We at RAIDBOXES have been using our home offices for a long time, partly or even completely. This is why we are probably much better prepared for the current Corona crisis than companies who were reluctant to letting their team work from home. You work in an agency or as a freelancer and are still looking for the right setup? We have a lot of experience with home office tools. And we are happy to pass them on to you.
In this article you will find the most important tools for distributed work. At the same time we will tell you how to use these as efficiently as possible. Your team has hardly any experience with collaboration from different locations? Then you should also read our additional articles Advantages and disadvantages of remote work as well as Remote leadership: Managing an agency as a digital nomad .
Before we get started, a little tip: RAIDBOXES wants to help during the current crisis: Are you planning a platform for your region on which local shops, restaurants and service providers can present themselves digitally? Then take a look at our Initiative for #SupportYourLocals . You're using our FREE DEV Programto host your projects for free during the development phase? To support you during this time we are happy to extend the free development phase – 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 a part of the employees work from home, as is the case with RAIDBOXES . More and more companies are even working fully remote - without a central office. Then tools are Slack indispensable.
Here is a small insight into how we Slack use:
- Direct communication: Just ask a question quickly without leaving your desk? You can chat directly with someone, or set up a group chat for any person in the company/team. You can also upload and exchange files.
- Channels: Discussions or results that only interest individual teams are communicated and organised in special channels ("Channels").
- Notifications: Define for which messages and channels you want to receive what kind of notification to be informed immediately. Or mute individual channels ("Mute") to only read along from time to time.
- Ping: A message is particularly important? You want the other person or the team to be informed immediately? You can use so-called pings for this.
- Status: In a status channel we communicate whether we are currently working and available. Or whether we take a break or do not want to be disturbed ("tunnel"). Slack also offers its own function and marking for this purpose.
For certain tasks we use specially established special channels. For example, channels that are not used for discussion, but where only work results and protocols are shared.
Channels of a more private nature channel everything that is fun but not directly related to work. The advantages of Slack and similar services:
- Work productively: If you stand in front of your colleagues' desks for every question and remark, you inevitably interrupt their work. You Slack can control who wants to read what and when. This increases efficiency - if used correctly.
- Avoid distraction: Also Slack can provide for chaotic communication. Therefore it is important to use functions 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 when it is no longer relevant to you.
- Archive: You can search for past entries. This way, all communication within the company - as well as its results - is documented. This is important to avoid duplicate discussions.
- Remote connection: If used consistently, home office employees Slack are just as informed as the teams on site.
You can Slack also make calls or hold online meetings - with or without a camera. We no longer use this function ourselves, the quality and performance were too poor for us. More about that later. Do you have questions about using Slack or about the other applications listed here? The comments are open.
Tip: Using Threads
Chats in Slack can be extended by sub-chats via so-called threads. This increases the clarity very much. Furthermore, you will only be informed about new entries in threads if you have participated in the respective sub-discussion.
As an alternative to Slack serves Microsoft Teams. It can also be used to combine chats, meetings, notes and attachments. Through the connection to Office 365, the service should 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 usually easy to use and are geared towards virtual collaboration. This also applies to Google Meet. The tool is still known to most as Google Hangouts. There are apps for Android and iOS to participate in online meetings. But you can also dial in using your browser, where Chrome is best connected.
Otherwise Firefox, Edge and Apple Safari are supported. External guests can be integrated via an invitation link or a meeting ID. Meet is integrated into the Google Suite. This is especially useful if you use other Google tools, such as the calendar. For each meeting entry, a suitable link for the meeting is then generated if required.
Google and privacy
We 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 make appointments quickly and easily, even for spontaneous meetings.
Otherwise, we use the online meetings for various purposes. Sometimes for meetings on site with a "switch" to the remoters (top right, the picture was taken before Corona), or for a virtual beer or water at home office hours:
Video conferences are difficult to handle above a certain size. We also notice this when, as is the case now - in Corona's time - almost all employees join in from home. If an online meeting has more than ten participants, you need to organise them clearly. For example, with the following rules and options:
- Facilitation: Someone should lead the meeting, collect contributions, shift overflowing discussions and control the time frame.
- Agenda: You have problems keeping the structure? A document shared in advance and to be worked on by everyone helps you. In it, you determine together which points should be discussed.
- Mute it: You want to improve audio quality? Then everyone should mute, as long as they are just listening.
- Accompanying chat: Most systems support a chat function in addition to the audio or video track. You can use this to contact the moderator, for example, if you want to be considered by the moderator.
- Split screen: Your team wants to work centrally on a document? Or someone wants to present something to the others? This can also be done using the "split screen" function.
We used to use video telephony for RAIDBOXES Slack calls. But as the size of the team increased, the problems became more frequent: conference call abandonment and poor audio and video quality. Google Meet has been more stable, even at low bandwidth. For example in the home office or on the road. Test for yourself which service works best. Other alternatives are Skype from Microsoft or Zoom.
Meeting with or without video?
Some favour being able to look their counterpart virtually in the eye. 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. All employees at RAIDBOXES can decide for themselves whether they want to activate their video or not.
Aircall: Flexible telephone
Not all your customers or partners are reachable 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 phone calls from your company computer. Whether you use the world of Microsoft or Apple.
The quality of the calls is no longer a problem 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.
Or you can connect the virtual phone to your CRM or helpdesk. Aircall offers an integration among others for:
- Zoho (more on this in a moment)
- Hub spot
- Microsoft Dynamics & Microsoft Teams
Via third party providers, an interface to (WordPress partly via Gravity Forms) and to WooCommerce possible. But the question of the sense of it arises - normally your CRM will be the first contact point.
Google Calendar: Keep track of your home office
Who works when, where and on what? Which meetings and external appointments take place? Who is on vacation or sick? Which employees are currently in the office, which in the home office? Due to "Corona" and similar challenges, you quickly lose track here. Then a virtual calendar makes sense.
But even this quickly becomes confusing. For example, when there are several teams with different meeting structures. This is remedied by different levels in the calendar, which can be shown or hidden as required. For example, the RAIDBOXES calendar differentiates between categories:
- Internal meetings
- External business appointments
- Information like home office status
- Occupancy of the "real" meeting rooms in Münster
Depending on Role in the company we can also display only the information that is relevant to the respective work. Are you looking for an alternative to Google's calendar? Dr. Web has developed a test of the most important Calendar Apps created. It also contains solutions like Wunderlist (will be replaced by Microsoft To Do) or Todoist, which link the calendar with to-do lists.
Zoho Sprints: project management and task management
Of course it is not only important for remote organizations with a high home office share to plan their projects well. But in distributed teams it becomes even more important because of the lack of regular on-site coordination. Otherwise, individual tasks are left lying around or are even completed twice. Every agency needs a method and a suitable tool. Even as a freelancer it will help you to Sprints to manage themselves.
We have tried several tools for planning our projects for technical, marketing and support or sales. Among others Trello, Hygger and GitScrum. Other possibilities are Asana or Hive. In the end we chose Zoho with its Module Sprints.
The way the tools work is always similar:
- Management of tasks: Employees and teams enter their tasks or projects as "tasks", some of them weighted according to 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 reflect 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 together into projects in order to maintain an overview. Sub-tasks of the example just mentioned would be "Create post picture", if you want to proceed in such a granular way. The blog post could be part of a superordinate project "e-book for agencies".
- Automatic schedule: Each task is periodically ranked. 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 are tasks stuck?
- Joint coordination: In meetings your team regularly discusses the current status. This way it quickly becomes clear who needs support or where capacities are available for additional tasks.
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 disciplates a team and its members not to accumulate too many tasks for a sprint. Used correctly, your agency will finally arrive at a realistic time management.
You have never worked with a PM tool before? Then you will find the 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, the first successes will soon appear. Then you will not want to miss your project management anymore.
Google Cloud: Shared access to documents
applications like Google Cloud of course do much more than just manage documents. The spectrum ranges from joint project development and machine learning to comprehensive web analytics. In times of Corona, however, it is mainly the simple things that make everyday work more comfortable:
- Common information status: Everyone in the company has access to the same documents at all times.
- Strict data management: This means that there is no longer an archive distributed over various company computers and no more 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 must not or should not save most files locally, for privacy and security reasons.
At the same time you can do your work faster. So far you have been moving files in Slack & Co. back and forth? In the future you will only send the link to the document. This is faster and more efficient.
Such a cloud archive needs to be well organized so that it really helps you. 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 datasets: Define rules on who should store which files, when and where. This includes a role for each team that cleans up once in a while.
- Project manager: Especially for single projects you need persons in charge who take care of the filing of protocols, offers, invoices etc. Otherwise, all data will be saved locally at the end of the project. This approach also pays off if another person takes over the project.
- Central storage location: Especially documents that are regularly edited by several employees require a central version - stored in a concise location. Otherwise, several versions and different work instructions will quickly exist.
Your company may or does not want to work with Google software? Then look at services like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive. Pay close attention to the conditions for data protection.
open source cloud
There are also solutions for your own server, such as ownCloud. Plus point: the service comes from Europe. But we have not yet tried it. You have experience with ownCloud? Feel free to leave a comment.
Google Docs, spreadsheets and more
It's not hard to see: The dependence on Google is quite high in many start-ups and agencies. This is not least due to the fact that the company from Mountain View cleverly combines the factors compatibility, easy access, awareness and low entry prices. For the same reasons, we have chosen Google Docs & Co. We use them throughout the company, for example to document projects and processes together.
Especially in marketing, virtual documents make it easier for us to work together. 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 have more time to create new articles:
- Editing: If the text comes as Google Doc, then we can make comments directly in it, edit the content and have the changes released by the authors. This saves a lot of time.
- Brainstorming: New contribution ideas are constantly emerging - more than can be implemented. We collect these in a Google Sheet. Then we can weight them and use our keyword strategy little by little.
- Editorial plan: Our editorial plan is also a Google spreadsheet, with several tabs. In it we see among other things the status of currently planned contributions, the advance planning for the next weeks, which categories are served how often, which guest contributions are queued, who is advertised and how high the costs for external content are.
- Content Strategy: Our Content strategy is set out in a detailed multi-level document. Through Google Docs, we can constantly expand and adapt the strategy together and add new projects. At the same time we discuss new points in the proposal mode. Changes are documented.
The beauty of such tools is that they work across hardware boundaries. All you need is an approval for the document in question, then you can edit it from a browser. Most of the people at RAIDBOXES work with Apple, but some also work with Microsoft. With our authors and partners it looks similarly colourful.
With virtual tools, this no longer matters. You can still export your Google Docs and spreadsheets if you need to. Among other things into the formats:
- Microsoft Word or Excel
- RTF, PDF, .txt
- EPUB (for e-books)
Or you can create a copy in your cloud with one click to create different versions. Do you work with external content suppliers or agencies? Then pay attention to which documents you release. You can differentiate between read-only and write permissions.
TeamViewer: Remote access and remote maintenance
Your employees work more in the home office? Even then the computers still need to be maintained. Urgent updates, security gaps or the elimination of technical problems cannot be delayed until adversities like Corona are over. The solution are programs like TeamViewer or AnyDesk. With them, you can:
- Connect to an external workstation
- Together with the respective employee, go troubleshooting or instruct the other person
- Roll out updates on the other computer
- Monitoring its safety, etc.
So far, we have only RAIDBOXES used such solutions sporadically, as most employees work regularly in the office. But the number of our Remote colleagues is growing. Also currently we are glad that the Infrastructure for distributed working is already completely available.
Time recording: HeavenHR
Up to now, the tool-supported documentation of working hours has been voluntary at RAIDBOXES. Anyone who wanted to could track their times via the tool Clockify . Because some love systematic time tracking, others reject it. However, legal requirements forced us to introduce a uniform solution. For this we now use HeavenHR. It is a comprehensive suite for Personnel Management, the documentation is only one component of it.
And this is how the management of working time works in our case:
- Tracking: In the browser or via an app, each of us logs in and out when a working day begins or ends. Breaks are recorded in the same way.
- Transparency: Employees have a real-time overview of how long their working day and week has lasted. Or which overtime hours have been worked in the past.
- Time account: We can convert these overtime hours directly in the tool into time off compensation (days off). We also take and manage our holidays via HeavenHR.
- Rights management: RAIDBOXES gives us the freedom of self-management when applying for leave etc. See our contribution to the Holacracy modelwhich we use successfully.
I myself have never been a friend of systematic time recording. Too often I felt pressured by the tools. But in a fair company such doubts fade into the background. In addition, the programs are designed so simply that their operation quickly becomes a matter of course.
Home office: much easier with the right tools
Every morning I start HeavenHR, right after Slack that . Additionally I post my status in the corresponding channel. I have to leave my computer at home because the postman rings? That is very simple:
- A short "afk" (for "away from keyboard") in the Status Channel
- Then an "re" ("back")
In between I manage my tasks in Zoho, in Google Docs or in the virtual editorial plan. I have been working for nine years completely from home out. But even in a local company I would not want to do without the applications listed here.
I see my colleagues regularly – at present, unfortunately, only virtually via video conference. With the right tools you will get used to working in your home office faster. And it gradually becomes more efficient. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to being back at the Münster office as soon as possible. For me personally no tool in the world can replace the direct contact with my colleagues.