February 21, 2024

Part two of our 'How to transition to remote working' blog series. By Terry MacDonald and Chris Horsley.

Since our last post we've been inundated with requests asking for more details on how we work remotely at Cosive. For those who don't know us, we're a specialist IT security company that has been working completely remotely since 2015. And when I say we have been working remotely, I mean we don't have offices at all. We're fully online, with staff distributed across Australia and New Zealand.

Our fully remote workforce has, of course, given us challenges to solve. We've had to find ways of working smoothly without having the ability to go over and tap someone on the shoulder for a quick conversation. We've had to find ways of making all our disparate systems work together, and over many years we've found a solution that works well.

Over the next series of articles, we'll be documenting what we've learnt, to help accelerate those getting up to speed with remote work in the midst  of the global pandemic.

How to have a meeting

In my previous life in a physical office, having a meeting meant booking a room in Outlook, and then walking downstairs to meet everyone in the room I'd just booked. At Cosive, we do exactly the same thing, we just do it online.

We've tried a huge range of video conferencing solutions over the years including:

  • Cisco Webex
  • GotoMeeting
  • Zoom
  • Uberconference
  • Skype for Business
  • Skype
  • Slack Calling
  • Google Hangouts/Meet

Each of those options listed above have their own benefits and negatives, but we settled on the following solutions.

Internal Team and Project Meetings

We use Google Meet (also called Hangouts Meet) for our video conferencing for internal meetings. It’s part of the Google G Suite subscription, and we've found it works amazingly well. If you use Google Chrome as your web browser then it's unbelievably smooth to use. We find it works well even over slower broadband connections.

If you use Google Calendar, then you can easily associate a Google Meet room with a weekly recurring Team Meeting and know that you will have a meeting room just waiting for you.

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We create a separate Meet room for each project to avoid clashes in usage. We also copy the Google Meet URL and paste it into the topic of each Slack topic channel, as that allows people to all quickly get to the Meet room if they need a quick chat about a project or customer.

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Cosive has a hard rule that everyone must always have their webcam turned on in all video meetings. So much communication happens non-verbally, and we've found it a requirement to be able to communicate effectively. It also allows you to get to know each other well and avoids anyone feeling left out.

We've found that people really like this rule, and it really helps when you only get to meet your team in person once a year!

Customer meetings

We tried to use Google Meet for customer meetings too, but that didn't work so well. Based on our testing, Google Meet doesn't like the way most organisations configure their firewalls. We've found that we needed to use a different video conferencing solution in order to communicate smoothly with customers.

After many years we've landed on Zoom as our customer-facing video conferencing solution of choice. It's easy to install, works well, has good features, and (critically) works with most organisations' security controls. We use it for all our customer-facing communications.

How to chat at the watercooler

Working remotely means it's a bit harder to get those little watercooler chats that happen naturally when you work on site with people. But we've tried our hardest to replicate that too.

We use Slack to replicate that experience. Slack is a great way to have those little side conversations that make working with talented people so interesting. But it can get a little out of hand if you don't put some rules in place.

We've found that adding some simple structure to our Slack Workspace helps people communicate easier and faster. We've divided our conversations into various channels related to particular topics, each with a naming structure associated with them:

  • Per customer channels: These channels are for discussing each customer we have at an 'account' level. They are named cust-<customer>.
  • Per customer project channels: These channels are for discussing each project we do for a customer. They are named proj-<customer>-<project>.
  • Per sub-team channels: These are for each team we have at Cosive. The administrative teams have #admin and #finance, and and support teams have one for #support, and the board have an #board just for them
  • General channels: We have a channel for #news, and another one for #random. We unfortunately also have a new one for #covid-19 :(. We’d respect that not everyone wants to hear yet more confronting news at work, so into a channel it goes.
  • Announcing to everyone: That's done in #general, and everyone gets subscribed to #general. This is also where people check in and out as they arrive and leave for the day, as well as taking a break away from the keyboard.

The channel naming makes it easier for our teams to know where to look for conversations, and having those conversations in channels makes it really easy to search for things later on if you need to. It also means that people can subscribe to the minimal set of channels they need to avoid excessive noise in their unread notifications.

The asynchronous nature of the conversations is great too. You can leave a question for someone, and they can come back to you when they're back from their break, or when they've finished their Pomodoro interval.  

How to do standup

One question we've received a lot of questions about is how to do standup. A standup is a quick 5-10 min meeting held once a day where people go through what they did yesterday, what they will be working on today, and mention any issues blocking their work. A lot of companies have embraced standups, and teams seem to find this a difficult thing to transition over to remote working.

As most of our communication happens through Slack, we wanted a solution that worked with that. Also, as we're spread over multiple time zones, we wanted something that would handle that fact too.

We settled on Standuply. Standuply is a Slack bot that integrates into Slack, and each morning at 9am in their timezone, it asks each person in our company:

  • What they did yesterday,
  • What they will be working on today, and
  • Are there any issues blocking their work.

Standuply then collects all that information, and broadcasts it to the #standup channel.

Slack has recently improved it's built in workflow features, and one of the recent options allows for Standuply-style functionality, so we're investigating if we can move to that instead.

How to have a quick phonecall

OK, so what if you just want to talk to someone quickly about something? You can always call them on their mobile/cellphone, but we do something slightly different. We call them through Slack Calling. The free version of Slack allows for 1:1 phone calls, where the paid version also gives you group and channel calling. This allows us to again use video so we feel like we're really talking to someone. Here's a great link showing how it works.

We use Slack Calling for 1:1 meetings, and for quick chats where we can't be bothered typing so much.

How to access the organisation's 'Shared Drive'

Another big change for large organisations is how to allow people to access the organisation's shared files. As mentioned earlier, we use Google G Suite, and as we have Business subscription we are able to use Google Drive Shared Drives.

All people in Cosive have access to a series of Shared Drives that we have created in Google Drive. They can access those drives through a web interface, or they can use Google File Stream to make it seem like the Google Shared Drives are a local Windows or Mac drive.

How to write documents rapidly with simultaneous editing

One of the most powerful things about using Google G Suite is the ability for multiple people to edit a file at once. You can open a Document, a Spreadsheet or a Presentation and have multiple people editing it at the same time. This has been unbelievably useful if we've needed to get a document out urgently, and it's something that we didn't know we needed until we used it.

Google Docs is a word processor, allowing you to open Word docs, LibreOffice docs, PDFs  and others, as well as export those same document formats. You can create company templates, and then have them available for all users. And even better, Google Docs stores all the revisions of your document, so you can return to any previous version if you don't like the one you have!

Google Sheets is the spreadsheet editor, just like Microsoft Excel. We often end up with multiple people editing spreadsheets, especially if we're doing quotes for customers. There is the full gamut of spreadsheet functions available, including conditional formatting and the ability to run scripts to programmatically do functions.

Google Slides is just like Microsoft Powerpoint. You can import and export presentations from Powerpoint, and all changes, comments and edits are saved automatically, and all revisions stored.  

We've tried Office 365 in the past, and we found that too painful to use compared to Google G Suite. The multi-person editing was just too clunky, and we found it was just too easy to overwrite edits that someone else had already made. Version tracking for the file was overly onerous. Google Suite just doesn't have those problems.

Wrap up

Transitioning to remote working may seem scary, but done right it is an incredible enabler. We've had staff working from Japan, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand at the same time with no impact to operations. We have had people working from Internet Cafes, Hotels, Friend's houses and Beach houses, and even the beach itself, and no one has noticed a difference.

Remote working gives you flexibility with minimal downsides, and I know we'll never be going back.

If you need any help setting up remote working within your business, help moving your network into the cloud, or you're struggling with security related issues such as obtaining endpoint protection that's compatible with remote working, then get in contact. We'd love to help you out.