Going fully remote in 2022.
Starting February 2022 we will be a fully remote digital product studio. We have terminated the lease for our office space in Berlin that we had for close to four years now and are now collaborating completely virtual. Is this the metaverse everyone is talking about?
Why did we decide to go fully remote?
Throughout the pandemic, we had to adjust the way we are working together, just like everyone else: we all started working from home. No more team lunches, which usually were the best part of the working day, no more quick brainstorming sessions. In the beginning, everything felt a bit slower and even forced: you sometimes even had to schedule calls with your teammates. What a shit show.
But we soon figured out there are some upsides to the way we were operating, we simply had to adjust our tools and processes for it. There's a feeling of calm and clarity to be unveiled in remote work. A way of getting things done more efficiently. Working remotely facilitates deep work and makes it easy to focus when necessary – once we managed to tame all our digital tools.
We also started hiring remotely across Europe and tried to do that as fair and transparent as possible as we want every team member to feel like they are normally employed within Germany and experience the same benefits – a challenge in itself and probably worth another short article. With our current team set up, we are already partially remote by default, so going all-in didn't feel like much of a difference
For some, going remote is a financial decision, but the money we would have spent on the office isn't substantial considering our cash flow: it's less than 5% of our monthly costs, including utilities et al. So this isn't an economically driven decision, but a chance to work and live differently.
And lastly, it also feels relieving to free up real estate. The market is completely fucked and if we are being honest with ourselves, we don't need the space. We won't solve that issue, but having an office sitting empty for days on end just feels wrong.
There are downsides to going fully remote, too. Disclaimer: it may get a bit philosophical in here.
Async, but not ad-hoc
While adjusting to remote work our project approach was still a bit all over the place – while a developer was working on a certain project, a designer was working on a different one. So feedback loops and QA sessions were seen as interruptions and felt intrusive – it wasn't an integral part of our process yet.
We learned that remote collaboration works best when we form units that work on a project at the same time and are fully available. Ad-hoc calls are discouraged, availability is encouraged.
Every 3-day sprint starts with a short concept and alignment session so everyone is on board and knows what to work on. We work in parallel from the beginning: we define the scope and all get started working, designing and developing at the same time.
The increased speed of this approach is way higher than what we would have imagined and enables us to work in fast bursts with enough time to check-in and chat it up – or spend some time helping other colleagues.
Working remotely for us means staying at home way more than we'd usually do and this contributes to the feeling of every day being the same day all over again. Groundhog day is real, people.
Remember: you are not making memories sitting in front of your computer at home – there's a huge difference between interacting with people in real life versus online. We don't believe the metaverse will fix that, so we were looking for ways to improve the situation.
And actually, the solution is rather simple: work less, make memories outside of work. Where they should be made. We don't track time, we don't expect anyone to work longer than they need to to finish their jobs.
If you get your shit done in 6 hours, great, go out, enjoy the sun or the cold wind from the East blowing through the streets of Berlin. Do something. Taking a longer lunch break? Sure. Starting at 11? Why not. It's up to you to make the day memorable.
Video call fatigue is real.
Video calls are probably the worst by-product of working fully remotely. Meetings are bad enough, but video calls? They are draining, mentally and physically. It's unnatural to stare at a screen of faces, checking your appearance while you are talking, and dealing with all the friction from technical difficulties, poor UX, and people not charging their Bluetooth headphones.
Our main priorities to tackle were the following:
- Reduce the number of calls necessary
- Find the right tool to reduce the stress of video calls
Reducing the number of calls is a clear choice, we just had to figure out which calls are worth having in our new sprint-based unit approach – and we are still adjusting.
But we also reduced the number of calls we are having with our partners and even though we were a little hesitant in the beginning to push back on certain call requests, we have gotten an overwhelmingly positive reaction to our new approach. Fewer calls mean more time to do good work and the outcome shows.
We also tested all video call platforms. Damn you MS Teams for your stronghold over big organizations, MS Teams is by far the worst solution out there. But also Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, all have major flaws that kept nagging at us. We even ran Discord for a while. But it just wasn't cutting it.
So we settled on around as our tool of choice because it makes video calls as inobtrusive as possible, the sound quality is superior, and all the small smart features simply make it fun to use. Plus, with the Giphy Integration you can be Kanye on a call and who wouldn't want to be Kanye?
Building up hype is hard. It's hard enough to do in person – but it's really hard to create momentum virtually. And we are anticipating this to be the biggest challenge we are facing in the long run with our new approach to working together.
The wonderful thing about momentum is that it's created by energy, by a feeling of progress, of motivation and personal involvement, by seeing the goal and the path to get there.
Momentum can't be created in a process chart. Momentum can only be created by people being passionate about what they are doing. We still have that energy, individually. But transferring the energy online is harder than doing it in person.
Sure, we are adjusting our mindset to changing the way we talk about our work and being more vocal about progress and achievements. But what we discovered is that, as momentum is a time-based phenomenon, changing the duration of sprints and shipping projects faster can enable conversations highlighting progress while helping team members individually achieve a feeling of reward and accomplishment.
For the Culture
Culture is more than just water-cooler talk and free lunch. It's the principles you run your company by. So we reworked ours throughout the integration phase and hold ourselves accountable. We only work with people we highly respect and are happy to chat with about anything. Sprint calls can be fun. Working in solitude as well. But most importantly, we are cutting back on client projects to create room to do free work and explore.
We have booked Monday until Wednesday for client work and keep Thursday and Friday for ourselves. Granted, we have already violated this rule, but as always, we do not enforce it with an iron hand, but by encouraging and allowing ourselves to not pack our weeks.
By the end of last year, we had a team gathering in Belgrade, Serbia, visiting our dear colleague Milan. We've made company trips before, even when we weren't operating fully remote, so we will surely keep this tradition alive and make the best use of the time we spend together in person. Yolo.
Going remote isn't a decision, it's a process. In the beginning, we tried to reproduce existent workflows virtually. In the end, we came up with a different way of organizing and thinking about time and work. The pandemic sucks, but I'm glad we went through this process – it may just have changed our lives a little bit for the better.