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From Brum with love

Categories: Extra-curricular, Inspiration

Memories of a great night at Symphony Hall with the CBSO, pianist Steven Osborne, and conductor Alexander Vedernikov.

Music made in Russia, played in Birmingham – accompanied by orchestral ale from the Wye Valley. Win.


Symphony Hall <3


What a lovely brochure …


Cheers, CBSO!

How to go remote

Categories: Inspiration, Our work, Useful/interesting

Jungfrau mountain in Switzerland. Photo by Peter Alder
Jungfrau, Switzerland – by Peter Alder

Firstly I should clear-up a language thing – we aren't actually, strictly a ‘remote’ team. We all work from our respective homes in and around Birmingham, rather than on a beach in Goa, up a Swiss mountain, or from a Portland coffee shop.

‘Remote’ just seems more immediately understandable than calling it telecommuting which sounds super '80s but is technically correct, or saying we're a ‘distributed team’. Again that’s an accurate description but the phrase isn’t that widely understood – at the moment at least.

So, for the time-being, ‘remote’ is decent shorthand.


Supercool's former HQ – bye-bye!

Having explained the reasons why we were considering ditching the office, how did we make the decision once-and-for-all to do this thing, and then turn a business that’d been based in the same building for nigh-on 13 years into a more lightweight and flexible entity?

Here's how we approached the change – minus the overly-obvious stuff like "we packed-up the office", "we made sure everyone had a chair" etc.

1: Make it a team decision

This was one of the main considerations for us. Work’s a big part of people’s lives, and every Supercooler has an input not only into their specific role, but the work we do as a company, and how we do it.

No longer having a central office would be a big change for everyone, so we discussed the possibility openly and at length – what we thought would work, what’d need to change, the things that worried us …

And right from the start we agreed that if we weren’t all happy with the change, we wouldn’t do it. Simple.

2. Research and plan

We researched as much as humanly possible; which primarily involved reading about the various types of central-office-less working that other companies had already tried-out; the benefits, the potential pitfalls, and the practicalities. (Links to some of these are listed below.)

An added complication in our case was that, alongside potentially ditching the office, we were hiring a new team member. Ruh-roh!

So, as well as trying to find a new person with the right skills, who was the right fit for the team in general, we were looking for someone who was okay – at least in principle – with working from home. We were open about our plans during the recruitment process and, happily, found Naveed who fitted the bill on every count. WIN!

Back to planning – all each of us really needs to do our job is a decent computer and a decent internet connection. But added to this are the nuts-and-bolts that make communicating with each other quick and easy. Most online tools that're useful for remote/distributed teams we’d been using for ages – Slack, Trello, Hangouts etc. – so were already ingrained in day-to-day processes, but other stuff was new and needed setting up.

The most useful thing we put in place fairly early-on was a VOIP phone system. Even if we didn’t end up ditching the office, it made sense to have VOIP rather than a traditional phone line – the same phone number, with a bunch of added functionality, for a lower cost? No brainer.

3: Beta test

We applied some of the same principles we use to run digital projects to going remote, specifically that meant getting the bare bones of what we needed set up quickly – a minimum viable product if you will – and giving it a go.

We ended up doing several week-or-so-long trial runs.

Perhaps it was that we'd all discussed it openly and thoroughly. Perhaps it was the prior planning and preparation. Perhaps it was because we were using most of the tools already, so the change in how we work was actually fairly minimal. Whatever the reasons, the trial runs went brilliantly and – crucially (see point 1) – everyone was up for making it a permanent change.

Farewell cumbersome desktop computers; laptops all round!

4: Be clever with communication

Rather than one big meeting a week, we now all get together in a Google Hangout first thing every morning.

It’s a good chance to catch-up with each other and go over what work needs doing that day – as well as reminding ourselves that we work in a team. This was one of the things all our research suggested was a good idea, and it really is important. I’d go so far as to say it's vital.

During the trial runs Josh found, and got us into using, Appear.in; a mega-simple screen sharing service which we’ve since adopted to talk-through designs. It’s great – so much easier and more efficient than doing the same thing face-to-face, all gathered around a single screen.

And it wasn’t just the screen-sharing; we’re now working together more efficiently in general. I guess having to be more structured about when and how we talk to each other has forced us to make better use of that time. Nice side effect.

Our communication isn’t all about work though.

We've been sure to keep-up the little niceties which are important to human interaction but could easily get cut-out when people aren't actually in the same room.

Tiny things like saying “Hi” and “Bye” every day, and nonsense chat about this and that over Slack – with added emojis/animated gifs, obvs – are a a bit of human interaction and help punctuate the day. It seems to do a similar job to tea breaks IRL.

We also still get together in person; the next meeting conveniently coinciding with Supercool’s 13th birthday \o/

5: Cause zero disruption to clients

Last but by no means least …

From the trial runs – which no clients noticed were happening; schmoooooooth! – to the timing of The Big Move (over the Christmas break), we made it a priority that this change wouldn’t affect clients. No delay in projects. No change to the way people contact us. No change in working hours. Nothing. Nowt. Nada.

I’m really proud we succeeded in making a change that, although a big thing for each of us, hasn’t impacted our client work at all. Not negatively anyway – as I said, if anything we work better together now.

We’d mentioned the potential move to a few clients over the decision-making and planning period but, once we knew the change was definite, we told everyone our plans ahead of the move; explaining our reasons, and of course giving folks the chance to ask questions or raise any concerns. I was quite concerned that people might think Supercool was somehow less professional, or less hard working, or less real without a central office.

I’d been worrying needlessly as the main feedback was “Does this mean you all get to work in your pyjamas?” Ha! In answer to that question – it hasn't happened yet, and the frequent video chats make it unlikely …

But never say never.

===

From the early, tentative conversations to actually ditching the office took us about 8 months.

We didn’t rush into it – making sure we knew what we were doing, and that it'd work for us and our clients – but equally, we didn’t dilly-dally once we knew the change was happening.

Nimbleness – one of the benefits of being a lean team.

It remains to be seen if there’ll be any negative feedback about our set-up from potential new clients which, I have to be honest, is a lingering concern for me.

Only time will tell if not having a central office will hold us back, however, I’m optimistic that new clients’ll be likeminded sorts who'll see the benefits of working with a flexible, productive and happy team of designers and developers.

Incidentally, other folks who famously work(ed) from home include:
Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, Benjamin Britten, Barbara Hepworth, and The Queen.

===

Resources

Some of our favourite tools and services:

Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, Dropbox, Appear.in, VOIP (through Dial 9, who’re ace), Tracking Time, Zendesk, Basecamp, Github

Useful links:

Why we’ve ditched the office

Categories: Inspiration, Jewellery Quarter, Useful/interesting

The outside of 8a Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

At the start of the Christmas break we closed those black double doors on our office of the last 13 years one last time – as of January 2017 we’ve become a ‘distributed' team. Basically this means that we work together remotely day-to-day (from our respective homes most of the time), meeting in person every week or so.

There wasn't one catalyst for taking this decision – as with most big changes there were lots of reasons – but certainly one of the biggest drivers, and biggest changes for each of us personally, was to get rid of the daily commute.

Ugh, that commute! Despite the team all being based in and around Birmingham, between us we were still managing to rack-up a ridiculous 26 hours a week travelling to and from the office each day.

It's one thing having some time to get into the 'work mindset' every morning but that’s more than 3 working days worth of time sat in cars or on packed commuter trains. That’s how long it’d take to (re)watch a complete season of 24, with several generous tea/loo breaks between episodes. That’s the time it took the entire globe to see-in 2017 – from Kiribati to Baker Island – for goodness sake.

By any measure, this is neither good nor sensible use of time – but particularly in terms of work/life balance. Not to mention the significant environmental impact and monetary cost of all that travelling to-and-fro.

The old office meeting space – sofa and all

And how often were we actually meeting with clients at the office? A handful of times a year at most; which doesn’t really warrant having a permanent dedicated meeting space. And the construction work happening in the street, while not crippling by any means, had been fairly noisy for a good few months and was unlikely to be finished in less than a year. Plus there was the possibility of our building being sold within the next couple of years and, if so, we’d have to find another office anyway – paying a lot more than the current rent for not-as-nice a space. Hmmm. You can see where this was going …

We realised we’d actually been working perfectly well with clients in different locations for years, so … why not each other? We’d done the odd day of home-working anyway, so making that a permanent set-up didn’t seem an impossible leap.

Once the idea was planted it was time to hit Google and research the pros and, particularly, cons of moving away from all working in the same space, from people who’d already done it.

A combination of our hypotheticals, along with the practical experiences of those who’d already taken the no-office plunge, gave us a decent list of pros and cons:

Pros

  • No commute! This is a big one – saving time, money and the environment – so definitely counts as three-pros-in-one
  • No travel disruption (leaves on the line, snow/ice on the roads etc.)
  • Not paying over-the-odds for city centre rent; hell, not paying *any* rent!
  • We could each create our perfect working environment; noisy/quiet, messy/tidy, dressed/pyjamas
  • Forced to be at the cutting-edge of digital technology and communication – as we’d be relying on it
  • We’d have to be more structured with internal meetings – yes, this was a ‘pro’
  • More internet connections = someone’d always be connected
  • No construction noise/disruption from the new flats apartments being built a stone’s throw away
  • We’d be all set-up incase of out-of-hours emergencies
  • Opens the possibility of working in-house with clients, with little disruption/set-up
  • If any Supercoolers move away from Brum, they won’t have to leave their job
  • We could recruit from further afield without the need for someone to relocate or have a huge commute (and, practically at least, setting-up a new home-worker’s easier than adding another body to an office)

Cons

  • Possible barriers to effective communication – both regarding projects day-to-day, and the ‘team spirit’ side of working with others
  • It doesn’t suit everyone
  • More temptation to eat ALL THE BISCUITS IN THE HOUSE

The pros pretty much speak for themselves and are pretty convincing; but obviously the big worries were the cons.

Communication barriers were mentioned in nearly every essay, news item and blog post we read as part of our research into remote working. However, each of these articles also detailed how other companies had overcome potential communication issues; primarily with tools we were already using day-to-day – Slack, Trello, Hangout, Skype etc. We also knew it’d be important to be sure and maintain social/personal communication as well as working together on projects. So, this 'con' was definitely surmountable.

A large part of the reasoning behind ditching the office was to give everyone in the team a better work/life balance, so this change absolutely had to work for everyone. It had to be all or nothing … so, how did we go about planning for, trialling and, clearly, ultimately taking the plunge into ditching the office?

Find out in the next thrilling installment: How to go remote – detailing the myriad considerations and months of planning that go into becoming an office-free business.

(Oh; and as for being tempted by unhealthy snacks, I'm still working on it …)

Don’t scream; eat fruit

Categories: Inspiration, Nice stuff, Useful/interesting

It's mid-1930s in the USA; the Great Depression has taken a huge toll over the last few years, leaving 25% of people out of work. What's a government to do?

The Works Progress Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) was established in 1935 to give unemployed people paid work in the public sector. The WPA's initial budget allocation was $4.9bn and over its lifetime it spent $13.4bn on bridges, public buildings – and various types of public art.

One of the most prolific areas of output resulted from the Federal Art Project which, along with paintings, murals and sculptures, turned out a huge number of public service announcement-style posters throughout its eight year history.

More than 900 of these posters are available to browse on the Library of Congress website.

The subject matter of the posters varies massively – almost laughably so; from promoting pet shows to highlighting the dangers of syphilis, that pesky 'menace to industry'.

I especially like the pre-war 'places' posters, which are not only beautiful but clearly designed to both foster a sense of pride during the low morale of an economic slump, and encourage folks to holiday closer to home. (Sound familiar?)

The style of these posters is clearly appealing and remains an influence to this day – just look at the work of Dorothy for a prime example.

Other recreational activities such as visits to the zoo, exhibitions, expos and concerts also got the artistic treatment; along with career and personal healthcare advice. I told you it was varied.

Taking care of books seemed to be a major concern if the number of reading-related posters is anything to go by.

I don't remember modern history lessons mentioning our cousins across the pond being particularly careless with books, so I guess this must have been related to the dwindling of resources and the need to take care of things, first during the depression, then throughout the war. It's similar in tone to the UK's Make do and mend mantra.

It's fascinating to browse through the posters in chronological order and see the increasing emphasis on wartime messaging; and the subsequent rapid change in these from friendly prompts to preserve resources, to much harsher, more blunt directives. Even including strongly worded appeals to lend equipment.

The WPA was liquidated in June 1943 as a result of low unemployment due to World War II.

Among those who'd been part of the Federal Art Project: Arthur Getz (who subsequently had a half-century career as cover illustrator for The New Yorker magazine), and artists Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.