When we set up Bridge, we certainly didn’t plan or anticipate to be running the business through times like these. These really are extraordinary circumstances for everyone, and we’ve all had to make major changes to how we go about our everyday lives.

Companies and organisations of all shapes and sizes have had to adapt – rapidly – to a completely different set of operational circumstances; with the majority of the nation now working from home.

For some us, this is familiar territory, but for others, it’s a whole new game; especially when you factor home-life, family, housemates and others into the equation.

As a team of consultants, we have been working remotely since 2017. Sure, we have our Edinburgh office, and from time to time, people come and work there together. However, for the majority of the time, we collaborate with our team of experts and clients remotely.

So we’ve put together some of our top tips for working remotely, managing remote teams and using technology to collaborate effectively.

Give your team space to work 

When we worked in larger companies with big open plan offices, the biggest challenge to getting actual work done often boiled down to just not having the space to think. Constant interruptions led to a less productive day. 

We find that giving our remote team space to work almost always leads to better results. To do this, we’d recommend a few steps:

  1. Set achievable tasks at the start of the week 
  2. Check-in (without arranging a call or zoom meeting) half way through the week 
  3. Make it your co-workers responsibility to share their progress at the end of the week (more on this below)

Put simply, respect your co-workers virtual space and you’ll find they do the same for you.

If you let them, humans have an amazing power to live up to your expectations of reasonableness and responsibility.

Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hanson

Keep internal comms out of your inbox 

For all of us, email is a fundamental tool in our day-to-day lives. However, emails have the ability to both distract and prevent us from getting actual work done. How often have you thought, “I’ve been super productive this morning, I’ve responded to 25 emails…” The question you need to ask yourself is, were you really being productive or were you just keeping up with correspondence?  

This is why – when we set up Bridge – we made a conscious decision only to use emails for communicating (formally) with clients. For everything else, we use Slack or Trello (more on productivity apps below).

Messaging apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams enable us to communicate with each other so much more efficiently, share files and links and catch up on discussions. Also, messaging apps such as Slack seamlessly integrate with other services such as Trello and Google Drive, making collaboration even more streamlined.

When you don’t (or no longer) have your colleague sitting beside you, instant messaging is a fundamental tool for remote teams.

Instant messaging doesn’t always lead to instant responses 

A common mistake with instant messaging is to assume that an ‘instant message’ requires an ‘instant response’. Put yourself back in the office for a moment. Something urgent crops up and requires a colleague’s input.  Would you wander over to their desk and assume they are going to help immediately? It’s a pretty safe bet that he or she isn’t just sitting there just waiting for you to pop round… Be considerate and assume they are working on something equally important to them.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t message colleagues when you need something. After all – without your team around you – it’s impossible to see what they’re working on. 

However,  just think about how you might word the message. Perhaps start the message with “When you have a moment …” or “I’d appreciate your thoughts on this … “.  Of course, this works both ways and if you are hard at work and prefer not to be interrupted, why not change your ’status’ to something like “Free again in 45 mins” and/ or turn off notifications. Slack now has a nifty feature which enables you to connect it to your diary, so that it automatically updates your status in-line with your schedule.

Most messaging apps have these features and here’s a great article in Wired on how to “tame slack for a more productive workday”.

Progress is a joy best shared with team mates 

When you’re in the same office, it’s easy to stay up to speed on what people are working on, but this is less straightforward when everyone’s remote. Something we’ve found works well is a weekly catch-up where our team shares – using collaborative docs –  what they’ve been working on with co-workers and/ or producers. 

This has a few benefits:

  1. It places less pressure on the project managers to coordinate weekly tasks
  2. It puts the onus on the team member to make sure they’ve made progress as they will be sharing it with their co-workers
  3. It helps place clear understanding on where others are with their workload – not only for managers, but with other members of the team. Co-workers may think twice about asking for that extra favour when they know the pressure someone is under that week

In short, we find the best way to check that work is getting done is to see (and share) the actual work.

Since people don’t have to look “busy” at home, they can produce work on their own schedule—so it should be a more relaxing way to get work done.

Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hanson

Strip out unnecessary M&M ‘s (management and meetings)

If you’re in a management role, a lot of the time, you’ll be responsible for organising meetings and setting an agenda. One of the great things about remote work is that – by its nature –  it discourages unnecessary meetings and encourages purposeful and necessary communication. 

In Jason Freid and David Heinemeier Hanson’s book Remote, they refer to this as “stripping out the unnecessary M&M’s”.

When management happens remotely (via Instant messaging, trello, email etc) it is more purposeful, compressed and efficient. It also encourages teams to make decisions in small groups on live chat or via video call. Decisions are inevitably made quicker in small groups. 

So if you’re now managing teams remotely, strip out those unnecessary meetings, your team will thank you for it.

In 30 years time when technology has moved forward even further, people are going to look back and wonder why offices ever existed.

Sir Richard Branson

Productivity apps should make you more productive – not the opposite 

It has never been a better time to work remotely. We are living in a digital age where everyone and everything is connected. The UK – in particular – enjoys some of the fastest high-speed broadband on the planet. Therefore, using online apps and cloud storage should be an absolute breeze. 

However, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed with the choice and complexity of it all: Dropbox; Google Docs; Zoom; Slack; Trello; Microsoft Teams; Hangouts; Basecamp; Teamwork; where do you start?!

We tend to begin with a few simple questions:

  1. Does it solve a need or problem we are having?
  2. How easy will it be to get buy-in & people using it
  3. Does it connect and integrate well with our existing tools?

So what do we use at Bridge? 

Well, we’ve certainly tried our fair share of productivity tools, but in the end, we settled on the  following as the best combination for our remote team:

  • Slack – This runs the business and keeps everyone connected
  • Zoom – We find this is easiest for clients – all they need is an access link 
  • Toggl – For planning and managing day to day team-work
  • Google Workspace –  For email, collaborating on docs, file storage – this is the ‘engine room’ of our company

Here’s a helpful article on essential tools for remote workers in TechRadar.

Invest in your surroundings  

If you’re working at home or in a co-working environment for the first time and you use a laptop to carry out the majority of your workload, you’re probably going to experience an element of discomfort. To combat this, we’d recommend investing in your remote working environment. Start with a decent desk and chair and take things further with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, a desktop monitor & desk-arm. 

Some of these things may seem like an unnecessary expense, but the health benefits certainly outstrip the cost. So jump on Amazon and order up some decent workspace solutions. Here’s a great article in Inc on improving home-working ergonomics

Meet-ups are important 

When you’re working remotely, either at home or in a co-working space, you will inevitably spend the majority of your time catching up with team members over instant message email or video conference. That’s why, when the opportunity arises to actually meet team-mates face to face, it becomes a much more positive experience. 

When most interactions with team mates happen remotely – we’ve found people actually look forward to face-to-face meetings and they are even more productive as a result.

Admittedly, at the moment (April 2020), face-face meet-ups aren’t possible, but when life returns to ‘normal’, we’d highly recommend getting together regularly with your remote co-workers. This could be monthly or quarterly. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s happening. Of course, this is tricky if you’re not all in the same city (or even the same country), but then it’s just about being creative. 

One of our Partners, Only Excel has written a great blog on what happened when a bunch of business owners (the majority of whom work remote) recently got together for a virtual breakfast meet-up

Attending an industry conference together has equal benefits.  For the past few years, we’ve been going along to Turing Fest in Edinburgh, and not only does this bring the team together, it’s also an incredible conference where the team will learn and develop together and can share their learnings face to face. 

We grab a coffee and  catch up on key topics between seminars, and at the end of the day, a social drink works as a great debrief.  Win Win!

Recommended reading

Finally, we’ve adopted a lot of our working practices from experience, but also some fantastic books. Here’s a few to get you started. Re:work and Remote, both written by the same authors, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hanson – Founders of digital agency, 37 Signals and the popular project management tool, Basecamp.