How To Easily Unite Your Remote Team Using Technology: An Interview With Emily O’Byrne
With technology rapidly taking over our communication and the best remote team members becoming increasingly in demand, business owners face a new set of challenges in 2016. Personal business trainer to business owners and entrepreneurs and expert on online communication tools, Emily O’Byrne, gives Lucie Marchelot Shukla the lowdown on the best communication tools for your team and tells us how can you keep everyone easily engaged and connected in your business.
Lucie M. Shukla: Hi Emily, thank you for making the time to share your experiences with us today and discussing the importance of choosing the right communication tools when working with remote teams.
Emily O’Byrne: It’s good to talk to you, Lucie.
Lucie: Can you tell me more about your background and when you had your first experience working with a remote team or working remotely yourself?
Emily: My first experience working with a remote team was in 1996. By training, I’m a management consultant. I spent the first 10 years of my career travelling around the country, going to other offices or cities. Lots of businesses have offices in many locations, so we were running a development team in Leeds, but most of the client’s staff were at the other end of the country. We were working remotely all the time talking on the phone everyday, fax, using very basic shared databases to track things. It’s always been part of my career and it continued to be part of my career as I was running around as a consultant.
Later, moved to a role as employee communications lead for a very large consulting firm. I worked in London, as did half my team. I had another team member in another office entirely, my boss worked from home, and most of the people I was communicating with were running around the country as consultants! So we communicated with everyone via email, we used Wikis, we used the very early forms of corporate social media, so I think I’ve tried virtually every communication tools there is! I’ve also collaborated with people in America, India, Switzerland. So yes, I’ve tried a lot of different ways of doing this!
Lucie: Excellent. And you’ve recently moved from the corporate world to starting your own business, so you’re self-employed and working with small business owners. Have you seen massive changes when working as a small business owner yourself?
Emily: Yes and no. In my corporate job, I worked from home a lot. As a freelancer I also work from home a lot. I only tend to go to my clients’ offices when I need to be there for meetings and workshops. We’re still using collaboration tools to exchange information. We have our project plan on, Trello. We’re about to hire a development team and they may not be in London. So even though my client is in London and I’m in London, in order to get the most efficiency out of my day I use remote working tools such as much as ever. So we use Google Docs, Trello, conference calls; I don’t think any job doesn’t use these tools.
Lucie: Exactly! Some people don’t actually realize that they do work remotely in some parts of their business. They don’t consider that but I’m sure that nowadays everybody does to a certain degree.
Emily: Absolutely. I’m lucky because I’m used to it, but I know not everyone gets along with it. It’s common for corporations to get people to work from home because office space is so expensive. If you don’t think of yourself as part of a virtual team it can end up being really lonely.
One of the things I’ve learned is when you’re in an office with people, you chat, you laugh, you’re not 100% efficient. You stop by the water cooler and talk about last night’s T.V. etc. When choosing collaboration tools for a remote team, you still need to make it okay to do that and you need to choose tools that let you do that because it’s a natural part of being in a team.
Lucie: Are there big differences that you’ve noticed in the way people work remotely and tools they use to communicate, depending on the structure of the company? For example when you worked at IBM, in a corporate environment or now working with small business owners, start-ups and as a self employed yourself, would you say you have noticed differences?
Emily: I’ve noticed differences in the way people work but I don’t know if they’re necessarily about the tools. Working with different groups of people at IBM for example; it’s a huge company. I think at last count it employs 400,000 people in every country you can think of. Those 400,000 people are not all equally comfortable with remote working tools. The level of etiquette in using remote working tools is quite variable. And the way people use tools is variable.
Let’s take instant messaging. Everyone at IBM uses this product called Sametime. If you’ve used any kind of chat tool, it’s like that. You can transfer files, use emojis, or just ping someone. At the good end of the spectrum it’s a great tool for that human contact, because it’s the little Sametime window sitting there on your screen. You can just be chatting and sharing a joke or sending a funny gif to someone you’re working with in Romania, and it keeps that human contact alive. But they don’t bug you when they can see you’re busy. It’s friendly.
On the other hand, there was an incident I remember at IBM with email. I don’t check my email every five minutes, because I have work to do. I tend to check my email first thing in the morning and lunchtime, and then maybe at the end of the day. If someone needs me for something they can send me an email I might not reply straight away, but that’s fine. But this person sent me an email and I didn’t reply straight away, so they Sametimed me. I didn’t answer their Sametime because I was busy, so they rang me saying, “Did you see my Sametime about the email I sent you?” And it was a bit like, “Back off, I’ve got work to do!”
That said, one of the features I liked about SameTime was the ability to leave little messages for your status. If I was really, really busy I could go on “do not disturb”, and people couldn’t ping me. They could see I was there, and they could see I didn’t want to be disturbed and they couldn’t disturb me.
Lucie: As you are sharing this story, I’ve received notifications on my HipChat, which is the messaging tool we use. I forgot to turn it off so I just did! But it’s really effective. We use emails for bigger things like projects, all the things we want to delegate in a different way or share in more detail but for small, chatty things we use HipChat because otherwise we would have thousands of emails. And sometimes as you say, you can send a little image here and there which also helps with the tone because sometimes when you write emails, or when you don’t communicate verbally, the tone you use can be taken the wrong way.
Do you have any experience with that as well?
Emily: Absolutely. You certainly need to watch your manners. I don’t know if it’s just a British humor thing, but a lot of the time when we’re being funny you can only tell by seeing our face. And obviously on a chat message you can’t see someone’s face, so you can’t see them raising an eyebrow to make it clear that they’re joking.
Lucie: So emojis are really useful. I feel like sometimes if I’m saying something that could be taken as demanding or a critic, I tend to use a smiley emoji so it comes across as positive. Emojis help me soften the tone in written communication.
Emily: Absolutely. I think the other things I’ve used on instant messaging is making it clear through my status message what I’m doing. I talked about “do not disturb”, but then I would also have a status message that I’d put up, which was, “I’m working, if you really need to disturb me, please disturb me.” Or if I’m on a conference call or in a meeting I would put that up. I could put a message up to say, “I’m going to lunch, I’ll be back at this time”. Using your status message to let people know what you’re doing when they can’t see you makes the whole system flow.
Lucie: Definitely. I do feel like working with remote teams and working remotely myself helps with productivity, as you said earlier. What’s your opinion on the relationship between productivity and remote communication tools we have access to nowadays? Do you think employees, freelancers and virtual assistants tend to be more effective, as they can communicate more proactively using those tools rather than traditionally in a face-to-face office environment?
Emily: I think I’m more productive when I work from home. For me, part of the productivity thing with these collaboration tools is that they make it ok for me to work from home. Certain jobs work very well face to face, but lots of what I do is producing reports, research, analyzing things. Doing that in an office where people keep walking up to you and wanting to talk to you about things is really difficult. The thing about instant messaging is you can have people joke around and ask you something, but if you really don’t want to be disturbed you can turn it off.
I do think chat is a really valuable thing compared to email, because it’s so quick. And it’s something I’m noticing right now because we’re in the very early stage of a project with my client and we haven’t set up anything like Slack or HipChat yet. It hasn’t been necessary. But we’ve sometimes found exchanging emails so fast that really we should have chat set up.
Lucie: It really helps to be more clear and organized. Sometimes when emails go back and forth and you have so many people cc’d, it’s very difficult to keep the focus or to keep things clear. It can get quite confusing. Something we do on HipChat is we create different rooms for different topics within the team. We have a room for sales discussions and a room for fun discussions, because as you said it’s quite important to keep that kind of human relationship.
We also have one-on-one rooms, but rooms for different products, for different clients. If we have something to share with different people in the team we will use those rooms. It’s not a bit of everything everywhere, it really helps to narrow down the focus.
Emily: Absolutely. Otherwise you end up with a massive stream of stuff, and picking out what belongs to which project gets quite challenging. I think chatrooms are really helpful. The other thing that we have used quite a bit is commenting on shared documents. We’ve been working on some requirement specifications, and we’ve been using Google Docs for that, which has a really good commenting facility built in. My client leaves a comment, I can answer. Someone else sees both of those things and replies.
We’ve got that complete history of what everybody said, so when I come to make the updates I can take the net result of that. It’s much easier than what we used to do with something like Word, where you have track changes and you have to try and pick out the blue bits and the green bits. So I’m a massive, massive fan of built-in comments. We’ve done the same thing using the discussion feature on Trello to discuss particular project issues.
I think it’s using the right tool for the task at hand, like you use rooms to focus the discussion around a particular topical thing. I think taking it a step further and putting the discussion on the actual work product is helpful.
Lucie: That’s a very good idea. Do you think the remote communication tools we are mentioning are sufficient for the running of a company, whether big or small? Or do you think people still need to meet face-to-face, and if so, why?
Emily: I’m not as much, “Oh we must do face-to-face.” I think for some tasks it’s very difficult to do it remotely just because of the limitations of a screen. We did a workshop to map out the entire business process of a company, and the process map took up an entire wall. We could have done it remotely in Google Drawings, but it would have been very slow and tedious, because it’s just more cumbersome to do that. And then you’re constantly scrolling and zooming. That kind of three or four-hour workshop was immensely valuable, to do face to face.
What I’m not a huge supporter of is this, “We must have a team all together in one place or we can’t be productive.” For a while I was working in the IBM Studio, which is their marketing lab where they develop cool new marketing things. They use Scrum for their development method and they are absolutely, “We must be face-to-face, we must all sit around the same table.” It’s not IBM being weird, it’s typical of how Scrum teams work. They value physical presence. Each morning we’d do our stand-up, and then we do a little sit-down at our desk, and we’d all put our headphones on. Because to get any work done you needed to block out the rest of the team.
Emily: I couldn’t do anything when I was listening to the developer moaning about his code. So actually we didn’t interact until lunchtime, and then we’d all take the headphones off and go out to lunch. So I think when you look at a physical group of people, it’s quite interesting to see if they are actually interacting all that much.
Lucie: From my own experience if you work with people who are used to working from home, or from anywhere on a daily basis, being productive and having meetings via Skype or Gotomeetings, it’s pretty easy. But when you work with people who have teams and are used to working face to face in an office environment, they do tend to be more effective and proactive when brainstorming face-to-face but they are not as used to being online. That’s what I have experienced.
Emily: I would agree with that. I noticed at IBM that we weren’t all equals. We all brought a different set of experiences to the tools. At IBM we were very lucky because they are a developer of corporate collaboration tools, and they test them out on the staff first. We had access to corporate internal versions of Twitter almost six months after Twitter went live. But only some people pick up those tools and play with them.
When you try to use them to run a project with a much more diverse group of people, what you have to be prepared to do is support people in how to use the tools. Show them how to do it. To start with, when you’ve never used HipChat before, making a joke or throwing in an emoji or sending someone a stupid gif feels really weird. You just don’t do it, so you don’t get a lot of the benefits.
Lucie: Yes and I guess it’s also about making sure the people who are going to use the tools in your team are comfortable using them. If for example, you have a project manager who is going to be setting up the tools and training everyone in your team, it’s very important that this project manager will be the one choosing the tools. It’s also key that as a business owner you are not imposing too much on what will be used and give flexibility to the team so they feel comfortable using those tools.
Emily: Oh, completely. I don’t know if you use Quora, but I see quite a lot of questions on Quora about the best project management tools. I always want to say, “the one your team is prepared to use.”
Emily: Because if you as the project manager are the only person ever updating Trello, you might as well use a spreadsheet. I think people worry a lot about project management tools as though they’re magic calculators of when your project will happen. The good ones are not about that; the reason they’re helpful project management tools is because they help everyone to know where the project is, what needs to be done next, what the risks are. They’re communication tools, they’re not complicated spreadsheets that calculate your critical path. I think finding a tool that everyone’s prepared to use and helping them to use it regularly really matters. Which is why I think Trello is so popular. Not because it’s the world’s most sophisticated tool, but because it’s the dumbest tool.
Lucie: Exactly, so easy to use.
Emily: Everyone can pick it up.
Lucie: There are so many new tools coming out every month. Do you think that the development of so many new communication management tools are going to enable the workplace to become more flexible in the future, even in the corporate world? And how do you think people are open to this change?
Emily: I think the corporate world is going to struggle the most because of the problem of “the I.T. department”. The huge advantage that I have now running my own business is that if I want to use a particular mail software or I want to use Trello, I can use it. That’s fine. Whereas with a large, risk-averse company there are quite often rules and restrictions about what tools you can use, and what data you can share on those tools.
At IBM, we had restrictions on using certain file sharing tools. The I.T. security police had vetted the tools and decided they weren’t secure enough for what we were doing because we manage our clients’ data, not just our own. They might have been a little bit over-protective at times. I know that is certainly a challenge for large companies; that tension between people just grabbing stuff and bringing it in, like Slack, and the I.T. department constantly trying to push back and say, “You’re not allowed to use it because we haven’t tested it yet.”
So I think that’s a challenge, but I think what’s potentially going to change in the future is we just have this huge groundswell of people who’ve used this stuff since college. They did school projects on Trello, they did their university projects on Trello. They turn up at a large corporation and someone goes, “Well, you’re going to have to use MS Project.” They’re going to say, “No.”
Lucie: It’s true that there is a new generation coming who, as you say, have been trained to use Trello and chat rooms from a very young age. That’s probably going to change the way we work in the future.
Emily: Yeah, I think so. I think what’s interesting is what went out. I know that there are a lot of new tools being developed, new project management tools, new chat platforms.
Lucie: Could you share with us a list of ten communication and remote management tools that you highly recommend to anyone?
Emily: Gosh, just 10?! I’ll have to think on the spot!
Lucie: Yes we are ready for your 10 now Emily! Maybe we’ll make it five.
Emily: I think Google is your starting point, because it makes it so easy to collaborate and communicate. If you have one thing, start with Google Apps. You have Gmail, you have Google Hangouts and Google Chat, you’ve got documents and you can collaborate and share comments. I think that’s your starting point, and it plugs into everything else.
I don’t love Google Hangouts because the video chat software my hard drive sound like it’s about to explode. I find Skype much better for video chat, and I do really value sometimes being able to have a meeting with someone and actually see them.
For instance my accountant is halfway across the country. I wouldn’t know what she looked like if it wasn’t for Skype. For projects, I use Trello a lot because it’s so simple and easy for people to pick up. I do like Slack. I find it so simple and easy. And again, you can plug Slack into anything else. They’re the main things, really.
The thing is pretty much everything that I pick up now, I might at this moment not personally think of it as a collaboration tool, but it is. For instance Xero, my accounting package. My accountant can also use my Xero account, so I just put all the data in and when it comes to do my corporate accounts, she can access my documents and receipts and she can prepare everything. We wouldn’t necessarily think of that as a collaboration tool, but it’s something I take for granted now. My CRM tool is Nimble. If I get an assistant, I can get them an account on Nimble. We can share all that data, we don’t have to send each other’s messages, we just all look at the same data.
Lucie: And I guess you also use Dropbox and things like that as well.
Emily: Yes but less than I used to. Partly because I wanted to use Google because of the document collaboration. The too many tools thing is what you have to watch. The reason I’ve stepped back from Dropbox is I just wanted everything on Google Drive. I wanted it all in one place, I didn’t want to have to remember which file system my document was on. Too many tools is something I notice a lot. For chatrooms or messaging apps, I have one friend who only ever talks to me on Facebook messenger. Friends from college use Whatsapp. I have another friend working in China who uses WeChat. I have another friend who only talks to me on Google Hangout, and another friend who only uses Skype. It’s like I have to use all of these tools. I can’t go to all my friends and go, “you all have to just use this one.” So I think that’s the thing that’s making collaboration difficult.
Lucie: Not everybody can come to terms with the same tools. All your clients and friends and people you work with, this is what you’re going to use to contact me. They have their own choice, so you have to adapt as well I guess.
Emily: Exactly, and I think it’s about being a freelancer. When you’re the client, you get to go, “This is what we use. You have to use it.” When you’re the freelancer you have to adapt and just plug in. In fact as a freelancer, you just have to hope that they can connect you into their chat system.
Otherwise you can end up in their office sitting in the corner. And even when you’re physically in their office, because you can’t access that file system or that Google Apps account or that chat messaging, you might as well be in Siberia, because you can’t actually communicate with anybody apart from walking over to the desk and talking to them. So you spend the whole day waiting for people to go back to their desk.
Lucie: Fantastic. Where can people find out more about your services and what you offer?
Emily: They can contact me easily by my website www.emilyobyrne.com and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The great thing about email is everybody uses email. So it doesn’t matter what chat app you use, you can get in touch.
Lucie: Excellent. Thank you so much for sharing all your experience and insights in using different communication and management tools with us today. Emily, we really wish you all the best with your business and hope to hear from you soon.
Emily: Thank you.
To view all the tools Emily recommends, visit her website: www.emilyobyrne.com/my-toolkit
To find out how simple it is to build your own perfect remote team, visit http://www.elitevirtualteam.co.uk/hire-a-virtual-assistant/ and learn how you and your business could be better off with remote workers. If you’d like to speak with someone in person, Lucie and her remote team would love to hear from you. http://www.elitevirtualteam.co.uk/contact/
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