Editor’s Note: Stelligent has been a remote-first company since 2013. All of our employees work from home, providing cloud consulting services to the public sector and corporations all over the United States. We love our remote culture, but the arrangement has its challenges. We’re publishing a series of articles to share our insights with everyone who may be facing those challenges for the first time.
Has your workforce made the move to a remote office yet? It can feel like a huge loss of control and productivity. If you’re purposeful about the way everyone communicates, though, you may find that your teams are getting just as much work done (or more!). At Stelligent, we’ve learned a number of practical lessons about working effectively within our remote teams and with our customers across the United States. Let’s talk briefly about some of them here, with a particular focus on creating valuable communication that will lead to more productivity.
Meetings With Meaning
Effective meetings are going to seem even more essential when everybody is in a different room, perhaps sitting a thousand miles away and hours offset from each other. You can have the best meetings ever with a few simple guidelines: create clear
invitations, include just the right people, choose the appropriate format, and build a purposeful meeting culture.
Set a Clear Agenda
Set a solid foundation for every remotely-attended meeting by writing a clear, purposeful invitation. We suggest that every invitation includes:
- Purpose: add a single line and save yourself from using the 1st five minutes of the meeting to explain why everyone is there.
- Prerequisites (Optional): if it’s needed, make sure every contributor is prepared and save them all from opinions by uninformed participants.
- Agenda: call out who’s going to say what, in what order. Try to name everybody who’s invited when you do this. If you can’t name each one, ask yourself why. Are you inviting too many people or leaving somebody out?
- Deliverables: what will this meeting produce? This is an important check that may help you see when the meeting could be replaced by something less onerous. Can you do all this in a shared document that people create asynchronously? If you can’t think of any deliverables, do you really need the meeting?
Invite the Right People
You may not want to keep your invitations that structured, but we suggest you consider one final point above all else: invite only the people you want to participate in the discussion. Who are the stakeholders you really need to hear from? Invite the wrong people and you’ll have voices adding noise, distractions without useful insight. Leave the wrong people out, and you won’t get the guiding influence you need. If you want a focused, productive conversation, keep that invitation list tight. You can always summarize the insights and conclusions for the information-only group afterward.
Encourage Purposeful Participation
When you hold your virtual meeting, expect every team member to participate. Identify a note taker at the outset and make sure the insights and action items are shared quickly afterward in a network drive for all the attendees to see. Platforms like Zoom let you record meetings for later reference and allow people to catch up if they couldn’t make it, but written notes give clarity and an easy way to search later.
Use Cameras in Video Calls
Create a meeting culture where everybody stays engaged with the group. Encourage everyone to turn on their cameras and meet face-to-face. It’s an incredibly effective way to connect people, even across your screens; nonverbal facial cues still carry meaning! It’s so easy to get distracted in a call when all your other social and office software is right there next to the meeting window, but if you have your camera on, it’s easy to look at the faces of the other participants and avoid letting your eyes wander. It’s also a powerful way to add authenticity when you’re on a call with people you haven’t previously met.
Respect Everyone’s Time
If you have a great conversation and you’re done early, what should you do? Call out the end of the meeting and give people the freedom to leave if they’d like. If you don’t give people a chance to leave gracefully, you’re likely to end up with roaming chats and no clear destination. Perhaps you’d enjoy that conversational dessert after all that purposeful dialogue, but give the rest of the attendees the opportunity to make that same choice. Respect their time and they’ll respect yours!
Avoid Conference Call Mistakes
As valuable as on-camera virtual meetings are, they do come with some requirements. Make sure the “office” space behind you is presentable and not a distraction. Pay attention to the angle of your camera so that it doesn’t present you and your home office from a funny view. You’ll have to make sure you’re prepared to be seen, too, just like you would in a physical office. If you’re not at home, avoid noisy public spaces where there may be a lot of background noise, or where your own talking during meetings would be a huge interruption to the people in the physical space around you. Perhaps most important of all, consider muting your mic when you’re not talking. It’s easy to accidentally distract everyone else and derail someone’s point with random background noise. Keyboard clicking and tiny computer fans can sound so loud when they’re sitting right next to a small laptop microphone.
Use the Right Platform Each Time
Not every meeting needs to happen in real time through a virtual face-to-face conversation, either. Choose the right medium for your message:
- Chat: A team messaging system like Slack is a perfect way to quickly share information and get feedback when you have questions.
- Email: Use email sparingly. Consider it when a message is important but has no urgency, or when you foresee the need to include people outside your organization in the conversation. However, try to avoid long dialogues over email, where the primary message is likely to get lost within the jumble of repeated quotes and signatures. Use Slack or Microsoft Teams instead.
- Video: Live, face-to-face meetings establish authenticity with people. Use them to work through issues in real time when you need to build rapport with the participants or where a group conversation just seems like it will feel better, perhaps when you have a sensitive topic that will benefit from facial expressions and vocal inflections.
We’ve talked about how to make sure your meetings start with clear intent, carry through with focus and value, and include the best audience through the appropriate medium. That’s a wonderful foundation, but it’s not the whole story.
Excellent Tools Are So Important
If you haven’t looked at the modern landscape of cloud services recently, you may be amazed to see how good things are now. Covering the available options in any depth is way beyond the scope of our conversation here, but we’ll touch on a few of our favorites in case you’re looking for highlights.
G Suite for the Win
Cloud-based office suites are so empowering to a remote team. Stelligent has been running on Google’s G Suite for years and it genuinely does transform the way we work together. Shared calendars, shared drives, shared documents, and integrations with every other software-as-a-service you might find useful mean that your team can stay in tune — and more productive — more easily than ever. You can increase your security as well as your data integrity all while you raise the bar on group collaboration.
Collaborate Easily and Often
Let’s explore the value of a cloud office platform a little. If you give your people a way to collaborate on documents and spreadsheets in real time, and then share those documents easily, you’ll be amazed at how much more quickly a group effort can lead to results. There are few things we’ve seen quite so empowering to a team as writing a Google Doc together. Couple that with a Zoom meeting, where you can all talk through changes as people make edits that the rest can see in real time? That’s a golden moment for teamwork.
Always Go to the Source
Centralized storage, like the services available at Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or Box, also help your team streamline communication. When everyone shares links to files in your private cloud space, they don’t have to upload and download those files directly. More importantly, they don’t have to copy the files, so the source of truth continues to stay the source people are referencing and updating. In addition, any of these enterprise-class cloud services will also give you easy ways to search your content and keep it organized, as well as provide the data security your business needs.
Calendar Greatness with GCal
We talked about effective meetings earlier, but we really do want to highlight how fantastic G Suite’s Google Calendar service is. You can always tie it into your favorite native apps, but the web tool is so good at surfacing the right information when you need it that you’ll quickly become a convert and do all your scheduling and event management right there at calendar.google.com. If you’re often meeting with people outside your company, consider linking Google with Calendly. It’s a best-of-class service that lets people find time in your own schedule, or that of a whole team, without the traditional back-and-forth of email. Google offers its own Office Hours feature, too, but Calendly is much more capable.
G Suite offers so many other wonderful features and integrations. It gets you as close as we’ve ever seen to zero-Ops administration. Google Forms is a fast problem-solver. Easily overlooked, contacts.google.com is such a convenient way to sync your personal list of contacts and integrate it with the corporate directory. Google is always adding new features to tie their services together, but even without those, the Gmail + Docs + Sheets + Slides core is a very powerful combination. We’ve tried their competitors, and we’ve happily settled here in G Suite Land for many of our foundational IT solutions.
Online Project Management Doesn’t Have to be Hard
Outside of office suites, consider updating the way you manage projects. If you’ve been depending on a wall of sticky notes or a whiteboard, you’re limiting the guardrails for staying on task to anybody in the right room. Modern project management software is outstanding, and using tools like these to their fullest can transform the way your team works. Liberate your team and start documenting all their accomplishments with one of these fantastic platforms:
- Asana has a beautiful interface and a flexible, easy-to-use feature set. It’s a favorite here at Stelligent, well-liked across the varied departments of our company.
- Jira is a staple among enterprise technical teams for its issue and project tracking. It’s particularly good at providing metrics like team velocity and creating a highly-structured system for managing every aspect of your projects.
- Trello is the closest you’ll get in software to a Kanban/Agile-style board of sticky notes. It includes just enough features and flexibility to give your boards some super powers, but the interface is lightweight and easy to learn.
- GitHub Projects brings version control and issue tracking very close to your software repositories in a simple but nicely integrated project board. This service is likely to grow nicely under the development push we’ve seen since Microsoft acquired GitHub in 2018.
Any of these will let you keep your tasks on schedule and still visualize the big picture of your projects. Find one that aligns well with your team’s culture and needs, and you’ll have a solution that works whether everyone is in the same room, the same building, or spread across the world in far-flung time zones.
Slack Connects Everything
Last, no article on remote-office highlights would be complete without mentioning Slack. If your company hasn’t made the move to a modern chat platform, now’s a great time to try this one out. There are a lot of competitors, but where Slack really shines is in the number of integrations it has with other services. We particularly love using PTO Ninja to manage time-off requests and Polly.ai to run daily standups, employee NPS surveys, and group polls. If you’re already trying out Slack but everyone is still figuring out how to use it best, some of the shine has probably worn off a little and you’re wondering how to keep it a treasured part of your corporate culture. The folks at Hiver have written The Definitive Guide to Slack Etiquette (“slackiquette”, anyone?), and we really like their advice.
There’s so much more we could talk about, but these are some highlights we’ve found to be helpful at Stelligent. Office culture, remote or in-person, can benefit so much from using tools like Asana, G Suite, Slack, and Zoom. There is so little friction to adopting these modern platforms, and those businesses exist to provide high-end solutions for enterprises like yours and ours. If you combine excellent power tools like these with purposeful habits around communication, you’ll have a team that’s more effective than ever. When you take the time to try some of these services out, please let us know how it goes for you. We’d love to talk through your journey!
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