Reluctantly Remote, and loving it

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

I’m a big fan of collocation. I love sticky notes, magic charts and colourful tape. 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 pair and mob programming. I love highly engaged, participant centred workshops. I love retrospectives, and I do elaborate ones featuring lots of pair and group conversation, 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 together shoulder to shoulder.

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

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

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

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

This meant our CTO would basically commute from Dublin to Utrecht, and our DevRel person would basically commute from London to Dublin, and I would also be travelling continuously. But hey, that’s been more or less what I’ve been used to for basically forever, and this is the framework that I’ve been recommending 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 design and planning work online, as there would never be enough time to do all of it in person, I started investigating online collaboration tools, and having conversations with colleagues about best tools and practises.

Then, the other shoe dropped. A worldwide pandemic. Everyone is working from home. 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 our new virtual office: Discord.

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

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

This feels much more like an office experience than scheduled video conferences, and allows for more casual interactions with less friction in jumping on voice chats. It’s not quite collocation, but it’s not a bad facsimile.

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

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

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

So far so good, however, pairing and mobbing and presentations are great for the delivery portion of our workflow, but there is still the question of design and 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 die trying? Something like that.

The question is how do I facilitate agile design and planning practises when I can’t see everyone, when I can’t get them to write sticky notes, and I don’t have 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 master Photoshop jockey, or too limited, implementing a very rigid version of popular practises and not allowing you to paint outside the lines or vary the practice when the situation calls for it. They make it hard or impossible to combine practises or invent new ones, as I am wont to do. Or, the system is so complicate, that finding a setting or feature is like needing to explore 17 levels of a 70s style text adventure, without being eaten by a Grue, only not nearly as fun.

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

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

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

Instead of video or screen sharing, real time collaboration tools allow everyone to work together at the same time within the collaboration app, so nobody is sharing their screen, everyone is using the same software at the same time and seeing the same state.

The first tool we added was Lucid Meetings. Lucid is not a conferencing tool, we use Discord voice channels to talk during meetings.

Lucid is a real time meeting tool that allows you to create an agenda, and step through 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 biggest challenges is keeping a group of remote people in sync. A real time agenda tool like Lucid is really helpful for this.

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

There is also a speaker queue, document attachments and other features required for facilitating meetings and recording outcomes. Lucid is built by meeting experts, 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, the next, and trickiest bit is visual collaboration, how do I replace creating simple canvases with tape and sticky notes? Although honourable mention goes to MetroRetro and Miro, both very cool tools, our team chose Mural. Not sure why all these tools 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 a canvas at the same time, add sticky notes, shapes and pictures. What sets it apart are it’s “Facilitator Superpowers.”

Facilitators can build outlines, that define parts of a canvas or steps in a Practise, and then “summon” participants so that they are all looking at the same part of the canvas at the same time, and hide and reveal portions of the canvas as required to advance the practise. It also has plenty of popular templates and frameworks for popular practises, but makes it easy to combine them 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 them to 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 give us a pretty solid base to build on.

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


Venture Communist.