By: Jim Mathis, ADwërks
Often when people talk about collaboration, they’re talking about getting everybody around the conference table, or gathering at the pub to sketch out some ideas on the back of bar napkins. That’s great when your team is in the same room – or even the same town – but at ADwërks we’ve run into a few collaboration challenges.
First of all, Art Director Sara Sullivan lives in Chicago. She’s been there about three years now. A few years after Sara’s move, our online media specialist and strategist, Heather Solberg, moved a little further away – Shanghai. Yep, China.
Why did they move? Well, love makes you do crazy things, like follow your husband to Chicago or Shanghai just weeks after you get married. Why did we keep them on? Because they are both great employees who we didn’t want to lose.
Throw in our largest client (located in Minneapolis, with marketing people in Chicago and San Diego) and we’ve gotten pretty good at long-distance collaboration. Here are a few of the rules and tools we’ve used to make it work.
Respect the time difference
Chicago’s not a problem, but Shanghai is 13 or 14 hours different (depending on Daylight Savings). With that time difference, a meeting at 2:00 PM CDT would mean 3:00 AM in China. Thankfully Heather’s a night owl, so we do a lot of calls when it’s 9 or 10 AM here and 10 or 11 PM there.
Don’t forget the remote workers
You know what they say: “out of sight is out of mind.” But you need to work to include your long-distance coworkers. Whether you’re brainstorming, recognizing their work, or just Skyping them in when you’re having a beer on Friday afternoon, try to remember them, even though they are far away.
Embrace the face-to-face time
Heather gets back from China twice a year and Sara visits from Chicago every few months, so we try to make the most of those visits. During Heather’s brief stay in July, she and I flew up to Minneapolis for a face-to-face meeting with a client.
Respect their time with family
Why fly to Minneapolis? To give Heather as much time with her family as possible. Flying made it a one-day trip versus spending two days in the old BMW.
Especially with co-workers in other time zones, it’s tempting to send work to them at the end of the day, just to get it off your desk. Presto! The next morning it’s done and waiting in your in-box. But since these employees aren’t walking out the door at 5 PM, it’s often hard to know when you’re piling on too much work. Keep the communications flowing so this doesn’t happen.
Trust your employees/co-workers
Since you’re not seeing what they are doing hour-by-hour and day-by-day, you have to rely on employees and co- workers who are good at managing their own time. And you have to trust them to do it.
We’ve learned that working with long-distance employees has made us more flexible and accessible to our clients. While in Philadelphia for a conference, a client asked me to sit in on a GoToMeeting presentation with a potential vendor and the client’s IT staff. Since I’d become versed in the long-distance relationships, I was comfortable joining from my iPad.
And when one employee asked to work part time to extend her vacation in the Cayman Islands, we were able to say “yes… if you don’t rub it in by sending too many pictures from the beach.”
What once seemed like an impossible idea works fine if you’ve got the right rules and the right tools.
Essential Long-Distance Tools
Super easy video conferencing … and would you believe the connection between Sioux Falls and Shanghai is often better than Chicago? It’s not as good as face-to-face, but it’s the next best thing. For example: just this morning we were talking to Sara when a question about digital ads came up. We could see that Heather was online, so we added her to the Skype call. Instant collaboration, no different than if she was 20 feet away.
Quick, easy collaboration, with the ability to pass control and the visible screen back and forth. Worth every penny of the $49 a month.
It’s like Facebook for your co-workers. Our remote employees told us they missed the witty banter and snarky comments around the office, so we use Yammer to keep Heather in China up on Mike’s friendly jabs at Andrew. Some businesses use Yammer for important internal communications; we restrict its use to smart-ass jokes and spreading the culture.
Secure access to our file server is vital. We’ve looked at cloud options but with the terabyte of data on our server, VPN is a cheaper, more efficient option.
To accommodate the quick questions between the production manager and an art director that usually happen over a workspace wall, we use Google Chat.
Jim Mathis is owner at ADwërks.