How we worked remotely as a team during a snow storm

At the start of March 2018 the UK was hit by a snow storm known as “The Beast from the East”. The Met Office issued multiple red warnings for Scotland and as a result the University of St Andrews, among many other institutions and businesses, urged their staff not to travel into work. This inevitably affected the productivity of many units throughout the University, but luckily in digital communications we had prepared for a scenario like this.

We have experimented with multiple different web based video communication tools in the past, specifically ones that support multiple participants. It’s only right that we figure out the best solutions to communicate digitally, it’s kind of what we do.

In the eventuality of a snow closure, here are the top tools that can help sustain productivity and carry on with business as usual.


Slack

A popular choice for internal office instant messaging is Slack.

“Slack brings all your team’s communication together, giving everyone a shared workspace where conversations are organised and accessible.”

We particularly use Slack for group chats and direct messaging. Right now our team is split between three offices, so Slack is the quickest way for us to send some quick comms.

We definitely don’t use Slack to its fullest potential though. It has the ability to integrate with other apps and platforms including Google Drive, Trello, and most importantly, Giphy. As our team can speak fluent gif, this is essential.

Having regularly used Slack as our internal instant messenger of choice for over three years, our team was more than capable of communicating over a little snow.


appear.in

appear.in is a web based video call client that can support multiple participants at one time. Sure, Google Hangouts can do this, but not as easily as appear.in. All you need to do is open up a URL in your browser and you’re in. Guests don’t need to login or have an account, all they require is a link. I don’t think it can get easier than that.

For free, the platform can support up to four participants. I find the main benefit of appear.in is that it has the ability to easily screen share with participants, it can also share application windows only, so viewers don’t have to see the rest of your screen and wonder why you’re getting so many email notifications.

This app was particularly useful for us during the snow storm as it allowed the developers to screen share and talk through coding work with each other. Something that is often quite complicated to describe without seeing.


Zoom

Every morning the whole team has a stand-up meeting to discuss what we are working on and the clarify the progress of our projects. These can last between five and ten minutes. Zoom was our solution to continue our catch-ups as a team while working during the snow storm, and here’s why.

While appear.in only supports a maximum of four participants on a free license, Zoom can support up to 100 participants. That’s right. 100 participants. The only catch, is that group conversations on a free license are limited to 40 minute sessions. But we’re only chatting for a short time, so that’s perfect.

The digital communications team in a Zoom meeting on day two of the snow storm. Not to be confused with The Brady Bunch.

Zoom can be used on as a desktop, web, or mobile app. The quality of audio is also strong, especially with as many as nine participants.


With these online communication tools in place, we managed to continue with our business as usual and project work to the best of our ability. These apps ensured we didn’t fall behind on deadlines, and most importantly, successfully work collaboratively.

So next time you get sent home on a snow day, put that sled down and get comfortable for some video calls with the rest of your team.

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