Basecamp academia

It’s been quite the week. Today will be the full second week I’ve been self-isolating and working from home, and as of last week most of the staff at UNO Libraries likewise went remote. At the start of next week, UNO is transitioning to online learning for the remainder of the semester.

We’ve managed this shift in the library by using Basecamp.

We already have a very transparent culture in the library. Our internal wiki, which runs on Confluence, tracks everything from guidelines, to meeting notes, to schedules and events, and much more. All of that content is open for us to read, which really helps out keeping everyone aware of what folks are up to in the library. But being out of the office means we no longer have encounters with each other in the library. Thankfully, we bought a Basecamp license about two years ago as a way to help manage tasks and it’s now become, paired with Confluence, a central place for us to chat and interact with one another.1

So, how’s it working for us? Speaking here as a single contributor (not a director or manager), here’s where I see Basecamp really shining for us.

Communicating clearly

One thing I’ve always admired about Basecamp the company is their commitment to good writing. That commitment is reflected in the design of Basecamp.

Basecamp shines as a place for communication. The opportunity for thoughtful writing is everywhere. That to-do item you just created? You can thread conversations below it, all related to that one item. That check-in question you answered? There’s a discussion area for it for others to weigh in. Making a pitch for an idea or project? The Message Board gives you the space to write out detailed thoughts. While we certainly spend plenty of time in the chat—what Basecamp refers to as the Campfire—it’s not the only mode of communication. Basecamp invites longer-form writing more often than it invites short quips.

Of course, we break out conversations to a variety of Teams and Projects in Basecamp. So far, our conversations seem to shake out like this: conversations, announcements, or resources for everyone appear in the HQ. Teams serve as a kind of umbrella, more specific than HQ that brings people together that work on a specific thing. In my case, this might mean our Research Data Services Team or my department. Projects get even more specific — while high-level conversations might happen in a Team, the Projects are where the detail goes: more in-depth conversation, specific resources or pitches, and specific to-do items that aid in that Project reaching done. In my case, I also have Projects that are, more or less, perpetual and only contain me because they’re tasks that only involve me — things like a Librarianship project, where I track instruction planning or outreach, or a project for things related to my annual review and RPT.

Maintaining the culture

We’ve attempted to keep in touch with each other in a variety of ways mainly through themed threads on the Message Board. While our Social Engagement Committee has some plans for different remote activities we can do, several of us have taken it upon ourselves to start threads to share out a variety of things. So far, we’ve already had fun threads on sharing our at-home workspaces, sharing pictures of little ones (both the human and the furry kind), and a thread on funny or lighthearted links. In addition to those threads, we’ve long had an automatic check-in that asks “Read any good books lately?” and “What’s inspired you lately?” We’ve increased the frequency of those asks to every other week (versus once a month that we had previously) as another way for us to share goings-on in our lives.

The questions above happen in our overall UNO Libraries HQ, but we also have a few social groups that limit conversations to a topic – an All Cars team, for example, for us car aficionados, or All Parents for parenting conversations or resources, or our Mindful Practice team for cultivating mindfulness. These are non-work spaces that let us pursue interests and conversations beyond the work-specific conversations and tasks that happen elsewhere.

In addition to the things we’re doing internally, we also have some external faculty connecting with us as well. An example of this is our writing group, which typically meets every Friday morning for an hour. Part of that hour included a quick shoutout or update on writing goals (or complaints about Reviewer 2). We now replicate that in Basecamp with a check-in every Friday morning about our accomplishments for the week, or plans for writing on Friday. This, of course, has slowed considerably as we all make rapid shifts into online teaching and support. But hopefully it remains a space for all of us to keep connected with each other.

Culture is all-important. Basecamp helps cultivate it.

Tracking work

One key reason I urged the library to purchase a Basecamp license was for task management. Task management in Confluence is not great. But Basecamp makes this easy: grouping tasks by themes or topics, assigning tasks to others, notifying those who need to know when tasks are completed, due dates, and notes/discussion can all happen in one place.2 For me, this means I don’t have to keep work tasks in Things – I can keep side projects or personal tasks separate from work tasks.

This, of course, makes it so much easier to see what’s on my plate or what needs further planning. And Basecamp does this in a very humane way. I can see everything assigned to me, filter down to things that have dates (and show me overdue, the next week, and things further out), or filter to tasks I’ve assigned to others. There’s no kanban boards, no tickets, no issues – all of which, I find, is too much overhead no matter the project. Just a list of tasks, who is working on them, when they’re due, and the project they belong to.

Another important component of our work over the last two weeks has been making sure our student employees can continue to be paid. We’ve compiled several ways our students can continue to contribute to the library from their homes, and we’re using Basecamp to help communicate and track tasks.

Yeah but, Slack!

Yeah. Slack.

Look, I’m in a lot of Slack teams. I helped usher in the Stanford Libraries developers and technologists onto Slack while I was there. But you know what Slack is, ironically, not great for? Asynchronous communication. Anytime I come back to one of my Slack teams, particularly if it’s a large group (one of the teams I’m in has over 10,000 members) it is entirely overwhelming to catch up with conversations, or even figure out what the conversation was. Basecamp would probably suffer the same problem if it had 10,000 people in one account, but even small teams in Slack can quickly get overwhelming. But the other problem—maybe the core problem—is Slack’s design as a chat room. It begs for immediate responses, not consideration. For a constant flow of text, not thoughtful communication. While Basecamp has a chat feature like this, it isn’t the central way that communication and information is organized. That alone makes Basecamp a better environment for work.

If you’re in a similar boat—whether in academia making the rapid shift to online support and teaching, or a business or non-profit making the shift to remote work—I’d strongly recommend giving Basecamp a look.

  1. Ideally Basecamp would be the One True Place for everything and we wouldn’t use Confluence, but the wiki has a much longer history than my time at UNO.
  2. Our system certainly isn’t perfect, and we do have some distribution of content among Basecamp, Confluence, emails, GitHub issues, and Box. I’d prefer everything live only in Basecamp, but for the work we’re doing and the kind of things we work on this system works fairly well for us.
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Jason Heppler is a digital humanities developer living in Omaha. More »

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