Musings on human-centric remote culture

Cy Wise
March 31, 2020

This post was originally written by Cy Wise, co-founder and COO of absurd:joy, on March 31, 2020.

Oh hi friends! Cy here to chat big chats about the very topical notion of working remotely. I know many game developer and other tech or tech-adjacent companies are now either moving to, or discussing the practicality of, moving to a remote studio structure (either temporarily or maybe even… f o r e v e r?). I can’t speak to any sort of studio other than the game dev variety, but this process can be weird and tricky in the best of times, and we don’t exactly appear to be in the best of times. absurd:joy was founded as a remote studio, but we all cut our teeth on physical offices. Through prior experience and a whole bunch of trial-and-error we found some things that made our studio function as a better studio! If you too are a company made up of traditionally indie developers making software, you may glean something interesting from our journey and lessons!

There’s a ton of information out there right now about productivity tools and time management structures. This blog is not that. If you are looking for that sort of info, I highly recommend Lyndsey Gallant’s Full Indie talk, Maybe The Internet Is Good Sometimes: The Totally Remote Game Studio. We basically follow this exact structure; it’s awesome and Lyndsey’s talk is super informative and also is a delight to watch. Please enjoy it with your beverage of choice.

Instead, I’m going to be talking more about the productivity that comes from minds and hearts feeling safe and supported. The human beings on your team are amazing in a huge part because of the not-necessarily-work parts of their brains. Giving your teammate-friends the space to feel like they are more than the set of their skills, and more than their level of output, makes them confident and comfortable enough to be better at both. Heck yeah! Everyone does good work and feels good about it! We can live in our lovely creative Utopia.

Especially in this weird time (but probably also all the time?!) the workplace provides many people with a majority of their social interaction in a given workday. This gives the studio an opportunity to provide some bits of normalcy, structure, and consistent social input, but also facilitate a culture that adds to the enjoyment of all of heckin’ LIFE.

So here we go: absurd:joy’s Top Three Tips and Tricks for Remote Studio Culture and Social Cohesion!

Morning Coffee

Cy's musings from Tangle talking about coffee talks

Remember all those morning coffees you used to have in the office? You’d head off to the break room to get some sweet morning sips and you’d meet your coworkers and chat about games/food/news/new workouts/family stories until you start agonizing about how much time you’ve wasted this morning and hurry back to your desk to get started?

Turns out those moments are super important; not just to facilitating culture, but also to better creative output! Those discussions grease your brain wheels by giving you inputs you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Someone’s personal experience over the weekend might make you brain differently. A new youth meme you never heard about might inspire a new interesting direction! You also get a good sense of the tone and mood of the team, and may glean some casual-yet-honest insight into something that might be tripping up work. Break rooms are truly the unsung hero of studio culture and it’s usually the first thing that gets lost in the transition to remote.

On a normal workday, the Absurdists set aside a solid hour for Morning Coffee, which starts when the last person logs on for their normal start of the day. We almost never hit this full hour— we still self-regulate by way of that horribly nagging internal guilt telling us that we are Being Bad By Not Working and it naturally wraps up in 20-30 minutes. But we never plan for that– we need to give Morning Coffee room to breathe and express itself to its fullest. And like all teams, when we get excited and jazzed by something, we tend to head straight to making things (such is the nature of creative fields) but we aim to spend some segment of everyday talking about non-work things.

Studio Rituals

Cy's musings from Tangle discussing studio rituals

A lot of seasoned remote humans have been talking about the importance of daily rituals in regards to facilitating your own productivity. (Common examples include “take a shower” and “set consistent work hours” and “put on pants”) This comes from the fact it’s very, very easy to conflate the concept of “work from home” with “always available” which is absolutely, very obviously, incorrect.

While personal rituals are A++, studio-wide daily rituals are also super helpful for this. Help set boundaries via sweet little start and end rituals the whole company takes part in. This sets tone and culture while also giving people the permission they may need to allow themselves to not think about work.

We are in a constant video call all day and deeply prioritize speaking to each other with our mouths, rather than leaning too heavily on messenger clients or email, however, several of the reasons we do use messenger are for our daily rituals. With that, here are some examples of text channels we’ve put in place to support our rituals:

People pop in here when they start their day and write some variant of “hello good morning!” This does multiple jobs— it flags the start of someone’s day even before morning coffee and it encourages polite social norms! It also does double duty as the place where team-friends can let us know if they are sick/using a mental health day/running errands/aren’t working that day. Breakfast photos or photos of animals being too cute to let us work also often feature.

Andy says: Some mornings, I’m laying in bed, looking at the news and feeling shitty about the world, then people start trickling in with their Good Mornings!, and it brings me hope and joy and actually motivates me to get out of bed and start the day with a positive attitude.

People use this channel to write what they are proud of having done that day. This very specifically differs from general studio policies meant to keep everyone in the loop on what people are working on– it is meant to be less about accountability and more about pride in the invisible things we contributed to. A lot of the work humans do often include deep research, investigating a solution that dead ends, or tanking an annoying phone call from the lawyer. These are all important parts of the process of making creative artifacts! Let’s celebrate them! This also generally signals the end of day and let’s people take a moment to unpack and reflect on what their day was.

A note about messenger expectations:
Slack, Discord, email and the like are asynchronous and that is DOPE. But sometimes it comes to our phones and we think we have to answer immediately because we accidentally forgot again that we aren’t always available. Whups! We’re very explicit with the team that we don’t expect immediate responses in these mediums, and we reinforce this in after-hours by absolutely not messaging back immediately. Or, if we need to, we make it a Number! (shameless Numbers! blog post plug!).

These are our rituals. Riff on them and make your own! Or don’t and steal ours! We don’t mind!

Social Time!

Cy's musings from Tangle talking about social elements of the remote workforce

Those casual hangouts and events like grabbing drinks after work, or meeting up early for coffee fall by the wayside HARD when you are remote. Not everyone is into them, but those who are into them really feel the absence when working remotely. They may struggle to find a way to connect with their team-friends when there isn’t an explicit space for it. Ideally, everyone self-organizes these, and maybe they eventually will! Until then, it’s an opportunity for the studio to organize options for these sorts of hangouts.

The a:j team is pretty social, we like each other a whole lot, and we have a lot of the same interests in games, so we end up doing this around once a week. Choose your own time-commitment comfort level, but be sure to set it aside for drinks or games or some social something. You might want to end work an hour earlier (or start an hour later) to accommodate people with less flexible schedules.

We tend to invite everyone to play games. (Even if they don’t normally play that game– it’s more about the socializing than any expectation of having 1337 skillzz). Animal Crossing lunches have become real popular here. Sometimes we get together for a casual match of an FPS so we can spraypaint stencils on walls and admire them. Tonight, we’re just grabbing a tasty beverage. Next week, we might meet up in VR, who knows!

Whatever your studio’s thing is, just give it conscious space to exist online.

So yeah…

A traditional physical office contains both work things and non-work things. When moving to an entirely remote culture, implementing your own rituals and practices helps a ton to create the structures to support the lost non-work communication moments. Without these in place, a remote team can be deprived of the social aspect that a physical office affords.

All of that said, we’re a five-person team of very similar backgrounds and sets of interests. We certainly have not tested the scalability of some of these things beyond this size. Probably some of these scale Very Very Badly (looking at you Morning Coffee). So keep in mind that your own milage on our very specific solutions may vary. This is absolutely as it should be! Your studio and culture is not our studio and culture! Each team has its own voice, mood, tone, and sense experience. But how that expresses itself when not actively involved in the process of creation defines direction and affords the opportunity for that to grow and evolve. Chat with your team, examine what’s working for them and what they’re missing, and try experimenting with different things to recreate that studio sense experience and get that heckin’ remote team BOND.

Infinite joy,

Cy Wise

By Cy Wise

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