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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 …)

AMA: Influencing upwards

Categories: Learning things, Useful/interesting

(Another in my series of write-ups about this year's Arts Marketing Association Conference which took place here in Brum last week.)

Oooh, this seminar sounds lofty! (And, errrr, sorry but maybe a bit creepy?*) I chose this session as I decided it’d be useful to go to a more generalised talk, rather than something very specifically geared towards arts marketing. Spoiler: it was a good choice.

[My thoughts are bold and in square brackets.]

Influencing upwards

Mark Wright – Director, People Create

– Mark runs People Create and introduced himself as something of a leadership teacher and troubleshooter; often working with people not necessarily open to learning from him. He works for mega corporates, so a room full of arts marketers seemed quite nice. He used to be a sculptor [!]

– People are getting more physically isolated from each other, while at the same time becoming more socially connected through the internet etc. – which makes for a strange new dynamic.

– According to a quick poll using the AMA app, for people in the room, the biggest barrier to influencing upwards (i.e. immediate bosses or higher-ups in the organisation) was that people find it difficult to formulate their thoughts quickly enough. [It’s a shame this wasn’t expanded upon – it might’ve been useful for lots of folks.]

The context for influence

  • Be relevant [Obvious but worth reiterating]
  • Be exceptional
  • Be unexpected [A bit of a crossover with ‘exceptional’ – something exceptional is by its very nature unexpected isn't it, as it's not the norm?]
  • Be visible [Don’t hide your achievements – be proud and take credit for them]

– Mark used the example of a Christmas gift he sent in the early days of his business. Large corporates would send pricey bottles of wine to his clients as a ‘thank you’ for their custom but there was no chance he could do this – it would just be way too expensive. Not just too expensive; he very simply couldn’t afford it. So, he made fudge [or was it cookies?] and got his kids to write personal notes to each client, supplier, associate etc. Awwwww! The gift had a great reaction – and as Christmas approached the following year, people started asking if he’d be doing the same again as they’d loved it last time [They remembered! So he had to make it again …]

Drivers for influence

  • Reciprocity [You scratch my back …] – it’s personal, intimate, characterful, and it takes effort. This creates a predisposition towards, and sense of, obligation.
  • Commitment – stick with your strategy and build it slowly; there’s no need to jump to an end goal right away.
  • Belonging – make people feel it’s okay to take a certain route/decision as others are doing it too.
  • Liking – if people like you, influencing them will be much easier. People decide with emotion, then rationalise with logic.
  • Authority – if you seem in charge, you will instantly be more likely to influence others. Apparently tall extroverts are perceived to be more intelligent. [So a quiet 5’2-and-a-half” person would have to work extra-hard to appear authoritative? Rats!]
  • Scarcity – SELLING FAST! LAST TICKETS REMAINING! etc. You know the deal. A deadline is a driver for influencing – due to fear of competition/missing out.
  • Credibility – if folks trust you, of course they’re more likely to take what you have to say on board. Check out the ‘trust equation’:

The more credible someone finds you, the more reliable they know you to be, and the more ‘intimate’ you are with them – meaning human-like in this context, nothing untoward – the more trust they’ll have in you. But only if you’re not super-selfish.

If it’s all about you-you-you and what you’re getting out of it, that’ll cut into people’s trust in a *big* way.

Types of influence

  • PUSHING INFLUENCES
    Persuading
    – using logic, data, case studies etc. as proof of what you are explaining. Dismantling the arguments of others.
    Asserting – offering rewards, and suggesting negative consequences of not taking action.
  • PULLING INFLUENCES
    Bridging
    – engaging in conversation and finding common ground. Being empathetic, vulnerable and questioning.
    Attracting – sharing a vision and aspirations which describe ideal outcomes. Use of metaphors and stories.

People generally tend to favour one of the above types of influence over the others, but using a mix is most effective – different people respond best to different types of influence. So, cover your bases.

[Which one are you? I’m most certainly a persuading type – I love me a bit of factual evidence! I wonder if that makes me predisposed to being more influenced by others’ persuading?]

– Mark asked us all to create new roles for ourselves within our organisations; we should all aim to become Direktor Grundsatzfragen. It’s a German term which roughly translates as Director of Fundamental Questions. Ask the stuff no one else is asking. [Cue slide featuring an image of an elderly gent with long grey hair and a wise-looking beard. NOTE: Funny pics of old guys get the laughs.]

– He points to a Brazilian psychologist [if I’ve found the right guy, he’s actually Chilean] Marcial Losada’s research which, very quickly explained, shows that high performance teams and individuals are the ones who ask the most questions. Good questions – i.e. open questions – which actually tease-out information. Frequent good questioning leads to improved performance/results.

[I’ve found some further reading about Losada’s project with Barbara Frederickson, aiming to find a mathematical formula for happiness. Zoiks!]

– Okay, so now we were running late. Mark put up a slide saying Apter’s Motivational States but had no time to talk about it, so I wrote it down. [I've subsequently found a link about it: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Reversal_theory – I can see why we skipped past it; that stuff is going to take some explaining!]

– To sum-up: ask good (open) questions, use different types of influence, be relevant, exceptional, unexpected and take credit where credit’s due. Okay!

===

 

Afterthoughts:


*My fears of a slick snake-oil salesman were unfounded; he seems like a nice guy. Or at least he influenced me to think he was! I even forgave him the fulsome use of clipart …

Having live-polling of the audience via the Guidebook app didn’t work brilliantly smoothly (we were pretty rushed, so the results weren’t discussed) but as an idea to get folks involved, I like it.

Perhaps because this was all new stuff to me, and/or because to was generalised rather than arts-marketing specific, I felt like I got quite a lot of useful, practical stuff from it.

===

Up next: (Very brief) Keynote notes on a stupid f***ing lobby experience and an expensive yet loyally-frequently-attended living museum …

In the meantime, you might find my write-ups from the AMA Conference 2013 useful:
David Carlin, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Kim Mitchell, MoMA
Owen Hughes, Wolff Olins
 

AMA: Adapting your message …

Categories: Learning things, Useful/interesting

Arts Marketing Association 2015 conference banner

This year's Arts Marketing Association conference was held just down the road from Supercool HQ at The REP (plus a drinks reception with our friends at mac birmingham).

In the spirit of sharing and learning and stuff, here're some tidied-up notes on the first session I went to – I thought this'd be a useful one as we have several clients with a very similar core audience demographic to Northern Ballet.

[My thoughts/asides are in square brackets.]

===

Adapting your message to reach different target groups

Laraine Penson – Director of Communications, Northern Ballet

“Focus on the user and all else will follow” Google Truth

– Northern Ballet’s current core audience are middle class, middle aged, white, well-off Telegraph and Daily Mail readers who shop at M&S and Waitrose. 1.9m households in the UK fit this MOSAIC profile so it’s an important demographic. MOSAIC is a good segmentation tool to use as it’s used by corporates – so if you’re looking to partner with corporates, you're making it easy to compare audience/client profiles.

– Print and email are most liked by this demographic; though their presence is growing on social media. Northern Ballet would’ve liked to advertise in Waitrose magazine, for example, but the cost is prohibitive so instead they advertise in car parks near M&S and Waitrose stores. [Think laterally]

– Learning more about the audience included finding their primary reason for attending arts and cultural stuff:
    - Captivation
    - Emotional engagement
    - Appreciation of artistry
    - Shared experience
    - Visual spectacle
    - Anticipation
    - The ‘afterglow’

– Northern Ballet have been sending short emails a couple of days before people come to see a performance with info such as character profiles. This help build people’s anticipation, and helps them to feel better informed about what they’re about to see. A huge barrier with ballet [and also classical music] is “What if I don’t understand it?” / “Will I get it?” [I love the idea of giving people these added extra bits of information in advance, so the experience starts a bit earlier. Deeper knowledge = deeper engagement with the company/venue etc. Giving people a clear idea of what to expect also takes away some of the risk of committing – though in this case they’ve already bought a ticket.]

– 5 years ago Northern Ballet rebranded with the main changes being to imagery and tone of voice. They’ve invested a lot in very high quality photography – which Laraine says has really paid off – and they now make sure every show has a professional-looking, high quality set of ‘emotive’ imagery. [The core thought being “show, don’t tell”, which I wholeheartedly agree with.] They also have this sort of info. on their website. Another branding change was to overhaul their copy and tone of voice to be more ‘experiential’ [rather than explanatory and/or salesy].

– To expand audience, they experimented with reaching out to new ACE-defined audiences who should (according to Culture Segments segmentation) be receptive to them; Fun, Fashion and Friends, and Dinner & A Show (nearest crossover with core audience). They ran an ‘experience’ for glossy mag journalists, supported by a range of corporate partners: East Coast trains brought people to Leeds; they had a Great Gatsby-themed make-up demo by MAC cosmetics, lunch at Harvey Nichols, saw The Great Gatsby ballet, and stayed in a partner hotel for the night. It cost Northern Ballet nothing but the tickets, and the time it took to put the package together – everything else was covered by partnerships. They got coverage from every publication invited, including a follow-up piece on Vogue’s website with a competition (to win a ‘package experience’) which reached approx. 2m people.

– The secrets of effective messaging: keep it short (no more than 30 words), truthful, credible, relevant and clear. And repeat it. Repetition makes sure it’s heard, reinforces and reminds people of core message/s. [Repetition makes sure it’s heard, reinforces and reminds people of core message/s … wink]

– Consistent messaging across diverse channels = engagement.

photo of Laraine Penson's talk

[No need to squint – the text from the slide pictured is below]

–  Some internet-related stats:

  • The average Brit checks their phone 50 times a day
  • 46% of 18-24yr olds check their phone every 15 minutes
  • 77% of adults in the UK have broadband
  • 20% of viewers abandon video after 10 seconds (so put your most important message first)
  • YouTube is the second most popular search engine [Hmm. More accurately, it has the second most popular search function on the internet – I dispute it being a ‘search engine’. Though I can be a bit of a pedant …]

– Northern Ballet tried making some 'teaser' trailers, and they didn't perform anything like as well (in terms of views) as trailers or snippets of film of the actual productions. [Again; showing people exactly what to expect is popular]

– Direct mail is still a very effective form of communication – as long as it's well targeted and well designed; specifically for the people you're talking to.

– Provide moments of magic to make your offer the easy choice for people.

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Up next: Notes on Influencing Upwards: Asking the Right Questions by Mark Wright of People Create.