Digital collaboration tools for remote workers
What is remote working?
The idea of 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 this 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. It differs from outsourcing in that its not the replacement of in house skills with lower cost workers. 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. Remote workers can spend their time in the home, at a co-working space, in a serviced office, at the office of their corporation, in a hot desk at a partner organisation or in a café or library and commonly use a combination of these spaces. With adequate and mobile network access, remote workers are locationally independent.
All of the technology and infrastructure required to enable remote working already exists. There is abundant modelling on the financial and productivity benefits to individual workers and businesses from having workers operate remotely. There are some key reasons remote working works for workers and for business owners, these include the capacity to get work done without continual interruption; the reduction in commuting time; the capacity to find the right skills anywhere in the world and the lowering of infrastructure costs. For business owners and employers this translates to higher productivity and lower operating costs.
Commuting, cost savings, local and global skills
For the best chance at success if you are just considering whether your staff could remote work, or you could integrate remote workers into your team, 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.
When people can create a lifestyle they want, be engaged and stimulated by their work, and empowered by autonomy, productivity and retention are increased. The cost savings from reducing commuting time is valid for low traffic cities like Hobart and Launceston and destinations beyond these Tasmanian urban hubs. With the estimate of an average commute time of 45 minutes from leaving home, traffic, parking the car and getting to work, that equates to roughly 300 - 400 hours of time which could be utilised more constructively.
Remote work also offers a skills democratisation for workers who, for whatever reasons, choose to not live in a major city or physical hub, thus enabling regional businesses and workers the same opportunities based on capacity rather than location. As long as there are competitively skilled individuals ready to work, location will be more about appropriate time zones for global working.
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.
Within all of those industries, however, there are roles that perfectly suit not being on the ground, and located where best suits the most skilled candidate. 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 is currently being 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, and done in Tasmania for global companies, or done by global companies in Tasmania.
Is your business one of these? If so it might be time for your to really think about how you employ and deploy your workforce. Do you need an office? Do you need to see your staff in the flesh? Are you missing out on excellent skills based people because you haven’t looked beyond your ‘hood? Decoupling from bricks and mortar might save your business money, and give you and your staff a better quality of life along the way. Let’s have a look at some of the key tools you can use to help create the business of the now.
Your remote working toolbox
Remote working is just that – getting your head down and getting on with your tasks. Its 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. Managing data and information flow; and where each person is at is equally critical, 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.
Communication, chat, and collaboration tools
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.
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.
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, but for if you want to add in additional business features, it will cost you $5/user per month.
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. The routine when you are deep in virtual world 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.
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.
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.
The ability to share screens makes presentations easier and sharing invites seamless when using Google Calendar, where every new appointment gives you the option of creating a Hangout link. You can have a private hangout with less than ten team members, or turn it into a conference call with Uber Conference. Messaging on screen, document sharing, and Google features and integration make this a simple user friendly option for remote teams, that quickly extends into webinars and larger presentations.
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 catching up with the grandkids on her 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, if not always reliable, especially if you live in a bandwidth challenged area.
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 $49/user for the first 10 people, then drops to $5 per user. These questions can be used to provoke a group conversation, dig deeper into issues with individuals and track recurring niggles and wins over time.
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. Super cheap at $5 per user per month, and the bare facts approach means that words speak as loudly as actions.
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.
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.
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/month service for added features.
Jira is one of the suite of products made by Australian company Atlassian, and with over 35000 users, it’s also highly a regarded agile project management tool primarily for 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.
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.
World Clock (for Mac) is a native app that not only makes it easy to add all the time zones relevant to your staff and clients and shows them on a map to better help you visualise the time differences, but helps you schedule meetings across time zones too.
Not on a Mac? No problem. Figure It Out is a Chrome extension that shows your team’s time zones every time you open a new tab.