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Remote Collaboration & Telecommunication – Part 3: Achieving Successful Shared Workspaces

Great meeting! Network connection was solid the whole time, video was great, audio was crystal clear, and interruptions were kept to a minimum. Great job everyone, we’ve mastered video conferencing. Now, please review your personal notes and in two weeks we’ll have a follow up meeting to reconcile our wildly different interpretations of the decisions made. Have a good weekend!

Every profession has its tool set and those tools have been honed for specific uses. Hammers have been optimized for pounding and removing nails, paintbrushes perfected for applying paint. For remotely collaborating digital professionals our tools are indeed still evolving, but thoughtful work has been done to craft digital tools suited to the specific needs of our increasingly collaborative professions.

Here at Filament, we have little time to waste on impractical, outdated, or clumsy software tools and in this final post on the topic of remote collaboration, I would like to share some of our methods for achieving successful shared workspaces.

The right tool for the job – Email vs. Messaging

Our first forays in the digital world are, naturally, informed by prior experience and knowledge. We moved from mail to email, from files and folders to files and folders, from desktops to desktops, etc. Only much later does it occur to us that digital has unprecedented qualities — e.g. that search and discovery is preferable to filing, and new forms of communication may just beat email.”Philip Sheldrake

Let’s face it, email sucks and we’ve known it for years. Software companies have tried time and time again to fix it, and the closest attempt was tragically discontinued earlier this year – we all miss you Inbox 😢. Despite these attempts to reform email it still lingers as the de facto standard for business communications – for now. Since its launch in 2013, Slack (an acronym for “Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge”) has been blazing the trail that leads away from email and toward more robust digital communication applications. At Filament we use Slack more than any other messaging software and have come to greatly appreciate the improvements to communication and team collaboration that it affords.

Channels, Threads, and the @mention

A couple key flaws in email communication are in the non standardized and easily abused use of Subjects and CCing. Threads of emails with numerous parties CC’d easily veer away from their original topic, rendering the subject line meaningless and resulting in a long list of nested messages cluttered by lines of utterly useless email signatures (and if you have images and oddly formatted text in your email signature, you’re what’s wrong with this world and you know it). Further, the inability to clearly address or notify one particular member of the group can ultimately lead to confusion or inaction.

The @mention functionality now ubiquitous in shared workspace applications solves for this entrenched design problem of standard email. It is the eye contact of a digital message. Individuals can be notified only when their attention is required rather than demanding everyone keep an eye on the thread, eliminating that toxic email FOMO that keeps us checking and re-checking our inboxes.

In Slack, a “Channel” can designate the larger purpose of a group’s conversation and when important tangents arise, a “Thread” can be branched off from a particular message and kept separate from the main topic. Plus, when a decision is made or an important document is posted, it can be “pinned” which saves it for the group to easily return to, or it can be “starred” which saves it for you personally.

By design, these structures improve the flow of information between individuals in a way that tracks and logs it all – enhancing accountability, clarity, and shared understanding. These are real affordances of digital media – improvements that are not only making digital communication itself more fluid and efficient but that can ultimately influence our culture of communication outside of the digital realm.

So why is it that we still cling to email as the communication standard for business? One reason is that we’ve always done it that way, which, as Grace Hopper has wisely told us, is a dangerous mindset. Another is that these shared workspace applications are proprietary.

Unlike email which has open protocols (SMTP and POP) that allow sending and receiving messages regardless of which email service you use, Slack messages can only reach other Slack users, so in order to collaborate with external individuals or across organizations, all parties need a Slack account. While I am sure Slack Technologies, Inc. would love to become the Kleenex® of business communication tools, this walled-garden model ultimately stifles adoption of these kinds of tools. With that said, this could quickly change as interoperability is realized as a clear advantage to centralized services (see New Vector’s Modular.im and Riot.im using the Matrix protocol for example).

Single Source of Truth

In 2019, we (as in, humanity) have only been creating digital products en masse for a few decades tops, and as mentioned at the start, our tools for doing so are in constant flux, evolving every year. This means every new thing we create, whether it’s a digital game-based learning experience or a website, is going to be done a little bit differently from the last. Fortunately, this is exactly what humans are good at; that is, adaptation – learning from the past and changing to suit the needs of the future. However, that only works if we remember what works well and what doesn’t.

As alluded to in the cheeky mock meeting debrief at the top, even a well run meeting can result in diverging interpretations of outcomes or requirements. At Filament, clarity and shared understanding of product requirements are crucial to keep teams focused on the right things at the right times. Our Producers, Designers, and Project Leads are instrumental in keeping each game’s learning objectives and technical requirements thoroughly defined and communicated as we progress through development. Due to the scope of many of our games however, it is simply too much for any one person to hold all the moving parts in their head at all times. That is where our next tool set comes in – collaborative documents.

From Atlassian’s Confluence to Dropbox’s Paper to good old Google Docs we are well-versed in our usage of the industry’s collaborative document editing applications (Sorry OneNote, you just don’t make my cut). In addition to the lovely inclusion of features like comments and @mentions, these kinds of shared digital documents support teams in creating robust documentation on the fly.

For us, a single Google Doc for meeting notes can be a wonderful central hub of information for a project, containing links to all of the referenced assets or ancillary documentation located elsewhere on Drive or Confluence. This gives everyone a centralized repository of information, decisions, and action items as well as a direct path to the actual materials (art assets, VO scripts, etc) referenced in the meetings. All contained in the context of when it was discussed. Plus, it’s within an easily searchable Google Doc rather than scattered amongst many documents or filthy emails.

Finally, at the end of each sprint, each phase, and each project we log what went well and what could be better in the form of a Retrospective or Post Mortem. This process is key in maintaining, constantly improving, and transforming failures into opportunities to grow.

This concludes my three part tirade on remote collaboration tools in our present age. Did you find it useful? Did you learn a little something about digital communication? We’d love to know, and you don’t even have to travel to our office to tell us – you can do it remotely!

Catch up on previous entries of Ethan’s remote collaboration and telecommunication blog series:

Remote Collaboration & Telecommunication – Part 1: A History
Remote Collaboration & Telecommunication – Part 2: Navigating the Network

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