As the world adjusts to the current "normal," many small businesses are faced with a new challenge: working remotely. We understand that this can be daunting for businesses that are not prepared for, or accustomed to, working remotely.
At Netlandish (makers of AnyHow) we've had remote staff since we opened our doors more than a decade ago and have been a fully remote company since Jan 1, 2017, and even with our experience running a business and team remotely can still be challenging.
There are definitely adjustments and tweaks that need to be made to processes, modes of communication, etc. It's not perfect, but it works and when done properly, it works well.
We’ve created a guide based on our own experiences and the lessons we’ve learned from the pioneers of remote work. Companies like Basecamp, Automattic, GitLab, Buffer, and others have helped us shape our remote work culture in many ways, and now we want to help you. This guide is meant to help small businesses adjust to the new normal of working remotely, and includes tools, tips, advice, etc.
Why Work Remote?
There have always been many benefits of remote work–at least in the era of the modern office and tools. A recent remote.co article listed 17 stats backed by studies that show a whole range of positive outcomes when remote work is an option. A few of those outcomes are:
- Increased productivity
- Workforce retention
- More diversity
- Decreased costs for companies and employees
- Improvements in mental and physical health
- Environmental benefits
According to the 2020 State of Remote Work, a whopping 98% of respondents said they'd like to work remotely for the remainder of their career and 97% said they'd recommend remote work to others.
Like it or not, remote work is here to stay. And more and more employees will be asking to work remotely. Those who feel strongly enough will search out new jobs with remote-friendly companies.
Trust Your Employees
There are reports of companies telling employees they're watching what they do via spy software on their work computers. Others of companies requiring employees to be on camera with their superiors during the entire work day. We only have one question for these companies: why do you not trust your employees to do their work?
Nobody likes a babysitter looking over their shoulder. The best way to deal with this is probably to look in the mirror and see why you'd ever want to be a babysitter to your employees in the first place. Trust issues? Maybe you're hiring the wrong people. Control freak? Maybe your culture is outdated.
You should be able to gauge the work being done, progress, efficiency, effectiveness and quality based solely on what is being delivered.
I know it seems like your staff will slack off while working remotely but the data shows the opposite is true.
Trust your employees and let them have the freedom to work their way.
That doesn't mean that you can't help guide the way for your employees to help limit the distractions in their homes or on the road. The ability, and discipline, to focus when outside of the normal office setting is key to a successful remote workforce.
Luckily there are a handful of tools to help keep people focused. Of course, this can also become more of a curse than a blessing.
Too many tools can turn into a tedious task just keeping up with everything. You have tool A for project management, tool B for communication, tool C for status checkups, tool D for team chat, etc. You get the idea.
It's best to keep your team in as few apps or services as possible. It's a distraction to have too many notifications or even just thinking about needing to check the various apps to see if they're needed.
AnyHow offers complete business and project management all in one app and was designed for remote companies and work from home employees from the start. In our opinion, it's a great place to start for companies looking to support a remote work force.
Of course we aren't the only game in town. Another fantastic option is Basecamp which is a large suite of tools that support project management.
Another major distraction is social media. It's tough for some (well, most) of us to ignore the call of the latest tweet. There are a handful of utilities help limit access to social media websites. Our favorite would probably be RescueTime but there are many others that may be a better fit for your organization.
Asynchronous Discussions and Meetings
The typical meeting will usually follows this flow:
- Organizer sends out a meeting invite
- The time works for some but not all
- Teammates in far away time zones end up having to stay up late, get up early, or not be involved at all
- When finally all together there is usually a chunk of time wasted on "catching up" (or worse, discussing the weather)
- People talk over each other (even with an agenda)
- Usually the larger personalities dominate the meeting leaving the rest without giving much input or feeling involved
- Quite often the meeting ends with plans to schedule a follow-up meeting to finish hashing out what was supposed to be hashed out during the meeting you just had
The "meeting merry-go-round," as we like to call it.
A response to this that has been pushed by remote companies has been the asynchronous discussion and/or meeting. Buffer has written at length on the topic of async discussions and async meetings. Basecamp has also written about how their company communicates.
Their general consensus is that unless the situation is urgent or actually benefits from "face to face" contact (e.g., celebrations, etc.), then people prefer to discuss work when it's most convenient for them. They're less distracted and can spend the time they need to really think through their questions and responses.
At Netlandish we obviously use our own product AnyHow with a combination of the discussions and wiki features.
The wiki serves for long standing documents regarding company policies, procedures, project constants, technical documentation, team birthday lists, etc.
For discussions we rely on automation tools built into AnyHow to display the previous days logged work and also weekly status updates. We set it up to ask specific questions, of specific teams, every week on scheduled days/times. The team members can respond when convenient. Our rule of thumb is, unless you're out for some reason, try to respond within 24 hours.
The team members can discuss the previous days work or the weekly status updates when convenient for them. Since the discussions tool allows threads it's easy to fork off and follow a line of thought when needed.
As Buffer described in their articles, they use a tool called Threads, which is a specific tool built for async threaded discussions. Basecamp uses their own product for their team communication.
Regardless of the tool used, async communication is proving to be a valuable practice for companies that give it a real chance.
Processes, Policies and Documentation
How your company runs should be clear to all so that they can quickly get access to the information and move on. Fully documenting your policies and procedures helps save time for everyone. Some examples of things that should be documented include:
- Company culture and ideals
- Remote work expectations
- How to speak with HR
- How to request time off of work
- Which holidays are observed
- Client project details
- Company technical information (e.g., how to setup your email access, etc.)
- Staff birthday list
I think you get the idea. Pretty much everything should be documented and organized in a way that makes things easy to find.
Being able to search this documentation quickly is also helpful, but not necessarily required if the information is well organized.
Finally, you want to be able to control access to certain information. Not everyone will necessarily need access to all information. In those cases, you should be able to grant access only to those who need it.
So how do you go about organizing these things? Well, here at Netlandish, we use the Wiki feature of AnyHow. It allows us to organize, search our documents quickly, and give those who need it access to the documents.
We can grant "read and/or write" access to specific employees or entire teams. Plus, it allows for staff-editing and version-tracking of all edits. So we can always see who made what edits, when they made them, and why they did it.
Whichever method you go with, having company documentation available to those who need it is very important and a key piece of a successful remote work situation.
Lots of businesses depend on time-tracking. Consultancies, law firms, freelancers, etc. all bill their clients based on time spent working on the clients' project, whatever that may be.
You need a good system to track everything, and each company and person is different. Some companies have hard requirements for time logging. Others are more relaxed. Some clients have legal requirements for how time is tracked.
Of course, each business will know how they need to handle the tracking and should choose their tools appropriately.
AnyHow is built on top of time-tracking. That was its sole purpose when we originally created it, and it grew from there. We know there are varying needs, which is why you now have several options within the AnyHow platform.
Default is the standard timesheet. Your people will be able to log time in a standard timesheet format on all the projects and roles that they have access to. They can be submitted for approval by project managers, company managers, etc. It's very easy and straightforward.
You can also use single-task logging if that's preferred or required. Essentially, you log time whenever you complete a client task. In many cases, like in the legal field or sometimes when working a contract for a government entity, this is actually required. They need to know exactly how much time, to the minute, was spent on a given task.
Lastly, you can always use the task timer feature. Open the timer, select the project and role, click "start timer" and get to work. If you need to pause, open the timer and do so. Restart it when you return to work. When you're done, stop the timer, describe the task you completed, and log your time.
There is no limitation with the task timer and how you can use it. The timer works with both timesheets and task logging.
Of course, we aren't the only game in town. There are a ton of other time tracking methods, applications and services.
Even though we discussed async meetings and discussions above, we know that sometimes you need an answer ASAP. While your work process should be focused on limiting these situations, there is no way to fully eliminate them–at least none that we've found.
That said there are plenty of ways to get an answer quickly.
- Email - Yes, our trusty and reliable old friend email. This is still our favorite way to reach out for a quicker response. People usually check their email many times a day and will reply once read. Of course, this may not be fast enough so...
- Team Communication - There are several of these tools on the marketplace now. Perhaps the most common is Slack, but you can also use Threads, Microsoft Teams, or Facebook Workplace.
- Instant Message - There are no shortage of "IM" apps out there. We prefer to use Telegram because we believe it's the most trust worthy option out there. Other options include Signal, Whatsapp, Discord, and of course a simple text message.
There are several other options but this covers most of the commonly used tools today.
While there are many ways to get a quick answer, you should still take a step back and make sure the question is so important it requires immediate feedback. It may often feel like this is the fire to end all fires, but it rarely is.
The vast majority of the time this question can wait and it's almost always best to ask in an async way as to not interrupt the focused work of your co-workers.
With people all over the country and world, you're going to need a way to give access to specific files, or groups of files, to all and/or specific co-workers. For the last decade that has been accomplished by cloud storage that automatically syncs to each user's computer. This is simultaneously convenient and inconvenient.
For example, let's pretend you have a large project involving a website's redesign. You've got designers, project managers, front end developers, business analysts and QA engineers working on this project. The designers produce massive files containing the new website design.
There is no reason for any role other than front end developers to need those huge files. Image exports are generally just fine. Yet, the designers store these files in client folder which is then synchronized to each team members computer. Eating up computer cycles, drive space and bandwidth.
But is there is a better way?
Tools like AnyHow allow you to store the files in the cloud in each unique service. You can organize them by project, permissions, who has access, etc. You can give or restrict access based on client, coworkers, and/or teams. You can also tag, give descriptions and preview files before downloading them.
Now people who need the files simply filter and download what they need. No need to burden everyone with unnecessary clutter on their systems.
Basecamp as well has a similar file storage features.
Of course, if your preferred method is distributed synchronization of files, then there are many options. Here are a few:
Nothing can kill someone's motivation quite like having to repeatedly do a tedious task that can, and should, be done by automation. At AnyHow we like to refer to our automation tasks as robots. However you want to look at it, automation can take your mind off frequent stressors and so you can focus on getting meaningful work done.
What's the point of wasting valuable human hours doing a task that most likely has already been automated and is just waiting for you to "wire up"?
Here's a list of some of the automated tasks our AnyHow robots can do for your business.
- On-board new employees.
- Invoice clients at a configured interval.
- Accept payments, or partial payments, online on your behalf.
- Submit project status reports to clients at a configured interval.
- Deliver project time logs to clients at a configured interval.
- Create discussion posts at a configured interval.
- Automate daily "check-ins" that displays what everyone worked on the previous day. No team interaction required.
Note: "a configured interval" is daily, weekly, monthly intervals with other options to skip certain days (e.g., weekends).
For example, going back to our async meeting points above, we have weekly check-ins configured in the forms of discussion posts. Each project and team has a check-in and at some point every Monday each team member updates everyone else on the previous week's progress and the current week's goals.
Just like that, everyone is in the loop. No need for everyone to jump on a call or video meeting. No need to interrupt someone's time "in the zone" to attend a meeting that doesn't need to be held in the first place.
Now obviously there is life outside of AnyHow (sad, but true) and there are some really good options out there that can wire together various tools based on actions.
What if every time a spreadsheet has a new row added to a specific sheet that a new card is created in Trello? Or every time a new comment is added on an Asana task a text message is sent to a specific team of co-workers? These types of things are easily achieved and you don't need to be a tech wizard to set them up.
Some excellent services available out there to do these things:
There is quite a bit that can be covered on working remotely. We've brushed the surface here, but for a deeper dive, check out many of the resources linked to in this article. We hope we've showed how it's possible to work normally by using methods and tools to help bridge any gaps left by not working in an office. You don't need to be able to physically reach your co-workers to be productive and get great work done!
We have an obvious bias towards AnyHow's functionality because we originally built it just for us to use in the way we wanted to use it. It's been designed from the start to help us work with our remote staff and like mentioned above, we've been 100% remote for several years now. We know it's suited for a remote work force because it's always been used by them.
That said we also use many of the tools listed above and also linked out to amazing resources who have always guided us on our remote work journey. Companies like Automattic, Buffer, Basecamp, Gitlab, and others have truly pioneered the remote company and without them, we'd never have been able to transition so smoothly.