use Slack to communicate some of my designs, and sometimes InVision has a feedback tool that you can add, and people, designers, project managers, clients, can come in and provide some feedback on design work. So-
Can you talk a little bit about replacing whiteboards, a physical whiteboard with a virtual whiteboard for something like freehand?
Yes. So, initially, I was familiar with just whiteboarding on an actual whiteboard, but then I tried out the InVision app. They have a specific feature for whiteboarding. It’s called Freehand and I was able to use that. It provides you with an actual whiteboard that you can go in and draw stuff out and it helps to bring your ideas to life just using the Freehand. I haven’t used a specific whiteboarding app outside of InVision but I’m pretty sure they probably have some outside of those.
We’ve used MURAL before.
Yeah, MURAL. That’s the other one I was trying to think of.
Yeah, I think it was rebranded. So it used to be called something else, but it’s pretty cool.
Tracking Productivity and Project Management of Remote Teams
That’s awesome. Cool. All right. Let’s keep it moving. So the next question is for Thomas. It’s more like an organizational question, which is if you have all of these remote employees how do you go about tracking progress and growth, I mean, project-wise and for individual employees?
It’s a good question. It’s also a little bit of a trick question, in my opinion. I think for people who are not used to working remotely or managing remote teams the question that starts really coming to mind is, “But how do I make sure people are actually working?” It’s not, “Are they capable of doing it?” It’s, “I can’t walk by and make sure that you’re bored at your desk. So I can’t make sure that you’re getting paid to sit in some chair somewhere.”
And so I’m going to deflect a little bit by just saying the truth is if you don’t trust your team to work remotely then you just have to trust your team problem, not remote work is a hard problem. So that’s not to say that it isn’t challenging or that there aren’t new issues that are different from being in an office space, but I just encourage everyone to think back to what it’s really like being in an office and everyone’s stopping by, chat with each other about whatever, something silly happens around the corner and everyone stops to see what it is, and distractions happen everywhere. It’s not unique to remote work.
I think the tricks and tactics have a lot more to do with … Even though … Not all, but most people, don’t have a problem with walking around and letting people see their faces. They’re treated differently on video. And so the biggest thing I’d privately encourage each individual who’s maybe not hopping on video very often is, “Listen, we’ve all seen you. We all look at you. We know what you look like and realize maybe you don’t want to stare at yourself in the corner of this video, but we’re all used to looking at you so just put your face on because it’s a lot more human and feels better to all of us.”
Tips on Working Remotely
John Hawkins. Is he around? All right. So a little introduction. I work with the amazing John Hawkins, who’s out in Vegas, who is really remote. I’ve only met him in person a couple of times yet I feel pretty close to this unique individual.
Why don’t we start with … Is there anything that you do, any tricks you have that you think maybe no one else knows about?
So I’ve been working from home for … Actually January was 10 years. I quit my corporate job and I’ve done about everything under the sun since then. So we have a lot of new people who are, all of a sudden, becoming remote workers over the past couple of weeks, months, let’s say. One of the biggest tips that I always try to throw people when they’re going to do this is, “Look, you can go and read every single ‘How to Work from Home’, ‘How to do Remote Work’. You can go read every one of those posts, but the big trick in all of it is really knowing yourself and what actually works for you,” because I will tell you some people say, “Oh, I could never work from home. I’d be distracted. I’d be playing Mario Bros. all day long.” I don’t have that issue. I have literally the exact opposite issue, which is I’ll sit at my desk for 24 hours if you let me. If somebody brought me food, I would never get up.
So figure out if you can … I have a door that shuts, which is great for when I’m on a call like this, but it also is great when I’m on the other side of it and I can shut the office and be done with work. So set some boundaries, set some times. I know that I’m only going to be at my desk between here and here, and then when that time is done, walk out the other side, shut that door and just be not at work. And I think that’s the one big trick that people forget when they’re working at home just because if your office is at home then you’re always at your office and that could be troublesome.
Awesome, man. That was really great. Avery, are you listening on the call?
Yeah, I’m here.
Physical Fitness Tips for Working Remotely
All right. So we happen to be lucky that we have Avery Jolly with us. I didn’t know if he was going to join. Avery is a fitness expert and he works a lot with tech companies and he works a lot with companies that work remotely and organizations that work remotely. Avery, can you just tell us about some of the challenges you run into specifically with remote workers and staying physically healthy, the fact that we’re, basically, in a chair all day?
Can you just walk us through some of the things that you’ve done to help organizations improve physical health?
What people on this call, what can they do right now to avoid the chair trap?
Yeah, we did an AMA earlier today and Shannon asked what’s one of the biggest habits that changed in my health journey? And it literally was just not being sedentary while I’m at work, making sure to build in breaks, to just get up and walk around for 30 seconds or just sit and stand 10 times because it’s that staying sedentary that is the number one by far contributing factor to all the bad stuff that we see with just lower mood, lower energy, things like weight gain, all the bad stuff.
So what we do at Revelry is we have a Slack channel where every hour you get a little reminder to stand up and move, but you don’t need anything special. I think the best thing to do is set a timer. Just what I used to do when I use our Slack channel now with the reminders, but before I would just set a timer and it would go off every hour and I would just get up and move no matter what I was doing. And it takes me five/10 seconds to do that. You could do it for a minute. You could do it for two minutes but, regardless, it’s not going to throw you off of your work, at least in my experience. You can get right back into it. So that’s something you can do now. And they have apps … I’ll put some in the chat. I have to look up real quick the name of them, but it’s Stretch-It or Move It. They have some apps that you can use as those timers to remind you to get up and move.
As far as the problems, I mean, you guys are probably experiencing this, everyone’s probably living this right now, if you have kids I know it’s got to be hard to … Because even if you’ve worked from home before, now you have your children at home. So you’re trying to work from home and keep your kids occupied or doing their schoolwork or whatever needs to be done, I can see how taking time out for exercise can be difficult but, honestly, what I’ve done since the self-isolation lockdown, for me, personally, is I go on bike rides. I’ve gone on walks. I’ve done some running around the neighborhood and I have some weight sets, some dumbbells, that I use at home. So really simple stuff. I normally don’t do these things. I normally don’t bike or run or workout at home because I go to the gym, but since it’s closed it’s just every little bit counts.
In this health world, wellness world, something is always better than nothing. Today we did a workout online and the workout itself was seven minutes. It was a pretty intense seven minutes, but that’s all it was. Five-minute warm-up, five minutes cool down and a seven-minute intense workout portion, and I feel great.
Yeah, but just to answer your question. The problems that I’m hearing from people are working from home now with kids is definitely a challenge. And then the thing that resonates with me because I don’t have kids is how are you getting your social fix when you’re at home? I mean, it’s really challenging. I mean, talking to people on the phone, Face-timing, is not enough. I need to see people in person but it’s hard to do that when you need to socially distance. So what I have done is I’ve gone on a bike ride with two friends. We stay far apart. We don’t really even talk to each other because we’re riding a bike we can’t really hear when we’re that far apart. It’s a good way to get out and just know somebody else is there. So you can still maintain CDC compliance and follow the city’s rules, I guess, and still get that social interaction because it’s very, very important for, I know, me, personally, but anybody who’s a human, since we’re all social creatures.
Dealing with the Isolation of Working Remotely – Missing the Watercooler
Yeah, yeah. In fact, that’s a perfect segue into what I wanted to talk about next, which is really the isolation part of this. Aline, if I had to guess I would say that you are a people person. I am perfectly fine working from home. I don’t have to talk to anyone in person. I am an introvert, as I think a lot of people in the tech industry are, but some of the biggest challenges that I’ve seen is that people … If you love people and you’re an extrovert, are having a hard time moving to working from home. Aline, do you want to talk about what you do to combat that?
Sure. So, for one, I think I’m very blessed, lucky, that I’ve been working at Revelry a while so I already had that routine of being able to work from home and had my work set up when I needed it. But I also used to really enjoy going to the office at least two to three days a week just to be around people, get to have side conversations with someone who maybe is a little quieter and doesn’t engage on our public Slack channels as much. So, yeah, I miss that a lot.
But what I’ve been doing to keep up is, now my phone glows up with messages all the time. I’m a pretty quick typer, whether it’s on the keyboard or with my thumb, so I’m on WhatsApp with a bunch of my girlfriends from college, with my family, just one with my mom and my sister so we can do girl talk away from my dad and my brother. And then phone calls, FaceTime. I’ll tell you all a funny story actually. I had a college girlfriend Zoom session on Saturday night and Gerard found the recording. I didn’t realize it was getting recorded at the time. So that was very funny and very embarrassing. Glad our CEO is very cool. So I had to go change the Zoom setting.
So, yes, just communicating however you can. I know you can’t do it in person. I have a wild little Goldendoodle puppy, as you all probably saw on my screen at the beginning of the call. So just taking him out on walks I will run into neighbors that also walk their dogs and the dogs can say, “Hello,” and sniff, and we can have a chat about … Even if it’s just commiserating for a minute about, “Yeah, this is crazy. How’s your work? How’s your life? How are you doing at home?” Moments of that where things feel normal, even if just for 30 seconds is really nice to hold onto.
So, find a human interaction when you can. Get out into the sunshine. We’re lucky, it’s New Orleans, beautiful weather. Say, “Hi” to strangers. Don’t be afraid. We’re all going through a pandemic in a way together. So that’s the ultimate bonding experience I think.
Hey, one thing I’ll add to that is we used Steam plus Zoom to play games with our friends in Fargo. So it was awesome. We were all on video and it was like being in the same room and having a good time, having a couple of beers and playing games. So more fun things to do.
That is cool. I’ve also noticed … I don’t know if you all have … Since we already use Zoom at Revelry so often I have noticed a huge jump in people actually using their video. I think people are craving that face to face time. Most of us here have our video on and a lot of times we’ll have calls and maybe half of us just don’t have it on.
Okay, Avery, there’s your face.
So, yeah, even just a video. I think it brings back a good 80% to 90% of what you’re missing in person. Yes, I can’t wait for the day when we can all go to festivals and parties and weddings together. But, until then, FaceTime video helps for sure.
Hiring Remote Employees
If you haven’t noticed I am putting links to a lot of this stuff in the chat window (listed above) because I know there’s a lot of information and a lot of tools. Let’s see. I would like to move this on to the people part of the panel. And my first question is for Thomas. So if I were a person who was new to remote working and I was looking for employment, what would you look for in a remote hire that you were trying to recruit?
I don’t know if I can answer that question directly. I can definitely answer the flip side of it, which is how we hire for distributed stuff, but I don’t know if that’s what you want?
Yeah, I think the thing that we do to make sure that it will work out is we’re going to get on some video call. We’re going to hear and share a screen and do some stuff together and collaborate and work together to solve a problem in a way that should feel a whole lot like sitting on the same side of a table or standing at a whiteboard together, trying to talk through something and work through it together.
If people are unwilling or unable to jump right in and work together on a problem, then I don’t see it so much as they’re going to be bad for us. I see it more as, “This is not going to be fun for you to work here because if you wanted to go off by yourself in a corner and solve a problem and bring the finished thing back every time, you’re not going to be happy because we like to collaborate and work together a lot.”
I think the hardest habit to get into, even for those of who have been pairing and doing this kind of distributed video collaboration for a long time, is still, whenever we’re trying to solve a problem, we can be slow to say … If we can get on a Zoom, look face to face at each other and talk about the problem and not show the screen. And then as soon as you start to show the screen and try to work on it together, if the solution doesn’t show up right way, at the very least, a much better understanding of the problem shows up right away and then we’re at least working together on the same problem.
So for recruiting and hiring and trying to find people in the job in this new world the speed to share a screen and work on a problem together I think is the biggest leading indicator of happiness and success on both ends.
Work from Home Routines:
Establishing Work Alliance Boundaries
Excellent. So I think I’m going to start to … I’m just going to ask some open questions, or if you want to talk freely, that’s fine. So my first question is does anyone have any routines or things that they do, especially in the morning, to get started that really helps, specifically working from home that maybe you need to do to get into the rhythm?
I mean, a creature of habit, for me, wake up, let the dog out, coffee, oatmeal, desk. Done. Every morning.
Yeah. So I realized when Aline was asking me some questions that I actually have a bunch of habits that I’m not even aware of. I have this one rule, which is I will not wear flip flops while I’m working because that’s when I put on those shoes after I work. And the same thing is for attire. I’m not going to wear pajamas. You totally can. But, I don’t know. I want to feel like I’m working, right? So I will put on a decent shirt. I will shave every morning. I’ll walk the dog, then I come back home and then I start work on time.
We have check-ins every morning. We call then stand-ups, where you have to post a Scrum, which is, “What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? And do you have any blockers? Do you have anything getting in the way of you doing your work?” And we post those every morning. So that’s my routine. And, I don’t know, for me, it just flips a switch and it sets me right into work mode.
Yeah. I would say, for me, it’s the moment that I got a workspace because initially when I started I didn’t have a workspace. I was just, “Oh, I’ll just work in my bedroom or I’ll just work downstairs in the living room.” And it wasn’t so much that it was harder to be productive, it was just harder to get in the right mindset of, “I’m working.” So the moment I got a workspace I was able to be more productive in terms of work and my morning routines are, pretty much, getting up, taking some quiet time to myself, and just getting in the right space of, “Okay, I’m about to work.” And reflect on … This is probably too much, but reflect on what I did yesterday and what I’m trying to achieve today before getting into work mode, and I feel that helps.
Plus I have to have coffee so that I can be more productive. And after that, I find that the challenge most of the time, for me, with my routine, is knowing when to stop working. After I’ve started it’s, “Okay, so how do I end my day?” I don’t really have a set way to end my day but I do know I have this routine that I have every morning to start my day.
That’s awesome. So we’re about at the time … I’d really just like to open it up. We don’t have to close the Zoom. Does anyone have any ideas or tips that they want to talk about?
Reducing Ambiguity in Remote Communication
I know you wanted new stuff and not repeats, but I really feel something Aline already said is … I don’t know … Maybe not very intuitive and I think is super important. And it’s, especially in all of this higher reliance on Slack and chat and tickets and written communication destroying the use of “it,” “that,” “those,” “they,” “this,” “them,” just making yourself go expand that indicator word to spell out exactly what you’re talking about, can really help.
Sometimes it feels like you’re just being over-descriptive and just using too many words too often. And for the person who’s reading it and trying to understand what’s going on, it makes such a huge difference to just know, “Yeah, I would love help with that article when you get a chance.” I probably know which one you mean but also I’ve just bounced between eight different contexts in about 30 seconds because with Slack we can just flip through and check eight channels. And there really could have actually been three different things that you’re talking about.
I’ll second just the … Not just over-communicating, right? I mean, communication is key. But having a log of that communication that’s organized, I have found what works for me is to keep the chatter off of Slack. If you are talking about a specific problem it’s best to move it elsewhere. So in our world, we use GitHub, okay? And we have issues with things like features on an app, right?
However, outside of the context of technology, you can use GitHub or other project management software tools to track the flow of anything. I planned a trip to Mexico with my wife on GitHub and I use GitHub projects, and I had every small piece of that trip was a ticket. And whenever the communication would start to go to other channels, an email or a text, I would say, “Let’s put this on the ticket. Let’s keep all the communication for this one problem in one place.” And that has really been a tremendous help and I think I have Aline to thank for that. She was a good coach when I first started at Revelry, just learning how to properly just channel the communication in one spot. It’s been really a game-changer.
Yeah, I love that with these virtual events. I’m seeing a few upsides. One, I was able to go to two events in one night, which normally I … I guess they would have been nearby so I could have walked, but I didn’t have to walk, which was nice, and I can pour my own beverage. And, two, I’m in the side chatter in the Zoom chat so people can have side conversations while someone’s talking because it’s nice to make little personal connections and share links and stuff. So there’s a lot of cool … And, of course, joining from different locations. So there are so many cool perks. Those are just a few I noticed as of tonight.
Non-Verbal Communication with Remote Team Communication
I have a few tips I want to share. So one of the things about non-verbal … Is anyone familiar with what they call non-verbal communication?
So, yeah, if you google it, it is incredibly fascinating. Basically, it is not what people say, it’s how they say it. It also has to do with micro-expressions in the face and hand gestures. You can really learn a lot about what a person really is thinking just by learning how to read non-verbal cues. And I found that just because we’re on video that doesn’t change. And I found the biggest disconnect with online meetings is that there’s no eye contact. You see, right now, I’m looking at the camera, okay? But typically you’re looking at your screen, which is down here, or maybe you’re looking at a secondary screen, which is over here.
And I think it’s okay, typically, but I think it’s something to be mindful of, and what I tend to try to do is I’ll try to minimize my Zoom window. Okay, let’s see. Oh, that’s probably not going to do it right. But I’ll try to minimize my Zoom window to the top of the screen right here because I know that that’s where the camera is, okay? The camera’s right there. So if I’m looking at someone, especially in speaker mode, which is nice, it’s almost like I’m looking at them in the eye and having more eye contact. That’s one tip.
And then the other tip is … Okay, can you all see my Zoom settings? Oh, wait. Here it is.
So Zoom settings, there’s this checkbox called “Touch up my appearance,” which is fantastic. It, basically, does a JPEG compression, smoothing, to where it makes you face look better. I forget who it was, Colin or someone, suggested, “We need to make a filter to actually make you look older like you’ve been working harder.” But, yeah, that’s my tip. That’s it.
One thing I got from a … There’s a couple of articles on the Wirecutter (remote work articles) about video conferencing, and one of the older ones they talked about having a webcam and positioning it above your screen so that you’re looking at … I don’t know … I guess it helps with eye contact a little bit.
One thing a bunch of people are mentioning now is how to take care of your background.
Bryan, I heard that you have a very important office chair for your back. Can you talk about the importance of having a good chair?
Oh, yes. You should definitely have a good chair. So I had a chair that I would use I think from when I was in college all the way up until I was 30, and at some point my back hurt so much and I’d sit down for a while, I would get up and I’d just, basically, have to crawl to get to my room. And I got to the point where I had so many back spasms that … I guess, backing up … I used to work with somebody who had a chair like the one I have and I made fun of him. But he was, “You only have one back.” And then, okay, fast forward, after three back spasms I pinged him of, “So what kind of chair did you get?” And it cost a lot but it’s definitely helped my back spasms and I haven’t really had any since then. So, yeah, a good office chair definitely helps.
Yeah, I know this because I recently had this conversation with Bryan. I was also having severe back pain. I did the math. I mean, conservatively, you spend 16,000 hours a year sitting if you have a job where you work remotely or an office job. And I was sitting in a chair that was punishing me. And so I just bit the bullet. I spent the money. I bought a nice chair and I’ve never been happier.
Yeah, so we’re, pretty much, at the time for conclusion. I mean, if you all want to hang out I’ll leave the Zoom open. But I wanted to thank everyone for coming. This was amazing.
This was good. Thanks for having it.
Yeah, thanks, Steve. You did a great job emceeing everybody. This was awesome. Great conversation.