Veer West is a small “virtual” company. We spend more time working from home, coffee shops or on trips that in our actual office. It’s working well for us, but it’s not without challenges.
A more serious challenge is how to facilitate social interactions. We need to collaborate effectively, but beyond that, we need to forge and maintain a bond between us. No one should feel isolated because being in the office is not an option. No one should be left out of the loop on important issues. No one should miss a chance to follow and contribute to what other team members do.
Our approach is to rely exclusively on online chat. Yes, it’s a bit awkward when 2 persons in the same office discuss silently on a chat, but the truth is that a conversation in a purely textual form has many benefits. For one, it’s a searchable record of what we’ve discussed and of every decision we’ve made. Discussions also tends to be more to the point, without long-winded arguments or repetitions. It’s not intrusive, so you can easily ignore a topic and save yourself the interruption, and finally, it’s accessible. You can quickly catch up and jump in whenever you feel like it.
Our experience with Campfire
For about a year, we used Campfire for almost everything. We used it for water-cooler chat, to share information, to collaborate on customer issues and to discuss projects.
We also have a Basecamp account to manage our internal projects, but we found that we weren’t using it that much. Basecamp is good for sharing information asynchronously, in organized, well thought out bits (this shows that Basecamp was originally designed for client projects), but that’s not really how we work. We need the quick back and forth of a chat. It’s also not practical to have information spread across different applications.
So we stayed on Campfire, but it wasn’t ideal either. Discussions lacked structure, moving too quickly from one topic to the next. Action items would disappear from view, pushed back in the history. (Note that Campfire has the concept of “rooms”, but it didn’t seem practical, so we never really used it.)
We needed some sort of middle ground, so we decided to try Google Wave for a while and see how it went.
Switching to Google Wave
Google Wave is an instant collaboration tool. Discussions can be threaded, so we can cover several topics in parallel and keep them organized. We can create new “waves” as needed and easily follow the activity in each wave from the “inbox”. There’s an helpful “next unread” button that makes sure we don’t miss any message, regardless of where it’s posted. Of course, Wave is searchable too.
Each day we create two waves, one for a general chat and one to discuss customer support issues. In the support wave, we can keep each issue in its own thread. This lets us keep track of the work done and of who needs help to troubleshoot an issue.
We also have a weekly wave, where we list our priorities for the week. Everyone can update it if needed with a short status report. Finally, we have specific waves for long-term projects, where we collect our thoughts, post screenshots, discuss mockups and so on.
Google Wave isn’t perfect though. We found that sharing screenshots and mockups was difficult. Wave seems to downsample images, so we would always end up with blurry, unusable mockups. We had to resort to hosting images on dropbox and posting links to Wave. There are a few other irritating quirks, like the odd scroll bars that won’t let you scroll to the end of a wave in one try or the lack of audio notification (there are semi-reliable plugins for that).
Overall, we’re happy with Google Wave. We’ve consolidated two applications in one and it fits us well. When Wave launched, it had this reputation of being a tool nobody knew what it was for. A sort of email-collaboration-programmable mash-up, with plugins and bots. Turns out, it simpler than it sounds. The bare bone Wave is just what we need to run our business.