Twenty years ago, I took a job as the head of research and development for a company based in Boston, MA. I was living in Atlanta, GA at the time and had no plans to move to Massachusetts (too cold!) so I was not really sure how this decision would play out. At that time, development teams tended to be clustered together in windowless rooms with walls covered in dry erase boards filled with esoteric lists and diagrams. Collaboration generally took the form of looking over someone’s shoulder to review code or provide feedback on screen designs. The idea of a truly remote team, especially a team focused on building a product, was still in its infancy.
Of course, as time moved forward, the structure of the workforce changed dramatically as collaborating with remote team members became the norm. During this period, technology that at first supplemented team collaboration became essential, and the ways in which that technology was used evolved to better align with the new team structure.
Over time, I have used literally dozens (could be hundreds) of different software tools that in one way or another improved the productivity of remote teams. But rather than discussing specific software products, my intent is to discuss three major categories of software that are absolutely fundamental to remote work. While I’m reasonably certain everyone reading this is already using one or more of the products in each category, I want to focus on how these tools can be best used to address the specific challenges of remote teams.
Chat software is not at all new but has evolved greatly in the tools we use today. Whether you’re using Slack, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams, you’ll have no trouble sending and receiving real-time messages to your co-workers, whether they’re located across the hall or across the country, with all the emojis and animated gifs your heart desires. While this is a great substitute for being able to walk across the room and tap someone on the shoulder, the real power of chat for remote teams is not one-to-one communication, but rather group/team or topic-based discussion threads.
Slack led the way in this area by introducing the concept of “channels”, a simple way of creating a virtual space for teams to discuss specific projects, initiatives or topics of any kind. This concept elevated chat from a faster (and slightly less annoying) version of email to a tool that creates a true sense of connection between those working together. One of the primary challenges in working remotely is the feeling that you’re missing out on impromptu discussions that could be relevant to your work. By fostering the habit of using chat channels/groups for these discussions, team members can “listen in” on the discussion and then participate when it’s appropriate.
Another key feature remote teams should take advantage of is the ability to incorporate visual assets (images, video, documents, etc.) within a discussion thread. For marketing and creative teams, chat can be a great place to solicit informal feedback on new designs, marketing materials, or ad copy. The casual nature of chat makes it a great place to bounce ideas off others and visual content is quite effective in creating a sense of “presence” (i.e., the common experience of everyone looking at the same thing) that draws people into the conversation.
2. Video / Web Conferencing
The first and most important piece of advice when using video conferencing with remote teams – turn the camera on! While people are sometimes reticent to be “on camera,” the ability to see and interpret expressions and gestures during a conversation can avoid all kinds of communication pitfalls endemic to non-visual communication. Also, the camera allows remote workers to connect with each other’s workspace, creating the kind of informal familiarity which is often missing from text or audio communications. If nothing else, trying to make out the titles of books on the shelf behind your coworker can provide a little distraction and might help you learn a little more about the person at the same time.
Sometimes, it is even more important to make sure the team is looking at the same thing than it is to make sure they are seeing each other. Screen sharing and video conferencing applications began to merge in the late 90’s / early 2000’s, and both are now standard components in any web conferencing application. Nonetheless, it is still somewhat underused during meetings unless one participant has a formal presentation. But because so much routine collaboration, particularly in marketing and creative departments, is focused on a visible artifact, I find there are very few interactions that are not aided by sharing content and allowing everyone to see the material you’re discussing. One best practice, don’t share your entire screen but rather share a specific application. This has two advantages: 1) it avoids any concerns about private chat messages or emails “popping up” and being seen by everyone on the call and 2) it allows you to size the window appropriately and avoid problems that can occur when sharing content on a large, high resolution monitor with others working on smaller screens.
One final piece of advice when it comes to video/web conferencing is to use the now commonly available option to record & transcribe calls. As remote teams make greater use of web conferences/calls, a great deal of important information and valuable ideas are being shared in this space – why not capture a record of it when it requires nothing more than a simple click of a button? Our Director of Sales and Marketing likes to listen to recorded discovery calls with potential clients in the background while he works (sounds boring but given his taste in music probably an upgrade). This allows him to gain a better understanding of client problems and needs without having to join every call personally.
3. Project Management
While the first two technologies are focused on real-time or near real-time communications that to some degree replace direct, face-to-face contact, project management software is just as essential for colocated teams as it is for remote teams. The need to organize dates & deadlines, assign tasks and track progress toward the ultimate deliverable are fundamental to any team. However, there are some specific aspects of project management software that are uniquely valuable for remote teams.
One of the most obvious difficulties in managing a remote team is encouraging and tracking the productivity of individual employees. When everyone is working in the same office you can see that people are at their desks each day, what they are working on and, in some cases, where they might be struggling or getting hung up. This is obviously more difficult with a remote worker, but project management software can help bridge the gap. By using software that allows you to set up and assign work, track the workload of each individual and receive alerts when deadlines are approaching or missed, you can stay on top of productivity issues without having to literally look over someone’s shoulder. Also, project management applications create a record of work accomplished, on-time performance and other metrics that can provide quantitative measures for employee evaluation as opposed to relying on subjective impressions which are often biased against remote workers.
Another unique challenge of maintaining productivity with remote teams is eliminating the “dead time” that can arise from a failure to hand-off work from one team member to another. For example, a designer who is waiting for content from a copywriter on a co-located team might just wander over to the copywriter’s desk and ask for an update. But on a remote team, a delay might be introduced because the designer might not think the issue serious enough to send an email or might not even be sure which copywriter is working on this task. This is why setting up dependencies between all the work involved in a project is particularly important for remote teams. Dependencies allow every team member to be aware of who they need to talk to in order to start their own work, who might be impacted if their work is delayed, and allows the project manager to both identify potential delays and easily assess their ultimate impact on the project.
One final note of particular importance for marketing and creative teams, or any product team producing applications or digital media, is that the software you use supports (and you utilize) the ability to collaborate around a visual asset. As mentioned in all the product categories above, remote teams work best when they can all look at and comment on the same ad, email, screen, video, etc. Whatever the deliverable, all three of these technologies can be effective in replacing (and sometimes improving) the collaboration that takes place when everyone is in the same room. Whether that is accomplished through real-time interactions in a web conference or by utilizing the more detailed review and annotation features in products such as RoboHead, remote teams can maximize their productivity by focusing on the deliverable.
According to the American Psychological Association, more than 26 million Americans – 16% of the total workforce – now work remotely at least part of the time, and this number has been growing geometrically over the last decade. Given this trend, it is essential to not just choose the right software, but fully utilize those features that address the unique needs of this group. Collaboration software has and will continue to evolve as companies adjust to this new reality and demand technology that will enhance not only the productivity, but also the emotional and psychological well-being of their employees. For myself, I’m just happy to be working in an era where my career goals never forced me to learn how to shovel snow.
Dan Perez is President of Aquent Cloud