Working remotely can make teams happier, faster and better, or it can do just the opposite.
It’s the double-edged sword of modern workplaces – what technology gives with one hand, it takes with the other when subbing in for face-to-face contact. But it’s starting to look like technology can now clean up some of the messes it’s made, with new solutions for some common remote working woes. Let’s look at a few of these and how being smart from the start can combat the disconnect often suffered among distributed teams.
For some, putting distance between colleagues can boost productivity, while others are more easily distracted in their own space. Whatever your personality may be, time lost to updating colleagues with progress reports is unavoidable. Or is it? US startup Peak has developed an automated tool that tracks and reports your activity by trawling through your use of online services like Gmail or Dropbox. It can alert colleagues to file updates, tasks checked off, time spent on jobs, invoices raised and other project milestones.
It also gives insights into how team members work, such as most productive work days or times of day, who’s busier than usual and how people work.
Image: Peak in action
Peak also syncs with widely used project management solution, Basecamp. Created by 37signals, Basecamp is a web-based application that brings together team calendars, file sharing, email, timelines and milestones, et al, in the one platform. Its co-founders are behind the useful reimagining of workplaces books Rework and Remote. Founders of the group also recently launched a tool to help leaders keep up on how their team feels about the company, its vision, direction, work, culture and so on.
Image: Basecamp explained
Communicating and collaborating
Remote work is often about dealing with multiple time zones, magnifying the challenge posed by communicating virtually. Founders of Colour Lovers, Darius A. Monsef IV, Chris Williams and Aaron Epstein work from Hawaii, Portland, Oregon and New York City respectively. Monsef, who logs in daily at 6am to make contact before lunch, travels a lot and is forever on the phone. “I think I spend a few hours a day on the phone with my co-founder Aaron, sometimes neither of us talking, just working like we’re in the same office,” Monsef told Fast Company. The team behind the creative community for sharing colour palette also use HipChat for group messaging, along with IM on Skype to bridge the communication gap.
Compounding the problem for startups with remote teams is the frenetic pace of work. “It’s hard to stay on the same page when we’re working so quickly,” co-founder of Australian photo-sharing and sample tracking service The Photo Diner, Gaby Howard, comments. Howard’s partner Nadine von Cohen stresses the importance of documenting and scoping everything and reviewing regularly. The team of four uses agile project management tool Planbox to assist in this process.
Many are using tools such as Yammer, Trello and Salesforce, three tools instrumental in gaming monetization platform Playerize’s success. Founder Derek Shanahan estimates that while more than 75% of the team’s time is spent in or near the office, most of its collaboration is done asynchronously using web-based tools.
Managing and motivating
Managing and motivating staff from afar is another a major challenge faced by distributed teams, particularly in the startup world where the feeling of being part of something is a crucial ingredient.
The automated tools already mentioned, such as Peak, can help with performance management. Chuck Cohn from Varsity Tutors advocates the use of productivity-based measures to keep staff on track. “Your team needs compensation for productivity-based measures and salary. We developed workflows to require collaboration and transparency. Everyone can see what everyone else is doing,” Cohn told Readwrite.
Image: Double is the latest craze in startup telecommuting
Until Google moves into organics and lets us attach our brains to each other, we’ll have to turn to cold, hard, shiny technology to help out. And if a lack of face time in the office is still a problem, why not invest in a robotic body double that can be driven around the office by remote control, like in this video.
About our contributor // Chris Byrne is a writer working on the journalism-marketing merger. He’s a data journalist, content and comms freelancer. Follow him on @penseive.