Distributed Team Tip #3 – Agree on tools and learn how to use them

There is a myriad of tools that can help people collaborate across location and across timezones. Below are my top 3 things to remember when selecting and using them.

Tools will not fix lousy practices

If your processes or procedures are flawed, moving them to a tool will probably allow you to do bad work faster and at a larger scale.

  • Examine your workflow – Understand where things go wrong and where they go right. Before moving to a tool, or any form of automation, consider what you are trying to achieve and ask if the way you work is the best way. Make changes to workflow and try it out before embedding into a tool.
  • Understand what is working well – Ask if there is a way to build on that and make it part of your work system. An example might be using file links in chats. You might choose to build on this success by accepting versioning in SharePoint so that those links remain correct as you no longer have version numbers in the file name.
  • Set behaviour standards – Poor behaviour face to face is likely to continue when using digital channels. Use team norms to agree on what is acceptable and have the team address failures in retrospectives.

Choose tools to fit your needs

Explore a range of scenarios with your team and agree on which tool you might use in each one. Every month new software is launched, there are many opportunities to get a good fit.

  • Agree on what tool to use when – A team norms session can be help to focus on which tool to use in which situations, e.g. use Skype for text and video chat, Zoom for large scale conferences, email for official communications and SMS for urgent messaging.
  • Consider what you have available to see what meets your needs – Are tools available for both mobile and desktop, do they cross the operating systems your team uses (Andriod/IOS, Windows/Mac). Pre authorised and licenced tools will be quicker and easier to implement. They may also have a degree of technical support which will make their use easier within a corporate ecosystem. Review the list of software your team uses from time to time, consider trialling new tools to see if they are a good fit. Evaluate new features as they become available and see if they become part of how you work.
  • Learn how to use them – Not everyone has the same interest or experience in collaboration software. When selecting a tool, consider creating a simple “how-to” guide for repeated actions. Test the software before needed. An example of how this can help is to have a test call with each team member ahead of a daily standup so everyone has the same understanding of how they will join in and some confidence in doing so. You want to avoid situations where managing the software takes more energy than the outcome it enables.

Nothing replaces communication

Encourage positive practices as behavioural norms within the team. Remind people that communication helps us get clarity, builds trust and can be fun.

  • Face to face communication should be encouraged as often as possible – The extra dimension enhances trust and builds relationships within the team. Many chat programs now have video options. Where you can’t use a desktop computer for video, consider mobile apps.
  • Frequent informal communication should be encouraged – Chat programs are ideal for this. Skype, Slack and others enable quick brief messages with little effort, use of emoji convey personality as well. For people who are working across time zones, this is an effortless way of carrying on a conversation where individuals can drop in and out as they wish and still see the context.
  • When in doubt, reach out – When we work side by side, we often keep a banter going where we use each other as sounding boards. We test our ideas; however, more importantly, we test our understanding of other’s ideas. There is a temptation to stop this when it is no longer as easy as asking, “Hey, do you think they meant this when they said that?” Make an effort to over-communication, keep realigning and confirming with each other.

As you work remotely and use tools to communicate, collaborate and visualise your work remember to reflect. Take the time to ask what is and what is not working routinely. Adjust when you need to.

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