From Work Desks to Work Platforms

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This is the first publication of a series in which we will share the strategies and tools that have worked for us in our experience with remote working. The next publications will which tools we use and how we use them.

How to work remotely without dropping the pencil.

Authors: Aleksandra Katasonova, Filippo Imberti, Thomas Stellmach

Graphics: Amr Elsayed

This document describes the remote work tool kit we use at TSPA. It is specifically the tools that work best for us (you’ll find some links to broader collections of solutions at the end of the text).

We are an urban planning and design firm with a team of about 15 with projects all over the world, meaning a lot of traveling and remote work, even before the Corona crisis emerged. We also entertain a certain nerd culture within the company to optimise cooperation, reduce friction, and make it as easy as possible to design and communicate. As remote work has become the new default in times of Covid-19, we’d like to share with you what works for us.

I. Culture & Technology

Basically all design companies deploy computer-aided drawing tools to develop, represent and communicate their ideas. While the tools are changing, the interactive and physical demands of the design process remain the same: We still need to convene to brainstorm and map ideas, sketch, evaluate and discuss. How can we do that without being physically together, while still achieving the same level of commitment, trust, efficiency and reliability?

Left: Workers map the electrical system of Cambridge, Massachusetts (1950) — co-editing possible through the size of the drawing with T-squares, pencil and ink; Middle: Water district for Tagum, Philippines (TSPA, 2020) — co-editing possible through file exchange and file linking in Adobe Illustrator; Right: Urban Design Competition for Berlin, idea development in Miro (TSPA, 2020) — live co-editing via a web service

We have learned that constant engagement and iterative improvement leads to good results. The projects wherein we interact the most with clients, partners and collaborators are also the most successful. Do it together now as opposed to do it separately and discuss later is key. The tools we work with fulfill this purpose first. From brainstorming to design production, from the preparation of a report to the preparation of a plan, the tools we use encourage participation of the in-house editors, with our external colleagues, with our clients and end-users.

Do it together now as opposed to do it separately and discuss later.

We are admittedly obsessed with using the right tools and technology. Nonetheless we realise that there are two truths beyond technology, which are preconditions to a functional cooperative process:

  1. It is more important that everybody uses the same tool, than which tool it is.
  2. It is as much about developing a culture of cooperation, communication and transparency, as it is about using technology.


The home work station of our TSPA colleague Bella


II. How We Choose

Our main criteria are ease of use, cost, and freedom (as in open source) of the softwares we use.

These criteria are pragmatic: As these are tools for collaboration, often with external partners, they need to be simple to use. A great set of features does not help if the tool is not being adopted. The choice of open source solution is not merely ethical, but also has advantages regarding privacy and cost.

Paid and closed source solutions are currently part of our tool box, even if we sympathise with small companies and open source initiatives. We also see, that the network effect comes to bear as a fourth criterion for outward facing tools: If our client insists on google drive as the file sharing platform, then we are going to use that.

Therefore this is a journey, and not a state. We have moved from slack to matrix/riot, and from skype to jitsi (we skipped zoom); we are using googledrive and dropbox for the network effect and ease of use, while we are looking in parallel into using nextcloud, linshare, or seafile instead.

For the commercial tools, we’ll also discuss the differences between the paid and free tiers and their limitations — they can often be worthwhile for a small firm nonetheless.

By the way: We are not affiliated with any of the products discuss, this article is genuine insight in how we work.

Follow us in our social media to find the next updates on this series.


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