How to collaborate when working remotely

In the spring of this year, we set up Think Productive Canada.  It was a big step: our first foray into international collaboration and one that was nearly a year in the planning. It’s been a fantastic experience so far.  But even though at Think Productive we’re used to working with people remotely, it turns out Calgary is very different from Coventry!  So here are a few reflections on successful collaborations around the world:

Get the technology right

Make it easy to communicate and define your tools, so that it’s always clear what tech to be using for what purpose – and you avoid wasting lots of time choosing, selecting and setting things up.  We use a mixture of email, skype, join.me (for sharing screens) and whatsapp (for sharing more personal updates).  We also use a free conference call service called “United Conferencing” which means we can have a UK team conference call, and have our colleagues in Canada dial in on a local rate number.

Get the routines right

Early morning in Canada is early afternoon here in the UK, so getting the routine right to ensure everyone is included in key meetings is pretty tricky (especially since afternoons are less convenient for some of our UK people).  This isn’t something that we’ve cracked, but I’d suggest for regular collaborations you think about the following:

– a daily ‘huddle’:  a simple ten or fifteen minute meeting each day is a great way to connect people out of the office to what’s happening in the office.  The whole thing could take place on a conference call or using software like skype or go2meeting, but if you just have one person sat in another office somewhere, you could simply use speaker phone (which we do a lot at Think Productive).

– a monthly skype chat: a regular time and routine for project-based review is an important ‘window’ to create.  Without this, you and your team may become ‘out of sight out of mind’.  My colleague in Canada is great at sending me her agenda a day or so in advance, meaning I have some time to prepare, too.

– set up annual reviews from the very beginning: as soon as we hit the button to ‘go live’ on the project, we set up annual cycles for review, making it clear what our expectations were from the start.  That continues to save us many hours of time, as well as more importantly providing some clarity around the task and day-to-day expectations.

Translate

Even if you’re working with people in the same language, you’ll need to translate.  Sure, you will probably be translating currencies, but there are a whole host of more subtle things to think about here too.  Cultural assumptions and references, language, styles of working and so on.  Add in to that, different economies place different values on certain tasks, so for example a freelance graphic designer in Canada is paid about four times what a graphic designer here might earn, so a project that seemed simple and profitable in one country might be unviable or fraught with additional hidden risks somewhere else.  As a result, you have to translate your product to your market.

Work face to face where you can

As good as technology is, there’s no substitute for face to face time.  If you have ever had to complain through a website ticketing system you will know how frustrating an experience it can be, as text communication loses so much of the richness provided by body language, tone of voice and the quirky aspects that make us human and unique.  Skype and similar tools can replicate this to some degree, but for long term projects, it’s worth being clear that it may occasionally require one of you to jump on a plane for a few days.  With that in mind, I’m looking forward to a trip to Canada in th Spring.  And I’m writing my list of potential countries for future collaborations.  Now, let’s see… Think Productive Barbados, anybody?

Graham Allcott is founder of Think Productive and author of How to be a Productivity Ninja, which is re-released by Icon Books around the world in January