Department of Play: How we make remote working work

CEO of Department of Play, Will Luton talks about why they chose not to have an office, the great things it did for Department of Play and the great things it can do for you too.

When I founded Department of Play, I was used to working in huge companies, with huge buildings jam-packed with facilities that seemed essential. But as I began engaging our first clients out of my spare bedroom and the occasional coffee shop – I’m enjoying a latte and coconut cake with my dog as I write this – I began to realize two things: we don’t need an office and the company is better off without one.

I’d long been an opponent of remote teams and work from home (WFH) polices. As we set up Rovio London, I actively fought against it. Instead I believed we should have a space which allowed for serendipitous communication and I would pour hours into seating plans.

The reality was that the communication resulting from such set-ups was mostly unnecessary chatter that was actually stopping me and my colleagues from doing stuff that needed to be done. And it was causing me a lot of stress. Indeed, working in an office meant that I, like those around me, was forced to live in overpriced housing and travel on crowded transport for two hours every day just to end up in a space which was ultimately unproductive. On top of that, we were turning away great candidates who for various reasons (visas, disabilities, parental duties, etc.) simply couldn’t make it into the office.

But as Department of Play began to grow, I started to notice a few things:

  1. I was getting a lot more done than I ever had in an office.
  2. I was a lot happier and healthier with a commute of 10 meters.
  3. I could work with the best people in the world.

Our network of experts and our clients are all over the globe: we advise a mobile unicorn in Brazil and have a UA manager who lives in Greece. While we can travel onsite for clients, it’s rarely needed because of how we’ve set up our processes. What’s more, we’re more resilient to force majeure disruptions like transport strikes and global pandemics, all while reducing our carbon footprint.

The great thing is that it’s relatively simple to do, and as more and more game companies embrace remote or WFH around the Covid-19 outbreak, I’d like to share some of the things we’ve learned about how to make remote work for you.

How To Make Remote Work

The reason why WFH is becoming increasingly prevalent is because of the technology that enables it. All you need to run a global business today is a laptop, a flat surface and a couple of software subscriptions. But there are some policies and guidance that will help you get the best from remote working.

Software & Services

There are three pieces of software that are essential to the remote consultancy work we do at Department of Play:

  • Google Docs: Lots of the companies we work with have already moved away from the traditional Microsoft suite to Google’s more flexible offering. The ability to collaborate in real time on design documentation or share comments on a presentation is indispensable. Even Google Sheets are now powerful enough that I’ve built complete Monte Carlo economy simulations within them. Around 90% of our project deliveries are a Google Doc link delivered by email.
  • Slack: Nearly as ubiquitous as Google Docs, the team chat software Slack is a great way for us to communicate with our colleagues and our clients, no matter where they are based. It allows for daily stand-ups, quick sharing of ideas and essential social chatter.
  • Google Meet: There are some things that can’t be done via email and text chat, and there’s nothing like face-to-face for building rapport and trust. For these types of discussions we use Google Meet, which is included in G Suite, with Google Docs and Drive. It’s highly reliable, affordable and full of features. There are, however, a whole bunch of alternatives and we invariably end up using Zoom, Slack (in-built voice calls are standard, but video calling is a premium feature), Skype, FaceTime and even Facebook and Whatsapp.

Other functions like training can be handled with Udemy and equipment can be shipped direct with Amazon to anywhere in the world. We’ve also used virtual PA services to help us plan and organize our time, and of course GitHub and App Center to manage software builds without a physical build machine to plug devices into.

But the services themselves are only really half the equation – ultimately, it’s how you use them that makes a success of remote work.

Practices & Process

  • Availability: One of the biggest concerns many employers have about WFH is that it makes it easier to slack off. This mostly a practical concern about someone being unreachable at the time they’re needed. Therefore it’s essential that you maintain strict contact hours where the team is all online and able to share work and help each other.
  • Vision: A secondary concern revolves around the difficulty of ensuring a cohesive effort, especially for game development teams. We strongly advocate using a “why” approach to development, where a vision is communicated around “why” a product should be made, rather than simply “what” a product is, and what pillars are needed to support success. This approach gives more context to the work and allows for highly autonomous decision-making in the team.
  • Workspace: Most people’s homes are not set up for protracted periods of work. Working from a laptop on a sofa will result in a bad back. If your employees have the space, we suggest getting them a decent desk and chair; if not, then perhaps investigate local coworking spaces.
  • Work-Life Balance: One of the biggest health risks in remote work is the ease with which the boundary between work and home life blurs, making it tempting to work around the clock. Therefore it’s really important to check in with employees and encourage healthy hours. Do not advocate or reward long hours, the benefit is short term and unsustainable.
  • Flexibility: One of the great benefits of remote work is the flexibility it gives employees to manage their day-to-day lives. So be flexible in allowing employees to drop their kids off, visit the doctors, sleep in a little or whatever else they need. As long as you ensure that they communicate their availability and aren’t working late into the night to make up.
  • Socializing: With all of the talk of productivity, it’s easy to overlook the other function of work; bringing people together to socialize. Encourage idle chitter-chatter in your Slack and, if you can, have the occasional jolly during work hours. If you can’t realistically meet up, make time (and money) available to play games together.

For me, working remotely and running a distributed team has been life changing. It has unlocked incredible personal productivity, happiness and satisfaction. It has allowed us to take on amazing clients and to engage some of the world’s best experts. As housing becomes more expensive, cities more crowded and talent more widespread, the technology to work away from a single physical location becomes better and cheaper. In the next decade, I expect more existing businesses to embrace WFH and for new games startups to be remote by default. Remote is the future of work.

Department of Play

This article was written by Ukie member Department of Play. We are a consultancy bringing together data and discipline experts to solve problems, improve market performance and make good things happen for games on PC, console and mobile.

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