In this episode we are talking about our remote work tools that enable our distributed team across the world to collaborate, design, and build software. Throughout the episode, Todd, Ken, and Jamon touch on their favorite tools—from Slack, Zoom, and Google Sheets—why they chose them, and the ways they have added custom features to really make the remote experience special.
Show Links & Resources
- G Suite
- Bigscreen VR
- Taking the Pain Out of Video Conferences by Ken Miller
CHRIS MARTIN: The topic at hand today is remote tools, and all of the different ways that you have built a remote company. Where do you even start when you’re thinking about what tools to pick when you’re going remote?
KEN MILLER: This is Ken Miller, by the way.
It happened very organically for us. To be honest, I don’t know that we could’ve done this company this way before Slack. Because the tools that came before, Hipchat and IRC and Yammer, even though I worked there. Sorry, Yam-fam. They just didn’t quite do it. Right? They didn’t quite create the online atmosphere that we need to work the way that we do.
Does that sound accurate to you, Todd? I feel like once we found Slack, we were like, “Holy crap, this is epic!”
TODD WERTH: I think there’s a few alternatives. Hipchat, at the time, wasn’t good enough. There were a few alternatives we investigated. I would like to mention at the beginning of this …
This is Todd Werth, by the way.
I would like to mention at the beginning, I imagine that a lot of companies in this podcast will need to be paying us an advertising fee. Like Slack.
JAMON HOLMGREN: We actually adopted Slack before we were remote. We had … I think we were using Google Hangouts or something. Or whatever of the myriad Google chats there are out there. They have like 12 apps. We were using something else in person, and then we started using Slack organically right when it first came out.
TODD: Sorry about that noise you all heard. That was me throwing up a little bit in my mouth when you said “Google Hangouts”. (laughter)
KEN: We’ll talk about video-chat in a minute.
JAMON: By the way, this is Jamon Holmgren.
It was … Initially, we jumped onboard. They did a really good job marketing themselves. We had used Hipchat a little bit, but it just wasn’t what we expected. We started using Slack. That was in early 2014, I think it was? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within a year and a half we ended up going remote. I think that was one of the enabling tools.
We got used to it in the office, but it enabled remote work.
TODD: To talk about chat apps or chat services is important, but on a more general standpoint, I would say how you approach it is actually try ‘em and do it. A lot of companies seem to just use whatever is available and not look for optimum solutions. If trying three or four different chat systems is too onerous for you, that’s probably the wrong attitude, in my opinion.
KEN: You think, “don’t settle”. Don’t assume that the first thing that you try is the only thing, and then conclude that remote isn’t gonna work because the tool that you tried sucks.
JAMON: We tried a lot of tools at ClearSight, before the merger. We tried … I can’t even name them all, to be honest. Part of it is because I like … I’m a gadget guy, I like to try new things and see how it goes. There was actually a lot of skepticism around Slack because they’re just yet another tool that they had to log into and pay attention to. “We already had the email, so do we really need this.” It was kinda funny, when I went back and looked at our inner-company email, just tracked … I think I used the “email@example.com” or something email address to track how often we were using it for company communications. It just dropped off a cliff after Slack.
The amount of email, the volume of email that was flying around went way, way, way down. In fact, I remember we used to send GIFs in the email threads, and stuff. There were elements of the culture that we have today in Slack going on in email threads. Slack was just so much more well-suited to that. That actually came about very organically. We had tried a bunch of different things. We tried Slack, and it just picked up steam, picked up steam, picked up steam.
TODD: I don’t … I’m not even exaggerating, I don’t believe I’ve ever sent an email to anyone at Infinite Red internally. I don’t think so.
KEN: Unless it’s a forward from someone external.
TODD: Correct. I think there’s people on our team who probably don’t check their email very often because they don’t have a lot of —
KEN: Yeah, if you don’t do sales or any kind of external outreach —
TODD: Yeah. That was a sticking point a few times, when people were sending out the emails, and we had to … They were wondering why people weren’t responding, it’s because the variety of people never check their email.
JAMON: It is funny, because email does still, it is still a tool that we use for remote communication with outside clients, especially people first coming to us. But as soon as we can, we get them onto Slack because we’ve found that that level of communication is the least friction, it’s very seamless. Slack is definitely featuring very centrally in our remote-tool story, for sure.
TODD: Rather than just … I’m sure a lot of people out there use Slack. If you don’t, give it a try. But rather than just gushing on Slack, I do wanna say that the important part here is we did go through a lot of different chat services. You have to give ‘em some time. At first, for example … We do love Slack, but at first it didn’t seem that different. There wasn’t a bullet list that’s like, “Oh, this has feature X”, it was a bunch of little, subtle things that made it work especially well for us.
KEN: Part of the meta-point there, is you have to treat your tools really seriously. Right? Google and Amazon and all these big companies, any well-funded start-up, whatever, they’re gonna lavish a lot of attention on making an office that works for them. Right?
TODD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KEN: They’re gonna create an office environment very thoughtfully. I’ve been to a lot of these offices. A lot of them are very thoughtfully considered. Right? They’re designed to create a certain atmosphere. For example, I was at the Square offices once. Huge, cavernous room designed to create a sense of energy. That’s the open-office mantra, that sense of energy. They had these little cubicle … nicely designed cubicle things where you could go if you wanted quiet. Clearly, noise was the default.
That architecture creates a culture. At least it reinforces a culture. As a remote company, your tools are your architecture. You either need to buy them from people who design them in a way that works for you, and Slack seems to work for a lot of people, or you build things that work for you, or you create norms about how they’re used that do the same thing.
We’ve done some things on Slack, we’ve done some things on Zoom, to create that sense of being together.
TODD: I would like to add emphasis to what Ken just said.
Imagine a time that someone puts into an office: architecture, the layout, the furniture. Rearranging it multiple times, placing stuff. Now think about the time that companies you’ve worked for put into remote tools. Anyone out there with their hands up saying they spent about 30 minutes on their remote tools —
TODD: Yeah. It’s not surprising that one is superior to other in those organizations. I would pile on, like Ken said, and take the same amount of effort and consideration of your tools as a remote company as you did with everything else in the physical space if you’re a commuter company.
CHRIS: I’m interested, too, because as you’re talking, you’re talking about the difference between physical architecture and the architecture of your tools that allow you to do remote work, and if everyone’s using Slack, and it looks and functions the same way, what brings the sense of uniqueness to a company that’s using the same tools?
TODD: Me. Just me being around makes everything unique, wonderful, and amazing.
To answer the real question, you have to take Slack … One of the great things about Slack, ‘cause it’s highly customizable, you can add plug-ins, you can add all sorts of integrations. We’re gonna talk about other tools than Slack. They literally just pay us a crapload of money just to talk about this.
JAMON: I wish.
KEN: I wish.
TODD: You don’t take the vanilla. The point of a tool like that is you take it and you make it your own.
JAMON: I did see someone tweeting about switching remote companies. They quit one company and they got hired by another. They did mention, actually, how similar it was. You go into the same place; you sit down at the same chair; you have the same computer in front of you; you log in to a different Slack, and you start working. Right? There is some level of consistency there. In a way, that’s a very good thing. You can be comfortable very, very, very soon.
There are plenty of things to learn about a new company without having to also learn new office layout, new office norms, policies about who can put their lunch in the fridge and who can’t. I don’t know what else. It’s been so long since I’ve been in an office, I don’t even know.
I think there is some level of normalcy there because people do use similar tools.
Like Todd said, you can customize Slack to work the way that your company needs to, and you can customize other tools as well. Since we’re programmers, since our team has a lot of programming capability on it, we do actually build a lot of glue code in the scripts and things that will help tie all the tools together.
KEN: In most organizations that have adopted chat tools, whether it’s Slack or something else, they are usually billed as an internal supplement replacement for email. It is great at that, don’t get me wrong, but I think something that gets lost in the way people talk about in the way we communicate now is that … Let me tell a little story.
I used to be a big fan of Roger Ebert. Rest in peace. Brilliant writer, right? Super enthusiastic. He was very critical of the way people write online. Very critical of things like emojis and emoticons. I think, while I respect him a lot, I think he completely missed the point on that.
The point of that is, although, yes, we type to communicate online, it’s not really writing. Not in the way our English teachers taught us. Right? It’s typed speech, really. Right? It’s a register of communication that’s closer to the way that we talk than it is to the way that we would write if we’re writing an essay or a blog post.
One of the things that I really like about, Slack for example, is the rich way that you can communicate without it looking junky. It doesn’t look like something awful or 4chan or some of the other really junky-looking message boards that have that level of expressiveness. It gives you the level of expressiveness so that you can substitute for the lack of facial expressions and body-language, but it’s not writing. You don’t write … you don’t type into Slack the same way you do. It’s much closer to the way that you talk.
For a remote organization, where we’re not on Zoom all the time, although we are a lot, it’s super important that you have that level of human expressiveness in your medium, in the medium that you’re using to replace spoken word.
TODD: Three comments. One: Zoom is the video conferencing tool we use, and we’ll talk about that in a second. Two: I don’t spend much time on 4chan, Ken, so I’ll take your word on that one. (laughter) Three: just to give an example, talking about customization and you might be asking yourself, “Okay, Todd, I’ve used Slack. I’ve used chat. What’re you talking about?” Just give you a few flavors.
The simplest is creating your own channels that have some sort of cultural significance to your organization. One of ours is called “Rollcall”, where we … It’s the digital equivalency of walking in and out of the office. “I’m here this morning.” “I’m gonna go get my car worked on.” “I’m back.” It’s not just status, it’s also … not just whether you’re working or not, but it’s a way to communicate basic, little life things in a short way.
We have another one called “Kudos”, where we give kudos to people. Which, at first, I thought, probably, wouldn’t take off, but it actually did. It’s where you give kudos to people for things that they did well, and I’m really shocked how many people give kudos and how many people respond.
That’s obviously just using the base tool and choosing what content to put on there, and how to organize. There’s other things, too. Obviously there’s things like code-repository integration, a code bug-reporting integration. We integrate with other companies’ Slacks. They have a Slack channel, we have a Slack channel, and they connect so that we can do that with our clients.
All the way to we have a custom Bot we wrote for Slack. Her name is Ava. She does a variety of internal processes for us. She’s kind of … In the old days, you’d have a database and you’d have a Windows app written to connect your database for your company, you’d do things in there. We have a lot of internet SaaS-tools. And then we have Ava that integrates a lot of them together.
JAMON: Todd, can you give an example of something that Ava does for us?
TODD: Yes. There’s some basic things that a chatbot might do. For instance, you might wanna ask her where Jamon is, and she’ll tell you the information she knows about Jamon. It’s a lot of operational stuff. For instance, our Project Manager, Jed, has to produce weekly reports for clients. Ava produces those for him. Stuff like that.
Stuff that you would normally do, like I said, in the old days, in a desktop app personally.
JAMON: Todd came up with Ava quite a while ago, actually. It was sort of a toy to start with, just playing around with it. He had some ideas where it might go, but over time we’ve actually invested more and more resources into this internal chatbot and it’s proven to be quite valuable. It’s saved a lot of time, reduced the amount of overhead that we have to have tracking things because it’s able to do a lot of process things.
KEN: So far, she has not escaped and murdered us. (laughter)
TODD: Not so far. I’m working on that.
JAMON: That’s a win.
TODD: There’s some tiny things. She’s just a way for us, if we need to program something that we have a sticking point like, here’s a very simple thing that took me five minutes to ruin. We do a lot of things on Mondays, and constantly wanna know what last Monday was, or Monday three weeks ago. You can literally just say, “Ava, what was Monday two weeks ago,” and she’ll tell you. That’s a very tiny thing.
Generating project PDFs or generating project reports is a bigger thing, obviously.
JAMON: Another tool we use to communicate, non-verbally in Slack, is “Reactions”. Someone’ll post something and we react to it. I think this is pretty common in Slack teams and this is something that Slack did a good job of coming up with a cool idea. Usually you think of up-voting and down-voting, but when you have the whole range of emojis, including custom ones and animated ones and things like that, it can be a very cool thing.
One interesting example of this: we have an integration with … Ken, what’s the service we use for Chain React tickets?
JAMON: Zavier. Zapier, yeah, and it connects with Eventbrite, and that basically will post any time someone buys a ticket to Chain React, which is our React Native conference, of course, happening in Portland in July. You should buy a ticket. (laughter) We get a notification, and it pops in there, says who’s coming. When we’re getting down there … We were getting down to the last few advanced workshops that were available, someone started putting a number emoji underneath it. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, like that. You can see then, at a glance, how many were left. It was very cool how we were all collaborating on that.
When someone would buy the advanced workshop, Kevin VanGelder, who’s our resident Windows guy, he would put a little Windows emoji on there because that’s part of the advanced workshop. It was just a cool way to communicate and collaborate without even using words.
TODD: I think the important part of using reactions or emojis or Slack Responses … Reactions, if you’re not familiar, Slack is … It’s simply, someone posts a message, and instead of responding to it, you can post a little image on it, like heart, or a thumbs up, or a vote-up, or whatever. Slack Response is an automatic system that, when you say X, it outputs Y into it. One Slack Response that Jamon hates is that when you say “I’m not a big fan”, it posts this picture of this really, really small fan. It’s hilarious. I love it. (laughter)
JAMON: Really hilarious.
TODD: Every time someone put … We had some that we had to remove, ‘cause they just came up too much. Every time you’d say “founders” it would show the Three Stooges, which is “Accurate”, but…
KEN: It was “founders’ meeting”.
TODD: Oh, whatever.
KEN: But still, yeah.
TODD: It was accurate but a little too much noise. The point is, it’s very important. We’ve probably added a huge number of Slack Responses, a huge number of our own emojis, and the emojis you can use for Responses. A lot of them have become very cultural. Just to give you a few examples: my cat, Calle, that’s short for Calle Berry, I took a picture of her paw. And, of course, cats, if you just do the front part of their paw, it looks like they have four fingers instead of five because their fifth one’s back further. We came with this emoji and this thing where, if someone does a really great job, they get a “high-four”, instead of high-five, and that’s Calle’s Response.
JAMON: I didn’t actually know that was Calle’s paw.
TODD: Oh, yeah, that’s Calle’s paw.
JAMON: That’s cool.
TODD: So that’s a cultural thing that I created one day, and it just kinda stuck. It became a “high-four”; it is an Infinite Red thing, you get a “high-four”. We have other things like that, too, that are very specific to our culture, where you have to explain to people who come in what that means.
I would definitely customize it, make it fun. We don’t worry too much if clients see it. We’re not doing anything inappropriate. At first, there was discussion, “Is it professional if they accidentally trigger one of the Slack Responses?” “No, but does that really matter?” “No,” in my opinion.
KEN: It depends on the Response. (laughter)
TODD: Of course.
KEN: There were some that were a little over the line and that, without context, could be a little startling. We removed those.
TODD: Yeah, that’s true.
KEN: But for the most part, yeah, just something that’s quirky. Hopefully, we all have clients that, at least the people who are in the Slack room are able to appreciate that.
TODD: Another one that’s totally part of our culture is, there was this early picture of me looking into the camera with a stern face. That became the “shame” emoji. That’s been used ever since. Every time someone wants to throw shame upon someone, my face is there. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
JAMON: There’s another one that’s quite disturbing, of you, Todd.
TODD: Oh! When you say yes “yis”, Y, I, S, yes that is disturbing.
JAMON: “Yis dream.”
TODD: You have to work here to …
KEN: You had to be there.
KEN: Some of the things that came from my experience at Yammer, where a lot of the company was run internally on Yammer, there’s a couple of really big advantages to that. Especially, at an all-remote company, where the vast majority of conversations happen there. One is that there’s very much less pressure to include people in meetings just because, just in case they might have something to say about it. Because if you’ve having a conversation in Slack, you just pull ‘em in. Right? After the fact, and they can catch up.
But the other was, there was an ethos at Yammer that was, there was this pat question which was, “Why is this private?” “Why did you make this group private?” “Why is this in a private chat?” Making closed conversations justify themselves, rather than being the default. Particularly when we invite other people into Slack, I notice there’s a little period of training, where people will instinctively start DMing, ‘cause it’s like “Well, I need to ask Ken this question.”
Say we brought our bookkeeper in, right? They would ask me ‘cause I was the contact. I’m like, “Ask this question in Finance.” Right? “Ask this question in the Finance channel.” Which happens to be one of the private ones, for a variety of fairly obvious reasons. By asking in the channel, then the other people who might be interested can just observe.
That’s one of the ways that you compensate for the lack of that serendipitous, overheard conversation that people are so fond of in a office.
CHRIS: In Episode Two, we talked about the philosophy of remote work. Todd, you actually made a comment that was really interesting to me. You said, “When the leadership uses the remote tools, they immediately get better.” Why do you think that’s the case?
TODD: Human nature. I’ll answer your question with a little story. I worked for company … This is circa 1999. I don’t know. I didn’t work for ‘em; they were a client of ours. For many, many years they were very much a Microsoft shop. They had no interest in testing anything on other platforms like Mac or whatever. We worked for them for nine years, something like that. So this is all through the 2000s.
It was frustrating for people who wanted to produce websites that were universal. If someone opened ‘em on a Mac, it would actually look good and not look horrible. One day, one of the VPs who was above the software group bought an iPad. I think, about a year later, he bought a MacBook. Once he had that iPad, all of a sudden, it’d become very important that things look good on his iPad, which is funny and horrible at the same time.
It is just human nature. If you use something, it’s much more front of mind than if you don’t. Even the best of people suffer this. If you have a mixed company, meaning you’re part remote, part commuter, one of those groups is gonna be a second-class citizen. Period. If 10 people are in a meeting, and eight are remote and two are in the office, the two in the office are gonna be the second-class citizens. More often, it’s the vice versa, right?
Getting everyone on the same page gets rid of second-class citizens. If you wanna make the best remote environment, either getting the majority or getting the people who have more power in the remote situation will increase your tools’ quality big time.
JAMON: That’s for sure. We’ve seen that internally at Infinite Red, as well. When we use the tools, which we do, leadership team is probably the heaviest user of the remote tools in a lot of ways. There are situations where they’re just not good enough, and we make sure that they get changed, for sure.
Zoom is a good … Zoom, the video chat, video call system, is really an interesting one because it has worked the best for us in terms of video calls. We’ve used a whole bunch of them. We’ve used everything from Google Hangouts, Skype, Appear.in, which is pretty decent. Pretty frictionless, actually. I like Appear.in for how fast it is to jump into it, but the quality is still a little bit sub-optimal. A few others as well.
The nice thing about Zoom is that it allows you to put everybody into a grid pattern. It has a gallery view, which is really cool because then you feel like you’re having a meeting and not doing a presentation. That’s something that came out of us doing sales calls and internal meetings where we kinda felt like, “I don’t wanna be the person on the big screen,” right? Feel like your giving a presentation. “I wanna feel like this is a meeting with everybody in an equal place.” It makes people feel more comfortable.
That was a situation where we were using the tools for various things and found the one that, I think, has worked the best ‘cause, as a leadership team, we needed it.
TODD: Yes, as far as video chat or video calls … We actually need a name for that. What do you say if … It’s not really video chatting.
JAMON: Video conferencing?
TODD: I don’t like …
KEN: It’s not exactly “conferencing”.
TODD: I don’t like the term.
JAMON: Video meeting?
KEN: Video meeting.
TODD: Yeah, there needs to be a term for that. We need to coin a term for that, at least internally.
TODD: Zooming. Well that’s … That’s not tool-specific.
KEN: Slack as a tool is much stickier, in the long term, probably, than Zoom is. At the moment, Zoom is, by far, in our experience, the best quality.
JAMON: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KEN: But that could change.
Slack … there’s a lot we’ve invested in customizing and it would be harder, but … Although, we have invested some in Zoom, which we can talk about a bit.
TODD: I would say Zoom is our favorite for our situation. One of our clients is BlueJeans.net, which is not really a competitor, but they do video conferencing. BlueJeans is really great for many things. One thing is they do every platform well.
KEN: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yep.
TODD: Which, Zoom, and a lot of the other ones don’t necessarily do. Now, we’re all mostly on Macs, and it works really well on that, so that works out well. Also, BlueJeans.net has a lot of additional features. Where we basically just need video conferencing; Zoom is so superior. Google Hangouts is horrible. Please, please stop using Google Hangouts.
KEN: Don’t use Skype. Don’t use Google Hangouts.
TODD: Well, Skype —
KEN: Skype has gotten better, but —
TODD: Skype’s quality is great, but it does a max of six people. We have 26 people.
KEN: I disagree that they’re quality is great.
TODD: I was being ni —
KEN: Even domestically, I’ve had problems with it. (laughter)
JAMON: We have Microsoft people listening.
TODD: I was being nice, Ken.
JAMON: It crashes a lot on Mac.
KEN: The point is, here, you should demand rock-solid video 99% of the time.
KEN: If that’s not what you’re getting, look at another tool.
JAMON: This extends to the internet bandwidth that you have available at your place of work, too. Some people that were really scraping by on 20Mb or something connections, and it was impacting video quality, and —
TODD: On what tool?
KEN: No, their connection.
JAMON: Their internet connection, yeah. That was something that we, overtime, got everybody to upgrade to faster and faster internet. I think that was a success for, pretty much, everybody. They have pretty acceptable internet, now, at this point.
TODD: Some aren’t as much. We have a person who’s a nomad and travels around. We have someone who’s in extremely rural Canada, up above Toronto, Tor-on-toe, I’m told is the proper way to say that. Zoom does very well in bandwidth, so the people that do have limited bandwidth, that works very well. We actually have meetings, 26 people in Zoom, which before would have been crazy. Skype limits you to six, which I’m not sure how useful that is for most meetings, but good for you, Skype.
KEN: The only thing it’s not so great on is battery-life, if you’re using a mobile device.
JAMON: It sort of trades CPU time for bandwidth.
KEN: It does, yeah.
JAMON: One of the things that Zoom doesn’t do, that we’ve sort of built a system on top of, is permanent conference rooms. We’ve found this to be very useful to say, “Hey, let’s jump into this ‘conference room A’, or ‘conference room B’.” We have better names for it. We name them after rooms in the boardgame Clue.
TODD: Trademark Milton Bradley. (laughter)
JAMON: There’s a billiard room, there’s a conservatory, there’s a study, kitchen, et cetera. We have different uses for those different rooms. Some are for sales calls; some are for … One is called Kitchen, which we use for the kitchen table, it’s basically where people just jump in there, and work together in relative quiet. It’s a cool little concept.
We actually built an online, like a website, as well as a desktop app that shows a Clue board with the different rooms that light up when people are in them, and then it puts avatars of who’s in that room, including guests, which is very cool because I can go in there and say, “Hey, look! Chris and Todd are having a meeting over there. I’m gonna jump in and see what’s going on.” I can just click in there, and it opens a Zoom window, and I’m in their meeting.
TODD: For example, currently, Chris, Jamon, Ken and I are in Study. We have Kevin and Ryan in Library, and we have Jed in the Billiard Room by himself. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe playing a little pool.
KEN: This goes back to the notion of tools as architecture. Consider the experience of being in an office, and you want a meeting. You say, “Hey, let’s meet in Fisherman’s Wharf.” I was in an office where they named things after San Francisco neighborhoods. “Let’s meet in Fisherman’s Wharf.” Everybody, after they’ve been oriented into the office, knows where that is and they just go. That’s it, right? That’s the experience, right?
Furthermore, if you wanna know where somebody is, you walk around the building, look into the rooms, and see that so-and-so is in Fisherman’s Wharf, so they’re in a meeting, they’re busy. Now let’s look at what it’s like to be remote, without a tool like this. “Where’s the meeting? Okay, I gotta ask somebody. Oh, okay. Oh, did someone start the meeting? Oh, no, no, okay, somebody needs to start the meeting. Alright, gimme a second, I’m gonna start the meeting. Here’s the Zoom URL.”
TODD: Oh, God!
KEN: “Okay, you gotta invite somebody.” “Do you remember the Zoom URL?” “I don’t remember the Zoom URL.” “Okay, hang on. Okay, I got it. Here you go.” That’s the UX, right now.
KEN: Of the base …
TODD: Oh, jeez.
KEN: … video conferencing tool, and it’s no wonder people hate that!
TODD: Can you imagine?
KEN: Yeah. It turns out … We’ve had to increase the number of rooms over the years, right? But how many do we have now? Eight?
KEN: So we have eight rooms now?
TODD: Eight current rooms.
KEN: That’s pretty much fine.
TODD: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For a team our size, that works well.
JAMON: We usually don’t fill all of … I think, yesterday, I looked in there and there were six in use, which was kind of a anomaly, but …
KEN: In an office, we can keep adding those as long as we need to.
JAMON: That’s right.
KEN: This is a case where I think we’ve created something that is actually better than what people who have an office have.
KEN: Right? Because you can, just at a glance, see where people are. Nobody has to even tell you what room they’re in. They just say, “Hey, we’re meeting.” You go look at the Clue board, and you see where the people that you’re meeting with are, and you join the room.
KEN: It’s just one more little piece of constant friction that we’ve eliminated. I love it. I think it’s a fantastic tool.
TODD: Yeah, I keep the Clue desktop app open all day long while I’m at work. It’s also cool to see the little avatars and stuff. Makes me feel like I’m at work.
When we first started, you did have to push … This is a very common interaction. “Hey, Todd, I need your help with X.” And I’m like, “Let’s have a meeting” or “Let’s jump in Zoom” or whatever. “Which one?” “I’m already there. I joined a room as soon as you said it.” “Which one?” “Open Clue. (laughter) Look for my name. Click on it.”
TODD: That only took a few weeks, to be honest, of constantly just needling that to the point where, when someone says, “Hey, I wanna jump in a room,” they look and they see where you jumped in.
KEN: That brings back the importance of having the leadership on the tool.
JAMON: That’s right.
This tool actually came out of a side-project. I think Gant and AJ, two of our engineers, came up with the idea and built a prototype, and put it out there. It was … I remember being, initially, a little bit skeptical that it’d be useful and it’s turned out to be a really key part of our remote experience.
TODD: That’s actually an important point. No one asked anyone to make that tool. No one asked for permission to make that tool. They made it. They turned it on. Now, we’ve had tools that people’ve made. For instance, my tool Ava, which, now, is very useful, originally was Dolores, which is from HBO’s great TV show, “Westworld”. Dolores never caught on. She didn’t do enough important stuff, and so she just kinda died.
Later I resurrected her as Ava, which is from the movie “Ex Machina”. Excellent movie, by the way.
KEN: It’s still kind of a disturbing allusion, though.
TODD: It is, but it’s … It’s a great movie. And then the next movie he did, which was “Annihilation”, was fantastic as well. Anyways, not important, obviously.
The point is, no one needs to ask for permission. They can make tools. They do. They put ‘em out there, and they live or die based on whether or not they’re actually used. We do sunset things that just never really took off.
CHRIS: You’re mentioning a lot of tools that enable remote work, that enable productive work. What are some tools that you’re thinking about or are in place that help with focus and eliminating distractions? ‘Cause sometimes, people new to these environments can look at these tools going, “Man there’s so many distractions. How do I work?”
JAMON: I actually think that’s one of the biggest benefits of working remotely, which is kind of counter-intuitive. You think, “Oh, there’s so many distractions when you’re working remotely.” Actually, you can turn off Slack. You can turn your screen to “do not disturb”. You can shut off Zoom. You can turn off you’re email. You can close all of those applications and just have the app that you’re doing the work in, you’re writing a blog post, you’re writing code, you can just have that open. You can turn on a “do not disturb” mode in Slack that’ll actually tell people that you’re currently away.
If you use the tools that are available, remote work can actually be much better, because what happens in an office? Someone can’t get a hold of you on email or Slack, so what do they do? They hop up and they walk over to your office, and they’re like, “Hey, did you get my email?” (laughter) “Okay, I will check my email, eventually, here. Is this really important?”
One of the things that we do is … This is kind of funny, but we’ll actually say “I’m going offline for three hours, ‘cause I’m gonna focus on this thing. If it’s really important, text me.” Our phone numbers are there, right? Nobody’s gonna text you, ‘cause that just feels like a complete intrusion. Right?
KEN: It does happen. Like, if it’s a genuine emergency.
JAMON: It does happen if it’s like an emergency. But that is so rare. That is awesome, because you’re adding a ton of friction, but you’re still giving them some way to get to you. I think that’s a good property of remote work, that you can actually focus more in those situations than you can in an office.
TODD: Yeah, try to turn off all the noise in an open-concept office. Good luck!
KEN: Yeah, an office is distracting by default. You have to use technology to get some focus. I can’t think of any tool that we use just for focus. Right? It’s about human habits around how they use the tools that are already there.
TODD: I think there are some, Ken. I don’t personally use them.
KEN: Yeah, yeah. I mean there are things, but there’s nothing we use as a company.
TODD: No, but there are people here that use, for one thing, they’ll use the various timer apps that tell them to stand up, or if they set a timer for focus —
KEN: I’ve used the Pomodoro timer.
TODD: Yeah, there are things. What’s cool about remote work as opposed to depressing cubicle work (laughter), is you can set up the environment —
KEN: Soul-crushing commute work. (laughter)
TODD: Soul-crushing commute work, SCCW, I like it. In those situations, you have to go to the lowest common denominator. If 50% of the people are very productive and get focused with music, and 50 can’t at all, you’re gonna have no music. When you’re sitting in your own environment, whatever that environment is, whether it’s your home, or a café, or co-working space, or whatever it is that you’ve chosen to be most efficient in, when you’re sitting in that environment, you can control and make it perfect for you to be able to focus.
Personally, if I’m doing design work or visual work, I play music. It gets me in the groove. If I’m programming, I cannot have any music. Or if I do have music, it can’t have any lyrics in it. That’s a focus thing. I tend to like to work more in the dark, strangely. I love light and I live in a very sunny place, and a very sunny house, but I have noticed that I tend to get more in the zone in dark and often late at night, for me personally.
CHRIS: I’m the same way, Todd. I have to fake my brain into thinking it’s late at night by closing all the blinds and turning the lights off. And it actually helps productivity.
TODD: Yeah, that’s interesting. I used to have this problem at every company I worked at. Even, say, I shared a room with four other people. One office, and four. I would wanna have all the lights off and have a desk lamp so I could see. No one liked this. Having the fluorescent lights on … I didn’t take cyanide, but I do believe I shopped online for cyanide, just saying. (laughter)
KEN: So this is in your browser history, now, forever, man. (laughter) There’s a FBI file on you.
TODD: Oh, there’s been a FBI file. Come on. If you don’t have a FBI file on you, what are you doing with your life? (laughter)
JAMON: At the old ClearSight office, we had some fluorescent lights, and one by one they would burn out. Nobody would tell the maintenance guy because they just liked that they were burning out. (laughter) Eventually it got quite dark in there and everybody, they just wouldn’t even turn on the light.
TODD: I would like to make a confession. I have purposely broke some lights in offices.
KEN: “True Confessions with Todd Werth.” (laughter)
TODD: You don’t want true ones. No, that actually —
CHRIS: That’s Season Two of the podcast. (laughter)
TODD: That actually is very true. Sometimes you just have to …
KEN: Civil disobedience?
TODD: Yes, I like the way you phrased that. Makes things more noble and less selfish. (laughter)
KEN: Yeah, right. Guerilla productivity.
JAMON: We have some other tools to talk about, too, right?
TODD: Oh, yeah, we have other tools to talk about.
JAMON: Should we talk about some of them, or …
KEN: But enough about Todd. (laughter)
TODD: I’ll be here all week. Do not eat the veal.
JAMON: One of the tools that has been really helpful for us is Google Sheets. Obviously, that’s the spreadsheet program in Google Apps. We … We’re having trouble … Again, this is pre-merger. We’re having trouble figuring out how to schedule people. It was just a real pain. Eventually, my Project Manager at the time, came up with a system that involved sticky notes on a board that were, across the top were weeks, and down the left side were the names of people. We could just put sticky notes. My wife went out and bought a whole bunch of different colored sticky notes. We’d put the same project as the same color across the board.
You could, at a glance, see who was working on the same project. You could see how long it was going to be, as far as number of weeks, and every week we’d move ‘em over to the left and add another column. That eventually migrated onto Google Sheets, ‘cause, of course, that doesn’t work so well when you’re remote. The collaboration tools on Google Sheets are extremely good. It’s very, very responsive to having multiple people on it.
When we do our Friday scheduling meeting for the next week, and beyond, we’ll all pull open the sheet, and we look at it, and we can all update it … If we see something that’s wrong, we can update it. We can change colors of the backgrounds. It’s worked really well for, now, two and a half years. I think that’s a remote tool that has actually been quite useful for us for quite some time.
Not only does it give us forward-looking data, but it also gives us backward-looking. We can look at previous years and see what projects were we working on at the time, who was working on what, all the way throughout. It’s been a very cool tool. We’re just repurposing Google Sheets to use as a scheduling tool.
TODD: Another tool we used to use … Jeez, I can’t remember what it’s called. What was the [inaudible 00:43:17] tool we used to use?
TODD: Screenhero, yes, of course. I remember when Screenhero was … It was eventually bought by Slack and is being integrated into Slack. We used to use that a lot, but truthfully, the tools in Zoom for screensharing stuff became superior and so I think almost everyone pairs with each other Zooming.
TODD: Another tool we use is RealtimeBoard, which is a sticky board analogist tool; the designers —
KEN: Designers love it.
TODD: The designers used it a lot, but we also use it in leadership and the developers, I think, are starting to look into it. It’s great for brainstorming. It’s a real-time tool, kinda like Google Docs or Google Sheets, where everyone can use it at the same time, and you see everyone using it. That’s been really great.
The designers use the heck out of InVision, which is a wonderful tool for showing designs, getting notes, and collaborating with clients, collaborating with the rest of the team, and that kind of stuff.
Another tool we use for project management a lot is Trello. If you’re not familiar, with it, it’s a great project management tool. It’s a Kanban board, if you’re familiar with those. Not only do we use Trello, we also integrated … Ava connects to Trello, produces reports from … Ava connects to Airtable, which is another interesting mix between a database and a spreadsheet. We use Airtable and Trello. Those are some other tools we use.
KEN: Something to mention, also, is that between Slack and Zoom we have some redundancy, because Zoom has rudimentary chat and Slack has video conferencing. It’s not as good as Zoom’s, but it’s there, and we already have it. For example, when Slack is down, we have Zoom channels that we can all do basic communication in.
That provides a certain amount of resiliency for the work environment, and that’s very helpful.
TODD: Yeah, it does go down every so often. It’s funny because our company comes to a screeching halt when Slack goes down.
KEN: Yeah, and that’s a valid criticism, I think, of remote working.
We do have the redundancy so that people can at least, basically, keep going.
TODD: We all know now, if Slack’s down … It was, actually yesterday, coincidentally.
TODD: If Slack is down, we go into Zoom chat. That took a while to get people … It’s funny ‘cause we don’t use email and stuff, and we use that so much. We could jump into a meeting. We’ve done that in the past, before we had this redundancy we would just jump into a meeting room and kinda like, “Hey, what do we do?” It was like the lights went out and everyone was confused at what to do.
It’s actually kind of amusing if you think about that. A bunch of virtual people wandering around in the dark wondering what to do.
JAMON: We have a lot of redundancy of internet connection. Someone might be having internet issues, but not everybody is having internet issues. That’s a pretty big deal. I remember the office internet would stop working and, even though we were all in the same place, yes we could collaborate, no we couldn’t work ‘cause we couldn’t access —
KEN: Couldn’t get to GitHub, can’t get to…
JAMON: … Dropbox, whatever. Which, we do use GitHub, we use Dropbox. There’s a little tool that I use that, I would say, about a third of the company also uses. We’re on video calls a lot. When you’re on a video call, sometimes it’s nice to have a cough button: you hit a button and it mutes you for just a second, so you can cough or whatever. This one’s called Shush. It’s a Mac app. You can buy it for three bucks or something. It turns your function key into a mute button, so you just hit that button and it will mute you for a short amount of time. Or you can double-tap it and it turns into a push to talk button, which is nice when you’re in a big group.
TODD: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I don’t use Shush, because I use a hardware version of that. I have quite a lot of audio equipment and video stuff. Pretty sure, in the remote podcast, we talked about the importance of having good equipment and spending a little money on good equipment. You cheap managers out there, stop doing that; you’re horrible people. (laughter)
JAMON: Also the background of your video call is really important. That was actually something Todd really emphasized when we first started. I will point out that he has the messiest background of all of us, right now.
TODD: Well, to be clear, I have two cameras. One is a wide angle which I use for the team so I can move around and stuff; and I have a tighter angle I use for clients, in which case, what’s behind me is very specifically chosen to be a background, and I keep that incredibly clean.
JAMON: I just say that to tweak Todd, because he’s the biggest champion of having a good background.
TODD: Yes. Jamon’s horizon, right now, is extremely tilted, and it’s been driving me crazy the whole time, but I’ll get over it. (laughter)
KEN: I know. I can’t unsee that.
TODD: In my 46 years on this planet, I’ve learned not to mention that, even though I really, really want him to straighten his camera.
KEN: It doesn’t help, Jamon, you’ve still got a vertical line that is —
TODD: I’ll tell you a funny story about backgrounds. Poor Ken. Ken had this very nice … I don’t know what it was. What was it, Ken?
KEN: It’s a bookcase, right, (laughter) but it’s IKEA furniture, so it looks —
TODD: It’s IKEA?
KEN: It looks like a dresser. Yeah.
TODD: This whole time it was IKEA? We thought it was important. We felt bad for making fun of it. ‘Cause it looks like a dresser. It was right behind him, and it looked like Ken was sitting in bed (laughter) with his dresser behind him.
KEN: Yes, reinforcing every stereotype about remote workers. (laughter)
TODD: Right. We kept on bugging him, and he said, “It’s a really nice bookcase.” I didn’t realize it was IKEA.
KEN: I didn’t say it was a really nice bookcase. I said it was a bookcase. (laughter)
TODD: It looked like a dresser.
JAMON: It really did, in fact.
KEN: That’s because it’s IKEA furniture, so it’s looks like that.
TODD: I guess the point is, how things appear is more important than what they actually are. This is something a lot of people aren’t familiar with. We have different people with different levels of quality of what they produce as far as visually or audio. I think the general takeaway is take some time. You are almost doing a mini-television broadcast, and you wanna be … I wouldn’t say the word “professional”, because it’s not stuffy, it’s fine if you’re wearing your tie-dye and your shorts, but you should make it a pleasant experience for the viewers.
KEN: Yeah. You should look inviting, and it should look intentional.
TODD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KEN: And kept.
JAMON: We have some other tips for remote video meetings that, I think, are on a blog post that we created. Was that you, Ken, that wrote that post?
KEN: Yeah. We could do a whole podcast, frankly, on how to have a good video meeting.
JAMON: We can link to that in the show notes.
KEN: We can link to that for now.
TODD: That is a podcast I wanna do. I do wanna point out to the audience who can’t see us now, we’re recording this for your listening pleasure, and I put pleasure in quotation marks ‘cause I don’t wanna oversell it. But, we are actually on Zoom, so we can see each other. Jamon, thankfully moved his camera so we can’t see the horizon any more, which is crooked, but right over his left shoulder is a door-line that’s incredibly crooked. I appreciate the effort, Jamon, but come on. Have some dignity.
JAMON: I will point out that I’m moving out of this rental in a week because I had a house fire, Todd. (laughter)
TODD: Oh, jeez. You can’t pull a house fire out every time there’s a criticism.
KEN: The only thing in my background is my Harvard diploma (laughter) because it’s all that anyone cares about.
JAMON: Yes, exactly. Over my shoulder, I’m thinking about putting my not-Harvard diploma.
JAMON: It’ll just say, “Not Harvard.”
TODD: Sometimes we just invite Ken’s Harvard diploma, instead of Ken, to meetings. (laughter)
KEN: Yeah, I just put it in frame and then I walk out. (laughter) I’m like, “I’m just the janitor.”
CHRIS: I do have one final question, as we bring this episode to a close: Is there any tool that you use outside of remote work or in your daily life that you wish existed as a remote tool.
KEN: Blow torch. (laughter)
CHRIS: Elon’s got that for ya.
TODD: Not a tool, completely, but here’s something … I have ideas for tools that’d be cool in the future. We have the concept of “kitchen table”. This is a real quick story; please, bear with me. The three of us … I don’t know if Ken was, but there was multiple of us of the company who were speaking at a conference in Paris. We rented a large Airbnb apartment in Paris, and a bunch of us were staying there. It had a very large kitchen table. When we weren’t doing stuff individually, we’d all sit around the kitchen table, and we’d work together.
We would just sit there, like you would at a library in a university or something like that, and work. We wanted to recreate that in … virtually. The simple solution is we dedicated one of our Zoom rooms, the “Kitchen”, to the “kitchen table” and you can’t use that for anything else. If you just wanna be around people, but you’re working, you’re not really saying anything, as if you’re in a library … I guess we should do the library, but whatever … you’d go in the kitchen table and just be around people. Sometimes people say things and have little conversations, like you would in an office, but typically you’re just sitting there working together.
That’s cool. It’s missing a few features which I’d love to see. For one is, if you’re not … Say there was a group of people working in an open office, and they’re in the center and you’re on the perimeter of the office. You see them working together there, the “kitchen table”, now we have that, with our tool, we can see who’s in the “kitchen table” and they’re there. Great. But you can also, even if you’re far away and they’re dim enough … not dim, but the volume’s low enough that it’s not disturbing, you can still hear them, and sometimes you’ll pick up on little words that may interest you.
They’ll mention a project you’re on, or they’ll mention a personal interest that you’re interested in or whatever, and you can choose then to go walk over and join them, because of that kind of low-noise but informational thing you’re getting by being in the perimeter. I would love to somehow integrate that into our tool, where you could have a low-murmur of people in the background of the meetings that you’re not in, and listen for things that might be interesting, something like that.
KEN: I don’t really know how to think about that question.
TODD: I find it very interesting that none of us can really come up with a tool that we wish we had. That’s a fantastic answer.
KEN: I mean …
JAMON: I think there’s probably tools that, eventually, we’ll get that will be like, “How did we live without this?” But I don’t … I can’t think of one.
KEN: I can imagine in the future, basically a VR setup.
JAMON: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yes.
KEN: If VR gets to the point where it feels natural; it’s comfortable to wear the equipment, it’s not a burden just to have the stuff on your head, and the resolution is to the point where you could have a virtual monitor in space, and you can have that feeling of actually being next to people. Then you could, in theory, have the best of both worlds, where you can drop out and leave the space if you want to. You can also be in the space and be available for that.
KEN: I think that would be pretty nice, but …
JAMON: There is a tool out there that’s … I think they’re, maybe, in beta right now. It’s called Bigscreen VR, it’s by a guy that I know, Darshan Shankar, who’s on Twitter. I met him on Twitter. He’s doing this Bigscreen VR system. It’s very much what you described, Ken. Right now, it’s only on Windows, and of course the VR headsets are still evolving. But apparently the new Oculus Go or Oculus Now, or something, is apparently quite good —
KEN: Yeah, they’re getting better.
JAMON: It’s also likely, they said that within the next year, that it’ll come to Mac ‘cause they’re working on it.
KEN: I think another threshold, though, is the quote-unquote “retina” threshold, to where the resolution of the headsets is such that you can’t, in terms of resolution, anyway, you can’t tell the difference between that and something that you’re looking at.
KEN: You could actually make a projected display without any compromise.
TODD: I agree, in the future that’s gonna be wonderful. I do have some current ideas on how to add spacial stuff to our tools to give us proximity information of each other, virtually. Kind of what you would get if you were in a VR situation, but without having VR. Anyways, there’s some interesting things there.
KEN: Yeah, we’ve talked about making an ambient audio device, something like that, that can just sit there and … Kind of like “kitchen table”, but without the video. There’s a bunch of things we’ve talked about, but not of them are things that exist today. They’re just things that we’ve thought about creating or … yeah.