by Adam Feber
Remote work has many advantages, but effortless communication is not one of them. Sometimes you take for granted the convenience of walking over to a coworker’s desk to ask a question or solve a problem.
In a survey of 1000 employees across the United States, only 15% of those employees said their company was doing a “good job of fostering communication.” Another survey found that 84% of Millennials valued “an open communication policy” over perks when selecting a new job.
When you take the communication issues that can arise in any company and combine them with the unique elements of a remote workforce, you have to find ways to successfully break down communication barriers.
The following tools are the glue that keeps our distributed company together, and allow us to stay connected and productive from anywhere in the world.
Slack is a popular communication tool among distributed companies, and we are not the exception. We live on Slack, and it truly is the glue that keeps our remote team connected throughout the day! There are company-wide channels for business and fun, every team has its own channel, and coworkers can connect privately in direct messages.
The real differentiator of Slack over other chat apps is the wide range of integrations and bots that are available. This interconnectivity provides total transparency into various workflows for any given team.
Google Hangouts and Skype worked in the early days, but as our team grew, we needed a video solution that could handle 20+ attendees.
While we started using Zoom for our monthly, “all-hands” company meetings, it quickly turned into our go-to tool for various other occasions such as:
- Daily stand-ups
- Ad-hoc meetings
- [Internal] Feature release demos
Director of Operations Drew Blas likes Zoom because “every video conference is easy to access via a unique URL, it supports conferencing on mobile devices, the audio is top notch, and you can schedule recurring meetings.”
Plus, the Slack integration means we can just type “/zoom” in a Slack chat and a meeting link is automatically provided!
Skype is a good alternative to Zoom, especially if you have a smaller team and don’t need to cram in as many people as we do on a video call. The audio quality is crystal clear which also makes it a great solution for quick calls where video is not needed.
Skype’s unique advantage is the ability to easily dial landlines. So when you need to loop in external parties or join a conference call, Skype is a great solution for hands free communication via your computer.
Tip: Skype-adds ons like ecamm’s call recorder allow you to record both audio and video Skype calls.
Chargify not only was born within the Grasshopper team, we still use Grasshopper as our primary phone system. Having a professional and reliable phone system is essential for any company but especially for distributed teams.
Anyone calling our toll free number is greeted with a set of options to get them to the department they need such as sales or support. Everyone has their own extension and calls can be transferred to each other from anywhere in the world.
Grasshopper’s app allows our team members to make work related calls from our company’s number, so their personal cell phone numbers do not have to be used or displayed on every call.
A centralized task/project management tool is mission critical to keeping team members focused on their most important tasks. It also provides visibility into what what others are working on and prioritizes what’s next in queue.
Time zone differences are always a consideration with remote teams, so using a tool like Trello makes communicating that much easier — a team member on EST can leave a note on a Trello card for their coworker that lives in PST to follow-up on when they get online 3 hours later.
A record of all task related communication (specs, notes, files, images, progress, etc.) are centrally located and always just a few clicks away.
While we use Trello for the majority of our task/project management, there are many other suitable options. Check out Zapier’s blog about on the 50 Best Project Management Apps. The key is to pick the project management tool that best fits your workflow.
Jell takes the concept of standup meetings and automates it. If you’re not familiar with a standup report, it is three simple questions, asked daily (or some do weekly):
- What did you accomplish yesterday?
- What are you planning to do today?
- What challenges stand in your way?
Every day, team members fill out their reports which are automatically posted into the appropriate team Slack channel. A daily video call is conducted to review, but since everyone filled out their reports in advance, the calls are super short — as daily standups should be!
In an interview with Jell, we talked about “forcing yourself to write down the most important things to tackle each day will really help you stay focused and get things done. If you’re not accomplishing those documented priorities each day, you can start to deliberately cut out the distraction. (Or perhaps reassess your goals to make sure they’re not too lofty.).”
Jell recently released goal tracking that we’re also starting to use. We can document quarterly and annual goals for teams and the whole company. This goal tracking provides transparency into what we’re working towards and allows us to track progress along the way.
Whether your team is distributed or colocated, a code repository is a must for development teams.
Github ensures our current codebase and revision history is safe and sound. The development team can collaborate on features, review each other’s code, and push out updates on a regular basis.
While GitHub may provide the means for code review and collaboration, it’s asynchronous. Screenhero can be used for remote pair programing via low-lag screensharing with multiple mouse cursors and voice chat.
Screenhero enables our development team to do real-time pair programming and code reviews from anywhere in the world as if they were sitting at the same computer.
In fact, Screenhero is so great, Slack acquired them in 2015.
Google’s collaboration apps such as Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, etc. are often underutilized by many teams we talk to. At Chargify, it’s the de facto standard when it comes to collaborating on documents and sharing files.
The ability to share, suggest edits, add comments, and work together is a must for distributed teams. While the marketing team lives in Google Docs to collaborate on blog posts, emails, website pages, and all things content, there are many other great use cases such as providing weekly/monthly reporting, meeting agendas, feature write-ups, and so much more.
Google Drive not only houses all of our Google Docs, Sheets, etc., but it is a great file sharing tool in general. Our team uses it for most files that multiple parties may want to access, including photo sharing after our team meetups.
Some team members use Dropbox for their needs, but as a whole, the majority of shared files live in our Google Drive.
Sharing static mockups/designs simply doesn’t provide the interactive element needed to understand UX interactions and workflows. For this reason, our design team uses InVision to share proof of concepts, gather feedback, and keep UX design tasks moving forward.
I asked our Product Designer what makes InVision great: “Invision lets me share my designs quickly with the team and walk them through how a feature or component should work, act, and feel.”
Skitch is an awesome tool that helps us communicate visually. This is especially important for remote teams!
With Skitch, you can quickly capture a screenshot, annotate it (using shapes, sketches, and text) and share it. Visual annotations make communicating your point clearer and takes much less time than typing it up.
In late 2015, Skitch pulled it’s Windows and mobile supported versions, so it is currently only available for Mac users. This blog post outlines a list of alternatives you can check out.
When text or visual annotations simply don’t cut it, screen recording can be uber effective to communicate bugs, show off a feature, or explain a request. While there are many options, RecordIt seems to be a popular choice within the Chargify team.
It’s lightweight and quickly allows you to start recording your screen. When you’re done, a share link is generated or you can save the file. Share your recordings in a chat or attach them to your task management tool.
We’ve been using Hackpad as an internal wiki for employee onboarding, policies, processes, and other HR related info. Internal transparency for these types of documents has proven to streamline new employee onboarding and eliminate redundant HR requests.
Do you have any suggested alternatives? Let us know in the comments below.
Effective communication is essential for all companies, but there are some additional communication challenges inherent to distributed companies. At Chargify, it’s important for us to get together in-person at least once a year, but the rest of the time we rely on the tools above to help us connect, communicate, and collaborate.
Are we missing any tools that your distributed team considers essential? Let us know in the comments below.
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