We’re a fairly social bunch at Smokeball. The noise level in our office ranges from Debussy-quiet to Deep Purple-deafening. We like to talk a lot; about work, about ideas, about roadblocks, about which Spice Girl we would be in another life.
Communication is a really important part of our culture.
Keeping that in mind, we have two offices which are quite a distance apart. 9238 miles to be exact. With this distance comes disparate time zones. Sydney tends to be asleep when Chicago is having lunch. When Sydney is having a Monday morning strategy meeting, Chicago is enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the football stadium. As you can imagine, when it comes to communication between offices, we don’t get a lot of physical interaction. Online communication tools have become a very important part of our business.
There are plenty of internal communication tools out there. Email is one; it works pretty well for one-to-one communication, but for communicating in a group… not so much. What about Facebook? It’s easy enough to create a private Facebook group, and everyone has a Facebook account these days. The problem with Facebook is that it’s built for personal friendships. Like I say, we’re a social bunch at Smokeball, but we also have lives outside of work. This is the Facebook world, and no one really wants to bring work into it.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are purpose-built ‘enterprise’ networks like Yammer. Using Yammer is like having Facebook, but just for your organization. You can create groups, you can share links, post images and documents. You can live-chat with colleagues, you can ‘like’ updates, you can use ‘emoticons’ to make sure your boss knows you’re just kidding when you compare her to Scary Spice.
We tried Yammer at Smokeball and, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t work for us. I have a feeling that it felt a little too unfamiliar to our staff, a little forced, and the interface wasn’t particularly fun.
I spend a lot of time talking with our lead designer Adrian. When I was working with him in our Sydney office, I’d either walk into his office or use an instant messenger if I wanted to chat. When I moved to Chicago, he suggested I use Google Hangouts to keep in touch with him. I had been using Google Plus (personally and professionally) for a little while, but I’d only used Google Hangouts once or twice as a communications tool. This time around I fell in love with it. If you’ve got a Google account, which just about everyone in our office does, it’s so amazingly simple to use. It’s free and it’s high quality. You can video chat or text from your computer or your smartphone/tablet. It just works.
A short time later, Adrian sent me a link to the brand-new Team Smokeball community on Google Plus. He had it set up and had invitations sent to our team within minutes. This is the first reason why we gave Google Plus a try: it’s free, easy to get started and most people already have a Google account. Within a couple of days we had all 20 of our staff signed up to Team Smokeball, and comments flying back and forth between offices and teams.
Compared to previous efforts, the usage levels were way up, which brings me to the second reason why Google Plus works for us. As an internal communications platform it provides a good mix of fun (you can post animated GIFs) and functionality (a mobile app means you can participate from anywhere). As Heidi Alexander mentions in this article, there’s also a handy tie-in with Google Hangouts. You can start a video chat with anyone in the community with a single click.
The final reason why we chose Google Plus? It is easy to control who is part of the community and keep the conversations private, without being on a private network. This means that we can post interesting stuff from the wider Google Plus network into our community, without having to worry about the things in our community being shared with the wider Google Plus network. In other words, things can come in but they can’t go out. It provides a kind of security blanket; people are more likely to use a network if they feel safe within its walls.
Are the conversations going on in our community really just between us? How Google uses our data is a discussion worth its own post, so I won’t go into it now.
Needless to say, having a free tool that still has a premium feel and a beautiful interface is helping Smokeball close the gap between our Chicago office and our colleagues Down Under. Even if they are sick of hearing about snow.