A little hack that made our remote team not feel so remote anymore

coffee-shop-work

I’m jealous of people who work in coffee shops.

Not because I dream of pulling espresso shots and doing pour-overs (although they’re delicious. I wish I had those skills!). The thing I’m jealous of is how easy it is to just know how things are going at any given moment when working in that environment. Especially when compared to a distributed workplace like ours, with me here in Nashville, and the rest of the team spread out across Seattle, Atlanta, and Miami.

It’s too easy to wind up in a bubble when physically isolated like that, and end up completely missing things like:

  • Roger being buried with support the morning after we pushed out a new feature.
  • The mid-week rush of new signups after we were mentioned in a news article.
  • Tim being head-down in focus mode on some new stuff for the RescueTime desktop app.
  • The general “we’re all in it together” vibe that comes from seeing everyone busting ass to make things work.

Information like this just flows freely in my local coffee shop (and I’d assume in most other brick and mortar businesses). It’s obvious how long the line of customers is, that Megan is buried under a ten-latte to-go order, or that Joe is just plain wiped out after a ten-hour day. And there’s the shared satisfaction of knowing that everyone did a good day’s work together. That’s not to say that I dislike remote workplaces. I think they’re great, actually. I’m just saying that feeling connected takes more work.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of connectedness for the past few months since I moved away from our main office. It’s tricky, because there is so much about a loosely-connected team that actually works really well, and trying too hard to replicate an “everyone in the same room” feeling would be forced and likely bad for our culture. Always-on video chat? Nope. Every-day status meetings? Blech. Taking on a whole new project management system to understand what everyone else is working on? Doesn’t fit how we work at all.

A few weeks ago, we tried an experiment and so far it’s working out really well. We use HipChat as our company chat tool, and it’s great for general back and forth, asking questions to the entire team, even taking a quick break and laughing about ridiculous pictures of cats. You can also post messages to it programmatically with their API, so we created a new chatroom just for things that would hopefully make some of the basic rhythms of the workday pop out a little more. We used Zapier to plug a bunch of different applications into HipChat, then let everyone on the team get creative with it. We gave very loose guidelines ( ”Add anything you feel like telling the rest of your team about your day. It has to be automated. Excessive use of emoticons and gifs is encouraged.”) With only a few hours of experimentation, we came up with an interesting feed that required no manual input, but let us get and give some really interesting information about our days.

Some examples (with admitted over-use of HipChat’s fantastic emoticons)

New signups and upgrades (via Zapier’s Gmail integration)

wh-customer-info

Company tweets, new blog posts, code deploys, and meeting notices

wh-company-events1

My frequent coffee runs and Tim’s lunch breaks (via Foursquare)

wh-foursquare

Several of our self-defined status updates based on our RescueTime stats, where we share some details about how we’re spending our time (via the RescueTime Alerts API)

wh-rescuetime-alerts

Sometimes we use the alerts as a chance to poke fun at ourselves and share things we might not in a normal status meeting

wh-rescuetime-humblebrag

It’s done a surprisingly good job at filling in a missing piece of the remote-experience for us. I feel like I’m much more aware of everyone else on the team, how their days are going, but without requiring tedious status updates that would just slow us down. I feel more connected, and it’s really nice.

The full "What's Happenin'" feed

The full “What’s Happenin’” feed in all it’s messy chaotic glory

We intentionally kept the messages light on details. I’ve seen a lot of “Quantified Self in the Workplace” projects, and they seem like they can often turn into micro-managing minefields. I think we avoided this by making everything voluntary and giving each person on the team complete control over what messages they wanted to contribute to the feed. For example, some of the feed items came from the RescueTime API, where there is a LOT of detailed information that each team member privately has about themselves. But at a team level, we don’t need (or want, if I’m being honest here) that level of insight into people.

It would probably be idealistic to assume that something like this would be helpful or even welcome in every remote-workplace, but it’s worked out great for us, and seems to fill a gap that has led other companies to take some pretty drastic measures to deal with in the past.

I’m really interested in ways that companies are taking advantage of the data-rich environments of their remote workplaces, and using them to create more engaging, more fun, and ultimately more productive experiences for their employees. Have you seen other examples, or tried something that’s worked particularly well?


12 Comments on “A little hack that made our remote team not feel so remote anymore”

  1. dreeves says:

    Ha! We do exactly the same thing kinds of things at Beeminder (we’re also on hipchat). We even have a pomodoro script we use (well, Bethany and I use it) that announces our pomodoros when we start them and whether we finished them. Oh and we have a crazy bot that our friend Aaron Parecki wrote for us that engages in all manner of silly (and also highly useful) antics. Including mediating sealed-bid auctions for who’s going to implement a feature or whatever.

  2. ejain says:

    “Fitbit: Be warned, Robby got only 4 hours of sleep last night.”

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      haha. at some point it gets into oversharing, but yeah, sometimes it would be great to put up a big “don’t mess with Robby until you see that coffee checkin” notice.

  3. Rescuetime is an amazing application. We know how difficult it is for us to convince our clients on the number of hours we have put in on their projects. But with Rescuetime it is history. Now remote employees are a reality without much hassle…all thanks to rescuetime :)

    Gaurav Chhabra
    http://www.onsconsultants.com

  4. Hall.com is a great option for cloud-based real-time collaboration! It’s real-time chat, text, video, and file-sharing all in one. Secure, easy to use, awesome UX.

  5. Awesome, thanks for sharing. btw, caffeine is spelled incorrectly for your coffee run ;)

    • Robby Macdonell says:

      Oops! I always get that one wrong. Stupid i-before-e exceptions… :)

    • dreeves says:

      I before E except after C
      or when sounded as A, as in neighbor or weigh.
      Albeit, there’s weird words like leisure and neither
      (foreign and counterfeit don’t make sense either).
      Seismic and seisure and protein and height…
      the rule is quite useless but possibly might
      just yet be worth saving with some alteration:
      (oops: heir, their, and sovereign… decaffeination)
      so yes it’s quite simple, as I’m sure you can see:
      I before E when it wants to be!

  6. […] announce the tocks publicly (and automatically) on Hipchat to ensure against weaseliness about what’s worth counting as a […]