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Earn $$$ while working from home: keeping a close-knit team with far-flung remote workers

This is a multi-part feature highlighting the tips and tricks we use at Vox to maintain a cohesive work environment and productive teams with remote workers.

Part I - tools for togetherness

Working from home can mean many things to many people. To some, it’s the fantasy of lounging around in your pajamas, purposefully typing a few commands on your computer before taking a break to ruffle junior’s hair as he plays with his toys on the floor next to your desk / couch. If that scenario is what you think working from home is like, then I have an honest question for you: are you spying on me in my home? How do you know my daily routine?!

Actual image result from googling 'working from home'

Actual image result from googling “work from home”

Being a remote worker may seem like a glamorous job, and most times it is, but it can also be a cold and lonely position, with little to interact with beyond your keyboard and stress-managing squeeze ball. Luckily, Vox Media does a great job making us remorkers (word I just made up to mean “remote workers”) feel loved and included in all aspects of our occupation, so, for the first part in this series, I’d like to highlight a few of the tools we use to stay connected.

Campfire

37 Signal’s Campfire is the core of our online collaboration and communication. If you’re not familiar with Campfire, it’s basically a web-based, password-protected collection of chat rooms where you remorkers and non-remorkers alike can communicate, collaborate, and post gifs of taco-licking taxidermied sasquatches.

In the early days, we only needed a handful of Campfire rooms, but as Vox Media grew so did the number of chat rooms. Currently, every team has their own room, along with focused chat rooms for development, design, and editorial, and fun superfluous rooms that act like virtual water coolers where we go to talk about non-work-related stuff, post thousands upon thousands of gifs (see above), and try to one up one another with terrible puns.

“It’s valuable not only as a well of laughter and shared cultural experience, but also as a way to share files and talk through challenges,” opines Ryan Gantz, Vox Media’s Director of UX who remorks from Santa Barbara, California, and enjoys peppering our chat rooms with photos of his beachfront community to prove that, yes, he actually lives in a postcard.

“I rely on campfire mostly as a social outlet because I do not work in an office with other people where I can engage in random conversation,” says Justin Glow, Product Manager from Springfield, Missouri, the greatest little town in the US of A. “I think it is absolutely 100% necessary for it to exist to create cohesion amongst a team of remote workers.”

While Campfire is a boon for cohesiveness, it’s not without its flaws. What might innocently begin as a question about some random piece of code can quickly devolve into a heated argument over 70s punk music, a binge of gifs featuring hockey players eating waffles, or a productivity-zapping tour of Ron Swanson’s greatest one-liners on YouTube. The prepared remote worker must be ever vigilant against the vagaries of the off-topic chat room.

While Campfire is great on its own, it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the help of a friendly little bot called, appropriately enough, Campfirebot (cfbot for short). Cfbot isn’t unique, there are many examples of Campfire bots floating around the web, but we’ve tweaked and tuned him to such a degree that he’s become something of a living legend, as well as an incorrigible distraction.

So what does cfbot do? He’s a notifier, announcing system downtime, github commits, and deploy status in the appropriate rooms; he’s a data store, remembering less-than-sensitive office information, funny support requests, and ping words; but, most importantly, he’s a well of endless entertainment, spitting out random gifs on command, greeting us whenever we come and go, showing us the top google image result for any query we throw his way, and much, much more.

Dedicating only two paragraphs seem like an injustice to Cfbot, so you can expect to hear more about him in the future, especially if we decide to open the source code.

GoToMeeting and G+ Hangouts

The majority of our teams at Vox Media are agile, which means we need to meet at least once daily for scrum / stand-up / check-in. Until recently, our “GoTo” solution for group screen-sharing and conferencing was GoToMeeting (also referred to as G2M). We have a dedicated G2M computer set up in the conference room of our DC headquarters where non-remote workers gather to meet with their remote comrades.

G2M is exceedingly popular with our non-remorkers:

“G2M is great for our scrums’ daily stand-up meetings,” Joe Grossberg, non-remorker Developer.

“G2M is the bees’ knees for scrum,” Luke Zimmermann, non-remorker Community Manager.

“G2M is good,” Niv Shah, non-remorker Developer.

“G2M is pretty outstanding, honestly,” Tate Tozer, non-remorker Designer.

On the remorker end of a G2M meeting, however, the reviews are not as glowing, with the biggest complaint being audibility. Logistically, it’s difficult to find a microphone that can amplify every voice in a crowded conference room without causing an unacceptable amount of feedback for remote listeners. Another annoyance is muting and unmuting your line to avoid unwanted noise — a necessary evil that might be better handled on the software side.

Recently, a few teams, including my own, have begun testing out Google+ Hangouts for our daily scrums, and the results have been promising. Unlike G2M, G+ Hangouts are 100% online (after installing a plugin for your browser). Other pluses are active screen switching (showing the video feed for whoever is speaking), shared YouTube viewing, and always-appropriate video props. It’s too early to call it a G2M-killer, but it’s definitely a solid alternative that we’ll continue to test across teams.

Everything else

Beyond using Campfire for group discussion and G2M / G+ for conferencing, each team has their own set of preferred apps for their additional communication needs. Skype, despite its mind-numbing lack of UI best practices, is a team favorite for quick chats and screensharing, while IM remains the standard for one-on-one chat.

For project management, the majority of teams have recently moved from Fogbugz to Trello, and so far the results have been promising. Our amazing and talented support team are the sole holdouts, choosing to stick with Fogbugz for its superior ticket tracking and email support. Just to be absolutely clear, our support team really is top-notch. None better. None.

When it’s time to relax a have a little fun, it’s not unusual to find team members hanging out in our dedicated turntable.fm room, trash talking each other in our various work fantasy leagues, or fragging one another in an impromptu Battlefield 3 session (only during off-hours, of course). It’s the closest thing we remorkers have to hanging out with our non-remorker counterparts.

What’s your favorite tool for collaborating with remote team members? We’re always on the lookout for the next big thing, especially when it comes to real-time whiteboarding and video conferencing, so feel free to let us know your favorites.