I have been working the creative digital trade routes between Los Angeles and Cebu City, Philippines for five years now, almost daily. The question I get asked most often from other creative leaders and producers is “How does remote creative work … ummm …work?” or something similar to that. Despite the fact that broadband speeds have allowed amazing global connections for almost a decade, it’s still a mystery to most.
And let’s face it, most creatives don’t need to understand how it works. They put their asses in their seats and they get it done, all in the comfort of their own agency and time zone. But for those of you who are looking for value and are intrigued with learning how global remote teams work, read on.
First of all, there are tons of great posts about various systems for using remote teams and I will add mine to the list in the near future. But this is about a philosophy for success, not software or specific process. Understanding the philosophy behind successful remote teams is far more important than a skirmish between Skype vs. Slack or a death match between Basecamp and Asana.
This philosophy can be summed up simply: stop thinking of remote teams as remote. The word “remote” is misleading and the images it conjures are inaccurate. If you are a creative director based in Los Angeles and you are working with in team in, say, Cebu Philippines (gee, wonder why I chose that example?), prepare yourself for a Back to the Future level mind bend. Imagine your artist or team is – wait for it – right down the hall.
THE TOOTH FAIRY FANTASY
The biggest reason for “remote team” failure is the inability to treat the team as if they were in the same office. There is a tragic misperception that if you hire a team in Asia, Thailand or Romania, you will wake up in the morning, check under your pillow and the renders – and all of your dreams – will have magically come true. The sparkles will be perfect, the new animation you wrote up in great detail will be executed to a T and all six graphic transition “basic ideas” you asked for will be done and ready to ship. All you did was place those wonderfully sketched out notes under your pillow like a dislodged tooth.
I like that dream too.
When this is not the case, you hit the roof and start firing off angry emails. Dust is kicked up, egos are bruised and processes comes under scrutiny and review. This is where the remote creative process can go wrong. Even the best teams in the world, well versed in time zone differences and equipped with the latest communication tools, can’t read minds.
They aren’t Tooth Fairies.
THEY ARE DOWN THE HALL
You still need to run the project as if you’re five doors down or relinquish the equivalent amount of control to your team.
The teams you’ve hired, if they are good, will work in the same way an “non-remote” employee works (or is that called “local”?). They will listen, process and execute based on their understandings of the notes. But if you want your idea to end up exactlylike you envisioned, you’re going to have accept the reality of some late nights. Pick your communication tools, your software, your pre-viz of choice, it doesn’t really matter; just work with your team. If you have an English-speaking artist or team leader, you’re going to have to communicate, perhaps even using words.
Yes, I mean talking.
This is what you should know as a creative leader. There are no shortcuts to clear, concise communication and nothing beats looking at frames and saying right then, “Yeah I like that. Just move the “L” 2 points to the left.” Thousands of decisions are made during a shift by any decent graphic designer, animator, colorist or editor, whether they are Asian, Spanish, American or Martian. Either trust them to do what they think is best, or stay on the clock with them and tell them what you want.
IT’S ABOUT THE ECONOMY
The elephant in the room? You’re getting value. Obvious but important reminder: creatives in Southeast Asia are paid less than creatives in the US, just as creatives in rural Iowa are paid less than in creatives in San Francisco. It’s a standard of living thing, and it’s now global. You may have hired a team from a emerging country because you don’t have the budget to do it in the comfort of your own agency. We love that. But be realistic about your expectations.
Remember, remote creative teams are about value. Whether your collaborator is in the Philippines or five doors down, they still need direction and constant care and feeding. The production triangle still holds strong: cheap, fast good – pick two. Just because you’re working with a team in a country you have never visited does not mean the triangle shatters. It is still a solid piece of wisdom.
Remote creative work is not just the future, It is the present. The depth of talent in regions like Southeast Asia is astounding. But remember: reading minds and money under your pillow are not included. Let go of the Tooth Fairy Model and keep your sleeves rolled up.