Process and Tools: How to collaborate effectively when your team is remote
“How do you collaborate effectively if your team is remote?”
Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, a famed British technology pioneer answered this question at the Business of Software Conference in Cambridge, United Kingdom (where I had the honor to speak alongside her!). She said:
“Remote work has less to do with the tools and more to do with effective management practices.”
I was floored by Dame Shirley’s statement – I knew she was right.
Dame Shirley ran a remote tech company in the 1960s. Forget Slack. This was six or seven years before email was invented. So, what she’d do to collaborate with her remote team? Her staff used the telephone.
As a CEO of a remote company myself over the past 5 years and working with hundreds of remote CEOs during that time, I’d noticed how it wasn’t necessarily the tools themselves that made remote teams effective: It was how a team chose to use those tools. The processes and systems instilled about how to collaborate in a remote team – that’s what contributes to success.
Based on the research we’ve done working with thousands of remote managers, our survey we conducted with 297 remote managers and employees earlier this year, and the experience of hundreds of remote managers who are a part of our online community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, here are the best practices to consider to collaborate effectively when your team is remote…
Get the timing right.
Time and attention are sacred. As a result, a big part of collaborating effectively in a remote team is figuring out when you’ll be communicating with one another. Working hours are more ambiguous when you work remotely. Folks are in different time zones, with different preferences for when they like to be responding to messages and requests. Not to mention, we all need time to actually get work done, and not just participate in answering emails or replying to Slack messages all day.
As a remote manager, it’s your responsibility to make the timing of communication clear. You’ll want to set expectations to answer the following questions for everyone:
- What time zones are everyone working in? How will this be communicated?
- What are the expected working hours each person has? What should the overlapping working hours for folks in different time zones be?
- If you need to be offline to run an errand or are in a meeting, how will that be communicated?
- How will it be communicated when someone is on vacation or traveling?
- Are there any times team members should not be disturbed?
- What’s the expected response time to messages? Does that vary depending on what the message is, or the channel that it is delivered in?
Match the message to the channel.
What you say can be delivered in a myriad of formats: Email, chat, video call, phone call… So to avoid the barrage of messages pelting others without any rhyme or reason, you’ll want to create some sort of delineation of what kind of message should be delivered in which channel. Oftentimes, this is related to the salience and urgency of a message. For instance, a direct message in Slack might insinuate that a message is urgent and should be responded to within the hour… versus something posting a message in a general channel might mean it doesn’t need to be looked at until the next day, if at all.
As GitLab, a remote company with 700+ people, espoused in their remote manifesto: “Choose the right channel of communication according to the necessity of the task you’re working on.”
As a remote manager, here’s what you need to clarify with your team about what channels to use for certain communication:
- What’s the default mode of communication? Email? Video call? Chat? Phone call?
- Which channel / tool should be used for which kind of communication?
- Who else should be copied on a message, if anyone?
- When something is urgent, how should it be communicated? What about when it’s not?
- What’s the right cadence for checking in on a certain communication?
Honor the quiet.
No communication is a communication process in itself – and an important one in remote work. With time and attention being so precious, you don’t want to bombard people with messages incessantly. You must give them space to accomplish their work. As Paul Farnell, co-founder of Litmus attested to: “It’s more important to give employees quiet time than it is to cram them into an open office.”
Here at Know Your Team, we’re adamant about creating one four hour block of uninterrupted time for everyone, a few times a week, at a minimum. In fact, though our software, Know Your Team, we regularly ask our team the question, “When’s the last time you had an uninterrupted four-hour block of time to work?” as a way to keep ourselves accountable that we’re honoring the quiet for our own team.
But are there tools you just can’t live without?
Okay, I know Dame Shirley said that tools don’t really matter in a remote team, but I do know it’s helpful to have some guidance on generally what tools remote teams these days find necessary to collaborate well.
According to our survey, 34% said that Slack was the one tool they couldn’t live without, 16% said Email, 14% said Zoom for video conferencing, and 11% said Google Docs.
Additionally, when we asked our members of The Watercooler, our online leadership community, with over 1,000 managers from all over the world, here were the most frequently cited tools that they use to collaborate effectively in a remote team (listed alphabetically, below):
- 1Password - Password management
- Asana - Project management
- Basecamp - Project management, communicating with clients
- BitBucket - Code hosting
- Confluence - Knowledge base
- Figma - Prototyping
- Getguru - Knowledge base
- GitHub - Version control
- Google Suite - Collaboration, email
- GoToMeeting - Webinars and one-on-one classes
- Harvest - Time tracking
- HelpScout - Help desk
- Jira - Task tracker
- Know Your Team - Social connection, knowing what people work on, team feedback
- Lessonly - Employee onboarding + training
- Loom - Quick videos to explain stuff
- Notion - Team collaboration
- Paper by Dropbox - Document collaboration
- Quip - Internal wiki
- Realtimeboard - Sprints / brainstorms
- Salesforce - CRM
- Slack - Day-to-day chatter
- Smartsheets - Project management
- TeamCity - Continuous integration
- Trello - Project-specific communication
- Twist - Internal communication
- UpSource - Code reviews
- Zapier - Cross-product integration
- Zendesk - Support
- Zoom - Video conferencing
Put it to work.
Here at Know Your Team, we put this into practice by codifying our practices for collaborating as a remote team. In fact, I wrote up a document called, “How We Work,” that I share with all new hires. We update it regularly, but I thought I’d share with you a version of it, so you can see how we pull together the processes and tools in our own remote team to collaborate effectively.
How We Work
Our success is predicated on how well we communicate with one another. The more clear, respectful, and consistent we are in communicating as a team, the better! Especially, as a remote company, communication is critical. When in doubt, over-communicate.
Our time + attention is everything… so we try very hard to protect both. We don’t do daily stand-up meetings. We don’t do pointless meetings “just to chat,” period. A majority of our work requires big blocks of uninterrupted time. As a result, it’s important to give each other that space, and be mindful of how our communication impacts someone’s time and attention.
Our default mode of communication is writing. If you’ve got a new idea, thought, etc… best to write it up in Basecamp or Know Your Team! However, obviously, writing doesn’t always suffice. For brainstorming + riffing, strategic conversations, tough conversations, one-on-one meetings, or all-team meetings, video chats work best.
Using Know Your Team: Naturally, we also use Know Your Team to communicate with one another as much as possible 🙂 This is important because we need to know firsthand what it’s like for our own customers to use our product… And we can benefit from it! Feel free to participate in using any part of it – including Social Questions, Culture Questions, 1:1s and more.
Here’s the #1 thing we use KYT for every day:
- What are you working on today? Every day, we share what we accomplished the previous day, and what we’re planning to work on today.
Using Basecamp: If you haven’t noticed, we use Basecamp for writing everything 😊 This keeps everything in one place, and gives us a written history of everything in the company for future folks to get caught up. A quick tour of how we use Basecamp:
- Messages: This is likely what we use most often. If you’ve got a new idea, suggestion, report to share, etc., it’ll likely be a message. Typically, we expect someone to reply to a message within 24 hours.
- Documents + Files: This is pretty self-explanatory. Often times, when brainstorming something our outlining something, we’ll write something up as a doc, instead of a message, and tag the appropriate person we want to share it with.
- Pings: We try to reserve this for things that need someone’s attention right away. Typically, we expect someone to reply to a ping within a few hours.
- Campfire: This is essentially a group chat. We often put non-urgent things here, that people can check periodically. If you want someone to respond to something within 24 hours, best to write it as a message.
- To Dos: If you need to get something done, or want someone else to get something done, create a to-do, and tag the person.
- Automatic Check-ins: These are periodic questions that are useful to answer, only when relevant. They are absolutely not required to be answered to.
- Schedule: Feel free to put important dates etc.
Here are a few day-to-day areas in Basecamp to participate in:
- What’s your #1 focus this week? Every week, we share the #1 areas we’re focused on this week.
- Company Chit-Chat: This is just for fun casual conversations, team-wide.
- How was your weekend? This is just a fun one.
One-on-one Meetings: Periodically, we’ll hop on a video chat for about 1 hour with the person you work most closely with to get feedback on how things are going, discuss issues that are tough, make sure priorities are aligned, riff + brainstorm on new ideas, etc. In the beginning, these will likely be weekly or biweekly, and then later on, once a month. We can decide together what the best cadence is for you. We’ll use the One-on-Ones tool in KYT to prepare for these! :-)
All-Team Meetings: Every month, we’ll hold an all-team meeting via Zoom to review the previous month (what went well, what didn’t, etc.), to outline priorities for the upcoming month + quarter, to share learnings, and just to riff and catch up with one another. This is valuable time to get aligned as a company – and to see each other’s faces!
In-Person Meetups: Once or twice a year, we’ll get together as a company, typically for 3 or 4 days. We’ll use this time to think big picture, pick apart tough challenges, and perhaps most importantly, to hang out and have fun.
Working hours: We ask that your working hours overlap with Pacific time, at least 4 hours. If you’re working support, we ask that you’re available from 9am - 5pm ET.
If you’re going to be 100% unreachable during any point in the day, just give the team a heads up by posting it in your daily check-in, or adding an event in the calendar. For example: Claire’s typically online by ~8am, and offline by ~6pm PT. Daniel is typically online around ~11am, and offline by ~8pm PT. Marcus is typically online around ~7am, and offline by ~4pm PT. Mandy is typically online around ~11AM ET, and offline by ~8pm ET.
Vacation: If you’re going to be out for vacation, just ping Claire at least 2 weeks in advance so we can plan for it, and add it to the calendar here: Vacation + Important Dates. We also close the business down for the last two weeks of the year, with each of us rotating who keeps an eye on the support inbox, in case of emergencies.
Hopefully, this is helpful as you think about your own processes and tools within your own remote team. And keep in mind, if you want to collaborate effectively as a remote team, it’s more than just the tools itself – it’s the processes that accompany it.
We all should heed Dame Shirley’s words.
- Set clear expectations around communication processes such as working hours, requests, sharing ideas, and giving feedback.
- Specify which messages – and what kind of messages – go into which channel of communication.
- Honor the quiet and protect your team’s uninterrupted working time.
- Invest in the right tools for communication, project management, and more.
Put this into practice with Know Your Team:
For remote teams, Know Your Team is a perfect tool for honoring the quiet, by enabling communications asynchronously: You can get feedback with our Culture Questions, ask fun Social Questions, and get updated on what everyone is working by way of our Heartbeats – all without disrupting them via chat or calling an all-team meeting.