Tools and processes for running a remote or distributed company

Communication bandwidth VS permanence

So let’s talk about communication bandwidth, and the different trade-offs you can make to create the perfect communication environment for your org.

  1. Video calls (or VR calls if you’re fancy)
  2. Audio calls
  3. Chat, like Slack or Discord,
  4. Project tools, like Trello, Shortcut or Jira
  5. Email, which I detest so I’ll pretend it doesn’t exist really
  6. And then your company’s documentation tool, such as Notion, a wiki or your drive full of documents.

Tool choices

Okay, with the theory out of the way… Let’s get into the tools and talk about my personal preferences, and tool usage that has worked for me and my orgs.

Chat

There are two big contenders in this space: Slack and Discord. Slack is great for organizations. Discord is great for communities. If you are running a tech company, you’re likely already using one of these and aren’t going to switch, so I’lll leave it there.

Project tool

This is a big one. You might not even be using one, in which case I highly recommend you do so. The important role of a project tool is to have somewhere to communicate about tasks, and to surface who is working on what. Is the endpoint for this going to be REST or GraphQL? Is the button red or green? Who’s doing the copy for this feature anyway?

  • Notion is super flexible. You can type up a document in free text talking about what to do, and suddenly slam a to-do list in the middle. Then in the next section, you can add a full kanban board, inline in the middle of the social media planning meeting notes document. You can use it as a support tool to just add a little more structure to what you’re doing, or or let it run your whole company with high fidelity. I love it.
  • Trello feels like it started out as the anti-jira, or that one engineer being tired of pointing a web cam at a whiteboard of post-its to their remote colleagues. It’s an old and refined tool that just lets you move cards between columns. This can be incredibly powerful, and is often just what you need to organize even your one-person-shop’s work. This is my recommended starter tool for small organizations, or even one-person shops. However, when you become a larger organization and start feeling the need to group cards under “epics” or “milestones”, it starts falling short.
  • Enter Shortcut (formerly Clubhouse). This has been my favorite tool for years. It’s basically Trello, but with all the agile tools slapped on: stories in epics in milestones, projects, estimates, iterations, roadmaps, team assignments, what have you. The downside is that it’s no longer flexible enough to let you sort cat pictures into tiers; on the upside it does the heavy lifting for you in terms of keeping you organized according to agile principles.
  • If you’re a 100+ people organization, you are probably already using something like Monday or Jira, where you have a crazy amount of tooling and customization to fit any part of your organization. You probably also has one or even several people whose job is to maintain this tool.
  • Bonus mention is GitHub Projects, which recently got a big upgrade and is really competent, snatching a spot somewhere in between Trello and Shortcut. It’s in beta, and is currently getting a lot of attention and upgrades.

Documentation tool

I’m leaving the best for last. This is going to basically just be a huge ad for Notion.

Example usage: Note taking

For example, we use a table to log our weekly check-ins:

Example usage: Projects

Here’s how a project might be documented.

Communication principles

Finally, I want to share Alloverse’s internal “ communication guidelines “, which is basically a summary of the above plus some things not directly related to communication bandwidth. Some, I’ve brought with me from shared learnings at Lookback. Some, we’ve formulated together ourselves at Alloverse. If you ignore all the above, and just bring these with you, you’ll be in a great place to run a distributed company.

  • Praise in public, feedback in private. Spread the love so we can all celebrate awesomeness together! If you have personal feedback, give it in private to the person or to your boss so that it can be resolved, instead of shaming people in public.
  • Avoid communication silos. In a remote organization, it’s important to include everybody, or important information gets stuck in silos. If you have a conversation IRL or in voice/video/VR, take notes and log it in the appropriate tool (Discord, Shortcut, Notion, Drive) so that others can take part in your decisions, findings and ideas.
  • Use the right forum. Depending on the nature of your discussion, different tools might be relevant:
  • Transient and async collaboration: Discord. You’re collaborating, or notifying people about something that is relevant in the moment, but doesn’t need to be found or referenced to in a week or two.
  • Tasks (product or management): Shortcut. Use comments and mention in the correct card. If a discussion in Slack turns into insights, save those in clubhouse so they can be referenced later when you’re working on the thing.
  • Documentation: Notion. If things need to be referenced or found, write a document in Notion. If you’re collaborating with external partners, use Google Drive (but use real Drive documents, not docx, since support for it is buggy 😥).
  • Sync collaboration: Slack/Discord video, pop.com (great for pair coding) or goteam.video (great for quick hangouts). E g a meeting or pair programming. Don’t forget to summarize your findings in a text tool afterwards if that’s relevant.
  • Long-form discussion: Email
  • Manage your pings. Turn on Do Not Disturb outside of your working hours, and don’t check your work email outside of work. This way, people can ping you from their time zone or work hours without worrying about disturbing your personal life.
  • Respect people’s life work balance. Don’t expect people to reply right away, and don’t expect people to reply at all outside of their work hours.
  • Set timing expectation. When asking for something, let them know how urgently you need it.
  • Decision making. Designate who really owns the task or project, so that after a conversation, it’s clear who makes the decision.
  • Team spirit, having fun together, “water cooler moments”
  • Avoiding feeling surveiled
  • How to make sure everybody helps out with keeping things organized and documented
  • Check-in cadence, text vs video
  • etc…

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