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Tools for the Remote Workplace

Tools for the Remote Workplace

The workplace is no longer the cubical; it stretches the entire globe and beyond. At any time of day you could find yourself collaborating with teammates who aren't even in the same country, let alone the same office.

If you're not used to working with others remotely, it can be a daunting task and a delight. No longer will you be pestered with the surprise pop in at your office door or cube. Distracting an engineer is the worst idea. Studies have shown that it takes up to 45 minutes for the average engineer to get back on task after being distracted. On the other side of the coin, getting answers instantly will not be the regular status quo. Tried and true tools already exist that make the process as efficient and painless as possible.

One of the first issues that always comes up is file management. Versioning is an all-pervasive issue when it comes to dealing with CAD files, and once you start throwing multiple people into the mix, you have the potential for a lot of mashed toes. Depending on your level of tech-savvy and IT department resources, you have several options. The two largest, most feature-rich and easy-to-use implementations are Dropbox and Box. If you have your own server and a capable IT department, you can save some money by deploying open-source alternatives like Github and ToirtoiseSVN. These two programs are typically used by programmers over large geographical spreads and have excellent versioning control, however, they aren't as easy to use as Dropbox or Box.

Finally, you can look at Google Drive. While it doesn't match the previous options on a feature-to-feature basis, its cloud-based nature allows it to offer other features, such as simultaneous document editing and a great markup system.

At Lagoa, they are split between Germany, Montreal, and Boston, yet they are able to communicate efficiently by keeping most all of their documents on Google Drive. I scooped the how from Lagoa's Jordan Pelovitz:

By using the cloud, our entire team has access to all material at any time, from any device. Even if you are not working with remote operators, a cloud-based system can offer you streamlined document sharing and allow you to speed up your organization's workflow and communication if you're still using file attachments, email, and printed out forms.

Once you've settled on a file-sharing system, you'll want to look at your communication. In my experience, using web-based collaborative drawing tools are an excellent way to communicate design concepts. Services like Twiddla and Whiteboard allow multiple people to sketch on the same image at the same time. Pelovitz said:

Combined with a web chat client, disparately located designers can talk through concepts as they draw them. For voice and text communication at my company, we primarily use Skype chat rooms to maintain an always-on presence; we have a marketing channel, a development channel, an "all" channel, etc. These allow us to be in constant communication with the people we need to reach -- even if they're offline, as messages get queued for when they return.

Other companies, like Open Source Ecology, Makerplane, and WikiHouse rely on web-based design sprints. These are Google Hangouts whose sole purpose is to gather as many designers and engineers as they can into the same video conference and bang through everything that needs to be done. These hangouts can be recorded for future reference and the ability to share your screen allows for guided CAD reviews. While this is a good workaround for the time being, it doesn't really allow for in-depth, individual breakdowns of parts and designs.

Upcoming cloud-based design apps will focus on making these processes easier. Simultaneous editing of 3D geometry will not only improve pan-geographic work processes, but also local ones as well, so much so that I believe for many companies it will end up being a necessity. With features like live assembly updating, there's no more worrying about whether or not the file from the chassis team in your overall assembly is up to date -- it will always be updated live as the chassis team works on it. With current workflows, you can make sure your files are up to date when you open the assembly, but if they're changed while it's open, you're not going to know until after the fact.

As we move forward and keep integrating the Internet into our workflows, remote work may become less of an exception and more of the rule. Especially once companies start to realize the benefits that many of these cloud-based systems offer to local workflows as well. Learn and think about these processes now and get a head start on the next wave in workflow innovation.

Another unfortunate byproduct of being remote: work time does not end at 5:00 p.m.

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