Crisp Collaboration ToolsWritten by Dag Liodden on Apr 17, 2019, 1:55:00 PM
In a previous post, we discussed some of the goals we have for collaboration at Crisp. In this post we'll dig deeper into the actual tools enabling our way of work. We'll focus on our two main modes of working together; asynchronous and synchronous (real-time) collaboration.
Asynchronous collaboration: the short-comings of email
Email, which historically is considered to be an asynchronous communication channel, has become not only a time-suck, but increasingly more synchronous in nature. There is no way for the recipient of an email to see if an email is truly urgent or not without reading it. The expectations for response times are implicit and subjective to whoever sent the email and many expect responses within minutes, not hours or days. Email's basic threading mechanics also mean that the actual content produced in an email thread is pretty much worthless once a discussion is complete; it's only available to those who participated and comprehending the context / outcomes of the thread often means reading a lot of irrelevant noise.
Email replacement, document collaboration and work coordination
Dropbox Paper is a lesser-known Dropbox offering that we stumbled upon during our research into productivity and communication tools. On the surface, it's similar to Google Docs in that it allows for collaborative editing of text documents, but digging deeper, it has several features that truly sets it apart. For us, what made the biggest difference, is the possibility to add, schedule and assign tasks within the context of a specific document and discussion and - most importantly - easily allow a single person to see an overview of all tasks created and assigned to them across all documents.
It's by all means not a fully-fledged project management tool, but the simplicity and flexibility of the solution makes it surprisingly useful for keeping track of personal and team tasks, request input and collaborate on shared documents. Also, we really love the simple, yet beautiful, design of Paper - everything we write looks great (without a graphic designer)! Lastly, linking in Paper is akin to a wiki, which makes Paper useful as an information hub where relevant content is easy to discover.
Consider a decision-making process. We want to explore and discuss options, weigh them against each other and finally make a call. Once the decision is made, we want to share it and its rationale with anyone affected or interested. We also want to keep it tidy for our own reference if we need to revisit the decision in the future. Paper allows us to do just that. Instead of emailing back and forth and then maybe writing up a summary of the decision, we instead iterate on a document with tasks and commentary, updating facts and assumptions along the way. Once we know enough to make a call, the decision is made and already documented, available for everyone to review now and in the future.
We apply the same principles for almost all of our internal work, whether we're working on meeting agendas, product design, a project or a blog post. I generally catch up on my Paper notifications and tasks twice a day (often through the excellent Paper mobile app) and we all review the status of our team "Scratchpad" in advance of our team video calls, ensuring that everyone is prepared to discuss what needs synchronous attention. This works so well for us that I have received zero internal emails in the past month! Synchronous collaboration As great as having time to work uninterrupted and communicate asynchronously is, direct, synchronous communication is often required. Our preferred channel for this is video calls.
We have evaluated about a dozen video conferencing solutions over the past several weeks and the difference in service quality is surprisingly high. The way Google Meet is integrated with Google Calendar is incredibly convenient (especially when scheduling from a mobile device), but like all other solutions we have tested, it just can't compete with the call quality and stability of Zoom. Zoom is also significantly less resource hungry compared to many of the other products, saving your battery when you're on the road.
The need for screen real-estate
During a video call, we also typically collaborate in real-time on a Paper document. In many cases, the main speaker also shares a window on their screen, making it easier for the collaborators to follow along. We have found that screen real-estate is important to make this kind of collaboration effective - you want to have room to see the other participants, view screen-share content and be able to take your own notes. Many software engineers are used to using multiple external monitors, but we've discovered that a single ultra-wide monitor suites our tastes even better. Our choice is an amazing 38" LG monitor which also reduces cable clutter by receiving the image signal and charging your laptop through a single USB-C cable. We couldn’t ask for more.
Collaborating in Paper documents works great for many cases, but sometimes you just need to draw something free-hand. The lack of a physical whiteboard was a real pain-point for a while - some ideas are best explored visually through “old fashioned” drawing. There are several web-based real-time whiteboarding solutions available, but drawing with a mouse, touch-pad or with a finger on your phone or tablet just doesn't work. Neither does filming a whiteboard - only one person can draw on it and getting a clear picture with the right contrast and color rendering is challenging, to say the least. We finally landed on a combination of the 12" iPad Pro, Pencil and the iOS app for Google Jamboard (not the actual large-screen Jamboard hardware device). Participants can just follow along or join in on the collaborative drawing. Participants without an iPad at hand can easily follow along via their web browser or on their phones with the Jamboard apps.
For chat, we use Slack, but primarily as a way of initiating ad hoc Zoom calls using the Slack Zoom plugin. We are honestly happy with using Slack as little as we do and will monitor our use of it closely as we grow. After all, chat can become a constant source of interruption and distraction - the last thing we want is to reimplement the distracting "tap-on-the-shoulder" office dynamics in a remote setting.
We are excited to see how we can find light-weight processes that allow us to stay productive and happy in our current state as a small team - however, it is the scalability of the tools and routines that we’re setting up now that will ultimately determine the success of our working setup as we grow.
Although we are extremely happy overall with the tools we have selected, we are also constantly coming up with new ideas for improvement and bumping into limitations with the products we are using. We have deliberately chosen smaller, not-fully-integrated solutions which do one thing really well. This also allows us to more easily switch providers if more compelling solutions come to market. We will continue to elaborate on our setup, making adjustments and fine-tuning as we go, and will make sure to provide updates further down the line.