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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GoToMeeting Time

So we are all trying to save money, and one of the easiest ways of cutting costs is by slashing the travel budget. If people need to get together there are plenty of ways they can do it that don’t involve travel, or even leaving the office.

Although I’ve been involved in lots of webinars and have participated in many Skype meetings I’m still a relative novice when it comes to large-scale online meetings. I’ve been tasked with facilitating a 2/3 hour online meeting for up to 16 people so have been looking at some of the options out there. The first service I’ve looked at is GoToMeeting.

GoToMeeting

GoToMeeting is a part of a suite of Web-hosted services created by Citrix Online. It is a remote meeting and desktop sharing software. I’ve talked about Gotowebinar before, which is a very similar service to Elluminate. Having used webinar software more than online meeting software I was surprised at how simplistic Gotomeeting was – but I think that’s the point. Why have all the bells and whistles if they distract from actual communication. It turns out that GoToMeeting took the remote access and screen sharing technology from GoToMyPC and GoToAssist and have extended it for their collaborative meeting software. The idea is that GoToMeeting accommodates larger audiences. This is something I’m particularly interested in as I feel Skype really doesn’t scale up well and Elluminate (and other webinar services) is ineffective when more than one or two people need to talk.

Getting a free 30 day trial version of GoToMeeting was fairly easy and the whole thing is easy to download and set up. You can connect by VOIP using a mic and headphones or using your phone and dialling in. The meeting is lead by an organiser, who schedules the meeting, and a presenter, who can share their desktop contents, they can also allow others to share their desktop, use the mouse and highlight or draw on what ever desktop is up using the drawing tools. The presenter can change during the meeting.

Although I only had myself to talk to (I set up 2 laptops and a PC to try the service out) and would need to do some testing with others I found the service really intuitive and straightforward. It is easy to invite people and easy to record all that happens. My twitter friends also rate it. On the downside the standard edition has a 15 attendee limit (you can go up to 25 if you are a corporate customer) and there is currently no video conferencing option. I also believe that some features are disabled for the Mac – which could be a problem.

There is a useful introductory demo available from the GoToMeeting site.

There are a number of GoToMeeting plans and you can purchase the service for just one month at a cost of £34.80 – if you compare this to the cost of travel and room hire it is an appealing deal.