Remote teams face unique challenges across all pillars of business. At Planetary, we’re a remote team, and these challenges are deeply ingrained into our approach to business: from communication and operations to design and development, we need to be sure that the tools we use support a team smoothly across many timezones. In this article, we’ll take a look at the tools we use, and share our experience on finding those tools.
For any team, remote especially, communication is the key to success. There are many resources available to make communication easier, from scheduling meetings around different time zones to building a virtual “office”. Here are a few that we’ve found useful, and some that we haven’t.
Being remote means you’re not in the same office as your coworkers day-to-day, which can be isolating. You never actually see your teammates. Video chat is a uniquely valuable resource for a remote team, allowing co-workers to connect and chat as though they were all in the same office.
When it comes to video chat software, there are a few viable, inexpensive choices. For a long time, Planetary relied heavily on Google Hangouts. Our team used it, our clients used it, and we used it to have meetings with our clients. Being in-browser (i.e., not requiring you to download a separate client) was a big advantage.
Unfortunately Hangouts was prone to a lot of connectivity issues. Our meetings were plagued with drop-outs, missing audio, stuttering video, and more.
Zoom, which requires a desktop or mobile client, has taken the place of Hangouts for our team. With the ability to create recurring meetings and private meeting rooms, along with providing easily shared links, it allows you to quickly connect with multiple teammates over video. Even more importantly, it provides a far more stable connection with fewer issues regardless of connection quality.
Sometimes, however, video just isn’t enough. Perhaps a short pair programming session to debug some code or dive into a particularly tough problem is just what’s needed. For that, Screenhero really is the hero here. It allows a “multi-player” screen-sharing and voice chat session. One user can share their screen with another person, allowing both of them to interact with the screen—with separate pointers!
For messaging, Slack is our most valuable resource. Slack provides the ability to use third party integrations, which is a huge help for our team. From showing meeting notifications to letting us know when product testing is complete, Slack keeps us all in the know.
Scheduling for a distributed team can be tricky. We developed a solution called Spacetime that allows us to see when our teammates are “in the office.” With a Slack integration, it also allows us to quickly translate times across all of our team’s time zones or preview the time and weather for any teammate.
File sharing is an important component to any team, remote or otherwise. CloudApp has worked best for us. It provides quick uploads and previews of virtually any file, as well as a library to browse past uploads.
For file storage, Dropbox conquers. Its integrated desktop app creates the perfect setting for storing working files that automatically sync upon upload. This feature is helpful for teammates working at different times, ensuring people have the right files available to them at all times.
Managing a distributed team has unique challenges. Keeping our data secure and our team in-sync while maintaining minimum management overhead is top priority. With that in mind, secure, asynchronous, self-accessible, shared information is key.
Related article: Remote work is distributed, asynchronous, & flexible
Trello is a great tool for this: it allows our teams to keep the state of a project available to managers and teammates. It also allows anyone the ability to update the status of things they’re working on. It’s a shared context on a project-by-project or topic-by-topic basis, reducing (or better yet, eliminating) the need for tedious status update meetings. The kanban approach makes it easy to see the top-level status of individual items and tasks, while allowing you to dig down further very quickly.
A similar project management tool, Asana, received an overhaul about a year ago. Unfortunately, while we had previously been relatively avid users of the product, the updated interface became more difficult to use. Additionally, the absence of a kanban view made it difficult to identify the status of individual tasks; we migrated to Trello shortly after the product update.
Shared secrets are a tough problem: a high level of security and encryption is vital to store and share passwords. At least two products on the market help alleviate that problem by providing “vaults” for secrets that can be shared amongst a team: Meldium and 1Password.
We first tried Meldium, owned by LogMeIn, but encountered difficulties with the product. From permission management to the UI, it was arduous to use. At the same time, 1Password had just released their “for teams” product, which we decided to try. To date, it’s been the best option for sharing product keys, passwords, and other private account information that our team needs.
Google Calendar continues to be a viable asset to managing team schedules. With the ability to share multiple calendars through the team, everyone can help minimize double or overbooking. There’s also a Slack integration that sends reminder messages – keeping everyone on time and in the loop!
Canvas has quickly become a favorite with our team. Generally used for note taking, this beautifully-built and markdown-equipped app is also useful for sharing project details and checklists. Canvas also integrates with Slack and sends update messages when a document is added or being edited.
Design and development
Our design team uses their own set of tools to ease collaboration and file sharing. Finding reliable, asynchronous design tools that support the design team and allow for participation (and access) from engineering is vital. We’ve doubled-down on a couple great tools that let us accomplish all of that.
Hand-off between the design and development teams has always been a sticky point, even for non-remote teams. For a remote team, however, it’s vital to ensure that a developer is able to get the information they need from a design (namely, assets and specs) without necessarily having the designer “in the office” as they’re working.
We first tried Zeplin, a tool designed specifically for design hand-offs, that allows you to click on elements of a design and get specs (color, size, shape, spacing from other elements). Unfortunately, our iterative design process means it’s difficult to hand-off a “finished product” and, for us, Zeplin was often left behind.
InVision really fulfilled our needs. It allows a designer to package designs, combine mockups together to produce clickable prototypes, and provide implementation specs. This means that the design team can work in once place. Designers can produce clickable prototypes, easily share these prototypes with clients for feedback, and hand-off iterations of the work for production.
Just like our design team, the development team utilizes a different set of tools to make the magic happen. We rely on version control, broadcasting of updates, and frequent code pushing to stay on top of things.
Github is the center of version control, peer reviewing, open sourcing, and code community. Using and abusing git is what powers our remote development team. This tool provides us all the resources needed to work in tandem and ensure our product is of great quality. We integrate our repositories to Slack channels to give us updates when an issue is created or a pull request is opened. Keeping us in the loop, no matter what.
Development operations run more smoothly with CircleCI. This continuous integration and deployment app works to keep our products up and running. Using Slack integration, we receive updates when tests have passed and product versions are launched. This integration helps teammates know what happened while they were offline, providing a timeline of test results.
Continue to try new things!
There may never be the perfect tool for your remote team, but having good tools is a crucial part of growing a successful remote team. New tools are being released every day, and even the ones mentioned above are evolving rapidly.
Product Hunt, Hacker News, and Designer News are all great places to find new apps to explore and discover new tools. You never know what might make a real difference in improving culture and productivity, and there’s usually little harm in trying new ways of working.
Featured image: RSplaneta
This article was written by Samantha Black and Josh Gross. Josh has been in the industry for over 10 years, working tirelessly to build great products for clients. He is a founding partner at Planetary, based out of Brooklyn, NY.