Remote working can save employers and employees money, but unless you have the right tools, it can also leave workers disconnected and struggling to communicate.
It took a host of technological developments – from mobile devices to high-speed internet – to allow employees in different locations to connect and work together. Now a new generation of innovators are creating the tools to make remote workers more productive and collaborative than ever.
Just like being in the same room
Face-to-face communication matters. As Justin Kruger at New York University has shown in his report Egocentrism Over E-mail, misunderstandings are common over email, even when we think we’re getting our point across well. There’s no substitute for eye contact, body language and vocal inflections.
Videoconferencing software allows us to benefit from these subtle aspects of communication even when employees are in far-flung places. An easy place to start is with free options such as Apple’s FaceTime or Google Hangouts. As online meetings become more crucial to your business, you could try dedicated business solutions with features like online whiteboards, try Zoom.us or Microsoft Office integration with Skype for Business.
Virtual and augmented reality are set to further transform business communication. Products such as Meta and Microsoft’s Hololens allow workers miles apart to share 3D objects using holograms or special headsets for incredibly lifelike product visualisation or immersive training.
Keeping track of progress
Even when everyone is together in one office, keeping track of progress can mean time-consuming meetings. When employees are all located in different places, it can be a huge logistical challenge.
Progress-tracking software such as I Done This is designed to replace meetings. The tool reminds each staff member to update their progress at the end of the day and the information is then collated in a morning digest to make sure everyone stays in sync.
For more detailed project management, Trello uses a system of shared boards, cards and lists to help monitor progress. Staff can create activity logs, discuss what they need to do in real time and keep everyone up to date.
Freeing you from email chains
Anyone working with colleagues in other locations will be familiar with the problem of getting tied up in endless email chains. Created in the 1970s, email wasn’t designed to cope with the volume of communication in today’s business world.
A couple of companies are trying to help businesses break free with better instant-messaging systems. Slack has rapidly grown to more than six million users with its fast and simple communications. Its users appreciate the way it creates a shared workspace where conversations are organised and accessible – cutting down on redundant conversations while keeping everyone included.
Alternatively, there’s Stride, which aims to offer many of the same features as Slack while also focusing on integrated video and voice conversations. In addition, it offers a feature that makes it easier to turn conversations into action items.
Getting creative together
Sometimes meetings aren’t about agendas and reports – they’re freewheeling creative spaces where you develop strategy and ideas.
With online mind-mapping tools such as MindMeister, the whole company can share ideas securely in real time. The results of the brainstorming session are clearly captured in a visual representation of the connections, relationships and hierarchies, so it’s easy to see the bigger picture.
Heads in the cloud
The last piece of the puzzle for working remotely is having a system for sharing documents. In the early days of remote working this might have meant endlessly emailing new drafts and trying to keep track of which was the final version. Now it means working in the cloud – where documents are stored online and updated instantly for everyone using them.
Google Apps – renamed G Suite – popularised real-time collaboration on online documents and it’s now become a central feature of the industry-standard Microsoft Office suite.
For companies working with specialist applications or sensitive information, standard cloud services might not be an option. Instead, they can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This creates a secure gateway for remote workers to log in to the company’s servers, accessing the applications and data that they need. So you can add flexibility without compromising on security.