For a lot of companies, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an enormous change in how they operate. Some were prepared, some not so much. But there’s no doubt about the fact that working remotely, in distributed teams, and collaborating with contractors and the outsourced teams is now a necessity, causing a surge in the use of online collaboration tools.
This article will look at the current remote work landscape and how businesses can improve their online communication flows with the available tech.
But first, let’s make one thing clear.
Remote work was not a pandemic invention
Multiple companies pursued the remote work or even fully distributed team model way before COVID-19 hit. One notable example was Buffer, who decided to go fully remote at the end of 2012.
Other companies tentatively used the mixed model, allowing their employees to work from home from time to time (as many as 30%, according to a Gartner survey). And according to research by Gallup, remote work was a perk desired by 54% of office employees who were ready to change jobs just to work from home (or anywhere in the world).
So, the shift was already happening in recent years – although very slowly. And for some businesses or industries, it probably wouldn’t have happened so fast if it wasn’t for the lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed earlier this year.
According to Slack’s report, 45% of the so-called knowledge workers surveyed said they were now working remotely, and 66% of them went remote because of the coronavirus pandemic, with 27% working from home “as usually”.
The numbers vary across industries and geographical locations. But there’s been an undeniable surge in remote work and the use of videoconferencing platforms and online collaboration tools that came with it. We could see that clearly in our recent report, with a rise in the use of ClickMeeting for business meetings and project collaboration.
But with all that said about going remote, there’s a catch. Or rather a challenge.
It’s called productivity.
Can teams work from home full time AND be productive?
That challenge has been on the minds of probably all CEOs and business owners. The ones who were most hesitant to go remote were the ones that were most afraid of a productivity slump.
According to Gartner, poor technology and connectivity are seen as the most significant barriers to employee productivity and effective remote work.
But as the examples of Buffer and other companies show with the tech available today, going remote is not synonymous with lower productivity. In fact, more and more businesses notice productivity gains – that’s provided that the remote team is adequately managed and has access to online collaboration tools that make work more comfortable and effective.
Buffer claims their team is “super productive” and research shows that remote employees can be 35% to 40% more productive than when they work in their offices. Remote workers are also more likely to be engaged, with a whopping 90% admitting that more flexibility in their work arrangement positively impacts their morale.
One of the critical aspects is providing them with the right online collaboration tools to help them communicate better and organize their daily schedule.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at what’s available to make remote employees’ lives easier (and help executives sleep a little better at night).
Online collaboration tools that improve team communication
You don’t have to work remotely to use file-sharing services. In times when the USB stick is becoming a thing of the past, they generally make collaboration easier for all teams, whether they work from home or the office.
Depending on the whole ecosystem an organization uses, these can be Google Docs, Microsoft SharePoint, or Dropbox. They either enable simultaneous file editing by multiple team members or sharing files with each other, even if you’re on your phone.
In some industries, it’s hard to imagine working without using cloud storage and file-sharing services, even in combination with other online collaboration tools. It’s becoming the norm to have people work on a Google doc shared on a screen during a video conference.
They help keep up with edits and changes and avoid back-and-forth email threads with one file being edited countless times by different team members with its name indefinitely expanding with more underscores and version names.
What’s important is to agree on a consistent tool throughout the organization to minimize the number of file versions, stick to one service for everyone, and keeping everything in one place – the cloud.
It’s hard to imagine a company these days not using any messaging tool for their team to communicate across departments and sometimes even across desks in the same room. So it’s all more natural to use them while working remotely. They’re quicker than email, allow for group conversations, and help people keep each other in the loop on important (and sometimes less important) things.
More and more tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, offer video conversations to complement the messaging function. Again, what’s essential to make these effective is establishing rules and common channels of communication across the company.
Themed Slack channels can help knowledge exchange around specific topics in addition to quick one-on-one conversations. And dedicated groups will allow people to have relaxed conversations or just send jokes and memes to imitate the office atmosphere (because let’s face it, we don’t just work 100% of the time in the office – and this is also a part of team building).
It’s almost like being in the same room but without the distractions typical for the office environment.
Project management tools
Project management tools were there long before the pandemic. They help teams stay organized, move projects forward, and complete them while boosting productivity.
They come in handy regardless of whether your teams are agile or using more traditional project management methodologies or whether you’re a huge corporation or a startup with a small group of a few people.
Additional wiki tools like Confluence or Notion provide team workspaces to help keep project documentation in order and enable multiple people to access and edit it, reducing versioning and related errors and confusion. Plus, they usually integrate with project and task management tools, creating an entire project management hub.
Using these tools (in addition to video conferencing tools and messaging apps) makes going remote much less painful, and sometimes even barely noticeable (apart from the social aspect of course – which is largely catered for by online meeting tools, which we’ll get to in a moment).
Time management tools
Time management may seem like one of the most challenging aspects of remote work. But that’s only so as long as you think about remote work as procrastinating on Facebook without your boss looking.
Of course, our circumstances have changed, and forced remote work during a pandemic, with the added anxiety factor, may be an entirely different experience to a conscious choice you’re making to work from home.
What’s certain is that it does require self-discipline on the part of the team and a great deal of trust from managers and leaders. Luckily, some tools support both sides – and make time management much easier for everyone.
Some of them also integrate with other business tools, enabling tracking time in project management software or internet browsers and easier invoicing or budget tracking.
With a smart set of tools for your team, time tracking can become less of a pain and more of a productivity tool everyone benefits from. After all, it might be a little harder to get organized at home, especially with your kids around (and a pile of laundry waiting around the corner). Time tracking software will help employees organize their schedules – while giving managers the certainty work is getting done.
Creative team collaboration
What teams – and executives – may lack the most when they can no longer work in the office is the creative collaboration that happens in-person among team members. All those brainstorming sessions and mind mapping meetings that require a lot of engagement and sometimes heated conversations – that traditionally happen with everyone in the same room – now need a new form.
Luckily, this can all happen online, with the help of the right tools – just like almost anything (except for the daily commute, perhaps).
Tools like Miro offer collaborative online whiteboards perfect for agile workflows, strategy and planning sessions, and brainstorms. Mind mapping software like Mind Meister provides mind maps for visual brainstorming, ideating, and note-taking.
Supported by video conferencing, they can easily replace in-person meetings, making sure the communication flow remains smooth and undisturbed. Even when you’re physically in distant places, you can still talk to and see each other, write down notes and suggestions on the whiteboard, and exchange ideas just like you would in an office.
Daily video meetings
An essential part of the whole remote work puzzle that can – and should – be integrated with all the other pieces.
With up to 25 people who can meet in real-time, at the same time using ClickMeeting, there’s basically no kind of meeting that can’t happen online. From daily and weekly meetings of your agile teams to discussions and brainstorms (perhaps using one of the tools mentioned above, shared on a screen by one of the hosts), to one-on-one meetings, or even coffee and lunch breaks spent together.
You can chat – publically or privately. Manage participant audio and cameras, moderate discussions, and adjust your views, so that everyone is on the same page and can see everything clearly.
Meeting online will take some time to adjust for the team if you’re not yet used to it. But with interactive meetings that allow everyone to engage and interact with each other, the experience is as close to in-person meetings as possible.
You can discuss the same things you would in your office conference room, with perhaps even more convenient tools like sharing the whiteboard notes with everyone immediately when the meeting’s over (and not having to take photos of your conference room whiteboard and then retype everything in a doc).
Use all of them together
Of course, as I already mentioned, the key thing is to connect all the dots and use all these tools as a whole, creating an entire ecosystem for your teams. A good practice is to limit the number of tools and agree on a consistent workflow for everyone, across teams and departments – so that every single team member knows where to go and what to do.
When you’ve figured that out, improving team communication and boosting productivity should be a matter of time.
Is remote work here to stay?
Some say predicting the future of the pandemic is like predicting the weather – we have a general idea, but we can’t know for sure what exactly happens next. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the remote work evolves – now and when the pandemic is finally over.
One thing’s for sure: we’re experiencing a massive shift in how we work, and we already have the tools that could make that shift easier and more productive for everyone. But the tools themselves won’t be enough if we don’t put them to good use and if teams are not managed in a way that accounts for the new remote communication flows. So, it’s a learning curve for everyone.
What are your remote work experiences? Have you noticed a boost in productivity? Or, on the contrary, a drop? And if so, what do you think were the reasons? Let us know in the comments.