13 June, 2019

Lesson 4: Essential Tools For Working With Distributed Teams

Now that you and your team understand your business objectives, you have a clear plan and a grand vision, and your team is empowered to deliver an important part of the project, how do you ensure effective communication without losing time and confidence?

  1. Create the working process first, only then configure which tools to use
  2. Provide both synchronous and asynchronous communication
  3. Software must serve you, not vice versa

How to choose the right tools

The first thing to understand is that software needs to follow your process, not the other way around. This is a critical but commonly misunderstood distinction. You need to create your own process — we used customized Scrum at New Normal — and then choose and configure the software appropriately.

For example: when I started in the industry we were excited to use Jira, the most advanced project management software at the time. We went with Jira’s default configuration and pretty soon were spending a lot of time servicing the software itself. In the end, we abandoned the entire package and went with a much simpler tool.

Once you have your process in place, you need several types of tools to successfully manage projects with distributed teams. These differ depending on the tasks you want to achieve and the urgency of your communication.

Synchronous communication

At New Normal we use Google Chat along with slack for synchronous communication Synchronous communication is great for quick conversations, syncs and on-going project chatter. Software for this purpose includes Slack, Google Chat, Skype, Zoom Conference, Uber Conference among others. At New Normal, we rely on Slack and Google Chat for their ubiquity and for Google’s integration into a larger suite of tools.

Reminder: you should document all important decisions, discussions and tasks in tools that will retain the information and make it searchable (see the following sections). Chat tools should only be used to support documented plans and decisions.

Asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is for messages that can be acted on later, official announcements and discussions. It is irreplaceable for the information you would like everyone to know and be able to search and trace. Asynchronous communication tools don’t require the recipient to be online to receive messages, as they can access and manage them later. This comes especially handy if there’s a timezone difference between the teams.

Async tools include email and project management software. The New Normal team uses GSuite for email and Basecamp for documenting conversations and progress on per project basis.

Tip: Any software you choose to serve your needs must be simple to manage. While it’s easy to lose a message in chat interfaces, async tools usually organize messages in separate items, which makes it convenient for recipients to consider and respond to each one.

Project management tools

Project management software is a backbone for all the processes happening within the team. It contains the scope of the project split into actionable tasks and assigned to each member of the team. A lot of your day to day communications will happen in this software, so choose wisely.

When picking the right tool, consider permissions and an option for commenting. It’s important that your choice will allow each member of the team to silo the communication on any particular item to that item; you want the ability to comment on even the smallest unit of work. This will give your team the freedom to keep granular conversations in context and pull in only the relevant people for those discussions.

While building a workflow that suits your process, you also need to determine who on the team sees which items and when. From our experience, many discussions on the task level happen between a developer and a product owner or a project manager (PM). For us, Asana fits our needs best, with an intuitive and clean interface that helps us seamlessly host and curate in-project conversations.

Time tracking tools

Even if you are not an agency that bills by the hour, it is valuable to track time for insights into the team’s efficiency and velocity. In other words, if you want to know how far and how quickly you can go, use these tools to measure your abilities.

There are numerous productivity tools on the market, including Everhour, OfficeTime, Timely, and Toggl. We use the first since it’s easy to use, decent for tracking spent time for each project, and integrates into Asana. Your team members can also try the “Pomodoro technique” with a tomato-timer to focus on a task for a fixed period of time and then take a short break. These small tips and tools will make your processes far more agile.

Document management

Tools for document management (DM) host your documentation and project assets, such as images and videos. A lot of teams decide to keep such assets within Project Management software, but there are compelling offerings on the market that allow easy sharing and collaboration. So why bother with this software?

First, this software allows users to organize the workflow and separate tools by their purpose, avoiding the need for time-wasting searches. Secondly, DM tools provide a backup for your documentation, which can be retrieved in case of a mistake.

Finally, we should mention permissions once again: DM software will empower you with online collaboration but also help to restrict access to certain assets. At New Normal, we use Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Dropbox Paper, Zeplin and InVision.

Conclusion

We have reviewed the most important tools for working with distributed teams.. We emphasize that defining a proper workflow is your primary task and stringing it with the software comes afterwards. We will talk more about the development process in lesson 6. First, in lesson 5, we review the premises for effective communication in distributed teams.

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