Tech tools for remote teams
Thinking of introducing remote working? We take a quick look at some of the tools used by many remote teams. (No jargon, we promise...)
Most remote employers use a mix of online tools to help everyone stay connected and on the same page. You can usually try tools out for free – many offer free basic options or trial periods. Different tools will be right for different teams, but we take a quick look at some of the options.
For teams with lots of remote staff, wading through email to keep in touch soon becomes a huge chore. Increasingly, remote teams are turning to ‘virtual office’ software that lets team members chat informally (a bit like Facebook), as well as share images and documents, and manage projects and tasks. There are a growing number of options here, but some popular tools include Slack, Asana, Basecamp, HipChat, Yammer, Campfire and Sococo.
Slack has been called the “Swiss Army knife for remote teams” (Geekbeat) due to the fact that, while it focuses heavily on ‘chat’ and communication, it’s premium version covers all the bases by integrating with pretty much all the other tools out there.
“Slack is our virtual office. If you’re in Slack then you’re at work. A group chat room like Slack is also great at creating camaraderie.” Wade Foster, CEO of remote company Zapier, in his Ultimate Guide to Remote Working.
When looking for tools for your team, one issue is how much weight you want to put on the informal, chat side of things, versus more traditional task management. Jason Fried, founder and CEO at Basecamp (formerly 37 signals), which has been in this marketplace for a decade, has questioned whether the move away from email to ‘group chat’ as the new form of remote team communication has created its own challenges. (Have a look his post: Is Group Chat Making You Sweat?) But many other remote teams swear by their group chat tools, saying they are the glue that keeps the team together.
Another slightly different approach is Sococo. Sococo creates a virtual, online environment, where each team member is represented by their own little icon. It’s like being in a virtual, open plan office – you can literally see who’s in the ‘office’, and who they are working with. You can gather in ‘meeting rooms’, which can be locked for private discussion – so people can see that your team is busy – and you can even select ‘interruption settings’ on a sliding scale, so other colleagues know whether or not they can ‘knock’ and ask to join you. It takes a little getting used to, but some teams might find that having a shared ‘remote space’ helps to create a feeling of team connection.
So, how much is all this going to cost? The good news is that most tools offer free options, or at least a free trial. Yammer offer a free sign-up, and also comes bundled in with some Microsoft 365 products. Slack has a free option, with paid options adding more functionality and storage space. Asana has a free basic option for teams with up to 15 members. Campfire starts at $12/month for small groups. HipChat has a free basic version, with paid versions including video chat, screen sharing and other functions starting at $2 per user per month. Sococo offers a free basic version, jumping to $15 per user per month for their full system. All these tools charge per user. Basecamp has a different pricing model, charging a flat fee of $29/month for internal teams, and $79/month to teams who also want to use the software with external clients, so it’s more pricey to begin with, but your costs won’t grow steeply as your team expands.
If you want to see more, most of these tools have good Youtube channels with how-to guides and case studies showing their products in action. We’ve picked out a few promos below, to give you a quick flavour of virtual offices in action, and at the end of this article we’ve linked to some great information from the heads of several remote companies, who share which tools they use to make their remote teams tick.
Project and task management
Many remote teams like to use relatively simple online ‘to do list’ applications to help keep team members on the same page. Popular options include Trello (with free and paid options) and Wunderlist (with a free trial for the business version). Other options include ToDoIst, Toodle-Do, Workflowy and more.
This great blog post from Trello’s Marketing Manager, Stella Garber, Tips For Managing a Remote Team, talks through the tools she uses – including how her team uses the Trello Marketing Board to update each other and stay on track.
Video chat can be a vital lifeline for remote teams, replacing face-to-face meetings. Popular free options are Google Hangouts and Skype. Another option is Appear.in, which offers free, frictionless video chat for up to eight users (we haven’t tried this one out yet – let us know how you get on if you do!) Appear.in is working on a premium, professional version for release in 2016; they’re signing up prototype-testers now, if you want to get involved. Premium products such as Blue Jeans or GoToMeeting from Citrix can cope with large numbers of users and tend to offer extras such virtual whiteboards. Some video conferencing tools let you record discussions, which can be a useful way to keep track.
Sharing and managing files
The two biggies here are Dropbox and Google Docs, both of which let you create, edit and share all kinds of documents, storing everything in the ‘cloud’ so you and your colleagues can access work from anywhere. Both have free options, so it’s worth having a play around. Our Mini Guide for remote staff has some more detail on how to get started with both tools.
Choosing what’s right for your team
There are plenty more tech tools out there, with more being added all the time. Moving your team to a new set of tools is a big undertaking. It takes time to find what’s right for you, and then to get people on board – while for larger teams there may also be substantial sign-up costs involved. Some teams report that systems and tools may no longer be such a good fit as teams grow or needs change, so it may be a decision that needs revisiting. And the market for new cloud-based, software-as-a-service companies is rather volatile, with new entrants appearing all the time – and some old favourites closing down.
So how to choose? You’ll probably want to consider the following issues (and plenty more) when you’re selecting which tool(s) to use:
- How does your team like to work? Is chat more important to you, or nitty-gritty task management? Are you collaborating closely on large complex projects – or would a simple task list be enough to keep you all on the same page? Are you happy with how your team communicates now, or are there things you’d like to change?
- Some ‘online culture’ questions you might want to consider: are people expected to be online all the time? How quickly are they expected to respond to notifications, or is switching off interruptions OK? What about asynchronous teams working across several different timezones – does the chat tool you’ve chosen let you easily find conversations that happened hours ago, to see what has been discussed? How does your team want to use channels and groups to make sure that you can find the conversations and documents you need? Developing a team culture about how and when you use the virtual office tools you’ve chosen will probably take some time and a few iterations.
- Will a free version be enough to get you started, or do you need to go premium? Vlogger Franceso D’Alessio’s video (below) runs through the pros and cons of both – covering storage capacity, restrictions on functionality, freedom from in-app advertising, and restrictions on third party integrations.
To help you on your way, we’ve rounded up some great articles from several fully remote companies who’ve shared their thoughts on the virtual team and productivity tools they use, and how they used them to keep their remote teams working well:
- Buffer’s overview of the main remote tools used by their teams.
- You can download Zapier’s detailed Ultimate Guide to Remote Working for free here, if you sign up to their blog. It covers a wealth of issues facing remote teams, and looks in detail at the tools they use.
- Our quick Mini Guide for people totally new to remote working brings together a number of links and videos showcasing some of the tools we’ve mentioned here.
- Here are the founders one totally remote company, Buffer, talking about why they went fully remote, and about the key tools they use: