Digital collaboration tools for remote workers during COVID-19
What is remote working?
COVID-19 is a significant disruption globally. In the short to medium term as people socially distance and isolate, it is going to have an impact on how and where you work. Depending on your situation, you may already have the capacity to work flexibly or remotely. Even if you are familiar with this style of working occasionally, it is worth thinking about how this will work best for you as your daily style of work in the next few weeks. If you haven’t tried remote working, this fact sheet will give you some pointers on what you can do to make the transition smoother for you and your teams.
Place-based working has changed in the last five years. As information and communication technologies have become more social and connected, and businesses operate across multiple jurisdictions through enabling technology, the post-industrial role of the office and/or the business workplace has dramatically shifted.
Remote working can be defined broadly as work that happens predominantly outside an office/fixed environment. In the case of COVID-19, remote working will be undertaken from home to limit cross infection through social isolation. Remote workers can be freelancers and solopreneurs that have chosen to deliver their services from home, they can be individuals who work for organisations from two employees to 100,000 employees. With adequate and mobile network access, remote workers are locationally independent.
All of the technology and infrastructure required to enable remote working already exists. If your business already uses the cloud for information storage, then you will be able to access your systems remotely. The predominant change in how you do your business will be how you manage communications and accountability in a non face-to-face environment. For the best chance at success when you are thinking about how you manage a remote work environment for your teams, consider these elements:
● Ensure that your remote team communications are strategically managed, rather than on demand.
● Provide clear guidance so individuals know your expectations, can track their projects and critical outputs.
● Use the best available tools for your business, you need the right technologies in place for supporting remote workers and your clients.
Which businesses are best suited to remote working?
Remote work is not for every business or sector. Hands on manufacturing on the factory floor, customer service where face-to-face interaction is integral like a café or B&B, harvesting, milking cows - these are all occupations where you need to be hands-on, on site, and therefore are not suitable candidates for remote working. Shut downs for these type of businesses in a pandemic environment are the most likely scenario.
Government will advise on when these restrictions to business are mandated. Until then, you can implement social distancing and strong hygiene protocols for your customers.
There is a significant list of industries and roles within organisations that have no barriers to remote working. This list demonstrates the extent of work that can be undertaken independent of location:
● Content management
● Customer service (non f2f)
● Film production
● Hardware development
● Software development and coding
These are broad categories that within them have many sub categories of roles and tasks that are all able to be done remotely. Does your business fit one of these? Given the rapid increase of infections from COVID-19 and the known benefits of social isolation, now is the time for you to think about how you transition your workforce to remote working. Let’s have a look at some of the key tools.
Remote working - getting started
Communication is essential for getting remote work right and giving your team a sense of virtual togetherness and accountability. Before you even begin this process, gather your staff together and discuss with them your ideas, and canvass their own thoughts on how it can work. Everyone being part of the process will make it more cohesive. Even though this is only going to be for a limited time, quarantine and self-isolating may last for a while, so it is important to ensure that your people have appropriate home set ups for working, especially if they aren’t used to it.
Here are a few things to consider when remote working to make your transition from office to home office workable:
- Space: make sure you have an appropriate space to work from, with a desk and chair that are comfortable to sit in for regular workday hours. If you don’t you may need to arrange this so you don’t end up with back aches and pains. If possible, designate a space in the house where you can work quietly, and let your family/flatmates know that this is happening and not to disturb you when you are working. Make sure there is adequate light and air, and that you have an environment conducive for you to work in.
- Hardware + Software: you will need a laptop/computer that can access your business systems, and also potentially a keyboard, mouse, cables, stands etc, to replicate what you have at work or something similar. For staff who work from a fixed computer, you will need to work out how to transition to a remote set up. Ensure that all your programs are able to be used on your remote set up, and any software you need on your desktop or laptop is correctly installed.
- Connectivity: having a strong internet connection is a must for remote working, especially if you are video conferencing regularly. Check that your plan is suitable for a higher volume of traffic and arrange to have it updated or upgraded if necessary.
- Security: moving to a remote office means that you need to check that your security is at the same level as it is in your office or workplace. Use the same protocols as you normally would for logging in and protecting your work, and if you need to set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for added security. Let your clients know what is happening so there is no disruption to their service and if you need to, use Multi-factor Identification for stronger security.
- Routine: Working from home can be a major disruption to your normal work practice. There are plenty of distractions at home that you wouldn’t encounter in the workplace, and the best way to transition to your new way of work is to set up a routine much the same as you would if you were going to an office. Start and finish at your regular times, take breaks for snacks and exercise, and resist the temptation to get caught up in home activities. Of course it is great to be able to take the dog for a walk or put on a load of washing (which is one of the joys of working to your own rhythms), but schedule these so you keep a focus on your tasks. Schedule regular catch up meetings with your team, and check in with everyone to make sure their transition to home working is going smoothly.
Your remote working toolbox
Remote working is just that – getting your head down and getting on with your tasks. It’s amazing the productivity gains that can be had from simply not having someone pop their head over your cubicle or come into your office. Of course communication is essential for getting remote work right and giving your team a sense of virtual togetherness and accountability.
Communication, chat, and collaboration tools
Managing connectivity, data and information flow is critical for a home based remote workers as are some simple planning and management tools. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of market entrants in apps and cloud-based services to get your team running remotely, here is a list of the more commonly used ones that you can implement quickly.
This product is great for real-time communication for one-on-one conversations or with everyone on your team. You can also organize chats by subject, and integrate activity from GitHub, Trello, Pingdom, etc. Slack is as close to a virtual office as you can get and for even better organization you can create one channel for every client, and invite only the people on that project to be on that channel. Slack is free to use as long as you want with an unlimited amount of users and integrates with a vast number of other apps to make it seamless to use.
Workplace is Facebook's workplace connectivity tool, and this may be an appropriate option to quickly get your teams connected if everyone is already using Facebook as its Workplace options have a similar look and feel to the usual Facebook feed. You can chat, collaborate, message, do video chats and meetings, integrate with your existing business tools and systems and easily keep up to date with what is going on. There is a 30 day free trial plus low per user per month costs.
Evernote is a popular 'catch all' collaborative tool. Perfect for sharing all kinds of notes, ideas, docs and conversations, it integrates well with everything and has a number of helpful tools (see Skitch below). Evernote offers a freemium model with a number of useful features from free to $13/user per month to an enterprise level cost.
Some things can’t be communicated as quickly or clearly without a bit of annotation; Skitch, now owned by Evernote is the perfect tool for quickly adding arrows, text and other information to screenshots and images so you get your point across to your team in your catch up or when everyone else in your time zone is sleeping.
Project management tools
Remote teams are frequently managing multiple projects and clients, with team members balancing deadlines, reviews, demos and contributions. This is tricky even in the same office, and all project teams can benefit from elegant and simple ways of illustrating progress, accountability and milestones in real time. Below are a couple of simple cloud based tools your teams can adopt so you are all on the same page and the same outputs.
Monday is a project management tool for teams that is differentiated in the market by providing a highly visual way of being able to see exactly where everyone is up to in their project tasks. It is easy, visual and intuitive which is good for getting staff onboarded and using the product quickly. Pricing is either monthly or annual with a sliding scale based on user numbers.
Asana lets you create and delegate tasks, organise tasks into shared projects, chat within each task so conversations stay organised, and add attachments from Dropbox and Google Drive. It also has calendar features, dashboards for projects, and your very own to-do list. It’s free for teams of 8 or less, then you can upgrade to a pay by month service for added features.
Jira is one of the suite of products made by Australian company Atlassian, and with over 35 000 users, it’s also highly a regarded agile project management tool primarily for software developers that allows you to assign and track work. It also has a handy mobile interface for project management on the go. Pricing is per month with differentials for small developing teams and more established businesses.
Trello helps with project management in a simple but powerful way. Projects get a full graphic display that can be customized with the different phases of the project (called lists) and the individual steps along the way (called cards). With members editing, moving and adding things to your board, Trello makes it easier to see a project making progress. Trello is free to use, with a per user per month pricing model for additional features.
Basecamp is heavily used project management software (100 000+ customers) which has had a long period in the market to grow and evolve as business has changed. (Interestingly the founders of Basecamp are massive advocates of remote working and have a fantastic book on how to transition your company to a remote working organisation, which you can read about here.) The cloud based software helps you arrange your calendars, set meeting schedules, track assignments, and store documents. Pricing is per month, with a sliding scale of costs, first project is free, no matter how many users, or how long it goes for.
No matter how paperless your company is, eventually you will have to sign something. When you are deep in virtual world the routine suddenly becomes tediously analogue: send it, print it, sign it, scan it, send it, all with trips to the post office and don’t even mention getting multiple sign offs. Hellosign is the answer to paper, pen and stamps, helping you create and share legally-binding electronic signatures. The service is integrated with Google Docs, and you can access via the freemium level or work up to an enterprise fee per month based on user levels.
DocuSign is another digital signature solution that also now has a cloud-based Agreement Cloud to automate the whole approvals process in your organisation. With top level security, this is a widely used product that can be accessed by clients and stakeholders on any device, anywhere.
The obvious must-have tool for a remote team is a reliable video chatting platform. Tech has yet to replace the benefits of face-to-face communication, even if it’s through a screen. Some conversations need the nuance and flexibility you can only get from talking in person. That doesn’t have to mean airfares or long drives, with contemporary video conferencing services being as good as you’ll get to the real thing. As mentioned, Slack and Workplace both have video conferencing embedded in them. Here are some other options that you may already be using to connect with your clients and now your teams:
GoToMeeting has really dominated the video chat space, and is also a key player in the delivery of webinars. Key features are reliability, clarity, lots of in screen tools, screen sharing is easy and calls are of a high quality. You can give it a red hot go with a 30 day free trial offer, and then payment terms can be per organiser, per month or annual.
Zoom is a video service that is now widely adopted across business and personal users for its features, simplicity, and quality feed. With Zoom you can have chats with a single or multiple users, you can also host webinars or bigger team meetings. You can set up invitation-only meetings, so only those will invited are able to access the video conference. What’s more, you can create ‘Zoom Rooms’ which are conference rooms built for team collaboration. This is what really sets Zoom apart from other competitors, that they are making an effort to create a professional space for teams to share and implement ideas. Another function which is helpful for people who can’t attend meetings and make sure that an accurate record is kept of the meeting is the recording option. Screen sharing is simple, and the live chat function makes it easy for everyone to communicate in real time.
Zoom has plenty of integrations making online video appointment scheduling a breeze. Zoom is free to trial, and remains free when used by less than 4 people for less than 40 mins, after that you need to upgrade to a professional version.
If you feel like kicking it old school, the original video chat channel of Skype is still alive and well and leaning towards business customers as much as nanna and pop catching up with the grandkids on their iPad. It's still a great option for chatting with folks all over the world, and especially for small group meetings, is quick and easy, but you will need access to Microsoft Office.
People management tools
Interestingly, many managers and business owners report that having a remote team has actually significantly improved their people management, as it forces them to engage and ask meaningful questions rather than assume being present at a desk equals productivity. As one of the big changes from place based to remote is the teams and individuals being output driven rather than clocking in and clocking out in set periods, much of the drive and motivation is taken on by team members – who are usually pretty vocal and direct if one person is not pulling their weight. There are a few tools to let your team tell you how they are going, and best practice is short, regular and measured catch ups one-on-one to check in, set goals, discuss any roadblocks and generally celebrate the awesome quality of life staff are having in their dream job.
15Five is a nifty tool for making sure your team’s cultural health and happiness is humming along. It’s a simple idea, you ask your team a series of short questions once a week (that take no longer than fifteen minutes to answer) so that you can keep track of what’s on everyone’s mind. The cost is $14 per person per month. These questions can be used to provoke a group conversation, dig deeper into issues with individuals and track recurring niggles and wins over time with insights and analytics.
In much the same vein is iDoneThis. Every night, it emails everyone on the team asking what they achieved that day, and then sends out a digest the following morning so everyone can celebrate team accomplishments. It’s incredibly simple and uses email for communication, it’s easy to get everyone onboard using the tool and brings great transparency to what everyone’s up to – or not.
You might be an old hand at remote worker management, your team is firing and productivity is through the roof. But what about your next hire who has to hit the cloud running? GitHub Wiki is designed for employee onboarding by organising helpful resources for new employees at their fingertips. They can be edited and changed as processes, projects and people evolve, and each newbie can update them once they have their feet on the ground.
Straight up time and expenses tracker, simple and invaluable. For keeping track of time and expenses, this is a simple few-frills tool. Sliding scale freemium model with monthly payments.
PukkaTeam is a remote working tool offering a solution for teams with members worldwide. The web app allows you to see which of your teammates are available for a quick chat using photos of them snapped throughout the day, and you can simply click and call them without having to ping them a message first to ask whether they are there and have time. Team members can easily change their status of availability if they go on a lunch break or head to a meeting. This feature comes in really handy when people are working in different shifts or in various time zones. With the availability status, you won’t be confused about who is online. PukkaTeam helps employees feel more connected and have a real-like presence with the rest of the team.
Information management tools
Keeping on top of your information flows and management is another cluster of tasks that need to be managed, in a way that all your peeps no matter where they are, are on task and know what is ready to be released, what version they are sharing, when things are scheduled, and who is responsible. Here are a few to help you out.
Buffer is used for planning social media posts across all platforms. It is an efficient cloud based tool for team members scattered across a suburb, state or globe. Posts can be planned in advance, and a posting schedule created to make sure that the right posts are being shared at the right time. Buffer also provides an analytics dashboard to measure how social media efforts are performing.
Dropbox has been around for a few years now, has improved with market use and feedback and evolved to be one of the key tools for information sharing and management. Dropbox makes it easy to share and collaborate on files with your team, and particularly to manage version control and access. Another freemium pricing model, there are business and enterprise versions available.
Google’s business tools, which include real time editing and collaboration in documents and storage, calendars, scheduling, presentation tools, spreadsheets and all of the google products you are used to, are still one of the most comprehensive offerings for businesses of all sizes. Google also has the convenience of logins across the suite of products and integration. Pricing is tiered per user per month with a free trial period.
Time zone scheduling tools
It’s last on the list, but by no means least. Nothing worse than the frustration of waiting for a client to call and realising you’ve scheduled the meeting in the wrong time zone. If you’ve got a global team, time zones can be confusing; some staffers are a day ahead, some are a day behind.
Trying to sync time zones and work out where everyone is when can be confusing, which is why products like ScheduleOnce exist to take the friction out of those tricky calculations especially when dealing with daylight savings. Pricing is a monthly fee per groups of users with a free trial to test out their claims of comfort and ease in the calendar.
Another automatic timezone calculator and scheduler, TimeTap features a host of benefits from scheduling, to email responders, to appointment and booking forms. Annual and monthly pricing keeps it flexible and not-for-profit discount keeps it fair.