Remote team collaboration is an increasingly common feature of modern software design & development workplaces, where “remote team” is defined as persons working together who are not physically co-located in a traditional, shared office space. Devise Consulting has worked very successfully with various forms of remote team configurations for well over 15 years now. Companies that embrace this model are finding benefits across the board, non-exhaustively including:

  • not being limited to their local talent pool
  • supporting flexibility for individuals in ways that improve happiness at work
  • reducing expensive office-related expenses
  • (per today’s COVID-19-focused moment) preventing the spread of transmissible diseases

Solid digital tools to support collaboration among remote teams now abound, in both free and paid alternatives. In our experience, digital tools to facilitate effective collaboration among remote teams are needed in the following four areas.

Communication

The rise of Slack has brought some of the fluid spirit of an in-person office environment to the web, although in our experience its running timeline can make it feel like looking for a needle in a haystack to find that one item that you really needed. Still, its synchronous nature and the way it feels like a chat along with its broad & customizable library of animated icons makes it feel like a friendly, vibrant communication forum. Of course, email is still a part of the mix and can often be a critical tool for asychronous teams that span across really disparate geographies, such as India – United States – Eastern Europe, for example. A helpful reference for staying in touch with your colleagues’ current time of day is World Clock, and especially their “International Meeting Planner” page can be quite useful to wrap your head around what works for a highly timezone-distributed team.

Meetings

Being able to see each other in a videoconference format does wonders for human connection and camaraderie. Google Hangouts does a fine job, although it doesn’t offer recording. WebEx remains a top-flight solution, with all the bells and whistles that come with its price tag. Zoom is another great option. We feel that a pure teleconference solution without any options for live video is now passé, but established teams can get by with just teleconferencing if your team members already have the opportunity for regular face-to-face interactions. And yes, these tools have a notorious reputation for glitches, but just go have a laugh at this ludicrous example, and carry on with that virtual meeting you need to run.

Documentation

For written documentation, whether it’s a full-fledged wiki solution like Confluence, or the well-known GSuite (Docs/Sheets/Slides), today many web-based tools facilitate easy dissemination and maintenance of documentation and materials for working teams. Both Confluence and GSuite have good commenting/annotating features for collaboration in place. For user experience design and product management activities in particular, InVision has streamlined the sharing of visual materials and prototypes that keep the whole team aware of the bigger picture of system behaviors; it integrates especially tightly with the graphic design tool, Sketch. Another tool that’s making waves and winning awards is Miro, an online “whiteboard” that allows for multiple team members to collaborate in real-time as well as store materials for reference.

Project Management

Agile-oriented task management tools like Jira, Asana, and Trello offer fully web-based solutions for remote teams that need to manage production-oriented activities. Also here we also want to mention Basecamp, a tool we first used back in 2004 that seems to have fallen a bit by the wayside in recent years; for smaller teams, it hits a sweet spot with a flat monthly rate for features that include communication, documentation and project management.

Some Lessons Learned

Social Grease: Don’t neglect some of the social niceties when you gather in remote meetings, just like you would if you were seeing each other in person. Even a basic-seeming “How was your weekend?” does a lot to show genuine interest in each other and build team dynamics. However, don’t let this overwhelm the meeting agenda. Sometimes using an accompanying “chat” feature can be a good way to get that personal connection in without disrupting the meeting flow.

Conferencing Tips: We’ve worked extensively in enormous enterprise environments, where meetings could have upwards of a hundred attendees representing a wide variety of departmental functions. Ensure that the “mute” function is applied to all lines from the start, so that an attendee has to “un-mute” themselves to speak. This prevents the “barking dog” phenomenon that may be amusing for a moment but is definitely disruptive and embarrassing. As per the above, the “chat” feature can help people to have a side-bar without disrupting the main meeting; sometimes one or more of our immediate team-members would turn to a Slack-type communication area to have those side-bar conversations alongside the meeting window.

Balancing Remote/In-Office: One of the downsides of remote team configurations comes about when there are far fewer remote workers than in-office workers. If working remotely is very unusual for the team, the remote person might tend to be excluded from some of the news and updates that travel naturally around the traditional office. Also, it can create some envy among those who are not working remotely. I suggest that a company embrace the policy globally, and as the practice ramps up, continue to offer the remote worker opportunities to spend face-to-face time with their colleagues. Even a quarterly or bi-annual team meeting can do wonders for ensuring the team feels cohesive and connected.

Ultimately, companies and teams should feel very confident today in collaborating with people who are physically remote. The wide variety of tools that exist means that a solution is available for your particular company budget. Keep an open line of communication and get feedback from both remote and in-house team members on all of the above areas, and fine-tune best practices as you see what works for your particular environment. Give it a chance, though — and consider engaging a remote consultant today! 😉