Since April, our team at Alley has been working hard in tandem with the team at Civil to deliver an awesome publishing platform to its first fleet newsrooms. We’re hoping what we’ve built will boost many more new businesses than the dozen or so we’ve pushed to market so far. At Alley, we’re all about pushing the boundaries of journalism business models, so we were psyched to get a chance to participate in a bold experiment like Civil.
At Alley, working as a distributed team while solving complex challenges for large-scale digital publishers
We've fostered a collaborative, candid culture, and the strategies we've established can improve work life for all kinds of teams, not just remote developers or teams practicing scrum. Whether you're a developer or a user at an agency, a newsroom dev, or a solo practitioner, here are a few steps you can take right away to start building better work habits and relationships.
Communicate With Clarity
This may seem obvious — but just try communicating well with dozens of team members across 7 time zones! We never assume everyone has seen a particular message, so we communicate everything more than once and in different media (email, Slack, etc.) by default. Teammates might have been on a video call, heads-down on a difficult problem, or fielding a flurry of Slack messages that came through at the same time, so could have missed the memo. This goes for both company-policy decisions and notes related to project work.
Far from isolating us, being remote actually increases how much we stay in touch. Many of us realize a few months in that we talk to others much more than we did when we worked in offices. The difference in how we do it? Our communication, like our work, is incremental, iterative, and asynchronous. The tools we use make us easily reachable and able to facilitate a fast conversation about any serious issue, but we do our best not to abuse the privilege of being able to contact anyone at any time across multiple devices. Setting — and respecting — boundaries is key.
To that end, we’re clear about when we are and aren’t available. We make sure to say hello in Slack when we sign on for the day, note when we take breaks, and at very least drop an “&” — the shell script character that directs a process to run in the background — in chat to say goodbye at the end of our workdays. Many of us block out times on our calendars that are visible to the whole team when we’ll be heads-down, use Slack’s automatic “Do Not Disturb” hours, and temporarily mute notifications while we’re in meetings or in flow state on a tough feature. All of these practices allow us to respect each other’s time and focus on what we need to, when we need to, without a lot of interruptions. This gives everyone more control over their workdays, even as we know that someone might not respond to us right away. Perhaps paradoxically, that makes things less hectic and less stressful for everyone.
Break Rules Productively
Finding ways to help everyone play by the same rules is excellent. What’s even better: When something isn’t quite working, we take it as an opportunity to work together to make something new or rethink the rules entirely. It’s important to make the rules and process as universal as possible. Whether we’re adding programming to a chatbot that helps us work or simply assessing the best settings and processes for our existing tools, we make time to iterate, improve, and build upon the systems we already have. If a rule or a practice doesn’t make sense — or worse, turns out to be actively impeding part of our process — we are unsentimental about changing it.
At Alley, we have dozens of tools and processes that sprang out of mindful recognition of needs that weren’t being satisfied by what was in place. Empowering team members to make these changes is not only democratizing, but also vital to ensuring that your tools really work for your team. Even the nature of our scrum practice had to be adjusted and iterated upon to work for our largely remote team. For instance, with a team that’s rarely together in person and that seeks to be as inclusive as possible, the very notion of stand-ups as meetings where everyone literally stands had to be rethought. And we have formal processes to help team members effect organizational change, including regular opportunities to capture and adopt kaizen (continuous improvement) practices as a team. That’s part of basic scrum practice, but it’s important to us as well. We suggest building ways to collaboratively and iteratively improve happiness and bring efficiency into your process.
Finally, something we value greatly about our approach to remote communication is the way it can democratize decisions and level the playing field. Everyone’s empowered to speak up and be radically candid across Alley’s organizational structure — and we provide an environment of emotional safety to back that up. When much of the work takes place in text, via chat, Jira stories, and GitHub pull requests, it’s easier to focus on the work one has done and shed superficial assumptions that might accompany one’s physical appearance, level of extraversion, or other attributes.
Moreover, with everything we need at our fingertips, it’s easy to have materials ready for meetings, presentations, and more. Sometimes it feels a little bit like taking an open-book test — having the materials at hand takes the pressure off and lets us really show our stuff. This is especially nice for introverts or anyone who doesn’t do well with memorization, but it has benefits for former debate-team captains as well.
As with our other practices, this is an important one for remote and colocated teams alike: Find ways to take the pressure off your team and facilitate communication and collaboration across levels and groups within your organization. Establish inclusive practices that help team members shine, finding their strengths and maximizing their input. The benefits are manifold.
The above are some of the most important parts of our working philosophy. They provide structure and support for us to do our best work as a remote team, but they would also work for a colocated one. We hope that this is helpful to you as you build your team, change your processes, or just think more intentionally about your office and your business. And, if you're interested in learning more, or joining a remote team, we're always on the lookout for great talent. As of this writing, we're looking for a WordPress developer, but you can check out the latest positions on our jobs page.