Distance and Dial-ups: How We’ve Survived 26 Years As a Distributed Team
from DesignToast, the AIGA/LA e-magazine aimed at fellow designers
My job has disappeared.
My IBM PC is in the trunk of my car. It’s August 1993.
Somehow, the 90’s recession has taken a while to manifest in the design industry. Major firms are now struggling and smaller ones are tanking. The past year has been hell.
My own studio has folded after watching a ready-to-start $600,000 project evaporate — right after I moved my staff into a beautiful new 2-story, remodeled office. I had taken on too much overhead at a very bad time.
I’d gone to work for a fellow AIGA LA board member. But he’s been going through the same financial horrors. Thankfully, he has just managed to sell his business and has gotten out from under the crushing debt and pressure. But my role isn’t part of the sale.
So here I am stuck in traffic thinking, Now what?
I know I don’t want to take on another big office with a big staff, and the big monthly nut that goes along with it. But I know that, after running my own (previously successful) firm for years, I really don’t love working for someone else. Can’t I just work from home for a while until I figure things out?
Sure. I’ll need to spend $10,000 or so ($18K in 2019 money) for a Mac Centris 650, a color CRT monitor, a scanner and a LaserWriter.
And I guess I’d better get a dial-up modem.
A modulator-demodulator. A noisy electronic box that buzzes and burps crazily until it connects to another modem over a phone line, and then fills the air with hissing static as it slowly transfers a small file to someone at the other end.
That was the genesis of my current firm, FreeAssociates: a collection of independent designers and writers working together, associating freely with each other while free-associating. And using technology to stay connected.
Before the idea of a distributed workforce was a thing, we were one. Still are.
How was that possible in 1993? And how have things changed?
In the early days, we’d simply get together. If a file was small, we might send it to one another to review. But more often than not, there’d be a lot of hand-sketching, model-building and printed comps to look at. We’d meet over lunch, or at one of our homes. Then we’d follow it up with phone calls. Over time, we built trust.
As a creative director, I’ve never felt the need to breathe down my colleagues’ necks. I believe in hiring the best people I can find, then letting them be amazing. I realize that they will often see a problem differently than I do. Their fresh approach might be equally valid, and sometimes wildly more original, than mine. And that’s a good thing for our clients.
These days, we meet less often. Instead, we use screen-sharing to look over each other’s shoulders as we develop ideas together. In many ways, it’s better. It feels like a shared process, but with more directly usable outputs. Our tool of choice right now is join.me, which we use for meetings and presentations, too. But we’ve used Zoom and Slack to share screens as well.
While we love getting together as a group when we can, everyone is very comfortable working on his or her own most of the time. I suppose we’re all at least part-time introverts.
The other side of that coin is that we do make great personal connections in our phone calls. And we’re finding that’s true of our clients as well. We’ve had clients all around the U.S. As they’ve gotten more comfortable with remote workers in their own companies, they’ve become more comfortable working that way with us. We travel to see them occasionally, and they travel here. But we find that, even with our L.A.-based clients, we just don’t get together as often as we think we’re going to.
FreeAssociates did acquire a physical office for a while. It was a central hub for project management and sometimes for designers who were local. And we had a nice conference room. Which I think, in over a decade, clients visited perhaps a dozen times.
Meetings were almost always at our client’s offices, and more often we’d send PDFs and talk on the phone. Or, eventually, we’d do screen-shared presentations. The conference room got used for our own internal meetings — and for lunch.
Now, no more central office. No more conference room.
One thing we’re good at is critiquing each others’ ideas. Gently but clearly, communicated with humor and a light touch. We know we’re all smart, talented and well-meaning. So there’s no harshness. We’re on the same team.
And, by the way, so are our clients. They have their own pressures and craziness going on. So we try to understand that and be responsive without letting them entirely run the show. And when things get intense, we’re there for each other. At odd hours or on weekends, we’re a team and we help each other succeed.
Overlaying too many systems and software solutions often messes things up. Trust is the key, along with clear communication. So we do check-ins periodically. But not constantly. I look at work once or twice while it’s developing, not every few hours. The whole idea is not to drive each other crazy. To be responsible for our roles and our projects. To own them.
We’ve used Basecamp for a very long time to manage our projects. Their philosophy of keeping things simple meshes well with our style. It keeps progress and revisions documented but mostly stays out of the way. We use Slack for more casual, conversational communication. For emergencies, we text. Or talk. (Novel concept, I know.)
Obviously, this just scratches the surface. For more on managing a distributed creative workforce, I highly recommend Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book “Remote: Office Not Required”. They’re mere babies at doing this compared to us (they started in 1999) but with 50 employees in 32 cities, they know their stuff. And they have a nice list of other materials you can read here.
Running a remote workforce is challenging. But also rewarding. You have access to a huge talent pool and your people have a wonderfully flexible way to integrate work with the rest of their busy lives. We’ve found ways to make it work for 26 years, first with “ancient” technology and then with the cool tools available today. But at the core, it’s talented people and mutual trust that make a distributed team flourish.
Advisory Board Member and Past President
AIGA Los Angeles