Piktochart hasn’t always been semi-remote. Back in 2011, the early Piktochart team worked exclusively out of our headquarters in Penang, Malaysia. Circumstances, however, caused our CEO and founder Ai Ching to reconsider our team distribution.
A huge fraction of our users come are in the United States, and she was inundated with customer service calls from the Western Hemisphere at all times of the day (and night).
It was a less than ideal setup. As much as we love our users, no one likes to be awakened by the customer support phone at two in the morning.
“[So] we started our hunt on Odesk — now Upwork — and found John, who is still with us today,” Ai Ching recounted.
Then working in the Eastern Standard Time zone, John had the honor of being Piktochart’s first remote worker. With that came a new set of considerations:
“At that time, we did not quite know how to deal with remote people, and we hired them as freelancers for the first year and a half […] meaning that there are “no strings attached” with Piktochart. We would not have to think about including them in our Monday Mornings Meetings, getting their feedback via surveys, consider the perks of being in Piktochart for them, etc.”
The turning point came when Marta, our Head of Marketing, decided to head back to Europe after spending a year in the Penang office. She wanted to be closer to home and to her family, and Piktochart supported her. Ai Ching knew that the remote working situation would have to change going forward for the sake of team collaboration:
“We then realized that there were two pressing challenges. We had to make sure that the remote people truly felt like they were part of the team, and that the two groups were treated on an equal footing.”
Since then, our remote team has grown rapidly. Working across four continents, we’ve had our fair share of problems with time zones and virtual team communication, but we’re happy to report that things have been working out well.
Naturally, making it work doesn’t all fall entirely on to the company. A significant portion of the responsibility for keeping healthy, happy, and productive falls on the remote worker, too.
Through the months and years spent getting settled in new cities and finding out what schedules work best for each of us, our non-headquarters-based team members have learned a thing or two about how to make remote working, well, work.
We thought we could share with you a list of the must-have apps and tools we use to get our remote work done. This is by no means complete, and it may change a bit by the time you read it, but the approach remains the same.
Managing Our Time
One of the biggest challenges that comes with having a semi-distributed team is scheduling. With team members everywhere from Asia to Europe to both of the Americas, knowing who’s awake and working when plays a large role in our virtual team communication. Much like Ai Ching didn’t care for answering the phone at 2 AM, some of our remote teams members (myself included) like to have a chance to fix their hair before a Google Hangout.
Figure It Out (FIO)
Marta clued me in to this gem of a Chrome extension. Figure It Out (FIO) gives you an overview of the time zones of your choosing whenever you create a new tab.
It also has a handy feature I’m dubbing “Futurecast” (like a forecast for the future) that lets you scroll forward in time before simply tossing a meeting into Google Calendar and hoping for the best. Particularly around the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time, this extension has saved us countless apologies for being an hour late to a team meeting.
Timezone.io is similar to FIO in that it will allow you to see what time it is wherever your teammates are located. It’s better suited for larger teams (or entire organizations) that are spread out over more locations.
It also has a “Futurecast”-type feature for scheduling, and the avatars can make it easier to see where everyone is at a glance. The onus is on each team member to regularly update his or her location, so this is great if you have a team member or two who are prone to globetrotting (or, like our Community Evangelist Jacqueline Jensen, are a part of a program like Remote Year).
Buffer and Tweetdeck
When I discovered Buffer for the first time, I thought it was magic. Not only does it allow you to save a collection of tweets for posting, it will do the posting for you based on when your audience is most engaged. That’s so important when one of your company values is to be user-driven. You don’t have to stay up to the wee hours of the morning to engage with them. You can pop into their timeline whenever it’s best for them.
Tweetdeck also lets you schedule posts in advance, but it’s more focused on the conversation than the sharing. You can set up an array of columns and filters to view exactly what you’re looking for. I’ve used it to keep track of Twitter chats, and we have preset filters for common misspellings of our brand name (Picktochart, anyone?) so that we never miss a user in need.
Cooperation Makes It Happen
Team collaboration is another hurdle we’ve had to overcome here at Piktochart. There are seven of us, and only Wilson and Harrison work out of headquarters. That means the rest of us take advantage of a collection of online collaboration tools to help ease the pain of trying to write, edit, and publish in multiple channels of communication while also interacting with our users and the community all over the world.
For a while, I ran my entire work life through Trello. It is a HUGE part of out team collaboration setup. Our entire organization has more boards than I care to count in place for managing everything from our blog editorial calendar to suggestions for features and improvements.
Trello uses the kanban paradigm for managing projects: projects are represented by boards, which contain lists; lists contain cards; and cards are supposed to progress from one list to the next (via drag-and-drop). It’s all visual and easy to understand once you dive in. By using the calendar and team member features (along with some templates we’ve created), our remote team members can see at a glance where ongoing projects stand.
Like many companies, we rely on Google’s suite of Office-style apps to collaborate. Blog posts are written and edited in Google Docs; we track metrics in Sheets; and we use Google to host our email and calendar servers. We’re not doing anything new or special with the applications, but their existence has made working all over the world considerably easier. Add to that the offline functionality and you’ve got a great way to spend a 16-hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong (to Kuala Lumpur to Penang).
Communication is Key ?
You know the saying “Strong relationships are built on clear communication”? That goes double for when people have oceans between them. This category of apps and tools is the largest on our list and for good reason.
It’s easy to feel isolated and alone when you work remotely, particularly when there’s a home office with your teammates and a fully stocked kitchen. The tools we use to communicate help us feel sane and connected. We get together once or twice a year as a team to give hugs and high fives. In the mean time, we communicate with these tools in order to hear a familiar voice and see a friendly face every once in a while.
Like the teams at NASA, Pinterest, Pinterest, and Harvard University, we use Slack as our central hub for communication. Email isn’t dead yet, but the asynchronous messaging and deep search capabilities Slack offers have made it essentially obsolete within our company. It integrates with other tools we use like Trello and Google Hangouts. Plus, the team at Slack has paid special attention to the details by making it easier to share GIFs and super-sizing emoji. We love Slack, and we’re finding new ways to use it every day.
I will admit that I was late to the WhatsApp party. Being one of our few team members that lives in the States, WhatsApp as a platform (at least among people my age) hadn’t caught on when I joined Piktochart. I didn’t see the appeal of another messaging app. Then I downloaded it in preparation for our annual team retreat and requested to be added to our Pikto group…
All I can say is WOW. For all of the company and productivity talk that happens in Slack, we have at least as much (if not more) going on in WhatsApp. Photos of team outings, birthday wishes, funny pictures, and of course the ever-present “don’t take this route to work” messages seem to happen at all hours of the day and night. Now that I’m keeping up witty Piktochart family in WhatsApp, I feel much more connected and part of the team.
Google Hangouts & Zoom
We use both Google Hangouts and Zoom for our virtual team communication. While we do most of our communication via text, there’s sometimes no substitute for hopping on a quick video call with a teammate to hash out an idea or brainstorm the best way around (or through!) a problem.
We’ve recently started using Zoom to broadcast and record our Monday Morning Meetings, our weekly standup meeting with announcements and recaps. Zoom has proven to be easy and reliable, and the integrated tools like recording and chat make it an easy tool to incorporate into our online collaboration workflows.
You’d Better Recognize
It can be difficult for remote team members to feel like a part of the overall company culture. The good news is that with a few tweaks and minor additions, along with some insight and forethought from the leadership and Human Resources personnel, it’s not so hard to get a taste of what life is like at HQ.
We use the Bonus.ly platform for interoffice recognition. Each team member is given an allotment of points every month, and when someone goes above and beyond, we’re encouraged to award them accordingly. Those awarded points can then be redeemed for gifts like a Pikto-Boy Band concert (What? Your team doesn’t have its own boy band?), a ThreadLess t-shirt, or a donation to a charity of your choice.
OfficeVibe is “a way to monitor employee satisfaction in real-time and give employees a way to express their feedback anonymously.” In layman’s terms, that means we use OfficeVibe to check the pulse of the office. Via a Slack integration, every team member gets a direct messages from Leo, the OfficeVibe bot, every two weeks. We each answer a short series of questions about our overall mood and feelings about ourselves, our team, and the company. These answers are then reported anonymously to our Human Resources department and team leaders so that they can get an honest sense of what’s happening outside of the blog posts and pull requests.
Ready, Set, Goal
Goal setting is a big part of business. Whether you’re working in an office or from your couch, it helps to have clear goals and a system in place for checking and reporting your progress towards them. At Piktochart, we use a few different web-based tools that allow everyone to check in and report their progress whether they’re in Malaysia, Miami, or Montenegro.
Our company, team, and individual goals are all set, updated, and monitored in Perdoo, an OKR tracking platform. OKR stands for “objectives and key results”. The system was invented at Intel and has been made popular by companies like Google and Uber.
Objectives are we want to accomplish, and they are typically something qualitative that names a set of key results. Key results are things like performance indicators or metrics. They are usually specific and measurable. By achieving the key results you want, you can reach your objective. At Piktochart, our OKRs are “stacked” in a way that allows everyone to see how the key results he or she is working on contributes to the company objectives.
Since we started using the system in 2016, we’ve had a greater amount of transparency about goals and a higher level of employee buy-in. Because of the literal and figurative distance, it would be easier for a remote team member to drift away from the business goals of a company. OKRs and Perdoo makes sure that everyone is informed and accountable.
While Perdoo tracks our quarterly goals and progress, we use Status Hero to track our daily progress. Originally meant as a tool to be used by teams in an agile environment, we use it to keep up with what everyone on the team is working on every day.
In the past few months, the team at Status Hero has added features like a Slack integration and comments that make keeping up with progress and accomplishments even easier. Part of my daily routine is to checkout what everyone else on the marketing team is working on, especially their blockers to make sure I’m not holding anyone up.
These must-have apps and tools have made working remotely feel much less like a solo journey, and we hope that you can add one or two (or more!) to your workflow. What tools do you find indispensable in your remote workflow? What did we miss? Let us know on Twitter or down in the comments!