The trend towards organisations working virtually has been steadily increasing over the past couple of years. With technology meaning that we have the tools to work effectively from home, and research showing employees are happier and more productive working from home, it’s no wonder it’s been on the rise.
However, with the spread of the COVID-19, more and more businesses suddenly find themselves in a position where they need to run entire businesses virtually and they just don’t have the systems in place to help them communicate effectively.
I’ve been working virtually for several years as a freelancer, for companies and including from a completely different timezone, so I’ve got plenty of recommendations for the tools you need to help your business adapt to working online.
It’s not just tools to help you talk in real-time, but it’s communicating when you’re not online at the same time, and, of course, how to keep your sanity while working from home.
1. REAL-TIME CONVERSATIONS
For some things you just can’t beat realtime communication. You’ve got questions that need to be answered and email or text just doesn’t cover it when you need a discussion. Things like video calls or real-time chat are essential in these cases, so having tools to help with this is essential.
But first things first – setting standard ‘office hours’ so all employees know what hours they can be contacted is essential for working from home. While one of the benefits of working from home is that you can complete your work to a more flexible schedule, it’s important to make it clear to colleges what hours you are free for real-time conversations. This also means there is time set aside for ‘deep work’ — which is a lot harder when you’ve got messages causing distractions all day!
Either setting official hours for meetings as a business as a whole (i.e. staff need to be available for calls between 10am – 4pm), or each individual lists in a directory or to their email signature their availability is a simple approach.
With that sorted, here are my favourite tools for communicating in real-time.
Video calls are great because you can see someone’s face, read their expressions and it feels a lot closer to the real-world experience. I love using Zoom (free for calls under 40 minutes) or Google Hangouts (free as part of gmail) for video calls.
It’s always recommended to:
- set an agenda for all meetings so they don’t go off track and stick to time
- Add the dial-in URL to the meeting request
- remind participants to install and test the software at least ten minutes before the call
- be clear as to whether a meeting is recorded or not – people may not speak their mind as freely if it’s recorded.
Slack is the darling of web-dev teams, but I’ve often found in the marketing department that Slack is less helpful as a tool, because often we’re sharing big plans in excel, or need image assets or need multiple questions answered, and an email chain with inline responses is still the clearest way of answering a set of complex questions.
But Slack is a group chat which can be really useful for short-turnaround questions that don’t require too much discussion or debate. It’s also really great to replicate “the water cooler”, which is so important too!
In every business, the more communication methods that are introduced, the more ways information can get fragmented, so if setting up new tools, it’s important to clarify which communication methods have priority: for example, all business-critical conversations may still happen via email, or decisions reached still confirmed by email, but Slack chats are a quick way to get answers in a fast-paced environment.
2. ASYNCHRONOUS COMMUNICATION
Yep, not everyone is on the same clock. Some of us might be night owls. Some of us might be doing the kids pick- up. We might even be in the global village and working across another timezone. Either way, we aren’t always in the virtual office at the same time, but we still need to clearly communicate with others despite this.
Here are my favourite communication tools to help when you need to talk, but aren’t around at the same time.
Loom is a video recording software that records your screen and, optionally, your face. This means that if you need to show someone how to do something or where something is with a screenshare, you don’t need to be right next to them. Just record the video and send them a private URL. Sometimes it’s just easier to show someone how to do it.
For those with slower internet, be aware that the videos upload during and after your recording, so give it enough time to upload and test the video before sending.
It’s always recommended to send text instructions when you’re sending video files because people absorb information in different ways – and there might be an issue with the video.
Asana is a project management tool. At it’s simplest, you can create a big “to-do” list, add instructions, descriptions and due dates and assign it to yourself, or your team. It’s very useful not just for big projects, but even small tasks that require discussion. Just assign the task back to someone else if you need their opinion.
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Workplace By Facebook
A social network for work isn’t a new thing. Yammer has been around for a long time, and recently, Workplace By Facebook has been gaining popularity. Setting up ‘groups’ for different projects, being able to upload files and chat 1:1 with colleagues, it’s a really useful tool to update groups of people on changing projects and to be able to easily see the information in the past.
Depending on the way your business runs and the kinds of projects they manage, this might just be a great all-in-one tool, as video calls and video messages are also built in.
Websites and Wikis
There are a few tools which are also quite helpful to share information with your team. You might want to set up an internal wiki site for FAQs for your staff, you could set up a mini-website or client portal to help centralise all documents for a project.
There are also online learning management systems like Udemy or LearnDash which you can set to private to train staff or colleagues about specific topics. And, depending on the size and complexity of your organisation, you might need to shift your entire internal computer server to an online space like Dropbox.
3. THE HUMAN FACTOR
The real challenge that no one tells you about when you’re working from home, is the human stuff: loneliness, motivation, boredom, distractions.
It’s easy to get motivated at an office, because everyone is working around you, and you don’t feel so lonely because even if you don’t want to talk to your colleagues, they are always there as an option. Shifting to working from home means you need to set up routines and habits to be your own motivation, help you stay focused, connected with community and not go stir-crazy.
Some ways to do this are:
Joining a Facebook community group in your local suburb, or an interest group online is a great way to build that community, connection and chit-chat that we all need to help us get through the day. You might prefer Reddit, or a forum, but we all need that connection with other humans. Even if it’s just to discuss the latest ep of MAFS.
For those working from home and are struggling to get motivated, you might want a group online to keep you accountable: what are your top 3 priorities for the day and did you do them? This could be a slack chat, a WhatsApp group, or email chain.
You might even set up weekly zoom call with others working from home just to chat through the challenges and to get ideas on how to do it.
These don’t need to be people in your workplace, just people in in your industry or friends. Create a space to encourage each other to keep going.
Related: Setting up a Mastermind group with fellow freelancers
For some people, the struggle to watch Netflix all day, or get sucked into the Facebook vortex is all too real. There are plenty of apps for your phone, computer and web browser to block specific websites for specific hours of the day.
If you know it’s a problem, there’s no shame in using an external tool to help you get back on track. Even if it’s just for a day.
Related: 5 Ways to Help You to Kick Your Social Media Obsession
Let’s be real. Some days we just need a playlist of classic tunes to get us in the zone. That’s right. Crank it up.
For some of us, working virtually is something we can easily adapt to. For others, it’s a lot harder to shift the way we work. Either way, having a strong set of tools in place, and clear rules around how they work in your business is critical.
A set of tools for real-time communication, asynchronous communication and tools to help you balance your mental health and the human stuff is so critical to keeping us happy, productive humans.
Are there any other tools you use to communicate with your team or colleagues? What are they? Feel free to share them in the comments!
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Want to work with Rachel?Rachel Beaney is a writer and social media content specialist, helping businesses connect with their audiences.
She’s worked with local, national and global companies, in addition to not-for-profits and government bodies. She loves helping businesses tell their stories with creative and data-driven solutions.
She is based in Sydney, Australia.
Want to work together? Rachel would love to hear from you. Get in touch today.