How we remote: tools for collaborating well in a WFH world
So it’s been a week+ of mandated WFH for a lot of us. And it looks like there’s a lot more where that came from. Working from home takes practice. When you and everyone on your team has to start working from home without notice, it’s gonna be rough going at first. But, in times like these, remember that you’re not alone.
We’ve put together this short guide of the tools we use to keep Matter Supply connected and creative. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid some of our mistakes and get right to the good stuff. We also want to hear what y’all are up to, how your teams are staying connected, and how you’re adjusting to these weird times.
Wash your hands,
Josh and the good folks at Matter Supply Co
In February, Matter Supply entered its fourth year of building digital products and experiences for brands like Impossible Foods, Nike, and United We Dream. We also entered our fourth year as a distributed and partially remote team. When we started a company with five people in two different countries, we didn’t realize that we were starting the world’s tiniest multi-national digital agency. And we needed to figure out how to collaborate from afar quickly. Since then, we’ve grown to almost 30 in seven cities today. Growing rapidly required us to get creative with the ways we communicated with each other. What’s developed is a culture of ownership, initiative, and curiosity.
Looking back, we screwed up a lot. But, as we remind everyone internally, that’s usually how you learn best. From the pain of figuring out how to collaborate from different continents and time zones, we ended up creating something that became core to our company–thinking out loud and taking ownership. We’re not always great at it. In fact, sometimes even at our size, you sometimes feel like you learn things have happened after the fact. But, if everyone knows the objective and the standards, when that happens it means it’s working.
In times like these, we wanted to share how we connect and collaborate. We’re always down to share all our secrets. But right now, this post feels especially relevant for those of you who might be headed down the 100% remote team path for the first time. Holler with any questions.
Peter Sunde (of The Pirate Bay): We don’t like (IRL). We say AFK — Away From Keyboard. We think that the internet is for real.
So for starters, in times like these, we know that we are very fortunate and privileged to be able to work from home. That’s not true for so many of us out there. Please do what you can to support your local businesses and those folks who have suddenly found themselves without an income. We’ll only get through this if we stick together.
Aside from being able to work from home, we’re also making a bold assumption that your company uses the Google Suite as most of these tools manage access via the GSuite. We’re also assuming that your company is the size where you can make many of these changes yourself or can talk to the person that can. But, where you stand is often dependent on where you sit.
Lastly, a couple of these links are referral links. That means we may get referral bonuses, account credits or discounted services when you use them. That saves us money, costs you nothing, and doesn’t affect our recommendations here in the slightest. Just wanted you to know.
Our big 3
For most companies, communication happens primarily via email. It also happens in meetings, and maybe in a meeting before the meeting. But, we also chat at the water cooler, in the hallways, at dreaded insta-meetings at your desk, while walking to lunch, and even via the old fashioned late-night SMS reminding you that the client needs that very important thing before you head to bed for the night.
Even with all those other ways to relay information, we still hear stats that typically measure communication in the number of emails sent and received in the media. It’s no surprise that now that we’re all working from home, a lot of us are having a hard time replacing those other forms of transmitting information with only emails and conference calls. Being in-person mattered a lot.
For Matter Supply, in-person doesn’t come close to the real communication king… Slack.
In the last month, the team sent only about 150 outbound emails while they received 20,000+ inbound emails (mostly spam). On the flip side, we sent over 36,500 messages via Slack during that same period. Now that we’re 100% remote, the number of Slack messages is growing fast.
Others considered: None.
At its core, Slack could be seen as a bunch of different chat rooms (they call them channels) private to your company where your team can chat and collaborate on well, basically anything. It also acts as a typical instant messenger where you can have private chat conversations with one or more people.
Slack is also easy to organize–so long as you have a plan. You can create different channels for each of your projects, your teams, and even to collaborate with clients. Conversations happen where they should (most of the time) and everyone on the channel gets visibility. Slack allows for private conversations between two or more people. As a best practice, when a conversation turns to something the broader team would benefit from, nudge it back into the channel. It’s not all business though, we even have one to share our favorite music with the rest of the company and another one to share pictures of food that we made during social distancing.
Slack also benefits from a robust store of third-party apps that let you start video conferences, take polls, share gif reactions, or even host a virtual stand up.
Seriously, if you aren’t already using Slack, It’s one of the most important tools you can add to your arsenal in times like these.
Sign up here: https://slack.com/
Video conferencing: Google Meet or Zoom 🤷♂️
Others considered: GoToMeeting, Skype, Join.me, Whereby, Slack video calls, Bluejeans, etc.
If your company uses GSuite for your email, then you already have a pretty premium-feeling video conferencing tool that just needs to be turned on. We’ve tried about 10 different video conferencing tools and Google Meet came out on top with Zoom in a very close second. Truth be told, we have both because so many of our clients use Zoom. Both Google Meet and Zoom links can be automatically added to calendar invites or be started on the fly from Slack.
One of the things we like about Meet is that it just works in the browser. Well, just Chrome really. But, almost everyone we work with uses Chrome as their primary browser. That means no downloading a 3rd party app like Zoom. As always though, what you gain from convenience, you lose in video quality and tiled layouts, which is where Zoom really shines.
Bonus: For those of us missing your whiteboard sessions, we just discovered that with screen sharing with Meet and the Procreate app on an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil that you can get pretty dang close. Sadly, it’s not collaborative. If you need collaborative whiteboarding and if the latency doesn’t bother you, check out Miro further along in this post.
How to turn on Meet video calling
Note: Google is known to launch amazing products that people love. And then they kill them. (See https://killedbygoogle.com/) So we don’t know how long this one will be around but looks like it is here for a while.
For those who are about to Zoom: https://zoom.us/
Others considered: ProtonMail
Email is a necessary evil. We know that all too well. At least GSuite comes with Meet and Drive. That’s something. No need to say more.
Get it here: https://gsuite.google.com/
Our secret weapons
Collaborative documents: Notion
Others considered: Google Drive, Confluence, Dropbox Paper, GitBook
Maybe you’ve used Evernote for note-taking and keeping important files organized. And if you’ve worked with technology teams, they have probably been strongly persuaded to work in Confluence. One is too personal to be useful in teams, and the other one is Confluence. The good news is that we’ve also tried a bunch of different collaboration tools and one stood above all the others, Notion.
Notion is a tool for teams and even your clients that want a better way to manage knowledge, projects, documents, and collaboration. Capture strategy, design links, decisions, and links to backlogs all in one space. You can use Notion to build out teams, run margin calculations, and prepping proposals for markdown to tracking and surfacing important project information — this is the best all-in-one collaboration space we’ve found.
Be warned, it is super flexible. It can literally be almost anything you want. That means it can get messy without some sort of structure or governance. After a few weeks of work, an organic structure should shake out. To help that process along, check out their templates to get you started: https://www.notion.so/Notion-Template-Gallery-181e961aeb5c4ee6915307c0dfd5156d
Start collaborating here: https://www.notion.so/?r=2b1e2a5466da4dc9bee7f3cdf7117b7c
All the data: Airtable
Others considered: Google Drive
Do you like spreadsheets? No? But, do you know how to use them? Kinda? Do you want something that’s way better but familiar and has superpowers? Maybe? Airtable enters stage left.
Yes, it looks like a spreadsheet. Don’t let appearances fool you. There’s so much more to it than that. Airtable can also be a calendar, a Kanban board, an asset gallery, and a replacement for Google Forms, shopping lists, hour tracking, content calendaring. It can also be used as a database (although the API needs a little love).
One of our favorite features is using one of the 20+ field types to keep our data clean and organized. The one we use the most is the single select field type. This field type creates a drop-down of options and ensures a limited vocabulary. It’s great for grouping, filtering, and form submissions.
Seriously, at Matter Supply, we use Airtable all the time. Both internally and with our clients, we use it to do all sorts of things cleanly and quickly that used to take hours with spreadsheets. Things like:
- Product management
- Location management for a map experience
- Enriching data
- Managing our new business and recruiting pipelines
- Project management
- Sorting and grouping large data sets
- Digital asset management
- Collaborative design inspiration lists
- HR and People Tracker for birthdays, start days, and other important bits of info
Just like Notion, structure and governance are key. Just like Notion, Airtable has plenty of templates to get you started: https://airtable.com/templates. If your team is enjoying using Airtable, check out their pro version that allows for all sorts of enhancements.
All this being said, we still will use Google Sheets often enough. Airtable is super strong and most everything except for formulas and typical spreadsheet numbers stuff.
Start sorting and grouping here: https://airtable.com/invite/r/rK4kgP4J
Others considered: Invision Freehand
Miro may be a bit laggy. It’s also not cheap. And, you need to buy day passes for folks outside the organization. Despite all that, it’s one of the very best tools we’ve found to replace the whiteboard.
Miro lets you and your team build work together via most any device to whiteboard, create user flows, do card sorting, capture a brainstorm, and is great for presenting back to clients. Like Slack and Figma, there are a bunch of third-party apps that you can connect to make it even more powerful. They even just launched an integration with Notion!
While it has a ways to go, Miro is on the right path and may scratch the itch until we can whiteboard in person again.
Get whiteboarding here: https://miro.com/
Design and creative technology-specific tools
We know a lot of you reading this may not be the design or creative technology field, but this list wouldn’t be complete without the next two tools. These are critical to our ability to work closely together as a team and have eliminated quite a bit of pain from our workdays.
UI design: Figma
Others considered: Sketch, Adobe CC
When Sketch came out, it was revolutionary. Where Adobe products were bloated with features and toolbar iterations over the years, Sketch was clean and user friendly. Sure, it has its limitations when it came to brand creation, illustration vectoring, and the fine design-y aspect of digital.
Where Sketch is most powerful is through symbols. Symbols allow you to insert and drop frequently used components, update their content, and most importantly, the ability to update those components across the entire project in a single action.
It also is a breeze to see all your redlines for margins, paddings, and sizes. But, like Adobe products, version control was a nightmare if multiple folks needed to work on a file. It also only works on Mac. Rarely an issue, but occasionally an inconvenience.
But, our recommendation isn’t Sketch. It’s Figma.
You almost have to feel bad for the folks at Sketch. Figma came out shortly after Sketch. It has all the cleanliness and functionality of Sketch, but it all happens in the cloud. Whatsmore is that Figma is able to do all of this in the flipping browser.
You and your collaborators can all be in the same file at once working together. No more version conflicts or having to check-out files. That’s right, a AAA UI design tool that lets you design and collaborate in real-time in your browser without lag on any OS. The Figma desktop app makes everything feel even snappier.
Figma lets you design, collaborate, and prototype in a single place. We even use it to build our decks (but be warned that it has no built-in spell-check quite yet).
Start designing in cloud now: https://www.figma.com/
Code repo: GitHub
Others considered: GitLab
GitHub. That ol’ thing.
We used to prefer GitLab and the more technical among us still really like it. Then we noticed that Microsoft’s investments in GitHub’s UX have been paying off. One thing that we love is that a reviewer can suggest a fix and the OP can accept the fix (or not) and have it merged without reopening the terminal.
One advantage certainly is that whatever the integration needed, it will probably exist first for GitHub. On the flip side, GitHub’s organizational capabilities are very limited, but GitLab’s are poorly implemented from an experience perspective. So we just use search.
Merge your PRs here: https://github.com/
Use ’em or lose ‘em
In a distributed team, it’s sometimes hard to know where our collaboration tools start and end. We have great back-office tools like Gusto for payroll and people, Quickbooks Online for invoicing and accounting, and bill.com for accounts payable. We also have tools that help managers and teams share how they are doing and give feedback like 15Five. To manage new business we’ve used both Airtable and Hubspot. Project management is moving from Notion to Monday.com. And we’re constantly trying out new technologies.
Ultimately, the tools are out there, but they won’t smooth out your new work-from-home pains if you don’t actively experiment with them and find what feels right for your team, your working style, and your client or customer needs. Give them a shot and let us know how it goes. Share what’s working for you and some of your favorites. Just don’t forget to cancel the subscription if you end up using something else.
Stay home. Stay safe. Stay connected.
Matter Supply Co is a product design and creative technology studio building engaging digital experiences for brands like Impossible Foods, Nike, and United We Dream. Get in touch over at https://mattersupply.co/.