“Don’t you love cold snowy days, where you can curl up next to a fire with a good embedded email trail?” . . . said no one ever.
Email has its role and place in team communication, but it’s the kiss of death if you’re trying to manage multiple projects and keep a distributed team on the same page.
Even if you’re doing your best to communicate proactively and transparently, email, video, and phone calls will only get you so far. You need to have a few other tools at your disposal as well.
Before I dive in, I need to make one thing clear: There is no silver bullet
Just like an electrician doesn’t tackle a job with just a screwdriver, nor does a construction worker show up for work with just a hammer, neither should managers of distributed teams think that one system or tool is going to help their team accomplish their goals efficiently and effectively.
So with that in mind, here are a few that have worked really well in my experience:
This is an amazing tool for having on-the-fly conversations about specific topics or projects.
It allows people to post and read during times that are convenient for them, and with the help of channels, team members can read through and engage with one topic or project at a time.
Some of the features I live and breathe by include:
Status - Using either default choices or settings of my own making, I can communicate my availability and expected response time to the team. I can indicate that I’m in a meeting, traveling, or even running a few quick errands. Without having to bog people down with more posts, I can communicate these things w/ small icons and a few words.
Remind me - You can ask Slack to remind you to do something later on, if you don’t want to hemorrhage those precious 30 seconds putting that action item in a separate task list.
Pinning items - There are inevitably pieces of information shared that the whole group may need to later reference. Those posts or documents can be pinned for easy access.
Starring items - If you want to remember a specific post, but it’s not necessary to share with the whole team, you can star it for your own personal use.
This tool can also help you build your team culture. One of my favorite channels to create is “random,” where people can post freely about nothing work related at all.
A colleague last year was working in a coffee shop when she realized she was sitting right next to a famous country music artist. That’s a great thing to post in #random! Within minutes after posting, the equivalent of distributed team “water cooler” conversation ensued, and it allowed the team members to have a shared experience although they were thousands of miles apart.
Things like that remind you and the team of where the other members are geographically, what their context is, and it can also spur on a fun side conversation that builds rapport over time.
I helped Stay Forth Designs get up and running on Slack, and their founder, Alan Briggs, shared how it was a game changer for his distributed team.
There are a number of good Project Management tools available, don’t get me wrong, but lately I’ve been really loving Asana. Asana has helped a team of about 10 people (at one time, across 3 continents!) collaborate on 10-12 different projects at once.
We set up templates for those projects followed a basic pattern, then established general ground rules and expectations that allowed people to work the way that work best for them. For one team, the ground rules were:
Asana shows each person’s high level responsibility and role in this project. The template lays out the general timeline, so we all know what’s expected when.
Asana shows the “what” is expected, by when, and where this task falls in the process. How each of the team members accomplished their tasks was up to them.
We set up the second ground rule because some people really liked having every small task represented in Asana, and others just wanted their high-level responsibilities in there; they wanted to manage their sub-tasks on their own (“I like my paper list, thankyouverymuch!”).
Asana allows for that transparency, accountability, and flexibility to support your team members’ various working styles.
For verbal processors, this tool is gold. Sometimes team members are traveling, or they have a thought when taking a walk, and they can’t type it all out into a text. Voxer allows you to leave voice texts for individuals or groups, and they can share back in the same thread.
You end up having a topical conversation in times and locations that work for each person.
True story: I once had to lead a project closure call entirely through Voxer! It wasn’t quite as efficient as a dedicated 1-hour meeting, of course, but when people are traveling or have crazy schedules, this tool can help get you close to that experience.
Many more tools are available, of course, and I’d love to hear from you too! What tools have worked well for your distributed teams?