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Working Remotely: Communication and Collaboration

working-remotely

This series on “Working Remotely” is inspired by “Remote,” the book by the 37Signals guys, and by my own experience working remotely for many years.
When communication breaks down, relationships go south, projects languish, and productivity takes a vacation. This is amplified for remote workers. Establishing proper communication practices and using the right collaboration tools will ease worries, increase productivity, and improve relationships. Here are a few basic practices and tools:

Communication

Recognize that not every question needs an answer right now – We’re used to shouting a question to a colleague in the next cubicle or heading over to someone who’s free to get a quick answer. Working remotely removes you from these constant interruptions — and learning opportunities.
Go ahead and ask questions as they occur, but pause a moment before you do and determine if it’s something that you need an answer to right away via instant message or if it can be saved for email or even later during your regular check-in meeting.
As Remote authors note:

There’s nothing more arrogant than taking up someone else’s time with a question you don’t need an answer to right now…Breaking your and others’ addition to ASAP won’t come without withdrawal, [but] once you’re ASAP-free, you’ll be amazed at how your former self was able to get anything done in the face of constant in-person interruptions.

Morning stand-up, bi-weekly check-in, and monthly team meetings – There are few things better for kick starting your day and staying in the loop than daily morning Stand-Up meetings with the team. Each team member quickly says what they’re working on and what, if anything, is in their way. Meetings should not last more than 10-15 minutes. Round this off with a 30-minute bi-weekly sync with your immediate supervisor to address suggestions and concerns, and a one-hour monthly status meeting with the team, and you’re good. Remember, meetings are great for planning, collaborating, and staying in the loop, but too many are the scourge of productivity.
Determine if your entire team or just your boss need to know – I prefer letting my team know if I’ll be out or at a meeting or whatever affects my work or availability. Thing is, if you have a bunch of remote workers, the emails can pile up and becoming annoying rather than helpful. For some things, letting your immediate supervisor know is good enough. This is more of a personal preference and company culture thing.
Always be available – The firm’s internal messaging system should always be on during regular work hours or whatever time periods you agree to be available. This does not mean that you’ll always be free to chat or engage, but a quick reply on Skype or text message is a must. Occasionally, I work from a public or academic library and can’t talk, but can monitor and respond to inquiries via instant messaging.

Collaboration

At a minimum, companies that employ remote workers should have a Dropbox account to share internal documents, videos, and other files. Here are a few additional free and low-cost tools:
Google Docs – Team members can create and edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.
Google Calendar – Keep everyone in the loop re: meeting, appointments, and days off. It can also be used as a shared editorial calendar if content creation is your thing.
GoToMeeting – More robust screen-sharing functionality and team participation than Skype. Though, Skype will do in a pinch.
Evernote – Store ideas, team meeting notes, lists, and just about anything you can thing of, and share the notebook with your team.
These are just a few of the basic communication practices and collaboration tools that remote workers need for a seamless and productive environment. Any other must-have tools or practices? Please share in the comments below so we can all benefit.
POSTS IN THE SERIES:
Working Remotely: The Many Benefits
Traits of an Effective Telecommuter
How to Manage Work-at-Home Employees
A Productive Home Office
Managing Solitude
Communication and collaboration
Managing Distractions
Managing Time, Boundaries, and Balance
Evaluating Employee Performance
Company Culture Beyond the Office Walls
How Lee Rosen Moved His Law Firm to an All-Remote Workforce
Working Remotely: Have Computer, Will Travel