There’s a lot going on right now, and this is part of our contribution to helping. As a fully remote business from the outset, we have good insights into how to work remotely effectively. With more people working remotely, this seemed like an ideal time to contribute. I hope this is useful, and enjoy! – Alex.

There’s been a lot of “how to work from home” content around recently, and some good advice for people who are dealing with their first week or two of remote working. Ellipsis has been fully remote since we started, and so whilst most of our team is now “locked down”, we’re able to carry on pretty much as normal.

Remote working is hard, and over the years we’ve created a number of systems to help us work effectively. I do think that remote work is better when done well, but that’s an important caveat. You do have to adapt from working in the office, and unless you put in place systems to help you do so, you may well have a bad experience over the next couple of weeks and then dismiss it.

That’d be a shame, as working remotely has huge advantages: more flexibility, happier team members, and an ability to hire and retain the very best people are some good examples.

This post is about one idea, which you can copy pretty easily: the remote co-working day. We’ll start by looking at the problem we’re solving, and then how we do it. All this is super-actionable, and I’ve written it so you can easily copy and implement yourself.

Problem: Collaboration is harder with remote work

One of the big advantages of being in-person vs remote is collaboration is a lot easier. Offices like Apple’s multi-billion Apple Park are designed to maximise the chance of random encounters with colleagues, with the hope being that those random encounters lead to collaboration.

The layout of Apple Park is designed to maximise collaboration. Photo by Arne Müseler, under Creative Commons.

There’s some research to back this up. An MIT study found:

“Physical proximity increases collaborative activity among academic scholars… the study finds that cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration is fuelled by basic face-to-face interaction within shared spaces.”

That makes sense, and this feeds into collaboration being an area where remote work is weaker. The solution is to replicate these benefits in a remote work setting.

The caveat is that some fully open-plan offices like Apple’s may harm overall output, as Cal Newport covers:

A Facebook developer claims the [open plan] office is rarely more than a third full as people have learned to stay home if they want to produce anything deep… offering private offices and uninterrupted time to concentrate is perhaps one the most valuable benefits you can offer developers in our connected age.

The overall point stands, though, and Cal goes on to argue that offices with doors are better, rather than merely working remotely. Being located in the same place makes collaboration easier, and when working remotely you need to go out and create the space for that collaboration.

That’s how we came up with our remote co-working day.

How does a remote co-working day work?

Actual photo of us at a remote co-working day.

The premise is simple: you schedule a day specifically for co-working with your team. You get it in everyone’s calendar, and they block out the time. We find once-a-month is a good cadence, but you could do fortnightly or a shorter version weekly.

You then co-work! We split the day into a couple of parts:

  • A general team update and question-answering session, which I present. This kicks us off.
  • Whole-team co-working. Generally we’ll have a couple of items the whole team needs to go through. Even if you don’t need everyone there, that’s half the point: you introduce the opportunity for the more random collaboration and ideas you get in an office.
  • Small group co-working. Occasionally it does make sense to break out into small groups or one-on-ones. The co-working day is a specifically-scheduled opportunity to do that.
  • Book club! We finish up the day with our monthly book club! We take it in turns to select a book (realistically a chapter or two), podcast, or article, all read/listen to it beforehand, and then discuss the ideas for an hour or so.

That structure works pretty well. We schedule a start and an end time but not how long each item should take; sometimes there’s more to discuss, and you’re trying to encourage discussion! We also make sure to take plenty of breaks. As we’re on different timezones, someone will need lunch whilst someone else wants a snack.

You’ll want to adjust the structure depending on what you do and what problems you need to solve. We’re a marketing agency and that format probably works for similar setups, but product teams or developers will want to use their own format. It took us a while to hit on a structure that reliably works, so experiment.

Most of our internal meetings are audio-only, but this is one where we always do video calls. I generally find video calls a poor experience and low benefit when you’ve already spoken to someone with video once, but with a group it does work. We’ve tried pretty much every video platform — Zoom, Skype, etc — but use Hangouts Meet. Connections are always solid, there’s nothing to install, and it just works.

There’s some cool innovation in this space, including RemoteHQ which does live transcripts of your meetings and lets you add a shared browser and notes, but sadly it wasn’t quite reliable enough. Find whichever tool you want to use, and then use that every time. There’s nothing worse than starting every meeting trying to find the link, or with five minutes of “can you hear me?”.

Other remote working ideas to try

The remote co-working day is one of the ways of replicating what’s good about being in person. Here are three other quick-fire ideas to try that we do:

  1. We complement remote co-working with in-person team retreats three times a year. These are tremendous opportunities for collaboration and we get a lot done at our retreats. You can’t do everything online, and face-to-face is necessary from time to time.
  2. A monthly “happy half-hour”. This is a great idea I nicked from this post. You get fewer opportunities for a general chat when remote (we use Basecamp rather than Slack, so are generally asynchronous rather than always-on with chat). We fix that with half an hour for general chat, once a month! We did try weekly and fortnightly, but as we’re all on different timezones those didn’t work for us.
  3. “What’s happening outside of work?” Our weekly check-ins get shared with the whole team at the start of the week, and one of the questions you’re prompted to answer is “what’s happening outside of work?” We tend to just post a sentence or two, but it’s a nice way of seeing what people are up to.

Remote co-working day is easy to try

A remote co-working day is very easy to try, and I find it a huge help. It helps everyone stay connected, gives us a default date for going through complex collaborative tasks which would otherwise get missed, and lets us collaborate effectively.

It’s incredibly easy to do, and I’d highly recommend you try it out over the next couple of weeks. There’s never been a more important time to keep collaborating and innovating! And, this works whether you’re remote anyway like us, or are working remotely on a temporary basis.

Good luck! Please do share your thoughts or questions in the comments below.

About Alex Denning

Hey, I'm Alex! I'm the Founder of Ellipsis, and I co-curate the really good weekly newsletter MasterWP. I'm @AlexDenning 👏

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