One thing that working remotely brings sharply into focus is the importance of providing clear direction. Oddly when people are grouped together, in a central location, everyone is automatically assumed to be on the same page. In reality, an office often breeds leadership complacency.
Just compare how much direction you’ll take time to provide to anyone working externally to your business. Whether that be a lawyer, accountant or freelance worker. The story is inevitably the same. As soon as the person is physically removed from the office, its natural to assume they will require more direction and explanation than someone in the same building. Now thats a pretty safe assumption, if you’re actually sharing on a consistent basis with your team. In my experience thats rarely the case. What I’d describe as “assumptive communication” is generally the norm, once people are sharing the same physical space.
When we switched over to remote working last year, perhaps for the first time, we analysed how we should communicate most effectively as a team. I’ll be honest, up until that point my team communication had really been centralised around a company update that I’d write fairly infrequently. I mistakenly thought that people would only want to know about significant progress we’d been making as a business.
As part of our review, we decided as a team that a central “virtual office” would be a great idea. We’d dabbled in the past with hipchat, but it had never really taken off. It was much easier to simply use IM or wander over to someones desk, than conduct a conversation online.
An alternative that was gaining traction at the time was Slack (remember this was back in August 2014) as it wasn’t tainted with our previous experience of hipchat, we thought it might make a better option.
We started using slack a couple of months before conducting our initial remote working trial. If youve never heard of slack or hipchat, the easiest way to think of them is private online chat rooms for your business. You’re able to create channels / rooms for people to have conversations and share information. (a side benefit is the massive reduction in internal email)
Our set up was pretty straight forward. We created a series of channels based around departments. But importantly left all of the channels open so anyone could join. (we also created some specific integration channels, which I’m happy to share if anyones interested)
During these initial couple of months, take up was honestly about the same level as we’d seen with hipchat, and for exactly the same reasons.
People started talking to each other. A LOT! Our slack messaging stats started to rise each day. People that ordinarily wouldn’t have talked with one another (cross departments) started engaging in conversations about each others work. It was fascinating to watch.
Slack helped us not only transform to working as a distributed team, it helped us transform as a business. It seems crazy to imagine that putting distance between you and your team can help improve your leadership and communications, but it really can.
I take far more time each day to provide support and direction to my team than I ever did being only a few feet away. Complacency on my part vanished overnight.
Everyone was finally on the same page, but something was still missing. It’s important to see where your headed, but its equally important to know the progress you’ve made towards that goal.
In the past we’d tried quite a few team reporting tools, one of them for several months (15five) but all of them had felt a little too heavy for our purposes. We’re only a small team (8–10 people) and have a very flat management structure. So the idea wasn’t to create an admin burden on people, it was to help improve communication and recognition.
idonethis if you’re not familiar is on the face of it an incredibly simple reporting tool. Each member of your team gets sent a daily reminder email that asks them what they did that day. They reply to the email (or more recently post directly into a slack channel) and they’re done. You can also update your progress at any time throughout the day. The end result is a summarised view of what every member of your team achieved that day. The key is to let everyone report whats important to them.
Each morning you (and in our case everyone) receives that summarised view of the pervious day. All of us can then engage with any item we find of interest. Clicking on the link in the email takes you directly to the online update (think a little like a Facebook) and allows users to comment or “like” the item.
This simple sequence allows everyone to get a real sense of progress and perhaps more intrinsically their own self worth. Don’t for a moment make the mistake of assuming people are able to somehow magically benchmark their own contribution.
The combination of slack and idonethis has made a staggering difference to the way in which I managed and share information across what is now a business in its 17th year.
This post is part of a series I’m writing, in which I’m sharing the benefits and pitfalls of managing a remote team. We utilise many other tools to make this all possible, but slack and idonethis form the foundation.