Reluctantly Remote, and loving it

dmytri profile image Dmytri Kleiner Originally published at blog.terminusdb.com on ・6 min read

I have to admit, most of my career I’ve treated remote collaboration as anecessary evil.

I’m a big fan of collocation. I love sticky notes, magic charts and colourfultape. I love walls so much whenever I see pictures hanging on them I’m like,why are they wasting good wall space for those useless pictures? I love pairand mob programming. I love highly engaged, participant centred workshops. Ilove retrospectives, and I do elaborate ones featuring lots of pair and groupconversation, arts and crafts, and role playing.

For years I’ve lived this way, preaching customer and partner interaction,NIHITO, user observation, face to face collaboration and working togethershoulder to shoulder.

Then, the first shoe dropped, I joined an early stage startup building theknowledge collaboration database of the future, TerminusDB.

Suddenly, I had a distributed team, half of the engineers are in Utrecht, halfof the engineers, along with the business team are in Dublin, a developerrelations person in London, and me in Berlin.

So, I started making everyone fly around, we had workshops and collocated workin the Netherlands, and in Ireland, we started to develop our flow of designand delivery practises.

The idea was that we would do design and planning in person, on walls withstickies and stuff, then convert these to digital representations and dodelivery work back home, but try to divide systems such that related work couldbe done by work enters which are mostly collocated. So, core databasedevelopment in Utrecht and web platform work in Dublin.

This meant our CTO would basically commute from Dublin to Utrecht, and ourDevRel person would basically commute from London to Dublin, and I would alsobe travelling continuously. But hey, that’s been more or less what I’ve beenused to for basically forever, and this is the framework that I’ve beenrecommending to teams for a long time.

We chose Trello as our online kanban, and where already using Slack and Github,plus Google Apps and Zoom. So, we were somewhat remote already, but not really.

Realizing that it would be cool if we could find ways to do some of the designand planning work online, as there would never be enough time to do all of itin person, I started investigating online collaboration tools, and havingconversations with colleagues about best tools and practises.

Then, the other shoe dropped. A worldwide pandemic. Everyone is working fromhome. Travel is not an option, and our customers can not be visited.

Now what?

Day one we left our physical offices in Dublin and Utrecht, and moved into ournew virtual office: Discord.

Discord is a platform for gamers to play online gamestogether, it provides text chat channels, like Slack, but also voice channelswhich are like meeting rooms that people can have voice meetings in.

The ability to have different channels for teams as well as for companymeetings, and the ability to quickly see that people are in a given voicechannel, provides for a much more ad-hoc experience, you can see when and wherepeople are meeting, drop in and say hi, or notice meetings are happening whenmaybe you didn’t notice in your calendar.

This feels much more like an office experience than scheduled videoconferences, and allows for more casual interactions with less friction injumping on voice chats. It’s not quite collocation, but it’s not a badfacsimile.

Discord also allows a user to go live and share their screen, this was designedfor streaming the game you are playing so that others can watch you play. Italso works well for pair and mob programming and presentations.

If anything, moving to Discord has actually increased the time we spendparing and mobbing. Something we’re very happy about, not to mention thereduced air miles.

We are writing more code with greater quality, spending less money, emittingless carbon, and abiding by needed social distancing practises during thepandemic. Other than perhaps worsening the teams personal hygiene andfashionability, this has been a real improvement, and a practise we willcontinue even when the pandemic is behind us.

So far so good, however, pairing and mobbing and presentations are great forthe delivery portion of our workflow, but there is still the question of designand planning. While I had begun my investigations in earnest, now we’re all in.It’s go remote or go home! No wait. It’s stay home or no go! Go live or dietrying? Something like that.

The question is how do I facilitate agile design and planning practises when Ican’t see everyone, when I can’t get them to write sticky notes, and I don’thave a wall to stick them on.

So far, I’ve not really been a big fan of any of the online tools I’ve tried.They are either too fiddly, requiring the mouse ninja skills of a masterPhotoshop jockey, or too limited, implementing a very rigid version of popularpractises and not allowing you to paint outside the lines or vary the practicewhen the situation calls for it. They make it hard or impossible to combinepractises or invent new ones, as I am wont to do. Or, the system is socomplicate, that finding a setting or feature is like needing to explore 17levels of a 70s style text adventure, without being eaten by a Grue, only notnearly as fun.

Good luck facilitating an online session when you need to start with an hourlong introduction to the tools, and let’s put aside the issues of ill-fittingpricing models for now.

In the end, after trying every tool available online and putting myself at riskof repetitive strain injury just from the amount of “Hi, I’m Bill from CustomerSuccess” emails I will need to unsubscribe from , some hope is emerging.

With Discord as our virtual office, and with everybody getting used to voicechannels as opposed to video conferences, this leaves our eyes free to focus onreal time collaboration tools instead of video. While screen sharing and videoare very useful tools, for working sessions like planning and design workshopsthey are better avoided.

Instead of video or screen sharing, real time collaboration tools alloweveryone to work together at the same time within the collaboration app, sonobody is sharing their screen, everyone is using the same software at the sametime and seeing the same state.

The first tool we added was Lucid Meetings. Lucidis not a conferencing tool, we use Discord voice channels to talk duringmeetings.

Lucid is a real time meeting tool that allows you to create an agenda, and stepthrough it together with everyone at the same time. During the meeting,everyone sees the current agenda item being discussed.

This is super important if you will also be use other tools during the meeting,as you can provide links and instructions in the agenda. One of the biggestchallenges is keeping a group of remote people in sync. A real time agendatool like Lucid is really helpful for this.

Lucid also has a chat interface, allows everyone to write notes, add actionitems and other records, which are not only emailed to everyone after themeeting, but also kept in lucid and available for review at future meetings.

There is also a speaker queue, document attachments and other features requiredfor facilitating meetings and recording outcomes. Lucid is built by meetingexperts, includes templates and facilitator guides for common meeting types,and has a friendly and very helpful community.

So, now that I can plan the session and keep everyone on the same page, thenext, and trickiest bit is visual collaboration, how do I replace creatingsimple canvases with tape and sticky notes? Although honourable mention goes toMetroRetro and Miro, both verycool tools, our team chose Mural. Not sure why all thesetools start with an M. Maybe it’s like a secret coded message of some kind.

Mural is a real time visual collaboration tool that allows people to draw on acanvas at the same time, add sticky notes, shapes and pictures. What sets itapart are it’s “Facilitator Superpowers.”

Facilitators can build outlines, that define parts of a canvas or steps in aPractise, and then “summon” participants so that they are all looking at thesame part of the canvas at the same time, and hide and reveal portions of thecanvas as required to advance the practise. It also has plenty of populartemplates and frameworks for popular practises, but makes it easy to combinethem and make your own templates. It also has a timer, and a voting feature.

I’ve successfully created templates for my own practises with it and used themto run remote meetings.

So, while our journey into remote design and planning practises is just beginning, and many challenges remain, Discord, Lucid Meetings and Mural giveus a pretty solid base to build on.

But, OK, I confess “loving it” was an exaggeration, I still miss working faceto face, but we’re coping and even when the pandemic is over, I’m sure thatremote work and the practises we are developing will remain a key part of ourway of working.


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