Practical remote working: part 2 - software
There are so many options for software when dealing with remote working that it can truly make your head spin. In this section I want to look at the following categories of software:
Task tracking and project management
As always, the answer to the question of “what the best solution for X is?” will always depend on your company setup and existing software. I am aiming to provide my personal experience on what has worked well for me in the past and what has not. So, if you favourite piece of software is not in here then it is due to me not having personally used it yet.
This is one of the most important pieces of software that you will use. Let me start off by saying that voice only calls are woefully inadequate for effective remote working. When working remotely you need to communicate as if you are sharing the same space with your colleagues or clients. Video calls are a much better solution and I will thus not make mention of the ability to dial into calls using a telephone in this section. Just have a listen to this endless loop of conference call audio to realise how much time we waste by using voice only calls instead of speaking face to face over video conferencing.
It is important to evaluate your software based on the following factors:
How easy is it to jump on a call?
Can people from outside the tool eco-system join calls?
Which devices are supported?
How well does the software handle low bandwidth situations?
How well does the software cope with multiple participants?
One of my personal favourites for video calls is Appear.In. Appear.In makes the process of jumping on a call an absolute breeze. It is web based and runs in your browser so no need to install anything on your computer. You set up a number of predefined rooms and everyone that needs to be on the call simply navigate to the URL. Your rooms are registered to your account and they persist. Having this simple persistent URL system ensures no one needs to hunt for dial in details or URLs that are ever changing.
External parties can join your calls just as easily since there is no software installation required. They simply navigate to the URL of your room and can join as a guest. There is no need for participants to register in order to use the service.
In addition to the browser support there are also apps for both iOS and Android which allows you to join from your mobile phone. These apps work very well in my experience and allows you to really join from absolutely anywhere that you have an internet connection.
So that leaves us with the question of how well this service handles low bandwidth situations? It is important to understand that there are two operating modes used by appear.in. The free version uses a purely peer to peer solution while the paid for version uses server infrastructure to route the calls. (for more information have a look here) In my experience the paid for version handles low bandwidth situations well and would allow calls to be smooth in situations that the free version was not, especially with groups of 4 or more people. Group meetings on appear.in are supported for groups up to 12 people at the time of writing this post.
In my experience appear.in provides a friction-less experience for group video calls. It functions well in low bandwidth scenarios. It is well worth the $9.99 per month for the Pro version. The only drawback could be if you need meetings with more than 12 participants.
Google Hangout & Meet
Google Hangouts is another great tool for video conferencing and provides both a free and paid for version. The free version is available for anyone with a Google account and is simply know as Hangouts, while the paid version comes bundled with G Suite and is known as Meet. There are a few differences between the two apps and you can have a look at the differences here.
Both Hangouts and Meet make it easy to jump on a call. You can simply send a link for the call to your participants which allow them to join. Both tools do not require your clients to have a Google account to join. If your users want to use the apps for their specific platform then Meet will have the edge as it has better feature support for iOS than Hangouts.
Hangouts and Meet both support Android and iOS. Hangouts will run on Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome and will require plugins on these to work. Meet will only run on the Chrome browser.
Both Hangouts and Meet handle low bandwidth connections well. I have found that Hangouts perform better on Chrome than it does on other browsers. It is thus worth making sure you are running Chrome, especially in a low bandwidth situation.
In my experience the software handles multiple participants really well. Depending on the version of G Suite that you have, Meet will support either 25 or 50 participants. Hangouts itself supports 25 participants.
Skype for Business
If you are using Office 365 for your business then you most likely have Skype for Business (SfB). I have used SfB a lot in my career and it is a very capable tool. It combines instant messaging with video conferencing capabilities making it a real one stop communication platform.
SfB requires the user to install the app for their specific platform in order to get the most out of it. There is an option to use it in the browser that requires a plugin when you want to do video calls. There are apps for Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android and these apps all function well, with the exception of the MacOS app. The MacOS app is truly frustrating and feels like an afterthought. It can at times struggles with input lag when typing messages and becomes so sluggish that it is unusable. If you have any users in your organisation that use Apple hardware I would advise you to think carefully about using SfB.
It is fairly easy to join calls since you can either join them via a link or one of the apps.
SfB handles low bandwidth in an “ok” manner. From my experience it is not the best option for these scenarios. If you have low bandwidth issues it is better to look to tools such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or the paid version of Appear.In. On low bandwidth calls I have experienced a lot of video freezes and voice interruptions.
SfB does a good job of handling multiple participants and is a pleasant experience with larger groups. SfB can handle up to 250 participants depending on the version you are using.
Zoom is another full featured video conferencing solution which I have come to like. It also offers instant messaging capability alongside its video conferencing. It offers a really well-rounded set of capabilities.
Zoom allows users to join your calls by installing the required Zoom software on their machine. They do not need to have a Zoom accounts to join your call. Calls can be joined by either using the ID that is generated for each call or the personalised link of the host if they have created that for their account.
Zoom handles low bandwidth very well. From my own experience it was one of the best tools to use for multiple participants with varying connection speeds. If you have any of the normal plans for Zoom you will be able to have up to 25 people in a meeting. If you need more capacity, you can buy a large meeting plan which supports up to 200 participants. The user experience is good, even with large groups.
From my experience there is very little that Zoom cannot do and if you are looking for a good video conferencing solution then Zoom should be on your list to evaluate.
Most organisations have had some form of instant messaging for a long time. In recent years an evolution of instant messaging has taken place which is aiming to bring the benefits of instant messaging, group messaging and file sharing all packaged up into one application. Like any tool available to us these applications can be tremendously beneficial when used correctly and totally overwhelming and ineffective when not. For this blog post I am not going to look at the best ways to use these applications but instead highlight two of the applications I have used successfully with clients in the past.
Slack is probably the best known of these types of application and is the one that has kick started the adoption of group chat in most companies today. Yes, there were many older applications that facilitated group chat in a similar manner in the past, but what makes Slack special is the API they expose for 3rd party plugins.
Slack allows you to create channels in which team members communicate with other users that are subscribed to the same channel. It also allows direct messaging between users and allows you to share. There is a myriad of plugins to integrate external services with Slack. It can thus do a tremendous number of things when it comes to communications.
The benefit of using software such as slack is in the ability to keep a complete history of a conversation or team discussion. This includes comments on topics and comments on shared documents. This allows you to curate knowledge in one platform that makes it more accessible than traditional instant messaging and email.
When you throw in the ability to connect external tools to your slack channels, for example for a development team the build process can be linked to a channel to receive notifications, you start to see the potential of these tools. It reduces the amount of email sent around and allows people to get instant notifications for those topics that they are involved in or responsible for.
In addition to the text-based messaging Slack also features the ability to do video calls and screen sharing natively, which is functionality added after its acquisition of Screenhero. If the native functionality is not to your liking you can integrate many of the applications mentioned in the earlier section on video conferencing with Slack.
Slack has both desktop, mobile and web clients which makes it easy for anyone to use on any device.
When Microsoft released Teams it was widely seen as a clone of Slack. After having used it myself on a few projects I think it is better described as the natural convergence of SharePoint and Skype for Business. It is a true communications hub that integrates extremely well with the Office 365 suite of products.
It is very similar to Slack in that it provides channels for communication, however these channels are created inside containers called “teams”. Users are added to teams and can then see the channels inside those teams. It provides very good file sharing capabilities, wiki’s and both direct messaging as well as group conversations.
Teams feel to me like the grown-up version of Slack in which you have better control over how you share information and can achieve much more structure and rigour around such communication. It is a fantastic tool when working with remote teams exactly because it is capable of being a single point of contact and information dissemination within an organisation. Teams also provide the ability to use 3rd party plugins, called “apps”, to integrate other applications into the various channels.
Just like Slack, the Teams desktop clients provide real-time communications support (audio, video, and content sharing) for team meetings, group calling, and private one-on-one calls.
Microsoft Teams also has desktop, mobile and web clients available to allow easy adoption of this tool for everyone in your organisation.
Task tracking and project management
There are so many project management and task tracking tools out there that one could spend an eternity evaluating them all. Therefore, I am going to break with the theme of this post so far and not mention any specific pieces of software in this section. Instead I am going to provide some guidelines with which you can evaluate these tools to make sure you choose one that works for you and your team.
No unnecessary complexity
This should be your first area of focus. You need to ensure that any new member of a team is able to be productive with your chosen tool in as short a period of time as possible. If you provide them with a 30-minute guided walk through of the tool and they cannot immediately start using it afterwards then your tool is too complex. (I am not talking about power users or project managers here but instead about the average users that will be performing the tasks you are tracking.)
You might be laughing but I have had tools on project that required a full-time person just to keep it running and help the team out when needing to do certain tasks. There is absolutely no excuse for choosing overly complex tools given the amount of quality tools with well thought out UX we have available today.
Overview at a glance
Your tool needs to provide you with the ability to see how things are progressing at a glance. Remember we are not only talking about tracking software development tasks here. We are tracking everything that is happening in your project.
Having the ability to see how tasks depend on one another and see the overall progress of the project at a glance allows you to not lose focus of the overall goal while you are hacking away at the day to day detail. If you need to spend time compiling the progress manually then you need to look for a better solution.
Your tool needs to be able to adapt to the project methodology of your team and not force a particular way of working on you. This might sound strange to some people that have bought into a particular methodology. However, having the ability to adapt your software to best fit your specific needs is a tremendous help.
Not all teams will be software development teams. Tool rigidity starts to show up very quickly when you manage larger projects that include multiple disciplines across your business. As the adage goes “if your only tool is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail”. Don’t get caught out by trying to fit your process around a tool as it will blind you to more effective ways of solving challenges you encounter within your team and business processes.
Hopefully this post serves as the starting point to get you thinking about using the correct software when remote work is involved. With so many products out there today, it is really difficult for anyone to prescribe what will work best for your own personal needs. The best is to test a few products based on your own requirements.
Always keep in mind that the software is simply a tool to help you perform certain functions better. They cannot make up for bad processes or bad planning. The best project management tools in the world will not help you and your team if you do not apply rigour and discipline in your work. Equally the best video conferencing software cannot help you communicate effectively if you do not make face to face calls your priority.
In the next post we will look at team culture and business processes in order to identify what changes you need to make in order to enable effective remote working in your organisation.