Tools for a flowing company

Over the last few years, OCSI has grown as a company – in terms of numbers of staff, size of office, formality of processes, maturity of products and codebase to match.

Throughout that growth, we’ve challenged ourselves to remain flexible enough that members of the team can work anywhere and everywhere. In an era of fast fibre, slow trains, and small children, valuing efficient communication is one of our top priorities (along with strong coffee and vibrant post-it notes).

In this blog, I thought it would be interesting to look at the various tools we use for better communication across the team.

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Flow is flexibility

In short, we have people working in the office, working from home, on the road, and part time.  Having everyone in the same physical location at the same time is generally cause for celebration, Christmas crackers and a new team photo.

With all this flexibility (probably a familiar challenge to many modern businesses) our tools are geared up to making sure people can access information that they need as soon as possible. Having things locked up in other people’s brains, calendars or email accounts can mean something not happening for days, if not weeks.

Background over – so what do we actually need in order to get on with our jobs?

Planning

OCSI is a busy office and there are a hundred things every day that we could be doing. We need to juggle time spent across all of our research and development projects, both small and large, so we spend a fair bit of time working out what to do next.

Like a lot of tech focused teams, we run a (fairly loose) Scrum approach, mixed in with more traditional project management depending on the type of project.  Members of our research team often set the scope for what our development team are aiming for, and our development team often provide support for making researchers’ lives easier.

It can get pretty messy, so we keep track of tasks in Jira  and use a mixture of its Scrum and Kanban features to flag up high-value tasks. By regularly prioritising tasks into our backlog like this, we’re then able to pick up work we know is useful and providing value to our clients.

Real-time: Avoid bottlenecks

One two, one two, testing testing

Face-to-face chat is a given, of course. Plus we work in an open plan office where anyone is generally approachable, including a quick whip-round (not literally) each morning of what everyone is up to. One of our ongoing challenges is to keep that sense of immediacy when people aren’t in the office.While no tool we’ve tried has been 100% perfect, so far we find Skype to be generally the easiest and most reliable for real-time voice and video. More importantly, we’ve found that it’s essential to hook up a good conference speakerphone – we often have 2 or 3 people ‘dialling in’, but 10 people standing around the mic. We also had everyone connected remotely via Skype when we couldn’t use our office recently. Top tip – ask everyone to mute themselves unless they’re talking, especially if they’re typing. We also use WebEx for larger training sessions and webinars with clients and partners. Many of our public sector users can’t access Skype inside their organisation, but WebEx seems more widely allowed.

When the immediacy of Skype isn’t needed, or the space for speaking out loud isn’t available, we (like many others) often default to a company wide Slack room for quick, simple comms. We’ve been using this over the summer, and where it started out as a way to include remote staff in general chit-chat, we’ve now expanded to use specific chatrooms for specific work, functional teams, and other groups of people (#beards, anyone?).

The ability to quickly flag something up to someone’s attention is a pretty big deal, on reflection. Too much communication suffers from being “blanket”, like emails to the whole office, so that attention gets diffused and the content gets glossed over. By letting users grab others’ attention easily on a “need to know” basis, the company as a whole gets less bogged down.

Shared memories: Documenting decisions

As OCSI has grown, changed and evolved over the last few years, we’ve experimented with lots of ways of working. Some of these have worked better than others, and we like to reflect regularly (every two weeks through a ‘retrospective’, in fact) on what could be improved.

There’s also the inherently changeable nature of fast-flowing work to deal with. In both cases, we think it is important that everyone knows what decisions have been made about what to do, and how to do it.

We’re still a fairly small team and asking around informally is a very practical way to find out. A few months back we decided to commit to documenting processes more, to avoid bottlenecks, but also to help bring new people up to speed, and remind ourselves of something when we returned to it 6 months down the line.

Apart from Jira, which we use for tracking decisions on each piece of work, we also use Confluencean internal wiki  and Google Drive as our memory banks.

Confluence, apart from tying in with Jira well, is pretty powerful but has the advantage of being very easy to edit. WYSIWYG editing, plus being able to notify other users with a quick “@” mean it’s easy to bring people’s attention to something, as with Slack.

Sometimes though (especially if you’re a dev), you just want to jump to a page, edit a section and put some quick bullet points in. Our wiki is great for fast-access documentation, so long as people are happy with the formatting.

Google Drive, meanwhile is brilliant for dynamic, real-time collaboration. There’s much less risk of conflicts, or content being overridden, and users are generally set up with a Google account already. A key part is learning how to share documents in the right way, though – working out permissions across an organisation can take a bit of getting your head around.

And there’s more

In addition to these tools, which we use across the whole company, as individuals we also use tools that make our working day that little bit easier, from Workflowy to TweetDeck to HighRise (GitHub, DropBox, Office365 –  I could go on) and of course, the timeless classic – pen and paper.

We’ve spent a fair bit of time testing out different tools and working out what works for us. But it’s a moving target – our own needs and processes change constantly, and we either adapt the tools we use to match, or get adapted by new tools coming out.

There are hundreds of innovative tools when it comes to internal communications and what we’ve covered here is barely a needle in a haystack. As we continue on our journey to streamline processes, we mustn’t forget the simple things; a chat over a cup of coffee can clear up a potential mis-understanding in seconds (any excuse for coffee really…).

 

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