Working under lockdown: Remote design, engineering and prototyping 🏡

Check out how the Sparkmate tribe fully works remotely, and how you can do the same for your team.
May 26, 2023

Sparkmate is a 20-person team which helps entrepreneurs and people who have projects develop their ideas. Our main office for prototyping is in Ivry-sur-Seine (south of Paris) and this is where we usually conceive, develop and integrate mechanics, electronics and computing so as to launch our clients’ projects as fast as possible, since what they are looking for when they get in touch with us is nothing other than speed and multidisciplinarity. Even under lockdown, we keep explaining everything to you!

Remote working and asynchronous communication or how the lockdown has reenforced our working methods

Our whole team has been working fully remotely since March 17th. Our clients and friends have all been worried about the consequences that Covid-19 would have on Sparkmate. Indeed, a large part of our job goes far beyond our design activity and consists in crafting prototypes, which is far more complicated because of the lockdown measures.

As we kept talking about this situation with everybody, we came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to tell you what has happened to us recently and to give some feedback!

The lockdown hasn’t forced us to change the way we organize our work or the way we run Sparkmate. But, it is true our activity decreased a little bit at the very beginning since we haven’t yet created robots to switch on our 3D printers or to prototype the products or machines we develop for our clients! As far as design, conception and consulting are concerned, we haven’t changed many things except the way we communicate. As for the rest, it was more complicated. We had to get organized and set up all the necessary security measures to have staff at the office.

More constraints, but we see it as a good test of our methods and the culture we’re trying to develop!

Working fully remotely, a challenge

Working remotely might seem difficult. Since the beginning of our adventure, we have tried to develop a remote-friendly culture at Sparkmate. It is a demanding choice that requires discipline and precision in selecting our tools or processes as well as in the way we communicate within the team and with our clients.

If we managed to start working fully remotely from March 17th on quite easily, it is nonetheless a trying period that sheds a light on the weaknesses of our organization. It tests our team’s mood and the rhythm and quality of the work we do. Still, we view it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

Since this began, we have talked with many partners and entrepreneurs about their remote work experience. We have even helped some of our suppliers and clients adapt by choosing the right tools. And we have come to the conclusion that tools are indeed important, but the most important tool of all is discipline.

Discipline should be maintained at all levels, from the selection of tools to adapting routines and processes; from leadership to the responsibility we give to our teams. As often happens when dealing with the culture of entrepreneurship or management, questions of self-discipline, transparency and openness arose. Here are a few principles we set up at Sparkmate that are helping us live through this period and that might be useful elsewhere.

  • 💎 100% transparency: all our team members have access to everything they need to know, whether it’s about our financial situation, our current projects or upcoming projects.
  • 💜 Trust in our team: If you don’t want to spend all your time on the phone, switch to micro-management, or create useless frictions, it is important to share the projects and to be clear on the responsibilities, milestones and goals; this is only more true when working remotely.
  • 🏇 Be flexible and change everything: when a tool, process or routine is set up, everybody does everything they can to make it succeed. But if something proves to be ill-adapted, it needs to be changed - quickly (meetings, software, tools…)
  • 📝 Asynchronous communication and lots of written works: When we manage projects and do technical conception or development, we need documentation. Even if it takes time, writing everything down makes collaboration easier.
  • ⏱️ Respect for the schedule: This is always important but it’s all the more so while working remotely because we have fewer means of acting on the motivation and coordination of the team. That’s why we have to respect meeting schedules, project milestones and deadlines.
  • ☁️ Easy available data or tools from the Cloud: nearly all our management tools are cloud-based Saas; and for the technical part even CAD and VR are run from the Cloud so we do not have any material constraints even while at home.
From remote-friendly to fully remote

Below are the statistics from how we have used two of our most important tools -Workplace by Facebook and email- since we being in lockdown.

Figure 1 : Workplace by Facebook statistics, our collaboration and communication tool

Figure 2 : email statistics

It’s interesting to have a look at the results considering the goal of each tool:

  • Posts: we use them to set a milestone, say something to the team, or talk about clients’ projects. We also use them to brainstorm, to share important documents, etc… The statistics show a rather constant use of posts, which means our asynchronous culture is well established in our team.
  • Comments and reactions: these are used to answer a post or share an emotion following a post. What we see here are two peaks, in mid-January and mid-April, which correspond to the cyclical review of our developing goals. These are moments when ideas flourish. We also notice a peak at the beginning of March when we had to get organized because of the lockdown measures.
  • Messages: we use them as instant communication and, for obvious reasons, we are using them more than when we are together at the office.
  • Emails: we principally use them to talk with our clients or potential clients, along with WhatsApp for instant messaging. Here again the statistics are rather consistent with a slight increase in the last 6 months (more related to the recruitment of three staff members than to the lockdown).

In the core business which corresponds to the work we do on the clients’ projects, the communications with the clients are relatively constant and it is principally the number of messages that has increased to make up for the lack of human contact we generally have at the office.

As we have already explained, working remotely is a challenge that points at the weaknesses of the organization. If we were quite well prepared for remote-working in our core business, we have realized that our weakness was the lack of tools and visibility for operating our methods internally (cash management, client acquisition, OKRs etc…) Normally, each team working on a project does it in the office or in the workshop and keeps the others in the loop over a cup of coffee or during lunch time. We can’t do that anymore in lockdown.

That’s why we have decided to speed up developing our new management tools. Thus we have improved and developed our dashboard (, our management and scheduling tools. We have thought upon our needs and shortcomings so as to set up solutions and enable all the team members to easily access to any information whatsoever.

Maintaining the manufacturing process and prototyping integration

Our core business is prototyping: we work from conception to developing elegant, functional technological solutions. The applications range from industrial robotics and connected objects to web platforms and mobile phone apps, but really it’s always the same job.

  • Identifying the real problems and issues at stake
  • Finding the best ways to solve them
  • Developing and putting together all the technological bricks so as to add value and set things up quickly.

Even if we are in lockdown, our creativity, our energy and our ability to implement things are not!

There aren’t too many changes in the way we deal with consulting and supporting our clients, or in the way we work on mechanical design or CAD. There also aren’t many changes in everything that deals with software, from UX design to the Cloud and through to web/mobile development. The fact that you’re working from home can go unnoticed when you have the right working and co-working tools.

But it’s quite another story when it comes to hardware and the making of mechanical, mechatronic, electronic or embedded systems. The technical and logistical constraints due to the lockdown exist but we see them more as a challenge than as something that prevents us from moving forward.

So going into our prototyping workshop remains pretty important. Now, in addition to the social-distancing measures and the use of appropriate hygiene requirements, we have set up system for staff turnover: only one member of the team can go to the office and workshop each day. We centralise 3D printing and assembling needs, which allows us to maintain quite a good rhythm in terms of delivering mechanical and/or electronic projects.

In short

If you have faced similar problems because of remote working or if you have experienced different things, let us know! We’re always happy to share and talk about prototyping, design, or engineering (whether in remote or not 😉)

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