You do not need tools, you need to connect with people

How we use tools and why we use them is more important than which tools we use

In my last post I talked about the physical workspace of a remote worker. In this post, I want to talk about the virtual environment, the digital tools, that make up the other half of her workspace.

There are tons of tool lists on the internet, each with a great rationale of why you should be using a specific set of tools. Amidst all this information, how do we choose which tools we really need?

In my work with Radical Inclusion I use the image of a virtual office to discuss what tool needs teams or companies have and how they can cover each of these with either existing or new tools and processes. When you start thinking about the needs you have you soon enough realize that the virtual tools you need most are those that enable you to communicate and collaborate with others. Anything else, you can also get done with pen and paper!

The Virtual Office: What does your team need to be effective?

So, if the main question we need to ask is how to connect with other people, then we can reduce our tool needs to 5 areas:

  1. Information (and file) sharing (e.g. Dropbox,, Google Drive)
  2. Asynchronous communication (generally Email)
  3. Realtime communication (e.g. Skype, Zoom, Google Hangout)
  4. Co-creation (e.g. Google Docs, a Wiki, Dropbox+Text editor)
  5. Connection in a team space (e.g. Slack, Wrike, Flock, HipChat)

This basic set of tools works for freelancers, small formal or informal teams as well as for companies with remote workers. Many people would probably add a sixth need, coordination (i.e. project management), to the list, but I find that most individuals and small teams (up to 10 people) do fine without a dedicated tool for coordination. You can set up a well-functioning project management system without a sophisticated and often oversized (i.e. complicated) tool.

Connection is the basis for trust, collaboration and performance

Especially for those of you, who work in a remote team or are part of a company with many remote employees, I want to emphasise the last need I listed: connection!

The biggest issue remote workers have is the lack of social encounters with their colleagues. It is social connection that enables trust building and, ultimately, deep collaboration and high performance. Connection is created in realtime meetings, but that is not enough!

It is important to have a communication channel that is not limited to specific times of the week, and that does not require planning. The tool of choice for this need is a group chat. Such a space can do wonders for team development and team cohesion if used well and can even eliminate the internal use of email. Creating a common space for our team (or with your main clients if you are a freelancer) can go a long way to feeling closer to one another.

Group chat helps with team building and has its utilities outside of work, too!

Remote workers have to create their own structure to work productively

Another challenge many remote workers face, especially when they get started, is the lack of structure that an office provides. This starts with the work hours and having a dedicated space to work (as discussed here), but also includes processes (we know what to do when) and things like seeing your colleagues and boss every day, as well as being able to walk over to see what or how they are doing.

When we work outside of these structures, we have to create our own work environment that keeps us from watching Netflix, snacking, or doing house chores when we should be producing.

A team space can also help here. Being in the space and seeing who else is online, and what people discuss, helps us feel present. It also enables us to ask quick questions to colleagues the same way we would if they were sitting at a desk next to ours. Quick, informal interactions like that help us remain confident about our work and the direction we have taken, and focusses our attention.

Our work environment very much determines how productive we are! This is not just true for the physical environment, in which we do our work, but also holds true for the virtual environment of remote workers. The tools we use and how we use them have a strong influence on our focus and productivity.

You do need robust tools, and there are better and worse ones out there, but in the end it is about what you use the tools for, and how you use and combine them that improve productivity.

What needs do you have? Which tools, which processes do you use to get them met?

Are you new to remote work and need help to get organized? I help you navigate this new world of work. Depending on your needs, I can help you improve your virtual meetings, communicate more effectively through email or in online team spaces, conduct difficult conversations, or lead a remote team.

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