Hack the Backyard II

November 28, 2015


So, working remotely can be a desirable state of affairs for a lot of people. But there are some things that one has to give particular attention to in order to succeed.

Communication & Presence

In part one, I called out feelings of isolation and difficulties in communication as challenges to be overcome. The basic problem in both areas is that there isn’t a direct replacement for being co-located with your teammates. Understanding what it is you’re replacing is the first step.

When you’re co-located, you take for granted that you can just pop over to someone’s office and have a quick conversation (never mind that you just destroyed that person’s concentration), or collaborate on a whiteboard. When you’re not co-located, you have to be much more deliberate to accomplish the same tasks.

There’s also the notion of presence, which is hard to quantify, but it’s the benefit of just being around people. When they’re working hard on something, you know. You know when they arrive to and leave from work. You can sometimes tell if they’re having a bad day. You also feel like part of a group working toward a common goal.

feeling isolated

When you’re remote you have to be much more intentional about achieving the same results.


The way to replace what you’ve lost by not being co-located is to use helpful tools. No one tool will do everything for you, but in my opinion, with the right set of tools you can get very, very close. Let’s first talk about the tool that will get you the last 15%, and then the remainder of the post will be about chat, which is the 80% tool.

Video conferencing

A tool that you should use as frequently as possible is some sort of video conferencing tool. My personal favorite is Google Hangouts, but there are other inexpensive tools available. Webcams are nearly ubiquitous, so you don’t need a $20,000 A/V conferencing set up. You should use these tools directly from your own laptop. Whenever you might have a problem communicating with chat, use video chat instead. Use it for “face time”. Use it for meetings. This goes a long way toward making you feel like part of the group. It does a lot to replace presence.


Now, for the big one: chat. Chat is by far the most important tool in your day-to-day toolbox, and everyone on your team should be using it. All team communication that is not in video conferencing should happen in your chat tool, even (and especially) between people that are co-located. Chat makes your communications searchable, transparent, and explicit. Sometimes chat communications aren’t clear, but video calls are useful for clearing those up. Most importantly, chat makes your remote teammates belong by not being left out. When you have that hallway conversation in chat instead of in the hallway, your remote person gets to listen in. If you have it in the hallway, you leave him or her out, which contributes to feelings of isolation - it’s really no good. So commit to using chat.

Once you’re committed to chat, there are a few tips for making it better.

  1. Keep things in a common chatroom or channel. One of my gripes about Slack chat is that is encourages the proliferation of channels, but you don’t want to be more fragmented than on a team level. Chat between people working on the same team should be in a common channel. Sometimes people feel bashful about public chat and might lean toward starting private chats, but this is almost always unnecessary. Think of it by analogy: anything you wouldn’t feel the need to say only after pulling a coworker aside and closing the door can and should be said in public. If you would pull a coworker aside and close the door, then a private chat is appropriate.
  2. If your chat tool supports it, use replies so that conversations can be traced. Slack’s doesn’t, unfortunately. This is my only feature request for Slack, and they’ve been “working on it” for over a year, so I’m pretty pessimistic.
  3. Use integrations, if possible. If you have GitHub integrations and use GitHub for source control and issue tracking, use the GitHub links or notation if supported.
  4. Take advantage of the fact that people can’t see your body language. If you’re upset by something someone else said in chat, just chill for a bit and come up with the response that you won’t look back on with regret. Be diplomatic and professional.
  5. Learn to use the formatting capabilities of your chat. This includes learning how to post images, because sometimes the best way to communicate is to take a screenshot (and possibly annotate it) and then refer to it in chat.
  6. Learn your chat’s search features. Slack has excellent search capabilities.

That’s it for now (I may edit this list if I think of more).