When the pandemic emerged, many companies that weren’t remote-friendly flocked to the first software tool or business practice they could find to keep their teams connected. But over time, some realized there were more effective and user-friendly options available.
Below, business leaders share what’s worked for them and what hasn’t, from software systems to remote communication techniques.
Tools of the trade
“When we first initiated remote working, we increased our Zoom video calls by over 50 percent,” said Jess Munday, co-founder of Custom Neon, a neon sign maker founded in Australia with a U.S. office in Missouri. She thought more communication would make projects run better and foster community, but “it proved to be counterintuitive and our productivity plummeted.”
The team then turned to Basecamp, which has helped them oversee projects and collaborate.
Jessica Lipton, founder and chief technology officer at Elevate Delta 8 and based in California, used Trello for her health-supplement company. It was great for productivity, but she found it hard to stay organized, as her dashboard became overwhelming and demotivating.
“Moving tasks around felt cumbersome and not fast enough, which is also a huge problem for me,” she added. “Collaborating with team members became slow and bothersome, especially as we grew in number.”
That’s why she switched to ClickUp, which let her integrate Slack without having to switch applications. She also liked the reporting feature that let her see team members’ progress and time-tracking data.
“This increased the accountability of each member and allowed me to assess individual performances more accurately,” Lipton said.
Mehvish Patel, a Houston-based writer at Dallas-based marketing and public-relations firm Zen Media, said her company also switched from Basecamp to ClickUp.
“Basecamp was disorganized and splitting tasks and files made it messy, but ClickUp can be color coded, add on files with no discrepancies and hold information for a handful of clients,” she said.
Ethan McCarthy, CEO of employee communications agency Integral in New York, uses Trello to keep tabs on projects and clients, but said the technology “is not magic.”
“The ‘secret sauce’ is a set of rituals we’ve designed – including morning social standups, weekly retrospectives and periodic project read-outs – that ensure we cohere and deliver as a team,” McCarthy said.
This year, the business added 15Five, a performance-management tool that emphasizes frequent, lightweight interactions, transparency and mutual goal-setting. It lets people see each other’s goals and cheer on milestones.
“It keeps us on the same page and unlocks a ton of positive energy and momentum,” McCarthy added.
Stefan Chekanov, CEO of communication platform Brosix, based in Delaware, said his company stopped using Zoom because they got fed up with the lag, connection problems and other issues.
“It just wasn’t effective and seemed to cause more harm than good,” Chekanov said.
The team now uses Discord voice chat, Soapbox, and Google Hangouts for video chat.
Beating meeting woes
While those are just technology changes, some companies have shifted their business practices through no-meeting time blocks and phone-only meetings.
Sam Wolfe, a Texas-based account manager at a search engine company, said moving one-on-one meetings and select internal meetings to phone has helped.
“Screen fatigue is real and remote work has twisted our hands into deliberately blocking time on coworkers’ calendars to chat,” he said. “I’ve found that taking meetings over a phone call instead of a video chat calms my nerves and provides [a] reprieve after sitting in front of a screen for hours at a time.”
Similarly, Eric Fischgrund, CEO of FischTank PR in New York City, said his company created “meeting-less Wednesdays” to combat the onslaught of meetings. FischTank surveyed 685 American office workers to come up with the idea for designated meeting-free times.
“The results have been terrific and we are going to continue to explore unconventional ways to support our team’s productivity and well-being,” he said.
Michael Alexis, the Toronto-based CEO of the corporate team-building company Team Building, said many companies automatically turned to Zoom at the onset of the pandemic.
“Then we had a small ‘eureka’ moment,” he recalled. “Why does every call need to be over video? Video adds pressure to team members, including tidying up backgrounds, changing clothing, doing hair and makeup, relocating friends, family members and pets that may be in the room, and more.”
While team members still use video conferencing for some communication, they do more audio-only calls as well — mainly using the Slack video tool or FaceTime.
“We still rely heavily on video, especially for fun events where video yields a significant social interaction benefit, but increasingly we do audio-only calls. Our default is the audio calls tool on Slack and we sometimes use FaceTime to supplement this,” Alexis said.
Aside from technology, Francis Wolff, the Miami-based CEO of digital sales platform Digistore24, said his team is just trying to make the most of their time by optimizing meetings. They switched from daily to weekly meetings, though there are still daily strategy meetings within department leadership. Still, they focus those weekly meetings on specific performance indicators.
“Our team doesn’t have a meeting just to have a meeting,” Wolff said. “If you have an hour-long meeting with three employees, that takes away three hours of work from three unique people.”
Wolff said the conversation in the weekly meeting is much more targeted.
“We ask them, ‘what is the one big thing you need help with to make you most effective at your projects this week?’” he said. “We spend the meeting addressing any roadblocks they may have. This is especially effective for mid-level employees.”
People tools also count
Jamie McCormick, human-resources director at Redwood City, Calif.-based workforce-software company Betterworks, said that having a manager who knows how to manage remote and hybrid teams is vital.
“It can be challenging to manage a remote team if a manager has little to no experience doing so,” said McCormick, who is based in Denver.
“Managing a remote team requires excellent communication skills and trust that employees are working on the tasks that align and advance overall company goals,” McCormick added. “It also requires a manager to understand how to keep an employee engaged and provide a sense of belonging, which can be difficult when you aren’t connecting in an office day to day.”