The Latest From Jacob

How We Make Remote Working Work

Almost half of my staff works remote. 

We ventured into the practice of remote working when an existing teammate moved away from Memphis for his spouse's job back in 2008. Faced with the option to lose him or to make it work remotely, I took a chance on remote. 

Not many companies were doing remote at that time –certainly not many in Memphis. But we were already beginning to adopt to cloud-based apps, so some of the pieces were there. 

Everything worked out fine with our first attempt and before long, we found ourselves hiring remote workers. Expanding our available talent pool to a national (and eventually international) level meant we could hire the right fit instead of the "right here" fit. Memphis and Nashville are cities full of talented people, but sometimes, the best candidates were elsewhere.

Today, almost half of my staff is full-time remote. They are fully-fledged, salaried members of our team who just happen to sit a little further away: currently from 9 different cities! 

Our Memphis and Nashville staff work out of our offices most of the time, but have the flexibility of working remote as well. For some, this means working from their house or at Starbucks. For others, they put in a day of work from the beach. 

Remote has been great for us overall, but it's not been without its challenges. Through mix of technology and best practices, we've figured out how to make it work well for us. Take a look...


Slack (Instant Messaging)

Instant messaging has been our primary form of inter-office communication for almost a decade. It works for us. Instant message keeps our team communicating wither we're mere feet or many miles away from each other. Over the years we've used quite a few services: AIM, Apple Messages, Google Chat, Hipchat and most recently, Slack

Slack does a lot that I won't go into, but the big features that make a difference for our team integration are... 

  • Status - knowing if a teammate is at their desk or busy or away at any point in time helps replace that walk down the hall to see if someone's available. With a good bit of our staff remote at any given time, this is really the thing that brings us together as we work throughout the day. 
  • File Sharing - we collaborate a lot, so being able to send a screenshot or a logo file helps keep us moving along. Of course, when we really want to connect for an extended period of time, we'll jump on a Zoom. More on that in a minute.
  • Team Channel - we have a channel (think room) where our entire team posts random gifs or announcements about cookies in the break room or more random gifs. Honestly, not much productive happens there, but we have fun and fun's important.

Zoom (Video Conferencing/Web Meetings)

One of the dangers of remote working is isolation. In our case, our local team can easily lose track of remote teammate and a remote teammate can feel all alone on an island. While instant message keeps us communicating frequently, we lean on video conferencing and web meetings to gain a higher level of connection. Nothing replaces being in the same room with someone, but video feeds and screen-sharing come close. 

The key is making ourselves use it. It's not difficult to start up a Zoom meeting. In fact, Slack makes this as simple as typing "/zoom". But there's just a mental block on taking this step. I regularly tell remind my team to force themselves to connect on video because our team health depends on it. 

We used GoToMeeting for years but recently just switched to Zoom for 2 reasons: 1) It's cheaper. They're the underdog. 2) They allow 50 video participants. GTM only allowed 6. When we have our Monday staff meeting, I want to see everyone.


8x8 (IP Based Phone System)

Phones were a challenge when we first started doing the remote thing. We had a traditional in-office phone system with wires and plugs and everything. Dark age stuff. When that just didn't cut it anymore, we started doing research on IP based phone systems which are essentially your phone system in the cloud. You can have physical desk phones that plug into an ethernet port or you can have a "soft phone" that's just an app that runs on your computer or your smart phone. We use both. 

The great thing about a system like 8x8 is that it makes us feel like we're all in one office. Our "sales" ring group will ring in Memphis and Nashville at the same time. If you enter my extension (1010), you'll get me wherever I am. It just works with the way we operate.


Dropbox (Cloud-based File Sharing)

It's so hard for me to remember this, but there was a day when we had a file server running in our office. A big, noisy server, in our network closet that everybody connected to and put files "on the share." When Dropbox came out, we hopped in early. It allowed us to shut down the beast in the closet by automatically keeping our team synchronized to our central store of files in the cloud. It also serves as an automatic backup of files, since it syncs every time a file is changed, and it maintains a full history of those changes –even deleted files. One of my favorite features is the mobile app. Many times, I've been able to pull up a file I needed on my phone when my computer wasn't handy. Like at a stop light. 

We've eyed other solutions like Google Drive which we use heavily for collaboration, but just like Dropbox for files.


Google Apps (Shared Scheduling)

We were early adopters of Google Apps back in the day. We're actually still grandfathered into their free plan. 

We use Apps for nearly all of our word processing documents and spreadsheets. I love knowing that I'm always working with the latest version of the file and being able to get to it no matter where I am. But the realtime collaboration is my favorite part. Multiple teammates can view and edit the same document at the same time, which is great for productivity. 

We also use Gmail heavily. I could go on and on and on about how much I love Gmail, but if I had to distill it down, I'd say it's email done right. I never have to file or delete email and I can find emails as easily as searching the web (go figure). I also use the web interface exclusively, so I can be in front of my normal email view no matter what computer I'm using. My heart goes out to those still struggling with Outlook or mailboxes that fill up.

The other piece of Google Apps that really helps our team is Google Calendar. Seeing each teammate's schedule and sharing company calendars is so incredibly simple, we don't even think about it anymore. 


Cloud based Apps (Any computer will do)

I've covered several specific cloud-based applications above, but it's worth mentioning that nearly all of our core applications are cloud based. That helps us be productive even when we're not at our primary computer. 


A Proper Workspace

While coffee shops and hotels will do for temporary remote working, I ask my team to adhere to a few workspace guidelines for extended remote working:

  1. Proper Desk and Chair - for your health and comfort, you've got to have a legit office chair and desk. 
  2. Distraction free room with a door - I'm pro-family, but there's a time for work and a time for play. Keeping the two separate is a must to be productive. It's also critical for quality phone calls or video conferencing.
  3. High-speed Internet Connection - Since pretty much everything we do requires an Internet connection, you've got to have a good one. 

Trust

If your a business owner or leader considering remote, you may be concerned about not being able to keep a close eye on your team. To make remote work, you just have to get over it. The ability for a remote worker to goof off is absolutely there. You either choose to extend them some trust or you don't. Of course, it's their trust to lose, so make it clear that flexibility is a privilege for the responsible. And of course, try to avoid hiring untrustworthy people in the first place. 

What do you think? What remote practices are working for you team? Or, if you're considering remote, what concerns do you have?

Posted by Jacob Savage at 1:34 PM