Remote Control

June 7, 2013 Nina Mehta

Photo by Nina Mehta

Most people who have worked remote will agree—nay—commiserate on how hard it is. I’ve done it before, and while it never really gets easier, you learn to get used to it.

One of the most glorious and unfortunate things about the internet is immediate access to distributed data. In this case, I mean written and video communication. Digital communication is so easy, we easily forget it’s a compromise.

Thankfully, a primary value proposition of working with Pivotal Labs is co-located collaborative work. We physically sit next to our colleagues and clients to solve problems together. As tools get better, it’s harder for clients to see how important it is to work with us in the same space.

My first project at Pivotal is rare and unique. I came into it mid-wireframe to work remote with a PM that sleeps when I eat lunch. Dev inception is days away, though will happen in a city that gets hungry for dinner when I rumble for breakfast. The case is not ideal, but building a great product is achievable.

I’ve been on this project for three weeks, here’s what I learned:

Communication must be explicitly clear

Before meetings I write a short list of everything I must say or ask. I propose an agenda at the beginning of the meeting and stick to it. When you’re working against nightfall, there is no, “we’ll figure it out later.” I must have my questions and needs prepared before our meetings and standups begin.

Have empathy and talk about it

Beyond retros, it’s important to check-in with each other on a people level. Acknowledge the constraints, that you’re working together and ask what the other person needs. My PM is great about stepping back and asking, “Hey, how’s it going? Is this working?” This costs time but wins you the ability to happily collaborate when it’s time to make product decisions.

Tracker is not good for creative work

Concepting ideas and expressing difficulty of a project does not happen at task and point level. I only know how many points a project is worth after I’ve iterated a few times and it’s been delivered and accepted.

Tracker is great for remote work

However, if you can express yourself in words and your PM is organized, Tracker is great for direct, digital communication. We use the stories to articulate the design problems and tasks to list features the be accounted for and comments a way to discuss the designs. There’s not enough time to discuss each of these details in person, Tracker helps us stay organized.

Remote work is expensive

All the time spent on video chat, in Pivotal Tracker and over email is temporally, emotionally and financially more expensive than getting on an airplane, sleeping somewhere else for a few weeks and solving problems together. Why? Because it takes longer. Working together is faster, happier and makes better product. Working collocated is not a choice for me right now but as a designer and idealist, I won’t settle for a MVP. So we’re figuring it out.

Are you a remote working veteran? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments.

About the Author


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