What mix of technologies do you need for working remotely? Two businesses share their experiences - and the technologies that do the job best.
By Nicola Heath
Consulting firm The H Factor's entire business plan is one page with three words printed on it: “No office ever”.
Andrew Seinor CPA founded The H Factor with business partner Robyn Moyle in 2010. In his previous life working in management accounting, Seinor always found time in the office unproductive.
“It was just meetings for the sake of meetings,” he says.
Seinor was happier and more productive when he worked from home on his own terms.
Understanding that everyone works differently drove the decision to operate The H Factor with a distributed team. Nine-to-five might suit some, but others are in the zone at 2am. Seinor wanted to allow employees to set their own schedules.
The company’s six-person team is spread across Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. As a rule, meetings are scheduled as needed, “about once a fortnight to once a month depending on the complexity,” says Seinor.
How to manage a team working remotely
While The H Factor’s team works remotely by design, the distributed model adopted by social enterprise Who Gives A Crap was more accidental than planned, says CEO Simon Griffiths.
When they first started working on Who Gives A Crap, the founders were spread between Melbourne, Sydney and San Francisco and frequently travelled the globe.
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“Our first hire was in Manila, which is where we now base most of our Customer Happiness team,” Griffiths says.
“We all loved the flexibility of working from anywhere, and working flexible hours, so continued to build a distributed team as we grew.”
Who Gives A Crap, which uses half the profits from toilet paper sales to fund development projects internationally, has 17 staff in Australia, the Philippines and the US.
“In the cities where we have multiple people we have shared office spaces which act as a hub for us to meet on a semi-regular basis,” says Griffiths.
Do staff working remotely need meetings?
Who Gives A Crap team leaders meet weekly and disseminate information through their teams. Plans exist to record the monthly full-company town hall video call for staff in incompatible time zones.
Griffiths acknowledges that some tasks are best done face-to-face.
“We invest some of the savings we make with a distributed team in flights and accommodation to enable more face time,” he says.
The whole company comes together for an annual retreat, “a week-long mix of strategy sessions, getting to know each other and hacking ways to improve remote culture,” says Griffiths, who recently returned from the 2017 retreat in the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne.
Do you need a home office?
There are a few prerequisites to making remote working a success. Seinor says a home office is a must.
“Make sure you never work at the dining room table,” he advises. “You’ve got to have a designated space and you only go to that space if you are working.”
“If you’re travelling, always check the internet speed at your destination before you go,” says Griffiths.
The right technology is also important. The H Factor relies on Slack and Dropbox, while at Who Gives A Crap, day-to-day business runs on Slack, Trello, Zendesk and Google Docs.
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Both Who Gives A Crap and The H Factor use Slack, one of the most popular communications tools used by distributed teams.
Slack’s distinguishing feature is its organisation of conversations into searchable channels. At The H Factor, each client has a dedicated channel where all communication relating to that client takes place.
Each software tool used in the company also has its own channel, which doubles as a resource for team members’ “how to” questions.
Slack’s free model offers direct messaging, voice and video calls, file sharing, and iOS and Android apps. Paid options include Standard (from US$6.67 a month per user) and Plus (from US$12.50 a month per user), which offer extras including unlimited searchable message archives, group calls and 10GB file storage per team member in Standard, and 20GB storage in Plus.
File hosting and storage system Dropbox offers a paid subscription service for businesses. Dropbox Business starts at A$17.50 a month per user, and offers advanced security features, live support, 2TB of storage and simple sharing and collaboration tools.
At The H Factor, the organisation of files in Dropbox mirrors the Slack structure, making it simple for files to be located.
At Who Gives A Crap, teams use Trello, a project management and collaboration tool acquired by Atlassian in 2017. Trello uses boards, cards and lists to represent projects and tasks.
Team members can discuss tasks and projects in real time and are kept up to speed by activity logs and email notifications.
The basic version of Trello is free, and users can upgrade to Business Class (A$9.99 a month per user) or Enterprise (with custom pricing), each of which offers more features.
Web-based helpdesk Zendesk allows the distributed Who Gives A Crap team to keep track of customer service queries via a system of tickets, which can be raised via a range of sources, including telephone, email, chat and social media.
Team members can add notes to tickets to streamline their handling. A 30-day free trial is offered, and after that users can choose from a variety of pricing and product options.
Google Docs allows multiple users to simultaneously share and edit documents, spreadsheets and presentations from anywhere, using any device. Available free, the Google Docs app lets users edit documents while offline – a useful feature while travelling.
Other popular project management and collaboration tools include Basecamp, Asana and Wrike.
Notably missing from the list is email. Both Who Gives A Crap and The H Factor avoid email for internal communication.
“It’s not a particularly nuanced form of communication so it’s very easy for things to get misunderstood,” says Seinor, who believes email is overused, ineffective and lacks transparency.
“We try and drive all internal communication through Slack if possible.”
While email is out, at The H Factor the telephone is used wherever possible.
“You never, ever underestimate the power of voice-to-voice communication,” says Seinor.
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