Managing a Team of Remote Workers in Different Countries

How you manage remote teams has been a frequent topic for discussion on this blog, but we haven’t had many posts written by actual managers – they’re normally too busy 😉 Today we’ve got a guest blog post on some tools to help from a colleague who wishes to remain nameless (he references his old job in the article and wouldn’t want his name picked up on Google relating to this blog post as he hopes to do some business with his previous employer in the future) – we’ll call him ‘Mr Manager’! The author, Mr Manager, has since left the large American company he mentions to start up his own Computer Support company in London. If you are in the UK and need any form of IT Support feel free to get in touch via his website.

Note – Mr Manager doesn’t mention timezone trouble but this is an area we’ve covered in the past. We could definitely do with an updated post though, so if you are working in a global environment and are effectively using timezone tools then let me know.

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From 2010 to 2012 I was working in Switzerland for a well-known American technology company. In my role as the Online Marketing Manager for Europe I was responsible for a web team who were all working out of different regional offices. So for example, I had a web designer located in the UK office, two programmers in France, social media staff in Italy, and a couple of developers working out of the German office. So in effect, we were all working remotely from each other, but working towards the same common goal and on the same projects.

The main issue wasn’t the cultural and language differences (thankfully everyone spoke English), but more the challenges of managing the staff from a remote location as my time was split between the central Swiss office, travelling through Europe to the different offices, and also a lot of time spent working from home.

The challenges were very much split into two camps; there were the classic HR difficulties in managing a team, and also the technology issues. I am going to focus on the technology side in this blog post and offer some insight into how I tried to manage workflow, meetings, and projects despites the geographical differences in the team.

Project Management Tools

BasecampIn terms of keeping track of what everyone in the team was working on and offering a collaborative environment where we could add notes, comments, and how progress, I found a number of tools were invaluable.
The first was called BaseCamp. This was really great at nested discussion threads, code problem solving and more. The mobile version of the software worked great too meaning I could access it on the move and see how the team were progressing even when out of the office.

NotableAnother tool worth mentioning was Notable. My creative guys would upload their latest web designs to this app and then whilst visiting offices I could then get feedback from the stake holders and add annotations over the designs which the designers could immediately act upon.
I had tried using software such as Microsoft Project, but found it totally inappropriate and fiddly for a team where work turnaround was so quick and the projects came up thick and fast. I remember trialling the software for one month and seemed to spend one hour every morning just updating the thing – not for me that one.

Telephone Calls and Online Meetings

A couple of times each week, the team as a whole would have collaborate phone calls and online meetings. For the first year and a half we were using the excellent GoTo Meeting software. It would let me send out an email appointment to the team in advance which would include regional telephone numbers for them to dial as well as a web link so they could enter the online meeting.

During meetings I was able to share slides, annotate project notes, bridge another team member into the call, hand controls over to another team member – I can’t recommend it enough. It really worked well.

This software was probably the most invaluable asset I had when managing my remote team, so I was bitterly disappointed when the annual company cost-cutting meant we had to ditch GoTo Meeting. Instead, company policy was switched over to use a free (or lower cost) solution from Microsoft called Lync (which I am not even going to give the credit of a “link” to). It was terrible. Whilst I could set-up GoTo Meeting in a number of seconds, and never had any glitches, the Lync application probably worked only 50% of the time. Common issues were caller feedback, different team members being given the wrong number to dial so ending up in someone else’s call, and the screen sharing freezing.

Towards the end of the time working for the company we actually ended up (as a team) ditching Lync and moving over to using Google Hangouts. I won’t go into too much detail on how Google Hangouts work as it has already been covered on the Ramblings of a Remote Worker blog. All I will say is that we never went back to using Lync. I was also to work via SmartPhone into a Google hangout when on the move… so it gets the thumbs up from me.

Hardware Used on the Road

Whilst out on the road visiting the office I was armed with a Blackberry, which was subsequently upgraded to a Samsung. Give me the Blackberry any day of the week. The email integration was really easy to use compared to the Samsung. In fact, with the Samsung I ended up deleting my whole inbox by mistake due to the strange button configuration.

I would always travel with my laptop, but in the last month of my employment the company approved a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy so I started to use my own personal Apple iPad. This immediately cut down all the baggage and weight of my bag and made remote working just more comfortable generally. I found that most of the collaborative software the team used had a mobile app version meaning I could stay in the loop and my work wasn’t affected.

To conclude, the last couple of years has seen a real increase in the quality of software available for remote working and collaboration. I believe this is down to demand, and the huge increase in company employees using mobile products. In fact, recent research by Gartner states that by 2018, 70% of professional will conduct their work on mobile devices.

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Key Online Collaboration Tools

While I am away at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop being held in Edinburgh we have a guest post looking at some of the current key online collaboration tools.

Matt Ambrose is a freelance copywriter who’s been working remotely for clients for over six year, so understands the benefits and challenges first hand of doing remote work online from home.

He writes a remote working blog which offers lots of tips on how to work from home successfully. The blog is designed to be a valuable resource for both internet employees and employers on how to get the maximum benefit from remote working.

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Far from a passing fad, the remote worker lifestyle looks set to become almost the norm in the not to far distant future. IDC research estimates that 75% of the American workforce will be conducting some form of remote work by 2013, and 35% of the global workforce. A recent report by peopleperhour reported a 68% increase in the number of UK businesses hiring remote worker in the last 12 months.

The nature of where we work is changing fast, so it’s vital to ensure that the ability to collaborate and be productive don’t suffer as a result. Tools like Skype, email and instant messenger are great for maintaining lines of communication. But you also need tools for teams that are working closely together and don’t have the luxury of being able to walk around to a colleague’s desk to share impromptu ideas or to brainstorm as a group.

Collaborating over email can be slow and complicated

If you’ve ever tried to conduct a group collaboration project over email, you’ll understand how much more time consuming it can be compared to working together in the same room.

Documents get emailed back and forth around, with each participant adding their track changes and comments. This results in one poor individual facing the impossible task of trying to amalgamate everyone’s feedback into a single, clear document. The result can often be more like the product of a game of Chinese whispers rather than a professionally prepared document you want to present to business leaders or customers.

Basecamp enables you to create a virtual workroom

One way to bring remote workers closer together is Basecamp. A popular tool in the web development and marketing community, Basecamp is like a virtual meeting room in which participants can centrally store documents, share files and work on the same projects at the same time. Basecamp offers to-do lists, wiki-style web-based text documents, milestone management, time tracking, and a messaging system. Having a central repository eliminates the chaos of having different versions of documents flying around on email, while managers can track the progress of projects in one place.

You can give Basecamp a whirl for free on a 45 day trial. Alternately, you could try HiveDesk or Huddle for managing a team of remote workers more effectively.

For solopreuners and remote workers that only need to collaborate occasionally, another option is to use Dropbox. This popular cloud hosting tool can be used to share the same documents among remote employees and maintain core central versions. It’s also free for up to 18 GB of storage – perfect for remote workers on a budget that want to improve collaboration and ensure everyone is on the same page.