Remote Work

Remote work tech

by Karen Amundson | August 5, 2020

Everything has changed. The way our kids get their education. The way we eat at restaurants. The way we travel. The way we work. Here’s the thing though—it’s not all bad. At the risk of coming off a bit too glass-half-full, companies are turning to remote work, which opens up new opportunities for all—opportunities that Apiary Digital has been honing for the past 5 years. 

During this time, we’ve uncovered major gaps in how companies utilize talent and technology. Not to mention, underlying assumptions shaping the culture of work that do a disservice to many teams. It’s not about how to do what you did before, but remote. Nor is it a stack of tools and tips to help you work remotely. It’s a completely new opportunity to rethink how you do business, and how you can better-align talent with business and human needs. 

Throughout this series, we’ll be sharing the ingredients for our secret sauce—for aligning fully remote teams chock-full of top talent to drive extraordinary business performance.

The tools and technology we use to manage remote business are only a means to an end. Many people mistakenly believe that implementing the right software somehow equates to good remote business management. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Your remote tech stack is only there to help facilitate the underlying purpose and vision of your company, support the remote team culture you’re building, and streamline operations and communications. You shouldn’t be designing remote work around tools. You should be designing a good business, then buy tools to facilitate your goals.

In the wake of the pandemic, we’ve seen an unfortunate increase in tools designed to monitor and surveil employees (in their own homes, no less!), or tools trying to replicate the office at home. If your company is looking to buy licenses for a tool like this, software can’t fix whatever is broken. Recognize this as a symptom of a management problem and a culture problem. Stop and rebuild company culture on the assumptions that talent is the customer, employment is a service you sell to serve talent, and they’re highly accountable people who take pride in delivering exceptional work. Retrain or hire new management with the EQ to manage high-trust remote teams. 

Use-cases for remote work tools 

We are fortunate to be working in an era where cloud-based software is ubiquitous to the point it’s almost something we can take for granted. We’ll mention a few of our favorite tools, but mostly focus on the remote work problems technology is really good at solving.

General communication

Before we even dive into addressing the nuts and bolts of making a remote organization run with remote tech management, there’s the communication challenge—especially for startups. In a startup, there’s a lot of ambiguity (no documentation, no project plan, no how-tos) and to figure things out, it’s all about communication. The key at this stage is to leverage your communication tech stack as efficiently as possible. With tools like Slack, employees can communicate in different channels and threads, but those different channels and threads can quickly result in confusion about action items and priorities. That’s where tools like Jira/Salesforce and Asana/Teamwork are needed—high-level decisions and action items can be pulled out of those conversation threads and become documented, assigned actions.

Operationalizing and managing repeatable processes

One of the many things that’s great about being remote is you tend to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) earlier than you would in a traditional office environment. When you’re not in the same room, it can be difficult to know who does what and when. 

Whenever possible, identify recurring processes and create SOPs. At Apiary, one thing we do frequently is onboard consultants and kick-off new client projects. To support this, we’ve built templatized task lists so we can easily assign tasks to all involved parties. Initially, these began as lists in Google Sheets, but eventually grew into task list templates within our project management tool. We use Teamwork, but you could likely accomplish this within most project management tools. For improved transferability, each step includes how-tos and links to important documents; and steps can easily be reassigned if someone gets sick or goes on vacation. Your business may have different recurring needs that can be operationalized in a similar manner using a project management tool. 

How-tos and “drive-by” interactions

We 💙 Loom. As you’ll see throughout this post, we’re trying to refer to use cases for tools more than evangelizing specific tools, but this is the exception. With Loom, you can record video messages that include both screen-sharing and video. It’s a bit like the use case of walking over to someone’s desk and quickly explaining something, but better because someone can take in the information in their own time. You could conceivably build your entire company how-to guide on Loom, infusing a personal touch along the way. And, Loom is free as of this writing! 

By the way, Loom, if you’re reading this, and looking for a new marketing firm, send us a Loom video message. We’d love to have you as a client! 

Explaining things that aren’t important enough to justify scheduling a meeting

Nobody wants to read a monster-long email. Recording a voice note from your phone and emailing or Slacking it to the team is a simple, useful way to communicate ideas that are difficult to express on paper, but that don’t quite justify a whole meeting, or bugging someone with a phone call. Just don’t over-do it. It takes longer to listen to a voice note than to skim an email. 

Managing remote relationships with multiple parties involved

We use Salesforce Essentials (the lower-cost SMB version) as our CRM. It’s a powerful tool we use for managing both our sales pipeline and our recruitment pipeline. When managing remote relationships, it’s important to keep accurate records and logs so you don’t have multiple people pestering someone about the same thing. And, when you go to talk to someone, you can read the notes from previous calls to understand the context of the relationship, and how that person might feel about your organization. It’s hard for us to imagine functioning without a well-structured CRM!

Scheduling 

When every real-time interaction has to be put on the calendar, you pay a huge scheduling tax. First, as a practice, don’t do a bunch of wishy washy “send me your availability” back-and-forth. Just put time options out there right away. Second, a scheduling app, or even a real person assistant can help tremendously. We use the Salesforce Inbox scheduler tool, which is handy because time options are embedded directly into the body of an email, linked to Google Calendar, and you can self-select which times you want to offer to which people. There are many other tools out there, Calendly being a big player. That said, scheduling is still kind of a pain, especially when many calendars and time zones are being coordinated. Tools help, but still much to be desired in that area. 

Signing documents or updating PDFs

At Apiary, we use DocuSign. We’ve tested other tools and they’re all about the same with minor degrees of difference in functionality and ease of use. You can also insert your signature directly into a PDF and edit PDFs that aren’t set up to be editable by enabling basic functionality in just about any free PDF program. A quick Google search will show you how to do this in your PDF program, and save you a lot of time trying to print and scan documents. 

Side conversations

Believe it or not, there’s actually a tool out there that works great for the “meeting before the meeting” and the “meeting after the meeting.” It’s called the telephone, and you can pick it up and call people with it. You can even three-way call from most devices!

For some reason, it’s easy to forget about the “just call me” option. It doesn’t require scheduling, and it can be a more casual way to connect with people. If it wasn’t pre-scheduled, there’s not an expectation that someone will be sitting at their desk, so it’s easier to have meandering conversation while multitasking. You get the color of background noises that give fodder for unstructured get-to-know-you trust-building.

If you’re in a management position, you have to be careful to avoid being intrusive with phone calls. But it’s also a great tool to see how people are doing. After a difficult meeting or situation, some personalities tend to hull up and marinate on bad stuff. In a remote environment where we can’t see if someone is struggling, this can go on too long and lead to resentment or discontent. Talking on the phone can be a good way to help people process what’s going on so they aren’t in it alone. Just be aware that if you catch people off-guard when you call, you need to give them room to say unpolished things.

Document collaboration

We almost forgot to include this because it nearly goes without saying. You can’t be a successful remote team if you’re dealing with version control issues, you have to type comments separately in an email where someone then has to spend 10 minutes figuring out which document you’re talking about, or you lose a day of productivity because not everyone has access to everything required. We use G Suite with Team Drives to avoid all of these issues. 

Gaps remote tools don’t yet bridge

By no means does the plethora of existing tools and technologies cover all business needs for an organization—yet. Here are a few areas we’ve identified as lacking or not quite there yet.

Services for remote companies – emerging category

If you’re one of many entrepreneurs getting your start or trying to pivot during the pandemic, this is for you: Everything from companies that send home office devices and desk kit setups, to those providing remote employee engagement through snacks are cropping up. We’re certain many types of platforms from mobile fitness companies to online learning platforms, virtual events, and everything in between will figure out soon enough they can sell to corporate HR benefits managers so remote employees can connect through virtual yoga classes and the like. Now that big tech companies can’t attract talent with fancy office campus amenities, innovation will happen in this space.

Inventing net-new things that require significant collaboration – existing gap

There are several virtual whiteboard and collaborative sticky note platforms out there. But they’re just not the same as gathering around a whiteboard. While there are some devices that let you digitize things you “write” on paper, there’s no good option yet for people who think and invent in a paper notebook without tirelessly translating it into a digital format for collaboration later. Scheduling extra team meetings to try to construct those in-person-like happenstance moments has the ironic consequence of disrupting unstructured time that leads to invention. 

Platforms native to a generation that grew up ‘inside’ the Internet – existing gap

Even before the pandemic, Gen Z and Gen Alpha have been growing up in what is essentially a mobile-first (read: REMOTE-first) world. Many tools built by baby boomers and millennials surely won’t make sense to those who are starting school, work, dating, social lives—really, all aspects of life from within a virtual world. They’re coming from a different paradigm. If we speculate for a moment… will “going to work” be more like a video game than a project management tool someday?

The move from a traditional office to an all-remote organization can be daunting, but as we’ve illustrated throughout this post, there are tools and technology to support almost all business needs. The key is to first clearly define the purpose and vision of your company, and the type of culture you want to proliferate throughout the organization. The tools are simply there to help facilitate things. As one of our beloved partners says, teamwork is what makes the dream work!