I don’t know about your experience, but when I started working remotely five years ago, it was a steep learning curve! How do I best stay in communication with my team? How do I make sure I don’t miss a deadline? Where can I access all of our files? No matter what we like to imagine, working from home is NOT the exact same thing as working in an office – especially when it comes to the nuts and bolts of doing your work.
Today, I'll dig into why it's SO important to be purposeful about the tools you use to get work done when you’re running a virtual team. I'll also share things to consider when picking the tools and apps your team will use, and the MJST team’s favorite platforms that keep us productive and save us from driving each other crazy.
Take a moment and think about what it’s been like to work remotely. What have been some of your biggest challenges or frustrations?
The social media management company Buffer recently published their State of Remote Work report, which was built off a survey of more than 3,500 remote workers. They found that THE biggest struggles when working remotely were collaborating and/or communication and loneliness.
I wasn’t part of the survey, but I can tell you – that’s pretty consistent with my experience! Figuring out how to stay connected and productive – both on personal and professional levels – with people all over the state or country is no simple task…but it’s absolutely critical to effective remote work set-ups.
One of the most important things we can do when shifting from an in-office arrangement to remote work is take the time to organize your virtual team’s processes and platforms for getting work done. Virtual teams have lots of moving parts – but without the benefit of being able to swing by someone’s desk or cubicle and ask a quick question. Being purposeful in our decisions and communication about how work gets done keeps everyone on the same page and minimizes frustration.
If we’re not being purposeful in creating and communicating these processes, we can expect problems to pop up, such as:
Remember – Clarity and Certainty are fundamental motivators for human behavior. To be at the top of our game, we’ve got to know what we’re supposed to be doing (Clarity) and we’ve got to feel a sense of safety and comfort in the systems that allow us to do our work (Certainty). Taking the time to outline processes, procedures and which tools we use for which tasks – and then sharing that with the rest of the team – helps people experience more clarity and certainty, even if the situation is uncertain.
Some things to consider when choosing which tools you'll use when working remotely include budget, user friendliness, and expectations for who needs to use what and when.
Let’s start with budget! At MJST, we’ve used some tools that were great, but were way too expensive for what we were doing or the frequency at which we were using them. We don't have any problem investing in resources that help us do our work better, but especially during the COVID-19 situation, some of these pricier options were the ones we scaled back on (either to a free or more limited version) or got rid of entirely. It doesn’t make those tools bad, but sometimes you’ve got to look at the dollars you’re investing vs. the benefit you’re receiving.
And finally, expectations: Some tools will be used by everyone and some will only be used by a few people. Keep in mind what the job requires – for example, I’m the only one on our team who really needs to know how to design graphics, so it’s okay that not everyone has access to that tool. You may also find some people would rather use their own tool or system and that might be okay...or you might say that everyone needs to get onboard and use the same platform. Get clear on what your expectations are, communicate them, and create the space to ensure everyone is comfortable with what you settle on.
We've arrived at the MJST team favorites! These are not ads or sponsors; they're simply the tools we use and love, so we want to share them with you. You can also grab a cheat sheet of these apps (plus a few bonus ones!) right here to refer back to.
File Storage & Collaboration
The first tool you’re going to want to make sure you have is some sort of cloud-based file storage system. If you come from an office setting that has a joint server or VPN, you’re probably all set. But just in case you don’t, we use both Dropbox and Google Drive. Technically Google Drive can be used for file storage, especially if you run off a Gmail based email system, but we currently use Dropbox for traditional file storage and sharing, and then we use Google Drive more for document collaboration. If I’m speaking honestly, there’s probably some streamlining we can do here and there’s pros and cons for going one way or the other, but we make it work using both depending on the task at hand.
The second tool you’ll want to have is some sort of video conferencing app. We’ve been using Zoom for at least four years now and have been happy with it. You can also look at something like Adobe Connect or WebEx. The important part is that you have a platform that facilitates face-to-face conversations – bonus if you can record, chat, and do breakout rooms for smaller conversations within bigger meetings.
The third tool that I recommend is a project management system. We currently use Asana, which allows me to create both standalone and project-based tasks – for myself and other members of the team – to keep everyone accountable to impending deadlines. Some industries have very tailored project management systems (for example, when I worked in advertising, we used software built specifically for the work we did), but something like Asana works well for more general project management at an affordable price point.
For scheduling one-on-one meetings, we use Calendly. With Calendly, you can send a link to the person you want to meet with and they can choose from available time slots without the back and forth emails of “Does this time work for you? What about this time?” Calendly syncs up to Outlook or Google Calendar and automatically discards any time slots where you’re already booked. You can also set buffers around your meetings, so you don’t get scheduled back to back, and choose which days you want to be available on. We use this most often with our one-on-one coaching clients and it makes scheduling so much smoother.
When trying to get a group together for a meeting, we use a website called Doodle. With Doodle, you select a handful of time slots and days for people to vote on. Then, you just schedule the meeting at the time most or all people are available! Again, cuts down on the dreaded “When are you free?” email chains.
Speaking of email...about a year ago, we started using Slack which is a communication platform, kind of similar to text messaging or chats but where you can organize and group conversations. Frankly, we were late to the Slack game compared to other remote teams, but we’re so glad we came to our senses! Slack has allowed us to cut down on our internal email DRASTICALLY and is a lot more user friendly for quick questions. It also allowed us to get away from using text messaging for work needs, which I know I really like!
Informal Brainstorming & Check-ins
The last tool I’ll recommend today is Marco Polo, which is a mobile app that’s a cross between video chat, Snapchat or Instagram Stories, and text messages. In Marco Polo, you can send video messages to other people, but unlike on Snapchat or Instagram, there’s no time limit and they don’t disappear. We use Marco Polo a lot for casual check-ins and those random “Here’s an idea I was tossing around…what do you guys think?” type moments. I know I’ve heard from friends that one of the things they miss most about being in the office is the chance for miscellaneous collaboration – Marco Polo helps us do that in a virtual way.
Ensuring your team knows which tools they should be using to get work done and how to use those tools is critical to creating clarity and certainty when working remotely. When you're choosing the tools that work best for you, keep things like budget, functionality and expectations in mind. You're welcome to try out on of the eight tools I've listed here that the MJST team loves (or some bonus tools that I include in my cheat sheet!) or explore your own. We'd love to hear from you down in the comments – what are you using to keep your work flowing while working from home? We’re always up for new suggestions and better ways of doing things!