How to Survive Working with Remote Collaborators

Original Author: Ben Serviss

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Photo: Laptop

For many game developers, the appeal of working with remote collaborators is hard to pass up. If you’re an indie, cutting out office space costs and commuting time is a no-brainer. If you’re an established studio, being able to work with employees and contractors in remote locations grants you access to a far greater talent pool than whoever happens to live in your city.

But as with a well-balanced game, there are numerous trade-offs for the type of remote collaboration you embark upon. In my experience managing projects with collaborators in China, Korea and Russia, I’ve observed that these trade-offs can be easily quantified through three metrics, or difficulty multipliers: time zoneculture and language.

Simply put, for each one of these that differ between you and your collaborators, your required effort to keep the project on track increases significantly.

T, C, L

Working in different time zones is the easiest to manage. If you and your remote collaborators share the same culture and language, setting up meeting times and coordinating schedules is a minor, but manageable obstacle.

Next is culture. If you and your collaborator are working in different countries, but share the same time zone and language, you’ll need to stay vigilant for the many subtle miscommunications that may occur throughout the course of the project. Note that this also includes the specific studio culture, if you’re working with an established remote office.

Last, and the most complex difficulty multiplier to manage, is language. If your collaborators don’t speak the same language as you do natively or even at all, you’ll need to route communication through a third party. Properly setting up and managing this pipeline is critical to staying on track.

Calculating (Approximate) Effort

Things get trickier when you realize that not only do these multipliers stack, but the effort required for each combination increases in different ways. For purposes of taking general stock of your particular situation, here’s a rudimentary formula to help illustrate the challenges in taking on remote projects with different difficulty multipliers.

Because cost is widely variable when it comes to remote work and is entirely dependent on the location and studio, I chose to represent this formula in terms of overall effort involved, since its purpose is to give an approximate idea of the challenges ahead.

effort = base * (t * c * l)

Where base equals the base effort required if all collaborators were in the same office.

Where time zone (t), culture (c) or language (l) are the same, assign them a value of 1.

Where time zone (t), culture (c) or language (l) are different, t = 1.25, c = 1.5, and l = 1.75.

It’s one thing to be aware of the situation you’re getting into with remote work, but it’s another entirely to be prepared for the challenges to come. Here are some useful tools for handling the unique challenges of remote collaboration.

General

→ Meet the team ASAP. When you sign on to work with remote collaborators, plan to meet them in person as soon as you can. Putting a face to a name helps both sides think of each other as actual people instead of faceless entities that only exist in email to ask for things. Much like having character portraits in early RPGs helped to humanize otherwise pixelated characters, having your collaborators meet you in person will make you seem more like a flesh and blood human who is harder to ignore.

RPG character portraits help humanize their less-detailed character sprites. (Photo:

→ Video > voice > text. For communication, the more types of language cues you can convey, the better. The subtle inflections in your voice carry more information than in neutered text, and your unconscious body language in video chats is an even more powerful way to communicate.

→ The bigger fish picks the chat. When deciding what text chat client to use, go with whatever the bigger entity is using. If the 30-person studio you’re working with in Shanghai uses MSN Messenger, that’s what you should use. On the other hand, if the two contractors you hired in Moscow use ICQ and your 15-person studio uses Gchat, go with that. If you can use a client that supports multiple kinds of text chat, even better.

Time Zone

→ Set designated overlap hours. It’s helpful to formalize what times to designate as co-working times – when both sets of collaborators will be online. Even if the time difference is incredibly inconvenient, having a designated hour or even half hour for a daily sync will noticeably help keep things moving.

→ Set office hours. Setting guidelines for what times either studio can call the other is a great way to instill mutual respect (you can set separate rules for emergencies). This can help prevent resentment growing if you’re constantly calling your remote partner after hours, and also promotes better management on the managing end.

Culture

→ Visit ASAP. This is so important, it’s worth repeating. If you’ve never been to your collaborator’s country, go as soon as you can to get a better sense of their environment – both in terms of their country and their particular studio’s internal culture.

→ Do your homework. Research the social norms and acceptable behaviors of your collaborator’s country to best acquaint yourself with their mind-set. The more olive branches of understanding you can extend, the more likely they are to be truly collaborative with you.

Language

→ Dedicated translation. Set up a dedicated translation resource to help convey information and documents between teams. Take care when setting up this pipeline – it’ll form the lifeblood of the project.

→ Promote language education. As much as you can, encourage your team to learn your collaborator’s native language and vice-versa. Even if your team can’t manage much past greetings and restaurant language, your collaborators will appreciate that you tried.

Takeaway

Even in the best cases, working with remote collaborators is guaranteed to make you suddenly appreciate working with people in the same room. Otherwise, you can certainly succeed working remotely – but only if you’re prepared to meet the unique challenges it poses.