Finding your remote control – Talk Management’s Caspar Field on managing teamwork remotely

I love office-based teamwork: working with others, bouncing ideas around, collaborating. It’s something that I find (if well managed), tends to lead to good outcomes; is a great way to engage the team in the development process; and is generally an enjoyable way to make games.

Now, however, for most companies, even if they were in agreement with me and operated as a team in an office, the coronavirus has forced them to change their ways and move to a remote-working model. This presents fresh challenges in communication and team direction that for a management consultant like me is an interesting problem to tackle.

With this in mind, I contacted two studio leaders who have arrived at the crisis from different directions: James Marsden of FuturLab, which usually operates out of an office; and Simon Bennett of Roll7, which has been a remote working studio for several years.

Bennett explains, “We run our processes much like we did when we had a physical studio, but we had to adapt things for working remotely – which we found made us far more efficient and better communicators, instead of relying on just being physically there for someone to ask questions to – we have to make a conscious effort to over-communicate and plan, which in turn has strengthened our creative and management process.”

For Marsden, however, although he’s worked remotely in the past: “The original Velocity was developed remotely… I learned how to write very succinctly during that time,” he is missing face-to-face contact with the team. “I find it far slower to give effective direction. Right now we’re iterating on some key animations, and when you’re in the same room as your colleagues, it’s possible to act out the motions like a lunatic, improvising in the moment. There are layers of friction added to that immediacy when working remotely. I’m looking for tools that can help speed this up, but it’ll never be as good as being in the same room,” he suggests.

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Roll7 dealt with some of these issues by holding fortnightly face-to-face meetings at a central location, to establish relationships and the “vibe”, as Bennett puts it. Day-to-day, he says, “We use tools that most medium-sized studios would expect, so Slack (our office), Zoom (our bigger meeting space), Notion (our game Wiki), SVN (for the game), Mural (for our artists to collaborate). We run two-week sprints and have a per-project standup daily at 9am without fail.” Certainly, from my own experience of working from home, a firm schedule is essential to keep myself on track.

Marsden and Bennett’s thoughts strongly overlap in this area of sticking to plan, particularly when it comes to avoiding crunch. Marsden’s theory on this is that, “it’s my belief that patience is the most valuable resource when making video games – it keeps people caring about the quality of the game long after the novelty has worn off – it’s the reason we don’t crunch, since crunch destroys patience.” Bennett explains that at Roll7 “we have banned crunch in favour of allowing people a more flexible schedule in which to do their best and most effective work.”

What’s clear is whether remote or not, both – rightly – place huge value on keeping their teams happy, with Marsden saying that, “If anything, this has brought into stark relief what we had right, so we’ll do even more to keep the culture strong. More group activities and likely more high-fives!” And Bennett notes that, “86% of our team are happier working remotely for Roll7 than they were in previous roles, and ultimately, happier staff make better games!”

If nothing else is clear in these uncertain times, Bennett and Marsden’s shared beliefs in well-defined processes, strong communication, a solid schedule, and keeping their teams happy, are needed more than ever while we shelter from the viral storm.

With 25 years’ leadership experience, including seven as CEO of Wish Studios, Caspar now helps companies with management, operations, budgeting and production. Visit http://talk.management for more information.

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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