At Staff.com and Time Doctor all of our 52 employees work remotely (from home) in 9 different countries. I have been working completely remotely now for over 6 years. When done right, remote work can be very productive, but many companies find it hard to manage or work with people who aren’t sitting with them in an office.
Here are some tips based on my experience and our collective experience as a company on how to make it work.
1. Over-communicate (compensate for the lack of face-to-face)
People working in a office tend to bump into each other and are more likely to communicate often because they’re constantly seeing each other.
When working remotely you don’t see your co-workers, which makes it easier to forget about them, and to forget to communicate. Out of sight, out of mind. This solitude has benefits in that there are less distractions and “got a minute” meetings, but it can lead to a culture with too little communication. So you need to over communicate to compensate for the fact that you’re not naturally bumping into each other in the office.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways you can communicate more effectively when working remotely…
2. 10-minute daily voice meetings for each team
Each team within our company has a daily meeting using Skype voice chat. These meetings help everyone to feel connected with their team, and to understand what the others are working on.
Our daily meetings usually happen at the start of each day, This helps everyone to stay disciplined with their work hours, facilitate more communication throughout the day since team members are working during similar hours.
The structure of the meetings is simple: Each team member briefly states their answer to these two questions:
“What are the top 1-3 tasks you’re working on today?”
“Is there anything preventing you from finishing these tasks?”
In our larger teams we’ve cut this down to just one question:
“Do you have any problems with your tasks is anything that preventing you from accomplishing your current tasks?”
We also mix it up a little by having one meeting each week focus on ideas for improvement in the company and our products.
In our team we use Skype for the daily meetings, but you can also use Google hangouts or a conference line or any other voice chat application.
3. Use instant messaging for constant communication throughout the day
Instant text messaging is a way to constantly keep in contact with your team, and can be less disruptive and easier to coordinate than a voice call.
Here are some options:
|Skype||Freemium||Win, Mac OS, Lin, iOS, Android||Text Chat, Voice Chat, Voice Calls, File Sharing, Screen Sharing, Desktop and Mobile client|
|Google Hangout||Freemium||Win, Mac OS, Lin, iOS, Android||Text Chat, Video Conference, Screen Sharing,|
|Sococo||Paid Plans||Win, Mac OS, Lin, iOS, Android||Text Chat, Voice Chat, Video Conference, Multi Screen Sharing, Virtual Rooms|
|Hipchat||Paid Plans||Win, Mac OS, Lin, iOS, Android||Text Chat, Voice Chat, Screen Sharing, File Sharing|
4. Consider using video technology that tries to replicate an in-person experience
- Sqwiggle.com – Shows video snapshots of each person as they are working through the day and then click to start instantly chatting.
- Perch.co – This is a video technology that enables you to start talking with a remote person instantly when you look at the camera. The app knows if you are looking at it and will turn voice controls on automatically.
We do not use these technologies at Staff.com because we find that they do not work with some of our team members who have a slow Internet connection, but if you have fast enough Internet connection with all of your team members it might be worth trying them.
5. Use Skype and other instant messaging EFFICIENTLY
Instant messaging can become very unproductive. We have a whole article on how to improve your productivity on Skype here, but here are some tips:
- Remove distracting elements (such as audio notifications when your contacts come online).
- Have a policy in your company of sending complete Skype messages in one go rather than saying “Hi…” and then waiting for a response before sending more little snippets.
- Create an ongoing Skype group chat for each team in your company. For example if you have a development team, create a Skype group containing those developers and “set the name” of the group to something like “Development Chat”. In Skype you can also set certain groups or individual contacts as “favorites” so that they appear at the top of your list and are easier to contact.
6. Train your team on efficient email communication
Emails can quickly swallow up a large percentage of the day unless you provide some basic training in email productivity. Here are a few important strategies for improving your productivity with emails:
- Keep emails short and to the point. If possible finish every email in 3 sentences or less.
- Make sure that every email ends with a next step or action point.
- Do not check emails multiple times throughout the day. Doing so will impair your focus and momentum with your work, and also decreases your productivity in processing your emails. It’s far more effective to take 15 or 30 minutes and deal with all of your emails in one go.
- Process each email within 2 minutes. Either archive it, action it quickly, respond or put it on your to do list (and then archive it). This way you can work towards the ultimate email productivity goal which is “In-box zero”. This means you have zero emails in your email In-box. The problem with having hundreds of emails in your inbox is that you’re constantly distracted by old emails that you haven’t quite finished dealing with, and in some cases you go back to the same email multiple times deciding again and again to deal with it later, each time adding to your mental anxiety about how much you have to do and also wasting your time.
- Don’t use your email list as a to-do list. This is part of the principle of making sure that you get to In-box zero. The problem with using your emails as a to-do list is that you are not properly prioritizing your to-dos. Prioritization is a critical component of productivity.
7. Select the appropriate communication style for the issue you’re dealing with
Some types of communication are great for some purposes but terrible for others. Here are some guidelines to follow:
- For delivering a specific non-emotional message, use email.
- For assigning work, use task or project management software designed specifically for that purpose (some options are Asana, Basecamp, and JIRA)
- For back & forth group discussion about complex topics, use voice calls or software with discussion threads like Basecamp.
- For simple quick back & forth conversation (especially with groups) use IM software like Skype
- For emotional topics always use voice or video calls.
8. Save up discussion topics for a weekly meeting
Often voice calls are faster than written communication, and one weekly voice meeting is more efficient than multiple short voice calls or emails. I suggest a weekly voice or video meeting for each team (longer than the daily team meetings discussed above). Any issue that can wait a few days should be saved for this meeting.
9. Use project management software effectively in your business
If you find that you’re emailing team members asking them to do things, you should consider switching to using some type of project or task management software. This is a way to easily assign tasks and track their progress. Also you can use this type of software to keep written discussions organized effectively.
If you’ve never used project management software before it will require a bit of getting used to. At first you may need to constantly remind your staff to use the software instead of email, but once they get used to it everyone will likely find it invaluable for keeping tasks and discussions organized.
10. Use Google Docs
Google Docs (available on Google Drive) are great for remote teams because you can have multiple people collaborating on the same document. We use Google Docs for all sorts of purposes such as:
- A checklist of what to do when hiring a new staff member
- Brainstorming ideas
- Tracking daily or weekly goals
11. Set an exact start time for every meeting
If you’re running your business on daily and weekly meetings it becomes a complete mess if the start time of meetings is erratic. You’ve got to be totally consistent and insist that all of your team members are present at the start of the meeting.
12. Create a specific written system for every repeatable aspect of your business
Most businesses should have their systems documented. This is especially important for remote businesses where it’s not as easy for staff to know what process to follow by simply asking the person next to them.
For example, there may be a set of steps that your developers need to follow each time you release a new version of your website. Having those steps documented in a central location that everyone has access to will help ensure that everyone follows them correctly.
It takes time to write down these systems initially, but saves time & errors in the long run. When you first start documenting your systems, don’t try to IMPROVE the processes that your staff are currently following. Simply write down the processes as they are currently being done. Once your current systems are documented, then you can work on gradually improving them over time.
13. Turn off all distracting notifications on the computer
Each notification or alert will distract you for a second or two and this time adds up. The notifications interrupt your workflow and make it hard to stay focused. Some notifications to eliminate include email alerts and alerts when your contacts come online on Skype or other instant messaging software.
14. Track and verify time worked and attendance
In an office environment you have a general sense of when people come into the office, when they start working, how long they have worked etc. If you’re working in a remote team you don’t have the same visibility of when people are working.
There is software available that can track when remote employees are working & what they’re doing. This type of software is a bit controversial because some people argue that you should give people the freedom to work whatever hours they want, and trust that the work will get done without tracking hours worked. I do believe in trusting your team, but I also believe that measuring where you spend your time and measuring where your team spends their time is very helpful for improving productivity.
Time tracking software can allow you to:
- Measure the activities of you and your team and use this information to examine processes in your business, where time is spent and how time could be spent more productively.
- Track work time and attendance.
- Minimize distractions on the computer and monitor distracting websites.
- Know that your team members are working when they say they are
We created our own software for this purpose which is available at www.timedoctor.com
The software also helps individuals to track and improve their own productivity by being aware of exactly where they are spending their time.
If you think about it almost every business monitors and tracks where they spend their money, but I believe that where time is spent in the business is even more important than where money is spent. So I consider time-use analytics software to be critical for most businesses, especially those with remote teams.
15. Have employees send their managers a list of what they accomplished each day
Employees can do this manually, or you can use software (such as www.timedoctor.com) that will send this information out by email automatically at the end of each day.
16. Use a screen capture tool for visual communication
If you’re standing next to someone you can point at your screen and explain your point with the visual reference of your computer screen. If you are working remotely you need a software tool to help explain what you are talking about. Picture & videos can be worth a thousand words.
Here is an example of a screen-capture image with comments added:
Screen capture software can also be used to record videos of your screen, including your voice as you explain what you’re doing.
The software that we use to capture & share images & videos is Jing, which free. Snagit is a similar paid tool from the same company. The great thing about Jing is that it’s super-simple to create, upload and share the images.
17. Use screen-sharing software and remote-control software
Another way that you can communicate visually is with both people present at the same time sharing your computer screen. You can also use this type of technology for remote-control of another person’s computer screen. This is especially useful if you need someone in your team to provide remote technical support.
There are plenty of free tools you can use for this including:
- Skype (which has screen sharing capability)
- Google Hangouts
- TeamViewer.com (for remote desktop control)
At Staff.com, with 52 people working remotely in our company, we don’t use these tools as much as you might think. The reason is that can be difficult to coordinate a time for a screen-sharing meeting. It usually feels easier to record a video that you can then send to the other person and they can watch at their convenience.
Obviously that does not work in all cases and the screen sharing tools are necessary at times, such as when back and forth conversation or remote control are needed.
18. Set a weekly “rock” task for people in management roles
For management teams and project managers we’ve experimented with several methods of setting and reporting on goals and tasks.
My experience is that simplifying your reporting to focus on less tasks is more powerful. If each person focuses on the top most important task to accomplish for the week and reports back on this one task it keeps the team moving forward in the most important areas. It’s also hard to come up with an excuse of why you didn’t achieve your ONE task for the week. Of course it doesn’t mean that each person has only one task, it just means that as a structure for weekly reporting, you only report back on the highest priority task for the week.
19. Track daily productivity goals for people with repetitive tasks
Some team members might primarily work on repetitive tasks such as data entry. This type of work can get a little boring over time so it helps to set clear achievable targets for the amount of work done each day, and have a reporting structure for measuring work output (and also evaluating the quality of the work).
The overall idea with tracking productivity and work output is to tailor the reporting structure for the type of work. My experience is that for repetitive tasks it’s better to have a daily reporting structure to keep on top of the work output.
People who are involved in more complex project based work, reporting back weekly might make more sense. For project based work where tasks and projects are constantly changing, it also makes sense to keep track of the tasks in a project management system such as Asana.
20. Keep track of work environments when team members are working from home
Working from home can be more productive than an office. There can be less distractions, more time to focus, less travel time and many other advantages. However if someone’s work environment at home is problematic (for example, if they are trying to look after children while working) their productivity can suffer massively. I know from my own experience that trying to look after a young child while working at home is almost impossible.
Employees may try to hide the extent to which their home environment is affecting their work. Try to make sure that everyone on your team who works from home:
- Has a separate space where no-one is around them when working and they are not disturbed.
- Does not have young children at home when they are working, or if there are children at home, there is a full time care-giver looking after the children during all work hours.
You might need to check with each team member and dig into their situation so you know whether their working environment is productive.
If someone’s home environment isn’t conducive to work, consider alternative ways of working remotely such as working at a co-working space.
21. Have at least 2 large screens attached to your computer
This is a basic way to improve productivity for almost all knowledge workers. Bill Gates explained how his productivity increased significantly going from two screens to three! The minimum should be 2 screens. This can to be something that is goes unnoticed when working remotely.
22. Keep some degree of regular work hours
One of the major benefits of remote work is flexible working hours. If a team member has a dentist appointment during the day, they can go to the appointment and make up the time in the evening or on the weekend. However if working hours get too erratic, productivity can suffer along with work-life balance. Another benefit of regular work hours is that it allows for planned cross-over time, covered on the next point…
23. Make sure you have adequate cross-over time within each team
It’s great to have some time when your team is working all at the same time so that you know you are all present and able to communicate effectively. I believe you should have a period of at least three hours per day when everyone is working. You can start your daily voice meeting at the beginning of this cross-over time to keep everyone coordinated.
This is also one of the purposes of having a daily voice meeting; to make sure that everyone is present and ready for the next three hours where they’re able to communicate and collaborate as a team.
Our experience is that this crossover time is easy to coordinate when employees are working across two time zones, but becomes a nightmare when people are working in three major time zones. This means that it’s okay to have a team with people in say, North America and Europe, or Europe and Asia.
But communication starts to break down when the team is spread across North America, Europe AND Asia, for example as this would mean that the crossover time would be very early in the morning (2am probably) for some and this is unlikely to be sustainable long-term.
24. Meet in person (if possible)
Technology can solve most of the communication & productivity concerns that people have about remote work.
However there’s one major issue with remote work that technology can’t fully solve. It’s that as human beings we’re designed for real-life socializing and human contact. It’s in our biology to want to be around with friends and colleagues in person. It’s also hard to develop deep friendship with someone you never met in person.
The ideal situation I believe would be to meet regularly, if you live in the same city or area. If that is not possible, then traveling to meet together once or twice a year is an alternative.
25. Ensure that your team members are not feeling isolated
Many people love working from home but it does not work for everyone. My experience is that some people can become too socially isolated, especially if they’re living alone and aren’t particularly social. These people can feel initially like they want to work from home, and they can be productive but over time they can grow more socially isolated and deeply unhappy as a result.
In our company, only a small minority of people have had this issue but it’s still important to consider. Working from home really is not for everyone, and it can be an issue for people that are not social enough outside of their work lives. One way to overcome this issue is for people to work in a co-working space rather than from home.
26. Make an effort to socialize and connect on a personal level
Even when working remotely you can socialize and communicate on a personal level. At Staff.com we have a “chill room” on Skype where everyone can communicate about anything at all, the weather, the latest earthquake in the Philippines or crack a joke. It gives us a sense of being all one company and some sense of being connected.
Another thing we do is a monthly games night with the hours counting towards monthly work hours. We play pictionary games or first person shooters, have some fun and get to know each other a bit more on a personal level.
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