Product designer Jonas Downey talks how Basecamp works remotely
August 5, 2015

Basecamp has been setting trends in remote work for quite a while. Balancing work and family life, their product designer and the main pancake guy Jonas Downey shared with us how it looks like when part of your company is scattered around the world while the others meet regularly at the office.

Do you or your team work remotely?

Indeed! You could say everyone at Basecamp is “full-time remote” – we quite literally wrote the book about it!

But, the truth is not 100% black and white. We do have a physical office in Chicago, where about 12 of us live and work (The other ~35 live all around the world). So those of us in close proximity to the office tend to head in a couple of times per week. Personally, I live in a Chicago suburb, so I usually go to the office once or twice per week at most, and almost always for voluntary reasons (I occasionally like to see a few of my colleagues and go out for lunch).

What is your hardware setup?

I regularly use a MacBook Pro, iPhone, iPad mini, and Moto X. I use an external monitor I saw on bestbezellessmonitor to use alongside my MacBook. I also have external Apple Cinema Displays in my home and Chicago offices, which I use in a vertical setup (it works great for standing).

Can you share what online tools do you use in work?

Obviously we use Basecamp and Campfire constantly. We also keep in touch via instant messaging, and with video calling tools like Skype and Google Hangouts. We’re all online and chatting frequently throughout the day, and we level up to audio or video calls when we need higher fidelity communication.

We use git and GitHub as our primary development tool. As a product designer, I’m usually working on a local development copy of Basecamp – the full Rails app, on my Mac. We have an awesome development tech stack to work with, which includes several homegrown tools like Pow, rbenv and Throughout the day I mostly work in Sublime Text, Tower, Terminal, Sketch, and Photoshop.

For sketching and brainstorming, I love paper and Sharpie markers. I also use the iPad app GoodNotes a lot.

I also use Rdio, ColorSnapper, Xscope, and QuickCast a lot.

What does your day typically look like?

If I’m working from home, I usually roll out of bed when my daughter wakes me up. We head downstairs and make some coffee and breakfast. After that, I usually work from the couch for an hour or two while I get my head around what I need to do for the day.

Then I move upstairs where I have a separate bedroom dedicated as my home office. I have a nice standing desk, and a second monitor with a good stereo system attached. I put on music and focus for a few solid hours of work. It’s still not complete yet – there are a few things I want still, like a few cheap filing cabinets and perhaps some drawers, but it works for now.

Around lunchtime, I’ll grab a bite with my family and sometimes do a household errand like mowing the lawn. Then I head back upstairs and finish the afternoon with another 4 or so hours of work.

What are some challenges that you face as a product designer in a distributed company?

We’re excellent at being a remote company, but we’re still human. People are emotional beings and they have good days and bad days. The trouble with mostly text-based communication is that it’s hard to get a sense of someone’s mood or life situation, and it’s easy to misinterpret something or take feedback more harshly than it was intended. So it takes care, patience, and probably a slightly excessive amount of cheer and empathy to make sure you’re communicating well together, and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. I also tend to over-communicate everything to make sure everyone knows what’s going on with my work.

From a collaboration/design perspective, it’s hard to beat hanging out in a room with someone and hashing out a problem face-to-face. But we find the amount of time that we need to that is exceedingly small compared to the majority of the time we spend executing work and thinking up new ideas. So in most cases, we can get by quite well with remote communication tools. Those tools continue to improve too! It’s orders of magnitude easier to have a high quality, productive video chat or a screen sharing session than even a few years ago.

What about company retreats in Basecamp. Do you have any?

Twice a year, everyone at Basecamp converges on Chicago for a week of office time (we call it the “meetup” week). That gives us all a chance to see each other, catch up, hang out, and do goofy stuff (and usually a bit of work too. Those meetups are extremely important for staying connected as real people and not just avatars on screens.

On top of that, smaller groups occasionally attend a conference together or have a mini-meetup in a remote city. For example, I had a blast attending the XOXO and 99u conferences with my co-workers in Portland and New York.

Can you recommend some cool places in Chicago for digital nomads?

Our office is in the West Loop, which is blowing up into quite the cool neighborhood right now. My favorite nearby coffee place is La Colombe (but they don’t have wi-fi, on purpose!) And there’s a great old sub shop too, definitely worth a stop.

For tech events, there’s usually something happening over at 1871, which is like Chicago’s startup hub. And for coworking spaces, Desktime always has a great list.