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Being Remote First - Agile Collaboration with Clients

Originally published on LinkedIn

Having remote teams or distributed teams is not a new concept in the IT world. For some companies like Atomic and 37 signals, having distributed teams is the entire way that they work. After all, allowing employees to work from anywhere has great benefits for both the employee and the employers. There is a lot more flexibility to the workday when the office is across the room, versus across town. Employees are able to create a better work/life balance while at the same time increasing their productivity. For employers, they are able to recruit more talented employees by increasing the area of their search, while at the same time saving on the cost associated with maintaining office space.

One area that hasn’t really been explored is the nature of consultancies and working with clients. Most consultants still work in a model where they “present” the work to the client. The team may work agile, they may even be distributed, but when it comes to the client there is a separation. Work is gathered together and, most often presented, in person. Choosing a remote first approach with clients changes this model. It engages both the client and the full team in ways that the traditional presentation model cannot achieve.

There are two main ways of working that remote first culture encourages. The first is in the scheduling and participation in meetings. The second is in offline collaboration.

Traditionally, in-person meetings with the client mean only partial involvement by the team. These meetings must be scheduled in advance with rooms being reserved and only the team members leading the particular topic in attendance. For instance, technical discovery is usually limited to technical leads while design exploration is limited to design teams. Only the project manager is consistent between these. And yet, invariably, designs questions come up through technical discovery and vice versa. The two processes cannot really be divorced. The issue isn’t around work silos. It is because it’s simply impractical to take the whole team to the client site. A remote first mentality, however, changes the way this works.

Remote first, simply means that any meeting planned has the ability to include people who are not physically in attendance. While at the same time, allowing that in-person contact that is still necessary for building relationships with clients.

For our team, we set up every meeting as a remote meeting, whether or not a group travels to the client site. The whole team is able to hear directly from the client and ask clarifying questions from their particular perspective. Our client is also able to add to the meeting staff that isn’t able to attend in person, which makes it much easier to schedule meetings. If we have to wait until everyone is available in person, it would take longer to schedule. The client feels comfortable that everyone was hearing what she wanted and having the opportunity to clarify her goals. And all of this saves on the time and money that would be spent going back and forth with individual smaller conversations.

Transparency and offline collaboration are the most significant benefits of a remote first way of working. Our particular tool of choice is Atlassian’s Confluence, but any tool could be used as long as it meets this particular set of requirements. The tool should be easy to navigate, it needs to allow for both version control and commenting, be a repository for deliverables and documentation, and (most importantly) it must have options to display visual objects — such as mockups, roadmaps, and diagrams. We use the tool to communicate our thinking and our decisions as the project progresses. All of which happens transparently for the client. They are invited, not only to see the work that is being produced, but the comment and contribute. We’ll even ask clients questions directly through the tool, which allows them to answer when they can and not have to wait for a meeting. Further, their responses are captured within the tool and not lost through email.

A good example of this approach is shown through work we did on straw personas. During a design studio with the client, we drafted four personas. I returned to my “home” office. Cleaned up the information we gathered, added a picture, and created a nice glossy deliverable that they could share. Once posted to Confluence an issue came up. The first was the client was not sure if one of the personas we came up with was an audience member we should be focused on. They were not sure that they had appropriately gauged the want or desires of that type of person. Our analytics specialist ran a report and found that not only was this a major audience member but that we had indeed described him exactly. This discussion happened asynchronously with the client through Confluence over the course of two days. In the past, a wrinkle like this would have needed meetings which would have taken a week, even two weeks, to resolve.

Work becomes much more fluid in the process. Instead of creating glossy deliverables for presentation purposes, we were able to save time and quickly get to the heart of an issue and solution. For instance, instead of creating a formalized heuristic review. I wrote up my observations of the current site on Confluence. Along the way, I posted questions for the developers regarding technical requirements or limitations. They were able to answer my questions, so that by the time I finished my evaluation, I also was able to sketch concept solutions. And these solutions were posted right in with the observation. The client was able to provide their feedback immediately. Traditionally, this process would have taken weeks as I created each deliverable and presented to team and client. But this way, I was able to do the work in a matter of days with everyone’s input as I worked.

It’s funny actually, because when we think of distributed teams, we think of people being isolated and separated. However, the tools and ways of working that make it possible to have these teams also enhance team collaboration. Whether your team is distributed or whether they are co-located, developing a remote first mentality really can improve in-team and client-based collaboration.

Dara Pressley 2023
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