The Best Team Collaboration Tools for Remote Work
Author: Kristina Proffitt
28th November 2019
When you’re part of a remote team, the collaboration tools you use can make your work life easier or more difficult. They can reduce stress or they can add to it. They can help you better connect with your other team members, or they can be the wedge that drives you apart.
Finding the right tools is therefore imperative.
I spoke to some of my remote teammates to see what challenges they face, and what team collaboration tools they couldn’t live without.
What are the biggest challenges you face as part of a distributed team?
Garry: Communication, communication, and communication.
Passive communication doesn’t happen. For example, you can’t see a colleague with their head in their hands because they’re struggling with something and ask if they need help.
To counter this you need to build an environment where people are proactive about asking for help. You also need to be deliberate about making time for active communication to compensate.
The default mode of communication when working remotely is text. Text scales really well and can be consumed at people’s leisure. But text is ripe for misunderstanding of tone, context, intent, no matter how hard you try. So it’s great for specifications and so on that are factual and you may wish to refer to multiple times, but can be poor for delivering feedback and similar activities.
Video helps with this, but requires at least two people to be in the same “place” at the same time so is more disruptive. I’m experimenting with using Loom as a middle-ground where it’s video that can be consumed at the audience’s leisure. It’s early days but it seems promising.
I’m starting to think that chat is a bad medium for these reasons. It’s got all the downsides of textual communication, but still needs people to be in the same “place” at the same time. Not as strongly as video, but the expectation people generally have are responses will be within minutes. The nature of group chat means the conversation will have moved on if that’s not the case.
Jeremy: I personally work from our Nottingham office most days but many of my stakeholders either work from other offices or from home. I think the main challenge with distributed team – and this is going to sound obvious – is that it makes communication at all levels more difficult. When you are in the same office, it’s easy to catch-up informally or to book a meeting room with a whiteboard to do a brainstorming session. When one of you works remotely you need to rely on technology more which is why we use tools like Slack, Zoom, and Notion to keep communication channels as open as possible.
I have found that you need to be more careful when communicating with remote team members in writing through a messaging tool like Slack. Your tone of voice doesn’t always come through which can create misunderstandings. At Cronofy we’ve found that encouraging the use of video conferencing tools like Zoom really helps.
Kristina: Knowing who’s where and when. Since a lot of people travel, it can be difficult to keep up with where everyone is and when they’ll be around. This then makes communication more of a challenge, particularly if someone is in a different time zone for a few days.
The software we use is therefore crucial to ensuring that everyone communicates effectively. You also have to be more mindful of how you write something, as written communication is rife for misunderstanding. This is when ensuring that you write clearly and concisely is imperative.
Laura: As a relatively new team member I worried that it would take months to get to know everyone as people are so dispersed. but this hasn’t been the case.
The retreat in Mallorca, where everyone was together for several days, certainly fast-tracked this process but it’s also just obvious that everyone makes the effort to be themselves and to include and consult with all members of the team.
It doesn’t feel like we are all working separately as we are all in regular communication. I have to work closely with the sales team and making sure that I’m with them in the London office once a week has been transformational to my learning and forming a relationship with them.
Tom: I’m tempted to say that the biggest challenge that we face is a social one, but that’s never actually been an issue here at Cronofy. Because we have regular in-person meetups and there’s a “remote first” attitude across the whole organization, the “sense of team” has always been strong.
In reality, the biggest challenge is the lack of a universal “sarcasm” punctuation mark. Tone can be really hard to judge when you mostly interact via text, so you have to think carefully about how you phrase things. Cronofy’s banter game is strong, though, so I think we’re all managing it well.
What one collaboration tool could you not live without?
Garry: There’s not really one, but I can narrow it down to two:
- File sharing – if you’re not in the same office you have to be able to look at the same thing, even with a basic tool you’d be able to share documents, source code, etc. We use Notion, Dropbox, and Github as specialist tools for this purpose.
- Video conferencing – video is just so much better than voice alone, so this would trump that, and I’ve gone into the pitfalls of text. We use Zoom for this.
Jeremy: Slack seems the obvious choice here as it is the messaging tool we use everyday. And thanks to the Zoom integration I don’t even have to leave Slack to start a video call.
However, I’d say that the most important collaboration tool for me and my team is Notion. It is a brilliant tool that allows us to keep all our documents in one place and to manage projects easily with task boards and to-do list. We use it to manage our daily tasks and to run our weekly stand-ups smoothly, even with remote colleagues.
It also has a desktop version which is ideal to work offline when traveling (I don’t get any commissions on their sales I promise)!
Kristina: Calendars. We can schedule meetings with each other, share our availability with team members, and also include topics we need to discuss in calendar notes. They also make it easier for us to collaborate with people outside of the company.
It’s also useful when our calendars connect with the software we use such as Slack and Zoom. We can schedule meetings with each other without flitting between multiple programs.
Laura: Having a centralized tool like Notion means that all information is stored in one place and we can collaborate easily on things like copy, or see what each other is working on. It’s also been invaluable for me in the learning phase of my onboarding.
The Charlie HR integration with Slack lets us all know if someone is sick or has time booked off so there is never any confusion about who is available.
Having a centralized tool like Notion means that all information is stored in one place and we can collaborate easily.
Tom: Slack and Zoom and (shudder) email are all essential tools for remote working, but for me the tool that truly enables collaboration is GIT. Solid version control is a key part of any code-based workflow, but we literally could not be as effective team without being able to branch and merge our code. It allows us to work independently and safely combine all our efforts. As a bonus, the ability to review works-in-progress and collaborate on the same code at the same time makes all our work better.
What are the most important things you need to be successful working remotely or with remote colleagues?
Garry: A stable, fast internet connection and a decent laptop are must-haves. You’re going to need to stream video and move files around.
On a personal level you need to be self-organized and -driven. There’s not someone looking over your shoulder so you need to look over your own and keep yourself honest.
You also need to be self-aware to realize when you need to ask for help, and confident or humble enough to do it.
Jeremy: I believe the most important principle to live by in a distributed team is “do not cut corners”! It’s true in every aspect of our work days.
Make the time to have a video conversation instead of just sending an email or message on Slack.
Make the time to have a video conversation instead of just sending an email or message on Slack.
Feedback and comments delivered face-to-face are always better received and more constructive because tone-of-voice and body language are key elements to human communication.
It also applies to the technology stack of the company. Invest in the tools that your team need to communicate efficiently across multiple locations. Slack and Zoom I have mentioned before but the hardware is important too. A good pair of headphones and a quality microphone can make a world of difference and help everyone focus on what matters: the conversations.
Kristina: A decent laptop. Mine broke the other day, and I was completely lost without it.
A laptop is what makes your world go around when you work remotely, so one that does what it needs to do is imperative. It’s the glue that holds everything you do together, because without it all the tools you need are completely useless.
A laptop is what makes your world go around when you work remotely.
Laura: Having visibility and transparency on each others’ calendar and schedule is vital. I’ve worked in places in the past where team members, particularly senior managers and directors don’t allow access, even for ‘free’ and ‘busy’ and this can make booking time in to work on projects or meet incredibly difficult.
At Cronofy this isn’t the case: everyone makes a concerted effort to communicate and share as many details of their plans and working day as possible. If someone isn’t going to be based where they usually are, or is working from home, it’s almost always in the calendar.
Tom: In my opinion, remote working lives or dies by the attitude of the whole team.
Complete buy-in is by far the most important thing. What makes our experience at Cronofy so successful is that even though some of the team are co-located some of the time, everyone is committed to a “remote first” style of working.
Those of us who are remote for the majority of the time never experience office FOMO because the office-based team make the extra effort to keep us in the loop.
Our water-cooler is in the cloud, and I feel like I know my remote teammates far better than people I’ve shared a desk with in the past.
There you have it! Effective communication – and the tools that enable it – are paramount to the success of a remote team. This includes the right software and the right hardware. A great laptop, reliable interview, decent headphones, and a good microphone help to ensure you communicate effectively with colleagues.
Software is also important. It should do the job you need from it and evolve as you do. Collaboration tools like Notion make a huge difference to our experience at Cronofy.
Being mindful of how you use language when writing and speaking is also important when you work remotely. Context is often lost when you’re not dealing with someone in-person, therefore thinking before you type or speak ensures that the right message gets across.
What are your tips for remote working? Let us know what you think over on Twitter!