Part 4 - Core Tools: Collaboration
Part 5 - Core Tools: SaaS
Before going too far, we’ll define what a remote working team is (distributed workforce), and what it means for SMEs. A distributed workforce has:
Communication is crucial for a well-functioning remote team. Design elements for a distributed workforce – from platform to software – will have a focus on grounding the workforce with the same knowledge and an easy means to problem solve as a team.
This guide will not go into outsourcing or other similar models. This guide is about your current working force and how your team can work effectively from many different locations.
There are obvious limitations to what can and cannot be done with this model (for example a manufacturing plant will always need people onsite); however, support staff can be distributed in most cases.
Some types of professionals who can effectively work for their company, remotely, include:
Ultimately, employees who do most of their work on a digital platform, and/or via strong communication can work effectively from a remote working environment.
To effectively work as a team, clear and concise communication is critical. There are two major communication elements to consider for a distributed team: the technology & the people.
The technology used must be as effective as possible for relaying ideas and working together on a problem. Some communication mediums are less effective to others (email for working a high priority issue instead of video chat or a call, for example).
Similarly, the way collaborations are conducted need to be effective in moving the team forward towards their goals, and not confuse how and when information will flow. Regular & consistent toolbox meetings to set the objectives of the day for example.
Regular meetings (daily toolboxes) help set a common goal and tone for individual teams. In addition, weekly all-staff meetings help develop company culture and common ground for all employees.
Meetings can be accomplished with video chat tools such as Microsoft Teams (Skype), Zoom, and many others. These video conference tools encourage comradery, and a singular purpose not easy to replicate via email or voice conference calls.
Video calls can be recorded for down-the-road review, and shared with anyone who could not make the meeting.
Setting expectations on what “channels” are to be used for different types of communication is key as it helps with workflows and developing the relationship to easily work together on tasks. For example, you may need legal documents emailed (or HR incidents of a more serious nature); whereas an idea for a new product or service might better suited to a Microsoft Teams call.
When you consider the pros and cons of methods of communication, you quickly realise just how different each method is suited to a particular task and for establishing a common ground for conversations.
Anyone who has been on a conference call knows how awkward it can be to engage in the conversation because it is difficult to tell who is speaking & if you are able to chime in. When engaging on the same conversation via video call, you get the visual ques associated with talking normally which makes communication easier (and faster); ultimately helping the productivity of the team. This is less of an issue for a one on one phone call and can be quicker then a video call in those instances.
Your company knowledge, the team's knowledge; is the one true thing that differentiates any one business. When working in multiple locations, without the benefit of a chance conversation, or an impromptu huddle, making the teams collective knowledge accessible is critically important.
There are ways to mitigate this problem:
Common ground, especially for staff who start working with your company in a remote capacity only, can be hard to achieve. Think of it as the common knowledge of your company, or the humanised parts of how the teams integrate with each other. This can be particularly difficult when there is limited video chat contact; and other mediums are text only.
Establishing common ground is easier with video. Yourself and the team can see each other and pick up on non-verbal social cues, thus improving team readability. Establishing common ground leads to greater team productivity and reduces interpersonal misinterpretation.
In the next sections we will go over great tools to enable collaboration.
The platform is the core of your organisation, and the digital backbone that holds everything together. Designing a flexible platform to allow remote working, or an entirely distributed team can be as individualised as the number of industries there are.
Good IT platforms should fully enable end users but restrict access where appropriate. Consider:
Desktop as a Service (DaaS) is a great solution that combines the more traditional role of a server, with a desktop environment that an end user can remotely access from any device (Laptop, Desktop, Tablet or Mobile), allowing them to work in a virtual desktop “session”. DaaS key properties:
Desktop as a Service effortlessly enables adoption of Bring your own Device (BYOD).
The basic concept involves providing staff access to your business network environment (via a DaaS virtual desktop) with the same user experience (applications available, user experience) from anywhere in the world, using any physical asset.
Providing staff access to their own laptops, PCs, and tablets (BYOD) without fear of security or software issues, can be a game changer to lower capital IT expenditure for businesses, while further enabling their own team to use devices and workstations they prefer.
This isn't a new concept, however studies have shown 44% of staff are already using their own technology at work.
Other platform & file storage options often include servers, cloud drives & variations of both.
While an in-house server can meet requirements, there are large capital costs (On hardware, installation, licenses, warranty) that aren’t present with a DaaS solution, and these costs usually occur regularly every 3-5 years depending on the warranty period of the hardware.
Cloud Drives, and similar file storage tools often find their way into most IT platform tapestries, but often don’t cover the full IT environment end users experience (and need), oftentimes falling short.
A traditional IT environment usually involved a server, or NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices on the local network, which the office PCs then access.
Network topologies like this are still very popular and can be retrofitted into a remote access environment with some work. That being said, the resulting experience can widely vary and cases like this should be pondered to ensure the right solution is chosen for end users. Some methods include:
Another thing to consider for in-office server environments is their suitability if you are moving to a mobile centric remote team. If this is the case, even if you still have a good business case for the above type of solution, using servers in a data centre may be a better solution overall to ensure company uptime, with the ability to move parts of your network into new geographic locations where it may make sense. Hardware in data centres is professionally maintained and operates in a controlled environment. This is often not possible and otherwise consistent in standard office environments.
Cloud services like SharePoint, OneDrive, DropBox, and similar services have grown extensively over the last decade; not just in market share, but in features too.
Sitting in the middle ground between archive, file sync collaboration tools, they have earned their place as a part of most modern IT solutions used by SMEs and larger business, though often fall short of acting as a full IT platform.
Online drives, or syncing tools like OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive all work by acting as a large storage environment within a larger Cloud Service. You can setup software on your devices to sync data from your computer and interact with them normally (with full-fledged software) or even work in the browser (such as in Google Docs, or Microsoft Word Online).
In cases where using these services as a single user working actively on files, or using these services as a “publication” area for team reference, or simply backing up files too; they are brilliant solutions.
They don’t work well for multiple teams working on the same file, and tend to create file conflicts, version issues, and in worst cases lose data altogether. Cloud drives and file storage services are improving and are greatly improved from how they used to be only a few years ago.
The last major consideration for your IT platform are your end users themselves. Can they be easily supported wherever they are in the World? Can their BYOD devices be protected properly? Lost time means wasted resources, so ensuring quick support – and rapid fixes – are key to ensuring an efficient remotely working team.
There are ways to manage the devices your team uses, with remote support software or specialised ‘agents’, which allow for remote management of computers with software deployment capabilities.
The support services provided to end users boils down to three major options:
Each model has its own pros and cons. An ideal solution for your company may be a blend of two or even all three of the above models.
Communication is critical to working as apart of a team. These are some of the platforms you can use to help keep your team connected when they work apart.
Microsoft SharePoint was launched in late March 2001 and was originally developed with the code name of “Office Server”, which says a lot about its operational goals. Over the past decade SharePoint has evolved as a file storage, publication, collaborative platform; expanding in recent years to also include Microsoft Teams – allowing for collaboration on files and seamless video conferencing / chat (via Microsoft Teams integration) – all in an effort to help enable end users to get work done faster, and from more locations.
This is a great platform to publish documents to clients, have discussions on, publish wikis, meet, and work effectively as a team. Best of all, these types of platforms usually work in Internet browsers, so you can access them from any platform.
Other alternatives like G Suite include Huddle, and Slack, both have similar platforms to help drive the efforts of a team. These solutions can integrate to form part of the final solution for your firm’s IT platform.
Image: Microsoft SharePoint Modern Site
Image: Microsoft Teams Calls
The most effective way to hold a conversation with teams of people & other individuals is via video chat. There are MANY options in this space, some free and others on a paid model.
The humble desk phone is still an important part of business, and will always be for call centres, and other high transactional types of jobs (Support desk, Sales, Accounts Receivable/Payable, for example).
To enable a remote team to work on the same telephone system, a cloud PBX (Cloud Phone System) is one great way forward. This enable end users to plug in a physical phone to an ethernet port, or a headset into a computer; and make/receive calls over the internet from anywhere in the world (home, hotel rooms, shared office space).
Advanced hosted phone systems allow all the expected traditional features (voice mail, hunt groups, auto-attendants) but usually extend this further with mobile apps, or simultaneous extension calling (calling your desk phone and mobile at the same time) to allow for even greater mobility.
Xero is a relatively new solution in the market, being founded in 2006 in New Zealand. The software has a pure SaaS model, and works exclusively in a browser – with a monthly subscription model based on (mostly) payroll staff numbers.
It’s hard to fault the product from a technical standpoint, although it is worth noting that it isn’t uncommon for the platform to have at least one or two periods of slow performance or instability throughout the year.
The API is good and has a strong “app marketplace” to extend the capabilities of the accounting package for the majority of SME industry verticals. Because Xero is completely web based, it makes access from any device or IT platform easy; and so mass deployment to users should not be an issue.
While Xero does backup your data, you should still be performing your own backups as well - See Xero Article
MYOB is an accounting platform that was founded in 1991 in Australia and has a dual approach to SaaS, providing both a web-based application and a more traditional software solution. While MYOB has reduced its market share in Australia since Xero has grown in popularity, it has continued to develop high quality software and a strong following from the bookkeeping community. Both follow the subscription model standard for SaaS.
The software solution, which syncs to MYOB servers, can present a problem in that you have to update software on end user devices – so some of the benefits of a browser based SaaS are lost, however this can be easily overcome with the cloud or in house server IT platforms described above.
Like Xero, MYOBs API & overall product is of high quality, and certainly allows users to get to work from wherever they are with little issue. Backups are a little easier to manage with MYOB because you can save the whole database into a single file, whereas Xero requires individual reports.
Image: Xero Accounting Software
Image: MYOB Accounting Software
Image: WorkflowMax Job Management Software
Image: ServiceM8 Job Management Software
Project management & job tracking software solutions can be a little less “straight forward” to choose from (compared to accounting software) because industries can operate so differently. The major focus of any job/project software should be its integration with your accounting package to minimise double handling of any data. (The workflow should be as automated as possible - I.e.: information flowing from quote -> job -> invoice -> reconcile payment – with any costs, invoices or timesheets being added along the journey).
There are many market places associated with most accounting software now, which show applications that integrate with them, such as Xero App Marketplace and MYOBs App Marketplace, so finding options is easy; but finding the right solution can be a little more difficult; especially when each have their own approach to the same task.
WorkflowMax: Is a great web-based SaaS for project management & job tracking. It is especially well suited to larger projects, or where greater reporting maybe required. It works only with Xero via API but doesn’t have features like GPS tracking of staff or similar – so is better suited to larger project management or industries where timesheets are key (such as white collar jobs). It also has the benefit of being owned by Xero for tight integration with Xero. WorkflowMax
ServiceM8: is a great web SaaS built more for field service work like plumbers & electricians and has developed a great feature set as a result; such as GPS tracking, SMS with clients, signature capture and more. This is an independent solution, and is compatible with multiple accounting packages (including MYOB & Xero). ServicesM8
Sales & Marketing tools are an important piece of the puzzle, and similar to job & project management software, should be tightly integrated into the rest of your application group via API. The goal is to have your sales & marketing information (contacts, company information) pulled from, and updated with, information from your accounting software & project/job software. Not double handing data is key to efficient workloads, and with some prior consideration, full automation can be achieved.
Depending on your marketing goals, and sales processes the tools you choose will need to be compared against those outcomes.
Email Marketing, Mail Chimp: MailChimp is a great, and matured; mass marketing tool to get your message out to all your contacts. It integrates completely with Xero, and with 3rd party tools MYOB. With over 250 connections, plus the ability to integrate with your website for collecting leads – the tool is very easy to bring online and share your already valuable contact list with: Mailchimp
CRM, Exsalerate / Salesforce: Exsalerate is a great little CRM tool, especially if you use Mailchimp, Xero & WorkflowMax as it is designed to integrate with all three; giving your sales team everything they need to grow your company.
Salesforce is good for MYOB & Xero when using 3rd party integration apps. Salesforce is the gold standard for sales tools, though can be expensive and have too many options.
Image: Exsalerate Pipeline
Image: Salesforce Pipeline
Human Resources, and the management of staff - especially with a team spread out, becomes much more important. There are many tools, and features in the above solutions already noted that can help.
Timesheets is a component that should have hopefully already been taken care of by your other tools noted above – your job/project management tools should directly capture the timesheets of your team; and either provide them for management review via report or be ported over to your accounting software for billing & payroll.
Alternatively, both MYOB & Xero have the capability for staff to log in to a HR portal and submit daily or weekly timesheets for payroll & manager review (They can also download payslips and see other information about their employ).
With a spread-out team, it is difficult to truly manage a team; and so a more dedicated resource may be required to cover:
This is where tools like HRPartner work well, and streamline the HR management process. HRPartner integrates with Xero only right now.
Similar tools like EnableHR can take it a step further with assisted contract creation to help streamline the legal aspects of employment (though we would still recommend you seek 3rd party verification). EnableHR integrates with Xero via API & MYOB with import files.
With the prospect of having staff working “out of sight” of managers, there are also tools that can be deployed – and installed on individuals devices – to track the productivity of staff while they work from home.
This can include tracking information from:
This helps to generate an overall “productivity score”. Management can flag applications as productive or unproductive (similarly for different categories of websites) to customise the tools to their industry and employee types.
If you are interested, please feel free to check out BlueReef Technology's IT Services, Cloud Desktop and other IT services.