At RAIDBOXES , we have been using our home office for some time now, partially or even completely. Difficult phases like COVID-19 are much easier to handle that way. You work in an agency or as a freelancer and are still looking for the right infrastructure? We have a lot of experience with home office tools. And are happy to pass it on to you.
In this article you will find the most important tools for distributed work. At the same time, we'll tell you how to use them as efficiently as possible. Your team doesn't have much experience with working from different locations? Then read our additional articles on the advantages and disadvantages of remote work as well as Remote Leadership: Location-independent agencies.
Before we get started, here's a little tip: RAIDBOXES will help you through the current crisis: Are you planning a platform for your region on which local retailers, restaurateurs and service providers can present themselves digitally? Then take a look at our initiative at #SupportYourLocals. You use our FREE DEV program to host your projects for free during the development phase? Then we extend this phase if necessary - uncomplicated and unbureaucratic.
Your experience counts
What tools do you use for distributed work? What experiences have you had so far? And how do you solve the typical challenges when working from home? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments at the end of the article.
Slack: Organize distributed teams
Slack is a kind of chat service for companies, agencies and teams. Many companies in the technical environment and in the WordPress scene organize themselves completely via Slack . Especially when some of the employees work from home, as is the case with RAIDBOXES. More and more companies even work completely remote - without a central office. Tools such as Slack are then indispensable.
Here's a small insight into how we use Slack at RAIDBOXES:
- Direct communication: Ask a quick question without leaving your desk? You can chat directly with someone, or put together any people in the company/team for a group chat. Files can also be uploaded and exchanged.
- Channels: Discussions or results that are only of interest to individual teams are communicated and organized in special channels.
- Notifications: Define which messages and channels you want to receive which type of notification for in order to be informed immediately. Or mute individual channels so that you can only read them from time to time.
- Ping: A message is particularly important? You want the other person or the team to be informed immediately? For this you can use so-called pings.
- Status: In a status channel, we communicate whether we are currently working and can be reached. Or whether we are taking a break or do not want to be disturbed ("tunnel"). Slack also offers its own function and marking for this.
We use customized channels for certain tasks. We have channels, for example, which are not for discussion and where we only share results and minutes from meetings.
In channels of a more private and informal nature, we discuss fun things that aren't directly related to work. Tools like Slack have many benefits, including:
- Work productively: If you stand in front of your colleagues' desks every time they ask a question or make a comment, you will inevitably interrupt their work. At Slack you can control who reads what and when. This increases efficiency - if used correctly.
- Avoid distractions: Also Slack can make for chaotic communication. That's why it's important to use features like join/follow, mute, status messages, ping, threads, etc. systematically.
- Autarkic information: You decide where you want to read along. Or you leave a channel if it is no longer relevant for you.
- Archive: You can search for past entries. This way, all communication in the company - as well as its results - is documented. This is important to avoid duplicate discussions.
- Remote connectivity: With consistent use of Slack , employees in the home office are just as informed as the teams on site.
You can also use Slack to make calls or hold online meetings - with or without cameras. We weren't happy with the quality of this feature in Slack so it's not something we still use. More about that later. Do you have questions about using Slack or about the other applications listed here? We welcome your comments.
Tip: utilize threads
Chats in Slack can be extended to sub-chats with threads. It's much easier to maintain clarity and transparency this way. Furthermore, you'll only be notified about new entries in the thread if you've participated in it.
Microsoft Teams serves as an alternative to Slack . It can also be used to combine chats, meetings, notes and attachments. Due to the connection to Office 365, the service is likely to be particularly worthwhile for companies that already have a strong infrastructure for Microsoft.
Google Meet: video conferencing for businesses
Google provides a variety of tools for businesses. These are mostly easy to use and geared towards virtual collaboration. This is also true for Google Meet. The tool is still known to most as Google Hangouts. There are apps for Android and iOS to join online meetings. But you can also dial in purely through the browser, with Chrome being the best connected.
Firefox, Edge, and Apple Safari are also supported. External guests can participate in meetings using an invitation link or meeting ID. Meet is integrated into the Google Suite. This is especially useful if you use other Google tools, such as the calendar. If desired, a suitable link is created for every meeting entry.
Google and privacy
We at RAIDBOXES have also created several fixed virtual meeting rooms. The link always remains the same. We then meet in "Münster", "Freiburg", "Hamburg" or "Magdeburg" - the last three are the locations of our remote employees. This way we can arrange meetings quickly and easily, even for spontaneous meetings.
We use the online meetings function for various purposes. Sometimes for meetings on site with a "switch" to the remote employees (top right, the picture was taken before corona) or for a virtual get-together (beer or water optional).
Video conferences are difficult to manage once they reach a certain size. This is something we've noticed now during the corona pandemic where nearly all employees join meetings from home. If an online meeting has over ten participants, you need to organize them clearly. For example, with the following options and rules:
- Facilitation: Someone should lead the meeting, solicit input, shift sprawling discussions, and control the time frame.
- Agenda: You have problems to keep the structure? A document shared in advance and to be worked on by all will help you. In it, you determine together which points are to be discussed.
- Mute: You want to improve audio quality? Then everyone should mute themselves, as long as they're just listening.
- Accompanying chat: Most systems support a chat function next to the audio or video track. In it, you can, for example, report if you want to be considered by the moderation.
- Split screen: Your team wants to work on a document centrally? Or someone wants to present something to the others? That's also possible with the "Split screen" function.
We used to use RAIDBOXES Slack Calls for video telephony. But as the team grew, the problems mounted: Dropouts in conferences and poor sound and video quality. Google Meet has been more stable so far, even with low bandwidth. For example, in the home office or on the road. Test for yourself which service is best suited. Other alternatives are Skype from Microsoft or Zoom.
Meetings with or without video?
Some people prefer being able to look their counterpart in the eye, even virtually. After all, facial expressions are part of communication. Others feel distracted by it. You should discuss and try out with your team which variant is more effective for you. RAIDBOXES employees can decide for themselves whether they want to turn their video on or not.
Aircall: flexible telephone
Not all of your customers or partners can be reached via chat, Slack , Skype & Co. And not all employees have or want a business smartphone. Then you need the good old telephone, in its modern version. With service providers like Aircall you can make calls from your company computer. No matter whether you use the world of Microsoft or Apple.
Call quality is no longer an issue in times of IP telephony. Thanks to your own "landline" number, no one notices where you're calling from - you can set the area code yourself if required. And you can be reached at any time. Assistants such as the virtual answering machine provide additional support. Most providers also allow you to create shared numbers for individual teams.
You can also connect the virtual phone to your CRM or helpdesk. Aircall offers integrations for, among others:
- Zoho (more on this in a moment)
- Microsoft Dynamics & Microsoft Teams
Via third-party providers, even an interface to WordPress (partly via Gravity Forms) and to WooCommerce is possible. Whereby the question of usefulness arises - usually your CRM will be the first point of contact here.
Google Calendar: keeping track of your home office
Who is working when, where, and on what? Which meetings and external appointments are taking place? Who is on vacation or out sick? Which employees are currently in the office and who is working from home? It's easy to lose track here due to corona or any other challenges. This is where a virtual calendar comes in handy.
But even a virtual calendar can get confusing pretty quickly when, for example, there are several teams with different meeting structures. You can solve this with different levels in the calendar that can be displayed or hidden as required. The RAIDBOXES calendar, for example, differentiates between the following categories:
- Internal meetings
- External business appointments
- Information like home office status
- Occupancy of the physical meeting rooms in our office
Depending on the role in the company, we can also display only the information that is relevant to the work at hand. Looking for an alternative to Google's calendar? Dr. Web has created a test of the most important calendar apps. It also presents solutions like Wunderlist (soon to be replaced by Microsoft To Do) or Todoist, which link the calendar with to-do lists.
Zoho Sprints: project and task management
Of course, it is not only important for remote organizations with a high proportion of home offices to plan their projects well. But in distributed teams it becomes even more important because regular coordination on site is missing. Otherwise, individual tasks are left undone or even duplicated. Every agency needs a method and a suitable tool here. Even as a freelancer, it will help you to manage yourself in sprints.
We've tried several tools to plan our projects for engineering, marketing, and support/sales. Trello, Hygger, and GitScrum among others. Other options include Asana or Hive. In the end, our choice fell on Zoho with its Sprints module.
All the tools work in a similar way:
- Administration of tasks: Employees and teams enter their tasks or projects as "Tasks", partly weighted by urgency. Example: "Write contribution tools for the home office". You can also use it to assign tasks to others in the team.
- Correct assignment: The tasks are assigned to different "boards". These usually represent the departmental structure in the company. This way, you only see those tasks that are relevant for you and your colleagues.
- Map structure: Individual tasks can be grouped into projects to maintain an overview. Sub-tasks of the example just mentioned would be "Create post image", for example, if you want to proceed in such a granular way. The blog post could be part of a higher-level project "e-book for agencies".
- Automatic schedule: Each task is classified on a regular basis. Is it a task or idea for the future ("backlog")? Should it be completed in the current sprint? Is it already in progress or already completed? Where have tasks fallen behind?
- Joint coordination: Your team regularly discusses the current status in meetings. This way, it quickly becomes clear who needs support or where capacities for additional tasks are free.
If you do this consistently, you can see immediately if the schedule of a sub-project is at risk. Then you can redeploy your resources accordingly. Project management (PM) also encourages a team and its members not to accumulate too many tasks for a sprint. If used correctly, agencies can really expect good results in time management.
You've never worked with a PM tool before? You might find this working method unfamiliar at the beginning. It will also take you or your team a while before the tool is used consistently and filled with tasks. Usually, however, you'll start achieving little successes pretty fast. Then you won't want to do without this PM tool again.
Google Cloud: shared access to documents
Applications like Google Cloud, of course, do much more than simply manage documents. The spectrum ranges from collaborative project development to machine learning and comprehensive web analytics. In the age of Corona, however, it's the simple things that make everyday work more convenient:
- Shared information: Everyone in the company has access to the same documents at all times.
- Stringent data management: This means that there is no longer an archive distributed across various company computers and no longer any different file and data statuses. Access is maintained when a person is absent.
- Fewer resources: The team saves storage space at the same time, an important contribution to sustainability. Backups are also easier and can be managed centrally.
- More security: You work in your home office with a notebook or a private computer? Then you may or should not store most files locally, for data protection and security reasons.
At the same time, you can get your work done faster. So far you've been moving files back and forth in Slack & Co. In the future, you just send the link to the document. That's faster and more efficient.
For a cloud archive to really help you, it needs to be well organized. Pay particular attention to the following points:
- Structured approach: Even in the cloud, you can quickly lose track if there are too many or too few folder levels. Check your structure regularly. If necessary, only one person should be able to create or delete new folders.
- Old and redundant data: Define rules about who should save which files, when and where. This includes a role per team that cleans up every now and then.
- Project managers: Especially for single projects you need responsible persons who take care of the storage of protocols, offers, invoices etc.. Otherwise, all data will be stored locally in the end. This approach also pays off when another person takes over the project.
- Central storage location: Especially documents that are regularly edited by several employees need a central version - stored in a concise location. Otherwise, several versions and different work instructions will quickly exist.
Your company doesn't want to or isn't allowed to work with Google software? Consider services like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive instead. Pay particular attention to the data protection guidelines of the various services.
Open source cloud
There are also solutions for your own server, such as ownCloud. Plus point: The service comes from Germany. However, we have not tried it yet. Do you have experience with ownCloud? Feel free to let us know in the comments.
Google Docs, spreadsheets and more
It's clear that many startups and agencies rely heavily on Google products. Not least because the company from Mountain View cleverly combines the factors of compatibility, easy access, awareness, and low entry prices. We chose Google Docs & Co. for exactly those reasons too. We use the services throughout the company, for example, to document projects and processes together.
Especially in marketing, virtual documents make collaboration easier for us. Internally, but also in interaction with our external authors or with content partners. This pays off now that we work completely distributed - and our guest authors sometimes have more time for the creation of new contributions:
- Editors: If the text comes as a Google Doc, then we can make comments directly in it, edit the content and have the changes approved by the authors. That saves a lot of time.
- Brainstorming: New ideas for contributions are constantly emerging - more than can be implemented. We collect these in a Google Sheet. Then we can weight them and implement them step by step based on our keyword strategy.
- Editorial Plan: Our editorial plan is also a Google spreadsheet, with multiple tabs. Among other things, we can see the status of currently planned posts, the advance planning for the next few weeks, which categories are served how often, which guest posts are pending, who has applied and how high the costs for external content are.
- Content Strategy: Our content strategy is laid out in a detailed multi-step document. Through Google Docs, we can constantly expand and adapt the strategy together and include new projects. At the same time, we discuss new items in proposal mode. Changes are documented.
The beauty of such tools is that they work across hardware boundaries. All you need is access to the document in question, then you can edit it from a browser. Most people at RAIDBOXES work with Apple but some also work with Microsoft. With our authors and partners it's also a mixed bag.
With virtual tools, this no longer matters. You can still export your Google Docs and spreadsheets if you need to. Including into the following formats:
- Microsoft Word or Excel
- RTF, PDF, .txt
- EPUB (for e-books)
Or you can make a copy in your cloud with one click to create different versions. Do you work with external content contributors or agencies? Pay attention to which documents you allow access to. You can differentiate between read-only and write permissions.
TeamViewer: remote access and maintenance
Are your employees increasingly working from home? Even then, the computers still need to be maintained. Urgent updates, security gaps or the elimination of technical problems do not tolerate any delay until adversities like Corona are over again. The solution is programs like TeamViewer or AnyDesk. With them you can:
- Connect to an external workstation
- Troubleshoot problems with the respective employee or give instructions
- Roll out updates on the remote computer
- Monitor the computer's security
At RAIDBOXES , we have only used such solutions sporadically so far, as most of our employees regularly work in the office. But the number of our remote colleagues is growing. We are also currently happy that the infrastructure for distributed working is already completely in place.
Time tracking: HeavenHR
Until now, the tool-supported documentation of working hours at RAIDBOXES was voluntary. Those who wanted to could track their times via Clockify. Because some love systematic time recording, others reject it. Legal requirements forced us to introduce a uniform solution. We now use HeavenHR for this purpose. It is a comprehensive suite for personnel management, the documentation is only one component of it.
This is how working time is recorded and managed at RAIDBOXES:
- Tracking: In the browser or via an app, each of us logs in and out when a workday begins or ends. Breaks are recorded in the same way.
- Transparency: Employees have a real-time overview of how long their workday and workweek already lasts. In other words, what overtime has been worked in the past.
- Time account: We can convert these overtime hours into compensatory time off (days off) directly in the tool. We also take and manage our vacation via HeavenHR.
- Rights management: RAIDBOXES gives us the freedom of self-management when requesting leave, etc. See our post on the Holacracy model, which we use successfully.
I've never been a friend of time tracking myself. I felt the tools placed pressure on me. But when you work for a fair company, such doubts fade into the background. In addition, the design of time tracking tools is so simple that using them becomes a matter of course very quickly.
Working from home is much easier with the right tools
Every morning, I start tracking my time with HeavenHR, straight after turning Slack on. I also post my status in the corresponding channel. What happens if I need leave my computer because a delivery arrives? Simple:
- A short "afk" (for "away from keyboard") in the status channel
- Then a "re" ("return") when I'm back
In between, I manage my tasks in Zoho, in Google Docs or in the virtual editorial plan. I've been working completely from home for nine years. But even in a local company, I would not want to do without the applications listed here.
I see my colleagues regularly - at the moment, unfortunately, only virtually via video conference. With the right tools, you get used to working in a home office more quickly. And it gradually becomes more efficient. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to coming back to Münster as soon as possible. For me personally, no tool in the world can replace contact with my colleagues.