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10 Awesome Remote Tools

Helping us thrive as a distributed team

When migrating our business over to a distributed model, our industry knowledge definitely helped.

I founded our sister business way back in 1997, and since then its grown massively.

With over 13,000 different cloud services listed on the Serchen marketplace, it’s not surprising we know a thing or two about software.

We’ve tested, reviewed, integrated, broken and
generally abused most of them

But knowing what tools are available is only half the battle. We weren’t satisfied with just finding replacements for our office based systems, we also wanted to improve the way we worked as a team.

If you’re seriously considering a adopting remote working, its important that you take time to really understand the way in which workflows operate within your business.

It’s not just a case of replacing desktop versions of your
software with cloud based solutions

You need to consider how work moves around your organisation. Once you look closely enough, you’ll discover there’s normally some physical component that has nothing to do with computing. I’m talking about things like that paper fax that came in overnight and the “elves” moved from the machine to someone’s desk to be input into a system. (startups — search google for “what’s a fax”).

In addition to this physical component theres the equally important human element. People have this rather frustrating habit of solving problems. Joking aside, more often than not, these human solutions go unnoticed. Acting as a kind of duct tape, holding different systems together. Its only when you move to a new set of tools you discover the duct tape doesn’t do the job anymore.

Really when you think about it from the highest level, running operations smoothly, comes down to two things. Communication & Collaboration. So when conducting your process audit as long as you keep those two things in mind, you shouldn’t go wrong.

The great thing about the software industry today is you have the opportunity to really tailor affordable solutions to fit the way you work.

The tools we use at serchen every day

OK, so below is a list of tools we use to manage the main business each day. I’ve excluded the more specialist areas like software development, and focused on areas which are most applicable to a wider range of industries than just our own.

– Slack
Is our choice for group chats and sharing of information. Users are able to create “channels” which acts in a similar way to a traditional chat room or forum.

Try to think of it as a virtual water cooler, or central place for conversations that would happen naturally in an office environment. Virtual glue that binds the team together and helps cement the companies culture.

In addition to the communications side, slack also has an ever increasing range of integrations with other services you may use. This allows messages from these systems to appear in dedicated channels within slack.

Slack’s really beginning to perform a role not dissimilar to the one MS office did a decade ago.

– iDoneThis
As mentioned in an earlier post, one of the most critical aspects of managing a team, remote or otherwise, is clarity. Both in the sense of what needs to be done, but also in what has been accomplished. iDoneThis is an incredibly simple, yet powerful, piece of software which helps fill this void.

At the end of each day an email reminder is issued to each member of the team asking them a single question. “What’d you get done today?

By replying to the email (or logging into the website itself) a list of that days achievements are captured and recorded in a daily calendar. This in itself is really useful for those moments when you’ve hit a creative wall and perhaps feel like you’ve failed to achieve anything over a given period. A quick review of your personal calendar highlights all of your accomplishments in one neat consolidated place.

The most powerful aspect of the software is in its collaborative / sharing functionality. At a predetermined time of your choosing, a consolidated email is sent out from the system with each member of your teams daily contribution. This could be your entire company if your small enough, or a specific department. Either way the group as a whole get to see what everyone is working on at this moment in time. More importantly they can encourage others by simply liking items in their updates (Facebook style) or contributing comments into their “feed”.

After running this software for just a few days I was getting comments about how much more connected people felt to what was going on around them. Remember, we’re talking about people who at the time were actually working in the same location!

– Skype
This is a pretty easy one, and a tool that most business owners are familiar with already. We utilise Skype in three primary ways.

Firstly its a quick and easy way to see which members of the team are online and available (slack also offers this function). We’re not using this as a “hey you’re not at your desk” type of control tool, this is more about giving a sense of camaraderie. Theres something powerful about simply knowing there are others working alongside you, even in the virtual sense.

Secondly we use Skype as an IM (instant messenger) tool. Its very useful to just shoot a question or share a link with another member of the team and saves adding to inbox clutter. Over the last few months this usage has been dropping, as people seem to prefer using slack as a messenger app.

Thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, we use Skype for making calls and video conferencing. We’ve tried the increasingly popular google hangouts, but for us at least the video quality isn’t as good and the desktop application (at time of writing) is none existent. Hangouts does have one advantage, in that you can trigger a call from within a slack channel with a simple command.

Looking to the future, I suspect its only a matter of time before slack introduces a video component to their platform. Which would allow us to bring all our comms under one roof.

– Basecamp
Our go to project management solution for over 5 years. Its super easy to use and has a very intuitive interface thats quick for people to pick up.

Basecamp allows for our team to collaborate on specific projects and share information with each other easily in one central place.

One of its great features, relates to email piping. Which means that messages sent from the software can be replied to directly via email. No need to login to any applications. This is very useful for people on the move or with limited internet access.

The range of uses you can find for basecamp is never ending. Its certainly not just a tool for software developers. We use it for everything from design projects right the way through to company newsletters.

If you’ve never delved into the world of project management software this is a great place to start.

– Buffer
We’ve tried a lot of tools to help manage our social media publishing schedule and buffer is our personal favourite.

Its primary feature is scheduling. Allowing you to plan hundreds of posts across all the main social media channels (twitter, linkedin, facebook, google+) days, weeks, months ahead of your chosen publishing date.

We love it most of all for its ability to capture and share items from all our other applications. In practical terms this means you can be reading a great article on your phone, laptop, tablet, and instantly add that item for sharing across all your networks. You can decide to either share it instantly, add it to your existing queue, or custom schedule it for later.

Thats a lot of functionality all wrapped up in an incredibly low cost product. You can get started for free, and upgrading to premium features comes in at only $10 a month.

– Trello
A relatively new member of our business toolkit, Trello offers some similar functionality to basecamp, but displays things in a very different way.

If you’re familiar with Kanban boards then the layout will be very familiar. If not, then think of the layout as being a virtual cork-board with the ability for you to add lots of post it notes.

The basic idea is that the work is displayed in a way that matches its progress through a project. Running left to right, tasks are moved from list to list until they finally reach the done pile.

This workflow is very much in keeping with the approach that idonethis employ. Highlighting the importance of recognising your achievements. More traditional PM software marks work as completed and then it promptly vanishes into a hidden archive. I wrote quite recently about the value of these virtual mile markers in providing a sense of progress.

– HelpScout
We’ve tried most of the leading support desk providers. But since switching to helpscout in 2014, we’ve finally found a home.

The easiest way to describe helpscout is to think of it as a task orientated email client.

At its core there is the equivalent of a shared inbox which you can share with members of your team. As team members respond to “tickets” the task in question becomes assigned to them and is moved out of the shared area.

Its worth saying at this point that Helpdesk software is one area which is incredibly personal to your business. There are some amazing systems in the market today offering a bewildering array of features. The nature of our business means we don’t require all the whistles and bells these larger systems have to offer.

I think I’d refer to them as agile helpdesk software. Again if you’ve never used helpdesk software then they could be an excellent place to start. If you’re using google apps for email you can be up and running literally in minutes.

– Google Apps
Like millions of other businesses around the world, we use google apps for our traditional office tools. Completely replacing all our MS office suite. The cost savings alone warrant your investigation, but its real strength lies in its cloud storage capability. Infinite document revisions, backups, collaborative work, publishing. You name it, they’ve got it.

You might say we were an early adopter, moving over to google way back in 2007. In the years since then the tools have continued to evolve. To the point where only the most advanced of MS office users would lose any functionality making the switch.

In addition to all of the above, you of course get the best in class email system. Gmail. Fully branded and personalised to your business.

Anyone reasonably technically adept can manage the entire system in house. Adding new users, changing passwords or administering storage can all be done via a straightforward interface.

Our only gripe with apps (and google in general) is its multi account management. This isn’t something that effects most people, but if you manage more than one corporate brand. Switching between teams can be a hassle at times, as google still struggles with user identities.

– Xero
You’d probably have to have been living under a rock the past couple of years not not have heard of xero. One of the first accounting applications to really bring enterprise level accounting to the masses.

Not only does it have almost infinite levels of reporting and customisation, it critically removes the need for paper invoices and receipts. Simply snap a photo from the iPhone or android app, or forward receipts directly to the inbox within xero and you’re done. Add to all that a huge number of 3rd party integrations and you will struggle to go wrong.

Interestingly accounting was our easiest system to move to the cloud. We’ve worked remotely with our accountants for over 15 years, so the processes were already in place. This one literally was a case of migrating from one desktop system to another.

We migrated to Xero, nine months ago and haven’t looked back.

– HelloSign
The nature of our business means we require contract signatures. Prior to hello sign this was all done via fax (yes its true). This generally involved delays in contract signing whilst people dusted off the old machine in the corner and found a fresh stack of paper.

That all changed once we moved over to hellosign (10 months ago). All the contracts are prepared online (fully integrated into our other systems). Documents can easily be reviewed by clients on pretty much any device, signed and return instantly. This not only cuts down our sales cycle considerably, it was yet another nail in the office coffin.

Well that’s our daily tools list as of right now (January 2015).

We’re constantly evaluating alternatives and looking for ways to improve efficiency.

If there are any tools you think we should take a look at, please reach out and let us know, either in the comments here or directly @serchen

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