In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, a lot of businesses have found themselves necessary to adapt to having their teams working from home, in self-isolation. Those companies with business continuity policies adapted quickly while those without found themselves struggling to operate in the radically different environment that was forced on them virtually overnight.
Fortunately, working from home is not a new phenomenon and a lot of tools and tech already exists to support it (though more is doubtless on the way). Solopreneurs and those with side hustles have been doing their jobs from the comfort of their sofa for years. However, for many, it’s something very new. For those people, here are some of the top tips and tools to help you recreate the productivity of your office in your living room.
How do I keep in touch with my team when working remotely?
The first and most crippling problem with working from home is that you lose the instant communication of the office. Instead of simply turning to the person who sat at the desk next to you and being able to ask question, you now find that seat taken by your pet cat, which is unlikely to provide a helpful answer to a technical question. Similarly, managers are unable to brief their teams or get instant updates by walking around the office or inviting everyone into a meeting room.
Business chat software is already widely used for communication around larger offices to help individuals and teams communicate effectively, so you will certainly find yourself depending on these a lot more. Here are some of the more popular and effective options:
Slack has become effectively the industry standard of corporate instant messaging platforms. It uses a simple but convenient breakdown of workspaces, channels for teams and work groups, and direct peer-to-peer chats. It includes file transfer and teleconferencing facilities and a lot of custom options for chats and channels. Despite being a corporate tool, it’s also a fun messenger service to use, with a broad array of apps you can add to give your communication a bit more personality. It’s particularly well-suited to use by larger companies with many large teams, making inter-team and intra-team communication easy.
Microsoft Teams was initially billed as an expansion of Skype for Business, turning the pioneer of VOIP telecommunication into a corporate collaboration tool on a par with Slack. The result has many similar features, including well-organized chat channels, video meeting facilities and file transfers. One way Teams stands out from its competition is that it integrates closely with Microsoft Office and, with the right extensions, can also integrate with non-Microsoft products. It means that you can store, access and edit files on a shared server, allowing multiple team members to work on the same file at the same time.
While both Slack and Microsoft Teams require a fee to use, Discord has many of the same functions but is entirely free. Like its peers, it allows you to break up communication into themed chats and channels and you can customize those channels to control who can do what in them. Originally developed for video gaming communities, the audio chat function is one of its most prominent features, though you can also use video chat. The file transfer systems are a little less convenient than the more advanced competitors since Discord was not really invented as a corporate communication tool. However, it does the job adequately well to sustain large, international gaming groups.
How do I hold a meeting when everyone is working from home?
As anyone who has ever had a heated argument in an internet forum because of a single misinterpreted post will tell you, written communication has its limitations. Unless your team consists entirely of people who are capable writers in English (or whatever the dominant language in your office is), the chances are good that some message or other is going to get misconstrued or miscommunicated.
Furthermore, in large group discussions like meetings, a purely text format really doesn’t work effectively since individual contributors must type out the point they want to make. By the time they’ve finished writing it all out, the chances are that the conversation will have moved on well past the point they wanted to weigh in on. In these cases, video or audio conferencing is hugely preferable.
One important point to consider with video conferencing is that there is inevitably going to be some lag between when you say something and when everyone else in the meeting hears you. In some cases, this can be just a quick beat. If your internet connection is especially slow or there are a lot of people in the meeting, it could be a number of seconds. It’s important to factor this delay in during your meetings by speaking slower and leaving longer gaps between sentences to allow time for other participants to add their thoughts.
As for what systems to use, there is no shortage of choice. This software has existed since at least the 1990s, when Skype first came into existence. They remain a player in this field, but they no longer dominate the landscape. The following are some of the top choices when it comes to corporate teleconferencing:
The big benefit of BlueJeans is that it can connect participants across a wide number of platforms - ideal for teams each using their own computers. It can be used across different operating systems, including MacOS, Windows, Linux and mobile platforms and can even be used through web browsers. It can even work with other conferencing software, making sure that there’s never an excuse for people not to join your meetings. It works somewhat like an office - every BlueJeans member has a “meeting room” and you can invite participants into your room to host a meeting.
Zoom is to teleconferencing what Discord is to team chats, in that it has a good suite of facilities that you can use for free. You can get up to 100 participants into a chat, but with a 40-minute time limit. You can do one-on-one chats without a time limit. If you pay for the subscription, the time limit is removed and the participant cap increases to 1,000. It also unlocks a lot of other useful and novel tools, such as the ability to stream the teleconference onto social media, face filters to digitally improve the appearance of participants and an alert for conference hosts that tells them when participants are looking at other windows or programs. With its competitive price plans, good range of free features and great stability, it’s a popular choice for small teams.
Cisco Webex stands out for its range of features that make it especially good for online teaching. Of course, many of these features will also find applications in business, too, making video conferencing easier and potentially minimizing the challenges meetings with remote participants create. You can effectively recreate a classroom environment in a virtual meeting, with participants able to signal that they would like to speak by ‘raising their hand’, give simple responses (such as yes or no) without having to speak and even draw simple diagrams on their phone or device - the equivalent of drawing on a whiteboard. The software also captures real-time transcripts. The responses and hand-raising features are especially convenient for canvassing responses to proposals without breaking the flow of a meeting.
How do I send files out to my team when they’re all working from home?
When you’re in the office, using a shared server is a very convenient way of sharing important files between different team members. However, when everyone is working from home, that server is out of reach. Larger companies with global offices may have a corporate network and an intranet for sharing files and information and a VPN may be all they need to maintain access to that, but that’s a very expensive option for a smaller company with only the one office.
There are a couple of choices when it comes to sharing files with remote employees and which you use will largely depend on the nature of the file and the number of employees that need access to it. The simplest approach is to send files through your communication software. Most chat systems like Slack and Microsoft Teams include the ability to send files as standard and this provides a quick and simple way of sharing a single file that needs urgent attention from the team.
However, a better alternative may be a file-sharing system such as Dropbox or Google Drive. The former is very simple - it’s just an online server, allowing anyone with the right access to see, download and update documents, exactly as you would with a hard-wired server in your office.
Google Drive has the slight advantage of providing access to Google Docs - effectively Microsoft’s Office suite (including MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint), but slightly simplified and in a format that multiple people can work on all at once. If the document you are sharing needs input from multiple team members all at once, using Google Docs is an extremely convenient way of achieving this quickly and simply. Of course, Microsoft Teams has the same function without requiring to use the watered-down version of MS Office.
How do I keep track of what everyone in my team is doing?
While communication is an essential element of team management when the team is working remotely as it is in the office, it’s a lot harder and disruptive when communication requires a teleconference or writing a lengthy and detailed explanation on your chat system of choice. By spending time explaining what they are doing, your team are not, in fact, doing what they are supposed to be doing. The more updates you demand, the further productivity will drop.
Task management and team tracking software are a big help, which is why it was widely in use even before everyone was working from home. Among the top choices are:
Trello, very rapidly became one of the most popular task management tools in the world, with over 50 million users. It separates projects into boards, then customized columns, individual task cards and then into checklists within each card. Each task can be prioritized, assigned to individuals and color-coded with customizable labels. You can also share comments and files on each card and, with additional tools you can add to each board, including a huge range of other features. Perhaps the system’s greatest strength is its flexibility - organizing your board whichever way you choose. It can also integrates with services like IFTTT and Zapier.
Taskworld integrates many of the basic features of Trello and amps them, taking it from a general-use task management program to one which is especially suitable for businesses. As with Trello, it has several levels of organization – a hierarchy of five levels, in fact, ranging from project groups down to checklists. Standout features include the option to set repeating tasks, use project templates, people pages and personnel directories, a more powerful messaging and file sharing system and overview dashboards for managers to get an overview of the project.
Asana was built by some of the people behind Facebook, and particularly those people responsible for improving productivity at the social media company. Given that heritage, it naturally works well for larger companies. It has more features for team leaders, including customizable dashboards and different views of projects, helping you to prioritize tasks more effectively. It can integrate with a huge range of systems, from Dropbox and Google Drive to Slack, WordPress and even other task management systems. With many processes automated, it makes task tracking quicker and easier, giving you more time to actually work on the task itself.
How do I stay productive when I’m working from home?
The tools we have suggested above were all pretty common and widespread among offices well before COVID-19 caused a paradigm shift in the nature of work and business. Larger companies with overseas offices or even large office space where you would might need to shout to be heard by the people at the other end of the room have been using most of these tools all along and onboarding from home requires very little adapting.
However, the huge change of environment is the real disruption. Going from a high-energy office - a place specifically designed for work and cooperation - to being isolated at home, where you are more accustomed to relaxing, creates a significant risk of reduced output and effectiveness. The challenge of keeping the team productive is as much a problem for leaders as it is the individual members, particularly with added distractions around you.
Maintaining a work mindset, while difficult, is the main priority for everyone. Ideally, you should have an area in your house set aside for work - a study or home office. If you don’t have a spare room for that purpose, you should at least try to make some part of your place suited to doing your work, with a proper desk and, ideally, a proper chair. It’s important to create a clear change in attitude between being at home and being at work. It also helps to set clear boundaries in time. Where possible, stick to your normal working hours; be fully focused on work during those hours so that you can be fully relaxed outside of them.
What if I have children?
Working from home is significantly easier for single people than it is for household since there are significantly fewer distractions around them. However, if you do have little ones around you while you are trying to work, there are ways to handle it.
One idea you may find helpful is Pomodoro. At the core, it’s simply a timer that counts up to 25 minutes. If you can focus on work for 25 minutes at a time and then take a five-minute break to deal with distractions, you will find yourself making much more consistent progress through your tasks. No matter how good you are at multitasking, the simple biological reality is that the human brain is not built for it and you will quickly find yourself exhausted and stressed from constantly switching priorities. Using Pomodoro’s system of work and rest period will help you to remain focused on one task at a time.
Similarly, fixed routines will work both for you and your children . Allocate times throughout the day for your family to do one activity or another - anything that keeps them occupied and not disrupting your workflow!
Most importantly, remain safe and healthy during this time of crisis. It won’t last forever, but it may last a considerable time, so properly preparing yourself and those around you for the long haul will help to keep you sane and happy.
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